Company Blog

Crowdsourcing – what it is, and how you can use it.

  • Posted On  2015-07-13 09:11:25 by Blog

It was a shocking article that appeared a few months ago, asking if the concept of regular employment itself was outdated.  The issue raised from it was that, as opposed to steady jobs, our economy was moving more towards a dynamically shifting pool of freelancers, moving quickly from one employer to the next.  What perhaps was most shocking about it was that, with so many people actually taking part in this new type of work, it didn’t actually shock many people.

This is the business revolution represented by the term “crowdsourcing.”  The word was introduced in a 2006 article in Wired magazine.  The concept has taken off like a rocket since and hasn’t stopped for breath.  If you aren’t familiar with it, here’s a summary to catch you up to speed.  If you are familiar with it and want to use it, here are some tips from the pros.

A new name for an old concept

The first instance of effective crowdsourcing is older than all of us.  One of the earliest editions of the Oxford English Dictionary was created by the collaborative work of about 800 volunteers.  OK, this is about as relevant to modern crowdsourcing as the first 17th century steam automobile is to a Ferrari.  Still, the dictionary is still with us, and now again, so is the concept.

What crowdsourcing does is to tap into “collective intelligence”, that is, the ideas that are generated by approaching problems as a large group rather than an individual or small set of them.  It generally works like this:

A company or other organization posts a service that they need to appeal to an open pool of applicants to find an answer to.  Examples of common crowdsourcing requests are the generation of company logos, solutions to governmental public policy problems, software testing, programming, and writing of all kinds.  In reality, though, it can be just about anything that you might want to “poll the audience” for.

The crowd finds a needle in the interstellar haystack

An example from just a few days ago underscores the potential power of crowdsourcing.  Rainer Kracht, a retired school teacher in Elmshorn, Germany, reviewed images sent to the crowd from the Teide Observatory Tenerife Asteroid Survey (TOTAS).  This observatory was sponsored by the Space Situational Awareness program, a European Space Agency project.  What he saw in one of the images was eventually named “2011 SF108”, an asteroid set to approach to within 19 million miles of earth (that’s not as far as it sounds).  The image was confirmed by other volunteers in the crowd before receiving its official designation.

The vastness of space makes it impossible to rely completely on even the best computers to scan through all of the data for anomalies.  Here, then, is an example of how instead of using even more powerful processors, you can instead go to the collective observation of several thousand sets of eyes.

Where is the crowd now?

There are too many crowdsourcing projects in existence now to even begin to summarize all of them.  Here are just a few of the more notable examples:

  •     Amazon Mechanical Turk – Named after The Turk, a chess-playing machine hoax from the 19th century, it provides a place for humans to perform tasks that their silicon-based cousins are still not so hot at.
  •     reCAPTCHA – This Carnegie Mellon University project uses the crowd to help digitize paper works such as the entire New York Times archive, 20 years of which have now been uploaded.
  •     CloudCrowd – CloudCrowd works by breaking large jobs down into more manageable tasks that require human judgment, and farms those smaller jobs out to the crowd.
  • – This site describes itself as the largest outsourcing site in the world with a pool of more than 1.5 million users.
  •     Facebook – Yes, far be it from us not to squeeze Facecrack somewhere into an article. Since 2008 the social networking czar has been using crowdsourcing to help produce better foreign language page translations.
  •     Design Contest – Crowdsourcing website to get your logo design, website design and other graphic design done with in few weeks.

Even if you have no interest in implementing crowdsourcing yourself, it’s worth a peek at some of the ways its used just to re-establish your faith in what the internet is capable of.  Finding relatives lost in the Katrina disaster, the recording of taxonomic dinosaur data, and archival of artifacts related to the first World War are just some of the amazing uses for this new approach to “employment”.  It’s a heartening sight.

Great, I want in!  How do I do this?

Setting up is the easy part.  Use any one of the popular crowdsourcing destinations; specifically, find one suited to the kind of work you want to split up.  Most common ideas have entire sites devoted just to that.  For the uncommon work, there are plenty of catch-all locations that are ready for your jobs.  Naturally, go over the terms of service.  If your work is for pay, many of these sites will take a cut.

