Monthly Archives: October 2009

How to use facebook safely without harming yourself or your friends

The New York Times has a great write-up about using facebook safely and keeping your details private . Have a read at this site- How to stay safe and private on facebook

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Should all software be free??

I had an argument with a colleague yesterday regarding the cost for software. He believes that software should be free, as epitomized by Google, Linux etc. I am not totally against this idea, as I believe in the adage- ” All information wants to be free”.

I was reading a great book last week on the concept of free by Chris Davidson- “Free: The Future of a Radical Price’. Anderson argues that there is a continuing pressure decreasing prices of all things “made of ideas.” He says that in the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economics will win.”  He says that musicians should stop complaining about their music being pirated, and instead capitalize on the added free exposure that piracy provides by making money through touring, merchandise sales. He argues that the sale of their music to people who want to legally buy their music online. or on CDs will offset the loss from piracy.”

The digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws. In Anderson’s words- “Give a product away, and it can go viral. Charge a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business. The truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another.” He illustrates this by citing an experiment by a MIT professor. The professor offered two kinds of chocolate to his subjects—Hershey’s Kisses, for one cent, and Lindt truffles, for fifteen cents. Three-quarters of the subjects chose the truffles. He repeated the experiment, with the price of both chocolates reduced by one cent. The Kisses were now free. Surprisingly, the  order of preference was reversed. Majority of the subjects chose the Kisses. The price difference between the two chocolates was exactly the same, but that magic word “free” has the power to create a consumer stampede.

Due to the abundance of information in the digital world, Anderson argues, the magic of the word “free” creates instant demand among consumers in a market of plenty, and represents a special opportunity. Companies ought to be able to make huge amounts of money “around” the thing being given away—as Google gives away its search and e-mail and makes its money on advertising.  He argues that because it costs next to nothing to make things in the digital worl, we can afford to be wasteful.

He also explains how “free” in many cases does not mean that in the literal sense. Google sells ads on its “free” search and email pages.  Amazon’s free shipping mantra for purchases over 25 dollars depends on a sizable number of customers buying an extra item just to qualify for the 25 dollars free shipping offer, thereby helping overall sales figures. He argues that the free blog or free podcast builds a reputation for the modern journalist.

I would argue that in medical field, hospitals with free educational seminars online or those that offer “free” observer posts and allow students and visiting physicians to access their teaching archives have a greater reputation in the academic community. I used to purchase DVDs for CME purposes from university programs etc in the past, but more recently the availability of free presentations from organizations like the RSNA, ECR and the International Society of Radiology make buying these DVDs a less attractive option.

So does this mean that eventually software will be free? I think not. Anderson notes that Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission,  famously predicted in the mid-nineteen-fifties that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.” This optimism was probably driven by the fuel cost of nuclear energy—which was so low compared with its fossil-fuel counterparts that he considered it close enough to free to round down to zero. He did not account for the costs of the expensive infrastructure of transmission lines and power plants—and it is this infrastructure that accounts for most of the cost of electricity. Fuel prices are only a small part of that.

This is typical of the errors that technological utopians make, says Malcolm Gladwell, reviewing Anderson’s book in the  New York Times. He says that these utopians assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors—that if you change the fuel you change the whole system. However, there are costs that will appear over time. Likewise, cost of maintaining servers, security, backup, upgrades and maintenance are some of the hidden costs that will add to the cost of “free” software and computers.

Do you think “free” is always reliable? I think it depends on who is offering this “free”lunch and what hidden benefits they hope to get from it.  I would love to know what people think of “free” software, free presentations, free journal access and how this changes the way we utilize the digital world. Basically, is there a equivalent of a “free lunch” in the digital world?

Links to free audiobook unabridged version of Chris Anderson’s book is available at www.audible.com (I think that this offer is valid only for US customers) .

Do you back up your data? If not, do so NOW!

A couple of months back, my hospital-issued HP laptop conked out and the hard drive was completely dead. I had saved a number of my research documents on the laptop. I used to transfer documents on to my 500 GB portable harddrive, but I would do it this once or twice every month. So, the computer hard drive crash meant I had to redo a few of my excel spreadsheets and two of my powerpoint lectures that I had prepared earlier that month.

