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R.I.P. Xmarks: The End of Browser-Based Bookmarks

Today marks the official end of Xmarks, the bookmarks sync utility. It was ‘retired’ unsentimentally by LastPass. Xmarks is the latest extinction of a product, highly valued by its users, which meets a sudden end and leaves its fans in the lurch. The former users of Vine and Google’s Picassa can surely relate.

Extinction is exactly the right word, as it seems that browser-based bookmarks are now dinosaurs. The heavy use of mobile—where people use search or an app to get to preferred sites—seems to be the main factor. The other is the turf wars between browsers, leading to the lack of an easy way to sync bookmarks from one to the other (Xmarks main feature).

My bookmarks are now completely in the Cloud. There’s no reason to access a bookmark unless you have an internet connection, so why not? I had to do the usual scramble and research to find a substitute for my discontinued product. I settled on which has great user experience and has been crafted with care across all browsers, iOS and macOS. I’m highly satisfied and recommend it.

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How-To Build a Kick-Ass Spotify Music Visualizer

This video shows Spotify driving a music visualizer on a 65” Sony 4K TV. It’s great for entertaining, listening to music, or just sitting back and enjoying the show. If you’re interested in setting up something similar for yourself that will work with Spotify, iTunes, or streaming web services like Pandora or Soundcloud, read on! (Mac only, sorry.) Demonstration music credit Tom Petty “Runaway.”

Like many people, I find myself using Spotify more and more. I love the exploration, I like the daily mixes. But, ever since the days of Winamp, I’ve liked running a music visualizer for some eye candy while I’m working. A visualizer provides animated visual effects based on the music being played. iTunes itself provides some built-in ones that have gotten better and better over time.

I recently upgraded the TV attached to my home audio system to a brilliant Sony 4K 65” unit. The display is amazing and since I use a Mac Mini as a music server in my setup, anything I can show on the Mac I can show on the TV. The thought of running some cool visual effects on this TV was motivating, so I went to the trouble of figuring out some solid solutions, and I’m sharing it with the community so others can have the same fun I’ve had. These directions would also work for any Mac laptop hooked up to a flatscreen.

Since I was particularly interested in Spotify, I Googled around to see if I could find a good visualizer and I was truly surprised that I turned up almost nothing. I scoured the web, I looked at the App Store, and I looked in Spotify’s user forums. Zip. A few years ago Spotify had its own visualizer built in as a hidden Easter Egg, but that no longer exists.

G-Force Logo Way back I had occasionally used a terrific visualizer plug-in for iTunes called G-Force. I knew that it had a standalone component, but I’d never really paid that much attention to it. To my surprise, it looked like one of the better solutions. If I could get a visualizer that could work with any sound source, I’d have what I wanted. When I looked up G-Force on the web, I found it was being actively updated to new versions of the Mac OS and that development and fixes were still underway. That was promising. I also uncovered another standalone visualizer called Discobrick. I found a few other programs that were geared more to smart home bulbs that might be able to be repurposed, but it was a surprisingly shallow result to my efforts.

I downloaded the latest G-Force (Platinum) version and it was as good as I remembered, with very beautiful mathematical types of visualizations and a lot of ability to customize. The software is not inexpensive at $30, but you can use that version as long as you want until you need an OS upgrade.The only problem was getting it to work with Spotify. It seems like this should be a simple problem to solve — to have the visualizer tap into the sound going to your headphone jack — but it’s not the case. Essentially, you have to create a way to route the sound source to both the visualizer and your speakers simultaneously.

Soundflower LogoSoundflower is a Mac OSX system extension that’s been used in the community for a long time to solve exactly this problem — it’s designed to create a virtual audio output device that can also act as an input. While this sounds a bit esoteric, it’s actually pretty straightforward. I installed a fresh copy downloaded from Matt Ingalls (the original author) and set it up in system Sound Preferences using Soundflower as the output and setting the input of the visualizer also as Soundflower. You could tell that the visualizer was immediately responding to the music so the experiment was a success. The problem is you can’t hear it because Soundflower is feeding the visualizer only.

So, the trick is to use Soundflower in such a way that you get multiple outputs that can go both to your visualizer and also to your speakers. It turns out Apple has provided a straightforward way to do this through the hidden power of the Audio MIDI Setup. Here is a terrific article from Macworld that explains the basics. With the Audio MIDI Setup, you create a multi-output device which combines Soundflower with your headphone output and you’re done. Once this is set up, you use the combined devices as output in your system Sound preferences and Soundflower as the input to the visualizer. Here is how it looks on my system, which has a USB connection to a Digital Audio Controller (DAC) combined with Soundflower.