A little more important is how to do it right.  As always, there are lots of tips sites out there that go into great detail about how to use this dynamic effectively.  Here is a condensed version of the most common pieces of advice:
  •     Communicate your need clearly – If you are not very specific about exactly what you want you will receive a gaggle of replies that won’t meet your requirements.
  •     Search out the right crowd – Different sites have different sets of demographics.  Make sure you are someplace where the pool of labor is akin to what kind of job you are looking to fill.
  •     Have the crowd judge as well – If you are looking for, say, a slogan, you might wind up with thousands of submissions.  You can have the crowd rate them as well as submit them, making it easy to narrow the field down to a small subset of the highest quality replies.
  •     Offer incentives – This incentive doesn’t necessarily have to be money, but it does have to be something.  One thing that most people agree on is that if this is art of any kind, give the winner public credit whether or not you are paying them.

Crowdsourcing is becoming a major shift in the business world, with little of any significant criticism or drawback.  There is little reason not for anyone, group or individual, who thinks that they might have anything to gain from it to not at least give it a look.

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Ubuntu 11.10 – A Linux Misstep?

  • Posted On  2015-07-13 03:42:36 by Blog

Ubuntu is the heavyweight champion of the Linux world.  It is the most downloaded and used of all Linux distributions.  Its interface is easy to use, and it allows for heavy user customization.  However, with their newest upgrade to Ubuntu 11.10, or Oneiric Ocelot as it is called, the champion is taking a few body shots.  The beloved Linux distribution is facing an uncharacteristic level of user crankiness with this new release.

The Unity Bar

As minor as it may seem, one of the most common complaints that the Ubuntu user base has with this version is the Unity bar, which is Linux’s equivalent to the Windows task bar.  In this new Ubuntu version, it is permanently stuck on the left hand side of your screen.  Also, the icons available on it are not customizable and you cannot choose which folders are accessible from there.  Being less customizable than Windows is never a good start.

Upgrade Issues

A much bigger reported problem is that users are having issues making the jump from Ubuntu 11.04 to 11.10.  In a great deal of cases, it requires that the user do a complete reinstall, a massive shortcoming for such an ostensibly minor version increase.  Missing files, changed extensions and just about every type of upgrade headache has been reported. Having to re-installing 3rd party programs certainly doesn’t ease the pain.

Users who had upgraded to VMware Workstation 8 (which is a large percentage, since most Linux users are either IT employees, system admins or “super users” of one flavor or another) experienced the most trouble with upgrading.  Their systems frequently locked up, requiring a rescue disk and many hours spent backing up their data, using a fresh, virgin install of 11.10 and then moving back all their data to the system and reinstalling VMware.  We weren’t exaggerating when we used the word “headache”.

File organization and ease of use

On top of the new problems, Ubuntu 11.10 did not address a lot of the more serious previous issues that users complained of regarding file and program management.  When you get rid of drop down menus and revert to icon-led organization, suddenly being able to find a document you were working on but may have misplaced in the filing system is far more difficult than it needs to be.  While you can still usually find it with a few keystrokes, search results wind up being irritatingly varied.

Inability to use the desktop

If you are like most users, you enjoy and sometimes require the ability to use your desktop to, say, drag a terminal window there and work with it.  Unfortunately, the desktop environment in 11.10 is not a workspace.  This glaring oversight has Ubuntu users so disappointed in the evolution of “Unity” as an interface that many are thinking the sacrilegious and looking towards other options.  It is just too obvious that Oneiric Ocelot needs a few more turns on the wheel of development in order to shave off the rough patches and work out the bugs.  It is usable, but barely, and Ubuntu has in the past raised the bar of expectations far higher than this.

Going to stick it out? Here’s what to keep in mind

Choosing to stick it out and see what happens?  After all, even Windows had Windows ME, which after some work turned out to be not the worst thing they’ve ever done. Here is a list of tools for the loyal to keep handy:

    A rescue disk: In case you make some change to your system and can’t undo it easily.
    The Ubuntu user forums: Here you may be able to find help, tips and tweaks to make your wait more bearable.
    The Ubuntu website: As they release more information there might be usable tidbits that lead to greater functionality, even if it’s only short-term patches for some of the bigger problems.

