Brian's Take on Tech

Bringing you info about technology, and how it impacts your life for better and worse.   -Brian K, Community Partnerships Supervisor

Is 3-D Printing The Next Go Local Movement Super Weapon?

Prior to the industrial revolution most industry was cottage industry, literally. People worked from their homes or small shops. Many times these were one and the same. The artisans often worked by hand to create unique products or to create their copied products one at a time. Through the industrial revolution we learned about economy of scale and the fact that one large factory could manufacture thousands of bobbles at a time much cheaper than the local artisan. Fast forward to the 21st century; it appears the pendulum may be swinging back the other way, at least for some items.

A new study about to be published by Michigan Tech University illustrates the market potential of 3-D printing and how that potential may disrupt current manufacturing channels, at least for small items. The paper looks at 20 common household items and compares the cost of purchasing them to the cost of downloading and printing designs from Thingiverse, an online community that shares designs and 3D files to make the design reality. According to the research team’s findings the typical consumer could save between $312 and $1944 per year on just those 20 items. With the cost of 3D printers ranging from $350 and $2000 you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that you could quickly recoup your investment.

The most dramatic example of cost savings I came across was for an iPhone 5 case. Cases typically run around twenty dollars while printing your case from one of the designs online can cost you as little as twenty seven cents, a savings of over 98%. Walmart would really have to rollback their prices to beat that.

While the paper focuses on the home user, I see this as a huge potential market for local business. Your typical user is not going to want to spend the money, time and effort to purchase and learn how to take advantage of this technology. On the other hand what if your local shop was able to quickly customize and print your product on demand? Would you be willing to spend a couple of bucks to have your own uniquely designed item? For the retailer the charge is still several times their cost and they never need to hold inventory that people may or may not want. Possibilities abound for the person who can implement this well and I for one can’t wait to see someone run with the idea.

Would you like to know more?

The library also carries a number of books on the subject.

Fitter Happier

We are well into the new year and for many of us that New Year’s resolution to get fit has already fallen by the wayside. For those of you still trying to stick with it, good for you and maybe I can show you some tools that will help you in your efforts. Today we are going to look at three products I have looked at to aid you in your exercise / weight loss efforts.

The first two are tech devices that will help you track your fitness coming and goings. The third is an app that some of you may have seen before.

Body Media: Core

The first device is called the Body Media Core armband. The Core is a device that you strap to your upper arm to track your efforts throughout the day, and even the night. The Core is pretty cool if you are at all a geek. In addition to working as a pedometer it actually tracks your calorie output with sensors that measure the amount of sweat you produce as well as changes in the heat coming off your skin. The dashboard provides a ton of information but it requires some steps on your part. I bought the Core model which you have to sync to your computer to upload your stats and let it recharge (it does so very quickly). You also need to manually enter your caloric intake to get the best data.

BodyMedia dashboard ImageYou can also wear the Core to bed and it will analyze how much sleep you get. While this sounds cool it was one of the first features I stopped using and hits at the biggest drawback of the device. As I mentioned you wear the core on your upper arm and that can get old pretty quick. Body Media says you can wear the devices 20 hours a day but once I start winding down for the day it comes off. That’s not my biggest gripe, my biggest gripe is the subscription plan. Your device is useless unless you pay $6.95 per month or $59 per year for the pleasure of using their product. This was the only product that required a monthly fee for use of its basic services.

Overall I like the device and get use out of it but it won’t be a home run product until they find a less intrusive way for it to collect data, which is unlikely given the sensors need skin contact to function.  They also need to ditch the monthly / annual fee.  

Fit Bit: The One

FitbitThe Fitbit is a cool little device about the size of a flash drive that clips to your front pocket. Here is the manufacturer’s description: “During the day, it tracks your steps, distance, calories burned, and stairs climbed. Come nightfall, it measures your sleep cycle, helps you learn how to sleep better, and wakes you in the morning. The One motivates you to reach your goals by bringing greater fitness into your life – seamlessly, socially, 24 hours a day.” This is the device my wife has chosen for her fitness efforts. It has the benefit of being Bluetooth enabled so you can sync it without connecting it physically to any device. It is small and unobtrusive and it has a display built right in (The Core lacks this feature).

The down side is that you will not have the same amount of data to analyze after a sync and many of its results are based on estimates instead of hard data. On the plus side you don’t need to have a subscription to their service; in fact it is designed to integrate into other popular fitness programs like Map My Fitness, Spark People and My Fitness Pal.

Map My Fitness    

 The final product we will look at isn’t a device but a service, actually a number of services. Map My Fitness comes in many different flavors including; Map My Walk, Map My Run, Map My Hike, Map My Ride and so on and so forth. There is basically a product for every outdoor activity that takes you from point A to point B. The service requires use of a smart phone with GPS capability. The basic idea is that you turn on the program once you begin your walk, run or ride and the app will track your path, how far you traveled, how long it took and your elevation changes along the way. Once you have created a path you can use it over and over comparing your performance on each trip.

Mapping is the most obvious piece of this service but Map My Fitness also offers a number of other features. This includes calorie logging, journaling and general fitness logging. In addition there is a social media component that allows you to share your maps with friends and compare performance notes. The best part is that the basic service is absolutely free as long as you have a compatible phone.

The Upshot  

So which of these products works? Which one is the best? The reality is that it is really up to you and how you use technology to help meet your fitness goals. I prefer the Core to the Fitbit but my wife feels exactly the opposite. I like the depth of real data even if I don’t like the extra costs involved. She prefers the Fitbit because it is easy to use, allows you to check progress anytime you want and most of all because you don’t have to wear it. I would recommend Map My Fitness to anyone who spends time doing outdoor fitness and has a smartphone. It’s easy to use and collects a lot of handy information through something you are likely carrying with you anyway.

