My inexpensive office security camera - better and cheaper than some professional systems

Despite the fact that the work I do is not top secret, nor do I have any enemies, I have always felt safer and better protected with the presence of security cameras. You just never know what you might pick up. Plus, I often work late at night and my office is next to a bar, and since my car sits outside, I like to be able to keep an eye on it at all times.

I've toyed around with semi-professional security systems (the kind that have dedicated DVRs and indoor/outdoor camera with LEDs for night vision), and basic wifi cameras for my house. Neither produce very high quality video. If you need to analyze somebody's face or try to read a license plate, you're pretty much screwed. The best you can get is a description of what someone is wearing or the model of a car.

When I went to set up my office cameras, a buddy of mine suggested using webcams. Typically we think of webcams as low-quality cameras that we use to talk to relatives or co-workers over Skype. But in reality, the quality of webcams have vastly improved in recent years. I've been using Microsoft's LifeCam, a 720p HD webcam for Skype, and am always being told how crisp and clear I look (and I'll take all the help I can get).

So I employed the same webcams for my security cameras, and they work great! The nice thing about these cameras in that they use a small footprint, and they are USB powered so you only need one cord running to it. Plus with USB extension cable with a built-in repeater for $10, you can safely wire a camera from a good distance from a computer. And image quality is great even at night. These Microsoft HD webcams used to run around $79. I just picked up another one on Amazon for $52.99.

I use a recording program from DeskShare called Security Monitor Pro that costs $90. This software allows me to start recording on motion detection. It takes video clips, still picture, and can even email me the media or publish to an ftp server. I record my cameras at 10fps, which allows me to see enough action so I don't miss anything, while not overloading my CPUs.

Then at the core of it all is a dedicated Acer Aspire. I picked up this $500 computer from Fry's. It's loaded with an Intel i3 at 3.06GHz with 6GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. It's amazing how inexpensive technology is these days. I previously had a lower-end Dell recording, but it only had a single core and it choked when I tried to view and record two near-HD streams.

So for as little as $700, I have a security system that is computer-based, and actually records higher quality video than typical dedicated prosumer security rigs.

Like I said, this is a little over the top for my needs, but it's nice to be able to see my surroundings. If you're looking to set up a basic security rig, I definitely recommend going this route. Like I said, I've toyed with lots of possibilities, and since this system records high quality video with great features that lets me see what's going on when I'm away from the office, there are really no downsides.

What was going to be a rant about Hulu turned into praise about Hulu customer support

Problem = unhappy user
Last night I was infuriated by the fact that I was served three consecutive ads on Hulu. I thought to myself, "this is getting to be as bad as regular TV." I tweeted my disapproval, and then followed up by saying I was going to cancel my Hulu Plus account and then write a blog about how much I now hate them.

While I did end up canceling my Hulu Plus account, my bitterness toward Hulu was resolved by a few helpful tweets from @Hulu_Support, and thus, this post turns from a hateful rant about how Hulu is selling out (and how worthless Hulu Plus is, as the moment), to how much I appreciate attentive customer support.

A courteous reply from a company can completely change a user's opinion
As it turns out, the fact that Hulu ran three consecutive ads during a TV show is apparently a bug, and wasn't supposed to happen. I was informed of this by @Hulu_Support. The interesting thing is how little it takes to make people happy online (at least me). All the Hulu support rep did was admit the mistake and collect some information from me so they could troubleshoot the issue. Who knows if they're actually going to do anything with the information they got from me, but it was nice of them to ask. Also another observation: Hulu Support uses your first name when @replying. I thought this was a nice way to engage users, by responding to people and not just Twitter handles. A nice touch.

Great examples of customer support via Twitter: Hulu, Zappos, American Express
Other businesses should take notice of how businesses like Hulu, Zappos, and even American Express handle customer support on Twitter. I recently tweeted about Zappos, without expecting a response. As it turns out, Thomas Knoll, Community Architect at Zappos responded from his personal Twitter account, an account he doesn't typically use for customer support. This likely mindless action that took just a couple seconds on his part reaffirmed my positive opinion about Zappos, an opinion that is not likely to change based on that short encounter.

Ad overload (and a rant about newspaper websites)

We all know newspapers are dying (even with ad revenue from their websites), but this looks to be a move of desperation. Here I am, trying to visit the site of our local newspaper, the Orange County Register, and I can't even read the article because a giant leaderboard ad is covering the story. And there is no way to close the ad. Ridiculous.