Lest it sound too much like we’re trying to steer you away from sticking around, remember that this is only a summary of others’ reviews.  As always, your mileage may vary.  Not everyone experienced these levels of problems.  Many who did got around them.  Furthermore, as Linux is a very community-driven project, the kind of feedback that you can provide about the process would probably be appreciated, and could speed the development of fixes.

No, you’ve convinced me.  What are my other options

For those frustrated with Ubuntu 11.10 there are a few alternatives that they might enjoy instead.  There’s always the option of sticking with an older version and waiting around for the bugs to get squished.  Remember, though, there is the option of trying a new distribution altogether.  While we must wade through hundreds of available Linux distributions to say so, the one that comes most recommended for users of Ubuntu is “Mint.”

Mint is a spin on Ubuntu 10.04.  There are a few changes stylistically, but each one is made with an eye towards greater functionality.  All of your favorite Ubuntu perks are there, without the worries of the new “Unity” interface coming along and messing with your setup during an update.

Perhaps the greatest perk about Mint is its new software store and updater.  It allows you to experience a greater range of services while also offering a backup utility so that moving forward, if you decide that you enjoyed your older setup more you can revert with little hassle.

So, what is the bottom line?

The problems with Ubuntu’s recent release versions are widespread and likely will take a while to work out.   For those who are dedicated to Ubuntu, they may wish to stick it out, utilizing the tools listed above in order to make their stay more pleasant.

For those users who can’t wait, there is Mint.  There are also other options: the Linux universe teems with alternate distributions.  This might be your cue to poke around and see what else is out there.  Whatever you choose to do, keep an eye out.  This is still Linux, remember: its open-source nature means that problems don’t stay problems for long.  Still being the most popular distribution out there, it’s unlikely that Ubuntu will stay in the doghouse for very long.

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RFID: Old Technology Gets New Life

  • Posted On  2015-07-13 03:41:19 by Blog

It begins with an old story. Someone accepts a new position, and as a part of the job, he will be issued various resources in order to do his job properly. These could be many different things, from smart phones to laptops to even a company car. Years ago, the new employee would sign a contract stating that they recognize that the equipment belongs to the organization and would be returned in excellent condition and immediately when asked. Well, unfortunately, the expected happened. Laptops went missing and reported “stolen” and other similar incidents. Unfortunately, when a flaw like this exists, it can prove to be too strong of a temptation for even the most loyal employee. This creates a loss of money, time and manpower within the company as the matter is investigated; time is lost along with the equipment no longer being in use and more funds are finally invested to replace mishandled items. In order to satisfy the needs of an ever-growing diverse workplace, technology once again is tasked with finding a cost effective solution.

What is RFID and how is it used?

RFID refers to Radio Frequency Identification. It is a small-sized chip containing item-specific information and antenna to transmit the data wirelessly when brought within the range of the RFID scanning device. The chips are placed within an adhesive label which is often just as thin as a barcode stamp. RFID tags do not have to come in direct contact with a reader in order to initiate data transfer, however. Passive tags (which are activated by the presence of a scanner and do not contain their own power source) can be read as far as 100 feet from the reader and multiple tags can be processed at one time. Active tags (which contain a paper-thin battery in order to increase range) can be read as far as 300 feet away and do not need to be within line of sight of the reader. Many corporations and also departments within the government itself have already mandated the use of RFID tagging as a part of their supply chain management techniques, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars over only a few years because of the benefits of this system.