Audio MIDI SetupSound Pref OutputG-Force Toolbar

With my Mac configured in this way, I immediately had clear, undistorted music playing from my speakers and a beautiful visualization from G-Force. Mission accomplished! As you can see from the video at the top of this post the setup creates a kick-ass visual experience and works flawlessly. In practical use, I tend to get Spotify playing and G-Force running on my Mac, then switch G-Force to full-screen and control Spotify from the Spotify app on my phone or tablet (while Spotify is running on the Mac connected to the TV). I was done. But, there are a couple of other tips to ease the user experience I uncovered in my work that I thought I should also share.

One minor issue is that the display can go to sleep on you and blank out your visualizer. There are at least a couple of solutions for this. My favorite is a sleek (and free) utility app named Amphetamine which is very handy when you don’t want your system to fall asleep — while playing a movie on Netflix for example. It’s also a perfect solution to prevent your screen falling asleep when you’re running a music visualization. Other solutions are to set a ‘disable screen saver’ hot corner on your Mac so that the monitor never sleeps, or change your power settings.

I found another truly remarkable sound utility when I was exploring how to solve the visualization problem. It’s called Loopback and the simplest description of it is Soundflower with superpowers. Loopback works like a big, digital mixing board — you can create any number of virtual audio devices to take the sound from applications and audio input devices, then send it to audio processing applications. If visualization were its only use, you might as well stay with Soundflower. However, if you have need of any of the other interesting uses it has, you should consider spending the $99 (ouch). Check the website for all the possibilities it has.

loopback logo smallI didn’t need Loopback to create the setup on my home audio system with the big TV. However, I wanted to run a similar setup off of my laptop at my office, and Loopback did help there. One minor drawback of using the combined device from Audio MIDI Setup is that it produces a fixed sound output. In other words, you can’t control the system sound level, you have to control it with the specific app that’s producing sound, e.g. Spotify. Sometimes this is fine, but at work I want to be able to use the keyboard volume controls to quickly mute everything if I need to, and also have easy access for volume changes. Among its many other features, Loopback will let you do this. On my laptop, I have Loopback running a virtual device directly to the visualizer, while the system Sound Preferences setup is normal — output set to headphones for my speakers. It works like a charm. Other sound utilities from the makers of Loopback are worth checking out as well.

Loopback Settings
I keep talking about G-Force as my visualizer, but I don’t want to make this post a commercial for it. DiscoBrick is another standalone visualizer I found in researching the App Store. The visualizations have a different aesthetic than G-Force and some are quite good. The app has uneven reviews in the App Store, but part of it is just the difficulty in getting it to work with a music source, as described above. If you have Soundflower or Loopback working smoothly in your system you can easily set that as a sound source in DiscoBrick and then you have a very satisfactory music visualizer.

Discobrick ScreenshotI hit several roadblocks along the way getting these visualizers set up but I feel the effort was well worth it. The screen dazzles visitors who are blown away by the quality of the graphics on a 4K TV. I’ve tried to lay out a roadmap for you so you can get the same results faster. Once you’re up and running you can tinker with the settings of the individual visualizers to get the effects to match your music. Enjoy.

This post originally appeared on Medium 12/02/2017

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Taking a Blogging Hiatus

This blog was founded in 2008 as a home for long-form writing and as a testing ground for fooling around with the latest web technologies. It contains periodic musings on Integrated Marketing, Social Media, Digital Marketing, Mobile, and the Tech Lifestyle. During the past eight years I posted almost monthly.

The face of blogging changed greatly over that period. Beginning in 2015, when LinkedIn’s Pulse was opened to ordinary citizens, I began cross-posting my professionally oriented posts there. That has provided good results from a business perspective. Similarly, I began cross-posting cultural and personal work to Medium. Some of the amplification there has taken my readership far beyond what I could expect from a self-hosted blog. However, a copy of everything is here, where it will never go away.

I’ve decided it’s time for a hiatus to recharge my creative juices and to determine what I’m writing about and where the content will be placed. Lookout for changes.

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I Got Mom a Robot Companion for her Birthday

Through work I had been exposed to Mabu the personal healthcare companion, an intelligent, socially interactive robot whose conversations are tailored to each patient that she works with.