Valuable lesson learnt- Always back up your data. No excuses. You will regret if you don’t!

Make sure you have at least two copies of a document, one of which should be off-site. As an example, the world-famous director of the Godfather movies, Francis Coppola lost all his scripts, precious family photos and other works in 2007 when a thief broke into his house and stole his computer and the hard drive with backups that Coppola had placed next to the computer!

This got me researching various ways of backing up my data. I came up with a few methods that rely on storing data. Some of these are online backups and others are examples of onsite backups.-

1. Dropbox– 2 GB of free storage that can be synced between my Imac, office desktop, macbook and hospital laptop. One can buy storage up to 100 GB from dropbox. And they even have a app for the iphone that makes sure you are never more than a click away from your most important documents. Dropbox works across platforms and you can use public computers as well, to upload and download documents. However, this works seamlessly on computers at multiple sites that belong to you. Try this at www.getdropbox.com

2. MobileMe iDisk– Apple’s 10 GB of storage in the cloud- costs 99 dollars and limits you in that you cannot access through internet explorer. Safari and Mozilla Firefox are supported. The cost of this backup is ridiculously high, considering that the price of storage drives etc is falling every day. Only advantage is that it syncs with the iphone, but there are many better alternatives out there- read on…

3. Carbonite– Storage in the cloud with encryption of your data. Unlimited storage for less than 50 dollars a year. This is the most reliable backup method that was until last month available for Windows machines. Now, it is Mac-compatible.

The free trial is for 15 days and you do not need to enter a credit card to try out this service. After the free trial, you can sign up for the year. Their website mentions the price as $54.95 per year, but you can get two months off by entering the coupon code TWIT after the initial free trial. This offer code is courtesy of my favorite podcast network.  This is definitely backup done right at a reasonable price. I have used this to store data that I needed to move between computers and last week, when I needed to do a clean install of Snow Leopard on my macbook.

4. MOZY-  www.mozy.com is a storage service for Macs. It works well and like Carbonite, encrypts data before uploading to the cloud. It will slowly back up all the data you need and can be configured such that it does not hog all your bandwidth, but that makes the upload take longer.

5. Time Machine- Apple’s solution backs up my Mac, but its interface is not as seamless as I would like and it backs up  almost everything, even stuff that I would rather not backup regularly. And I find my home wireless network is slightly slower when Time Machine is backing my data up.

6. Store important work documents and research files from the hospital-issued laptop and office desktop on the drive at the hospital, maintained by the IT staff there. This is fine as long as it is password protected and is not open to every Tom, Dick and Harry who can access your data. But you cannot sync the data from the computers at home without  accessing the work network through VPN.

7. Using a RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) array like DROBO– This is basically daisy chaining a number of physical drives that have redundancy built into them. You can then divide and replicate data among multiple hard disk drives. The different schemes/architectures are named by the word RAID followed by a number, as in RAID 0, RAID 1, etc. RAID’s various designs involve two key design goals: increase data reliability and/or increase input/output performance. This array distributes data across multiple disks, but the array is seen by the computer user as one single disk. This means that if one drive fails, the data gets backed up on to the next one and so on.

I haven’t built one yet, but as drive prices are falling and the drive sizes are constantly increasing, this is seriously good backup for home use. But one cannot sync office computer files to this easily, as far as I know.
8. Portable harddrive storage- With the prices of harddrives falling all the time, one can now buy a 1 Terrabyte drive for 100 dollars! This method works as long as you carry the drive with you wherever you go and you remember to back up everytime you log off a computer at work or at home. Not the most convenient and there is always the danger that you may lose the drive, like I did last year, when I left the drive at an airport! Thankfully, the airline called me and returned it to me.

6.  USB pendrive/jumpdrive- I have two 4GB USB drives that I hang on my ID card lanyard and it carries a few documents that I may need at work. Not very convenient, as I have to remember to put it in my pocket wherever I go and again, and I have to consciously back up everytime before logging off from a computer terminal.

Of these, I think Carbonite and Dropbox are the two best solutions that have ensured I have the most updated versions of a file wherever I go. The RAID array with as many drives (currently up to 5 drives) is probably the best way to go for a multiple home computer setup.

If there are other types of backup that I have not mentioned and that you have found useful, comment on this post-  I would love to hear about your experience.