The real question is, do any of these products help you get fit? As someone who struggles with my fitness I can say honestly that they help but it will always come down to you. What they do offer is a lot of reinforcement, and that is great for me. The fact that you always know you have the BodyMedia Core on when you are wearing it serves is a reminder that you need to be active; it sort of acts like a string around the finger. The data you pull off the devices allows you to compare your progress from day to day so you know when you have been sloughing off. Finally all of these devices / services have a pronounced social media component. You don’t have to share your information with others but once you start sharing your achievements it becomes kind of a personal expectation that you have to keep it up so people won’t know you fell off the fitness wagon.

If you decide to try one of these devices let me know how it goes and good luck meeting your goals!    

Hope it's not a zombie...

"Zombie's computer" by Landalauts

I've been wondering why my home computer has slowed down recently. I swear, I went outside one Saturday to do some raking, came back in to find I'd left my laptop on and open, which would be fine except one of those four-legged furry animals I somehow love had decided to stomp and sit all over it. Dell Media Center had opened. I've never submitted my computer to the horrors of Dell Media Center (which I'll be removing when I get a round to it).

But could my cat have zombified my computer?

According to a recent and fantastically informative post, zombie computers use communication programs, like Outlook, to send spam email after having been infected by the bot pulling the strings. The post gives a better description of what a zombie computer is, how you can prevent it, and some tips on curing it.

My cat could very well have sat on the perfect combination of keys and mouse buttons to open my spam folder and send Firefox off to some opium den of a malicious web site. I'll be trying out some of MakeUseOf's tips when I get home.

Image Credit: "Zombie's Computer" by Landahlauts, used under CC license.

Is Internet Addiction for Real?

774 - Neuron Connection - Pattern by Patrick Hoesley

I like learning about the human brain and behavior. A couple years back, I read Nicholas Carr's 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, in which the author investigated whether his internet usage was affecting his ability to concentrate. It's a fascinating book that includes a good deal of historical background--I believe the history of reading and writing was covered--and it convinced me to keep some time each day dedicated to activities that do not require screens of any sort. And obviously as our internet use continues to evolve and change--like navigational hardward, going from using a mouse on a laptop to physically caressing the internet with swipes and taps on a tablet--I remain attuned to Pew research and other news about human-computer/web interaction.

So, when I came across this infographic on, I was drawn in. The source,, while psychology-related is a somewhat unlikely source being focused on helping those interested in an advanced degree in psychology find information on programs and career paths. Anyhow, it's an interesting infographic, though take it with a grain of salt. One of the sources sited at the end (the Time article, "Does the Internet Really Make Everyone Crazy?") questions the assumption of the brain's rewiring being shocking and harmful--people can get the dopamine hit from different inputs depending on their habits--but the idea of an FB notification causing something like Pavlovian dog salivation makes me a bit dissatisfied with our internal reward mechanisms. It should also be noted that the American Psychiatric Association's DSM site lists Internet Addiction Disorder to be printed in the section of DSM5 reserved for disorders that require more research--it's not a recognized disorder, but a proposed one that requires more research for confirmation.

Those quibbles aside, I believe every internet user should be conscious of their use--how long they're on, what they're doing online, what they want to do but don't because they got wrapped up online, and so on. Really, being mindful about how we live our lives and spend our time in general is important. One small piece of that is ensuring that our needs and our families' needs are being met before we head back to Farmville or try to crack out a good one-liner page update.

Without further ado, the infographic. And below it, links to the sources sited in the image.

Facebook Psychology - Attention Span Statistics

CNN's topic page for Attention Deficit Disorders - "Depression, ADHD Increase Teens' Risk for Internet Addiction"

American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder's page on Internet Use Disorder - "Does the Internet Really Make Everyone Crazy?" - "Internet Addiction is the New Mental Health Disorder"

Pew Research Center Publication - "Facebook: A Profile of its 'Friends'"

Annenberg Public Policy Center Report - "Media in the Home 2000"

Newsweek - "Is the Web Driving Us Mad?"

Psychology Today - "What Your Facebook Account Says About Your Brain"

Image credit (top of post) "774 - Neuron Connection - Pattern" by Flickr user Patrick Hoesley, used under CC license

Infographic: "Facebook Psychology: Is Addiction Affecting Our Minds?"

Hurricane Sandy's Web Presence

Waves crashing on Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA - Hurricane Sandy

While I was thinking about what to blog today, my mind kept wandering to the storm hitting the East Coast. And it occurred to me to share the places I go for info on storms, like The Weather Channel's site, Weather Underground, and maybe even NOAA.

Then I saw that Mashable! had already done my work for me with the post "How to Follow Hurricane Sandy Online." They add a few webcams and tablet apps to my list, but I feel validated that they covered my sites, too. My infojitsu's still good.

The tech blogs have interesting Sandy-related posts.

It's not all interesting, and in some cases posts just don't feel right. I may be unsubscribing to a few blogs as soon as I finish posting this. Here are some reasons why:

  • Mashable's songs for Hurricane Sandy feels wrong
  • Gizmodo's on notice, too, for giving attention to Tweeters complaining that the hurricane might delay their new iPhones
  • Gizmodo's post about the carbon-fiber sled you can ride after "frankenstorm" (can't believe I typed that) feels inappropriately consumerist following a devastating event

I hope your friends out East --and mine, too-- weather the storm safely.

(Image credit: "Waves crashing on Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA - Hurricane Sandy" from Flickr user jeffcutler, used under Creative Commons license.)

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