While there are many uses for RFID tags in many different environments, we will focus on the following uses within the scope of this article:

1. Internal Inventory Tracking and Handling

2. Large Pallet Shipping Automation

3. Retail Product Handling and Anti-Shrink Measures

Internal Inventory Tracking and Handling

Through the use, of RFID tagging technology companies who often have equipment that is to be “checked out” each day and returned within a stated amount of time like hand held scanners, business cell phones, or even cars, are now able to automate the process. For example, a company car is assigned to an employee who will be taking a weekend-long business trip to a conference in a distant city. When he goes to pick up the car, he signs for it and then takes his keys, gets in and drives off to his location. On the windshield, there is a plastic case that not only will make sure that his tolls are charged to a company account (ensuring proper accounting for off premises incurred costs) the RFID tag within it, this tag reacts to the reader inside the company garage as he leaves. The scanner activates the chip and takes in all information about the car which has just left and is wirelessly transmitted. It time stamps the record and files the information within a database.

Let’s say that the driver chose to take some unauthorized time at the end of his trip, making him late to return. The tag will produce a record when he re-enters the company garage. The discrepancy in the record will create a flag in the system. From there, the computer system can be set to notify the appropriate level of organizational security to handle the incident.

Large Pallet Shipping Automation

Many corporations including Wal-Mart have begun mandating their suppliers to use RFID tags on each pallet. Generally, one pallet contains a specified amount of one product making tallying a total easier. Also, by doing this, the supplier makes the shipping and recording process much more streamlined as RFID scanners read multiple tags at the same time and do not have to be within the line of sight of the scanner itself to operate. When a company as large as a department store receives a shipment, it is usually several hundred if not several thousands of pallet containers in size. If this process were to be completed manually, it would require massive amounts of man-power to perform the initial count, then checking against the manifest and making sure to correct any other errors that may have been made thanks to ordinary human error.

By using RFID tags on each pallet and, shipping only single item pallets, the tags are read as they enter the site, many of them at a time and the data checked against the database and red flags created if any discrepancies happen to occur. Because of this technology, there is less economic loss to the company from items handled improperly when RFID was put in place. The gains were indeed significant enough in some cases to offset against a newly constructed store taking a loan in order to implement this technology even before the grand opening.

Retail Product Handling and Anti-Shrink Measures

Often when a customer enters a store, they will not even take notice of the large standing RFID scanners that are in the entry way. Often they look like strange impressionist art or a metal detector. Often stores that have these within the entrance are large chain stores or specialty stores that offer high priced items. On the item itself, often inside the product container or packaging but behind the bar-code will be a RFID tag. When the tag is scanned by the clerk, it becomes deactivated. From that point, the customer can get their package and leave the store with no problems. If a customer instead chose to take the package from the shelf and hide it, walking out the door without visiting the clerk, the passive (but still working) RFID tag would become operational by the door scanner, transmit the information that the item had not been paid for and sound an alarm, all in a matter of moments. The use of RFID in this way is perhaps the oldest practice in the history of the technology and saves companies millions each year from shrinkage.

In conclusion:

While not a new technology, but rather an older one made possible by the advancement of engineers making smaller, lightweight chips, RFID tagging has a future ahead of it in the area of enterprise resource protection that cannot be overlooked. While it may not ever replace the ubiquitous bar codes, it does and will continue to make the data collation process more efficient and, even in the end, automated. The resulting savings to corporations in man-power, shrinkage and mishandling makes what would be a daunting investment initially, a common sense business practice.

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Email Encryption: Protecting Yourself and Your Information

  • Posted On  2015-07-13 09:18:51 by Blog

You decided to write a steamy email to your lover late at night from your home computer.  Pet names were used as well as some other language that, if anyone else but your lover saw, you would just die of embarrassment. The problem is you did not use any form of encryption on your email at all because you thought that encryption was only for governments and big corporations. Now, your favorite pet names and steamy details have been read by:

  •     Anyone at your email or Internet provider who wants to
  •     Anyone at your lover’s email or Internet provider who wants to
  •     Anyone who works at any of the places in between that house the routers that handled the data from your email who wants to.

Your secrets are not safe when you do not use encryption on your email.  While this situation is personally embarrassing, imagine how devastating this would have been if it were a corporate email sent speaking about the release details of their newest offering in the technology world.  The competition now has them and you might as well begin again at the drawing board, assuming that you still have a job.  With this article we hope to help you set up email encryption for your computers so that these situations never have to become a personal reality.