Mabu seemed cheesy and a bit creepy, but the idea had legs, if a bit odd.

At the same time Mom needed a birthday gift and I was tapped out of ideas. I had heard a lot about the Amazon Echo, how it was like artificial intelligence and how it became a virtual companion to people somewhat like Mabu does. One of the top reviews on Amazon was a couple, one of whom had Parkinson’s, and how the Echo had helped their lives. Mom has some trouble getting around, but nothing like that. However she likes gadgets and will spend the time to get them to work, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

amazon-echo_colorcorrectedWhen Mom unwrapped the Echo I was sure I’d be returning it to Amazon. Explaining the concept, likening it a bit to HAL in 2001, a Space Oddesey (considering my audience) got rather puzzled looks. We tested it out, asking when Shakespeare’s birthday was (that day), getting the weather forecast, setting a timer for 5 minutes. It all went smoothly. You can believe that the Alexa voice recognition works amazingly well. If Siri is version 1.0, Alexa is 2.0. The Echo just sits there patiently waiting for its trigger word, and then helps you out. It really is perfect for an older person – no small buttons, no hard to read screen.

I was sure I’d be taking it home at the end of the weekend to return it. I figured it was a novelty that would soon wear off. However, I left it in the apartment overnight to see what would happen.

When I returned the next morning, Mom reported she had gotten the Echo to do a few things on her own. She seemed to be warming up to it. Like I said, she will tinker with things, but she gets frustrated easily.

I was still sure I’d be talking it home, only now I was beginning to like it enough to think maybe I could use it. A classic case of giving someone a birthday gift you want.

What made her finally want to keep it was the music. She has Amazon Prime and that opens up all of Amazon Music. You can tell the Echo to play Frank Sinatra and it will happily comply. There are playlists for moods and genres galore. The Echo has a lot of heft to it, and is a very competent Bluetooth speaker. I also paired it with Moms iPad Mini and it could easily play that music, as well.

Robot-and-frank-arm-wrestleIn spite of the technical nature of it, which could be a non-starter, the Echo is very useful for an older person. You just give it verbal commands, and it does what you ask. You can use it for a shopping list, you can set a reminder to watch a TV show or take a pill. You can get the weather or news without looking for reading glasses.

The Echo is a comforting robot presence in their house now. It’s like a pet that doesn’t need walking or feeding. Or a daughter that doesn’t talk back.

As far as real healthcare goes, the Echo is an open platform where you can build skills that can be added on. So far, I’m aware of only one, KidsMD. Parents can ask the Echo questions about common illnesses like fever, cough, and rashes, and get instant information on what drugs to use, how to administer them, and how much. It would be tricky to build something more complex from a regulatory point of view, but there’s potential there.

Mom kept her new little robot companion and has had a steady stream of curious visitors checking it out. I considered one for myself and ordered a Tap, which is an Alexa that doesn’t have to be plugged in all the time – the compromise is that you have to tap a button to use it. I thought I could use it outdoors at the house.

I returned it within a day. It was just a shadow of the Echo experience. My main reason for returning it was the atrocious wifi performance. It constantly dropped connections (the wifi specs are very different). Also, part of the beauty of the Echo is that it sits there patiently listening for you to give it a job. Having to tap the button to ask a question is no better than Siri on your phone and Alexa on the Tap seemed like a dimwitted cousin.

The Echo is the knife edge of Amazon’s entry into the whole Internet of Things. It has a lot of promise. Amazon Prime, with it’s numerous benefits of music, video, photo storage etc. may eventually give Google (now Alphabet) a run for their money.

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Create a Personal Google From Your Tweets

Hashtags As Google Logo BorderThere’s a simple way of using Twitter for content you find interesting to create your own personal Google. All it takes is the careful use of hashtags. This use case has been around since the beginning ot Twitter, but somehow it’s a little-known technique.

One of the first things you learn when you start using Twitter is hashtags. Hashtags allow you to tune in to the Twitter ‘radio signal’ around topics or events. However, hashtags can also allow you to create your own personal filing system.

Creating your own personal Google using Twitter and hashtags is a simple matter. When you find an article or link that you want to share on Twitter, at the same time you share, you simply add on the appropriate hashtag for the topic so you can find it later – perhaps even adding multiple hashtags. Ideally, this is the hashtag commonly related to that topic so you can feed that conversation as well. Later, when you’re interested in reviewing or searching everything you’ve flagged on a topic, you simply use Twitter’s advanced search ( to search your own tweets for that specific hashtag. You’ll be presented a neat list in reverse chronological order.

Here’s an example: Since its launch I’ve collected interesting articles and links about the Apple Watch, using the hashtag #applewatch. So, if I want to find an article that I’ve noted, I simply search my own tweets for #applewatch and I frequently can find what I’m looking for. At that point I can use the browser find command to refine the search for certain words I might remember from the original link such as the publication or author. Since these tweets are public you can see this search here. So of course that means you can search another user’s public tweets, as well.

If you’re a frequent Tweeter and diligent about hashtagging your topics you can create a truly powerful archive around your interests. It becomes a vast file cabinet to draw from.

Of course, there are lots of ways to save web links. People save them as bookmarks in folders in their browsers. They save them as social bookmarks in Pinboard or Delicious. Or, folks save pages in Pocket or Instapaper using tags – which can also create a nice archive. But, Twitter has advantages because by now it’s integrated into almost every app and browser, is just a tap or click away, and is simple and convenient.

You can level-up this approach by saving all your tweets using several different methods. One of the easiest is to integrate all of your tweets with a bookmarking service like Pinboard or Diigo. In this scenario every tweet of yours gets added to your bookmarks, including all hashtags. Here’s the instructions for Pinboard After setting this up, there’s no need for Twitter’s search – you simply search within your own bookmarks in Pinboard. Most commonly the import uses an additional hashtag, like !fromtwitter. I set this up in Delicious years ago almost by mistake. I ended up not really using Delicious for anything else as a result, but it made collecting and searching tweets easy (Delicious killed this functionality about a year ago.). Twitter collection can be set up with Evernote in a similar manner using IFTTT

Twitter improved their search about 4 years ago, basically eliminating the need for other tools to search tweets. About the same time they made it possible to download all your own tweets. Here are the instructions to do this It can take a few hours or a day to get this archive, but once you have it, it comes as a browsable collection as well as in csv format. This archive serves as a personal Google, provided you have hashtagged your links.

That’s three ways you can create your own personal Google: using Twitter’s advanced search; importing all your tweets into a bookmarking service; or periodically downloading an archive of your tweets. If you’re tweeting regularly, pick up the precision of your hashtagging and you’ll create a helpful resource in short order.

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FBI vs. Apple and the Risk to Your Health Data

Key Under DoormatBy now anyone with a pulse has heard about Apple’s showdown with the FBI over resisting cracking open a terrorist’s phone from San Bernandino. From a public perception perspective the FBI picked the perfect case to force Apple to comply – a conflict over security that has been brewing for a while. However, it’s not going the FBI’s way. A host of tech partners is backing Apple’s stance.

The consensus is that backdoors for government access is a terrible idea that just weaken the system. And of course we learned from Edward Snowden that we’ve all been snooped on for years through similar mechanisms. Keys under doormats are a bad idea. (MIT: Keys Under Doormats – Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications)

Of course, huge data hacks have been in the news for the past several years. How fast have we forgotten about Target, JPMorgan, Ashley Madison, and Sony Pictures where massive data breaches left millions of Americans’ personal information exposed? Many of these people are just now starting to find out the extent of the damage done.

But the Government must be secure, right? They have loads of experts and vast funding. Well, after the recent hack of over 700,000 tax records they don’t seem to be able to do such a great job. So, they don’t seem like they might be able to keep that backdoor key away from hackers or totalitarian regimes.

The FBI promise this tool is just for for a one-time use on this one phone also rings hollow. The press reports many other phones where Government access is requested. Recently there was a report where the Government obtained a Tor-hacking technique through subpoena from Carnegie Mellon. They immediately exploited it to shut down a bunch of nasty sites, which is hard to argue with. However, the parallel with the Apple case is that once they have a cracking tool, they will use it widely.

One of the big risks is our health records. More and more of our data is on our phones, connected devices, and electronic health records. This past year saw over one million patient health files breached through nearly 258 large-scale healthcare data breaches. This is highly sensitive and personal information and I personally want the Government out of my business. Smartphones are increasingly the remote control for much of this data.

The Internet of Things increases security risks. How about a hacker changing the dosage on your insulin pump? Or getting into your car and shutting it down in the middle of the highway. Let’s hope this security battle is resolved in a public forum rather than the FBI relying on an obscure 1789 law, the All Writs Act.

P.S. Just for fun, you can read I dared two expert hackers to destroy my life. Here’s what happened.

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