Software Solutions

Perhaps the simplest and least aggravating approach to applying encryption to your email messages is to make use of one of the many software solutions out there.  The very oldest and most well-known software for this would be PGP (Pretty Good Protection).

Using 128-bit encryption, this software (which is now owned by Symantec, creators of Norton) takes a lot of the guesswork out of the encryption experience by automatically discovering certificates and keys as needed and automatically encrypting all sent and received email without the user needing to do much of anything.  This particular software supports both common forms of encryption, S/MIME and OpenPGP, and uses a proxy as a method of keeping your information secure.

If you are brand new to encryption, then you would do well to look past the price tag, and realize that you are buying a lot of peace of mind.  This software is highly recommended as it does not disrupt the recipient or the senders email experience at all.

Client-based solutions

Many email clients now offer the ability to send and receive encrypted email through the use of settings within the program itself or add-on programs for the client.  At this time, the two most well-known clients for offering these options are:

  •     Microsoft Outlook
  •     Mozilla Thunderbird

Microsoft Outlook uses what they call a digital ID, which is essentially a personal security certificate for your email that gets sent to the email recipient for encryption along with your message.  If the recipient does not have your digital ID, they cannot read your encrypted emails (although you will be given an option to send it in unencrypted formatting in this case).

Mozilla Thunderbird makes use of an add-on called Enigmail in order to facilitate encrypted email sending and receiving.  Once Enigmail is installed on your Thunderbird client, then it can and will automatically encrypt, decrypt and manage all encryptions keys for you, making it a very simple option for those who just want the basics. It can be expanded upon by also downloading GNUpg which allows for further cryptographic functions.

There are other email clients also offering similar features.  However these two are the easiest and most straightforward to configure on your own without having to call your local techy friend for help.  If you wish to go ahead and plunge in deeper, by all means do so, but make certain that you read the manual: incomplete or incorrect security is about the same as no security.

Don’t want to bother with encryption? There are other ways.

Without encryption you will always lose some information to easily readable sources.  However, if for some reason you do not want to engage in encryption use, here are some suggestions on how to keep yourself as safe as possible.
  •     Make absolutely certain that you have two different email addresses. Use one for a small list of well-known friends and associates and the second email address for mailing lists and other more open forum email and subscription mail.
  •     When creating your personal email, keep it simple and professional such as using your first initial and your last name.
  •     When creating your public email do not use any kind of personally identifiable information.
  •     When emailing back and forth, do not send any information that you do not wish to be read by everyone on the World Wide Web at any time. This includes; names, addresses, phone numbers or passwords.
  •     Do not open email from sources that you have any reason to be wary of.
  •     Again, use an antivirus program that offers email scanning.
  •     For goodness sake, do not send personal email from a work email address.  More often than not, these email addresses are monitored by your company and their contents can get you in trouble!  This is more a precaution on their part than a danger on yours, as they usually have plenty of security procedures in place on their end as well.  Still, this danger potentially takes the form of unemployment.  If anything, learn from your employer’s security procedures, and consider implementing the same thing on a personal level.

If you follow these steps, you should be able to keep yourself relatively safe while emailing.

It’s privacy, and it’s personal

In the end, only you can decide how much encryption is comfortable for you to use.  Privacy is a personal matter and must be seen to in accordance with personal comfort levels.  More privacy is more secure, but it is also more work.  How much work you want to do is up to you.

There are people out there whose entire computer systems and networks are encrypted. They often do not do so for any reason other than they can, and that they enjoy that level of privacy not because they have something to hide. There are those who will only encrypt their emails and be happy with that.  Then there are those who trust their firewalls and antivirus programs to do their jobs and keep them safe. Whatever you choose, just be aware of the basics of how email security works, and you should be able to find the comfort level that’s right for you.

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Guide to Choosing a Free Dedicated Email Client for Windows

  • Posted On  2015-07-13 03:38:41 by Blog

ou’ve decided that you are tired of using webmail and want to use a desktop-based email client instead.  You are certainly not alone; it is often the preferred method of reading email. However, finding a freeclient which is reliable and has decent support can be a little bit on the daunting side.

So let us take a walk together through the world of free Windows-based email clients and see what is out there and what features are available. We will take a look at four different free clients within this article.

1) Windows Live Mail

This is perhaps one of the two most used email programs and offers a good deal of functionality.  It handles both email protocols (IMAP and POP) as well as having its own calendar and easily integrates Hotmail as a part of its services.

The spam and phishing filters with this program are pretty strong and do a decent job of protecting you from harmful content within your email.  It also will integrate Windows Live Messenger and will track your RSS feeds.

On the downside, the search option could be a bit stronger since the ability to organize mail via labels is missing.  There is also very little integration between your email and the calendar, making sending invites a bit cumbersome.

2) Mozilla Thunderbird

If you want an email program that will help you organize your mail effectively then Mozilla Thunderbird is your client: it is the second of the two most popular packages we mentioned above.  If offers email labeling as well as a smart foldering scheme.  Thunderbird has support for both email protocols (POP and IMAP) as well as the ability to access your favorite RSS feeds as if you were reading an email discussion.

The spam filtering on this program can be a little bit aggressive, and you might need to check your junk email folder quite often for false positives.  On the other hand, it boasts a “learning” junk mail system, so after taking out the emails that you want to read a few times from the junk mail folder you shouldn’t have to again.

Thunderbird, however, is not all that great when it comes to showing related messages, attachments or documents, and the RSS reader can be a little bit confusing for those who may not have used one before.

3) Incredimai

Those two clients above account for the bulk of email client popularity, but they aren’t the only packages available. Next up is Incredimail, an email client with a specific set of people in mind. If you want to be able to add a lot of emoticons, stationary, glittery text and handwritten signatures into your email, then Incredimail was made with you personally in mind.  A flashy email program that allows for both email protocols, with spam and junk filters that work OK, and a lightning fast search option, many users adore this package.

Incredimail could certainly offer  a bit more when it comes it comes to productivity, as well as either getting rid of its paid protection features or beginning to include them within the program for free.  It does not offer encrypted email messaging, meaning overall that if you are looking for a client to use for professional reasons, this isn’t it.

4) Dreammail

In exchange for offering only support for POP email protocol, Dreammail allows the ability to correlate other data from your email box quickly and correctly by showing related messages, documents and attachments that may be present. This program also allows you to work with templates and stationary easily, allowing you to create good looking emails as well as just being informative. The RSS feeder that comes with Dreammail is also one of the most powerful available.  It handles RSS feeds quickly and quietly, making them available for reading in an ordered manner and by the rules that you set down.

However, if you want to converse in a language other than English with your email partner you will want to look elsewhere.  Dreammail does not handle other language codecs at all.  It has also been reported that Dreammail could be a lot more effective when it comes to spam filtering.

Now some words of Advice

As you can see, there are many options available for just about every type of email user out there.  It all depends on the features that you seek as to what email client you will eventually choose to go with.  Now we close with some words of advice.

If you are uncertain of an email client’s ability to filter out spam, phishing, remote images (Which can use a privacy issue) or other risks, make certain that your antivirus program is up to date and remains so.  Most antivirus programs now offer email scanning as a part of their services, giving you the ability to go with one of the less security conscious clients if you so choose.  Remember, though, that two filters are still better than one.

Also, even though it’s been said a million times, we’ll make it a million and one: do not share private or sensitive information about yourself, or passwords by email.  Some websites and services will send you your password through email when you initially sign up.  Either print those out, write them down or otherwise have them in a secure place that is not within your computer and delete the email.

If your antivirus program offers email shredding, use the shredder.  This may sound paranoid or repetitive.  However, a good deal of people only uses one or two passwords in their lives, ever.  This means that if someone were to get one of those passwords that you use on a regular basis from your email (by being left in a conversation that was not cleaned up before replying or by downright phishing) that hacker could possibly have your online banking password.  From there, just let your paranoia run wild.  Be safe out there, kids, and it shouldn’t matter what client you use.

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