An even larger issue, besides the fact that I can't read the story, is that the interface of the website itself is terrible. In this particular post (screenshotted below), you'll notice that the entire article copy is below the fold. ("Below the fold" refers to the part of the website you can't see without scrolling.) Even if you aren't familiar with common web practices, it's kind of common sense that you should at least be able to read a little bit of the article without having to scroll.

Way too much space is taken up by those ridiculous Facebook Share, Tweet, and comment icons, and Facebook "recommend" link. I could go on and on and on...

Hey Register, hire me and you'll go out of business slower.

Oh, and their Twitter username is "OCReggie". Seriously?

How to avoid eye strain and neck pain while using a computer

"More people are showing up at eye appointments complaining of headaches, fatigue, blurred vision and neck pain—all symptoms of computer-vision syndrome (CVS), which affects some 90% of the people who spent three hours or more at day at a computer, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Healthy."

The above quote comes from a Wall Street Journal article published yesterday. If this is true, the only reason the percentage is so high is because people don't know the simple steps to avoid these symptoms. Here are a few things I do to make sure I never have to leave my computer...unless I really want to.

Adjust Monitor Brightness
I think the single largest reason why people have trouble sitting in front of a computer screen for an extended period of time is because their screen is too bright. Most monitors are set to be way too bright by default. Try turning the brightness all the way down. It will make your eyes think you're looking at a piece of paper rather than staring into a flashlight. (Make sure you adjust your brightness and not your contrast.)

Ambient Light
I like to keep my office pretty dark, but it's important the ambient light in the room doesn't contrast too greatly with the physical world. For example, if my monitor is bright and my room is dark, it's going to hurt my eyes because of the stark contrast. This is why your parents always used to tell you to watch TV with a light on (at least my parents did). But an environment that's too bright isn't great either. When I used to sit in a cube all day, I had the florescents above me ripped out. Distancing yourself from ambient light in a close proximity is a good idea.

Monitor Height
A lot of times, neck pain is caused from leaning down to look at a computer screen (this happens a lot when working on a laptop). Whenever possible, make sure your monitor is at your eye level. I would suggest that if you're looking straight out from your chair, at least 1/3 of your monitor should be above your eye level. I used to set my monitors on books. Now I use actual monitor stands that get my monitors off my desk by about 4 inches. Avoiding looking down will help reduce neck strain.

Back Support & Sitting Position
I never work in front of a computer without a pillow behind my lower back. Even actual back supports from office supply stores don't work well. I recommend an actual pillow. It helps keep the upper body back and upright. It also helps keep my head back to where I sometimes rest it on the back of my chair. This reinforces the last idea to keep your head looking straight on rather than bending forward and looking down.

Even Multiple Monitors Help!
This isn't for everybody, but...I work in front of an array of 3 or 4 very large monitors. I think doing so actually helps keep my eyes fresh and my neck from hurting, because I have to physically turn my head to the left and right to see all my screens. This keeps me from focusing in a single, small area for too long at any given time, and it also reminds me to blink when I turn my head.

These suggestions definitely aren't scientific - they're just a few bits of common sense that I've realized over my time using computers. Hope this helps keep you pain-free!

Hulu's most blatant user experience mistake

I've been using Hulu for almost three years now, and it's been exciting to watch it develop into a near-mainstream solution for watching TV online. I'm a subscriber of Hulu Plus, and while it has its own issues (missing past episodes of shows, too many ads in a paid product, etc), it's still the easiest way to catch HD TV shows online.

However, there is a glaring UX mistake on the Queue page where users can stack up future videos to watch. I'm surprised no one at Hulu has caught this and fixed it yet.

The problem: When hovering over a show thumbnail on the queue page, a play icon appears, but clicking on the play button/thumbnail takes the user to the show's index page, rather than the video page.

Over time, it has become an accepted standard that a play icon indicates that something will start playing when the icon is clicked. In this case, the play icon doesn't actually play a video. Instead to play a video, the user has to click on the video title. (Everywhere else on the site, clicking on a play button starts playing a video.)

I can't count the number of times I have mindlessly clicked on the thumbnail/play button, expecting the video to start playing. If I were consciously thinking about where I am clicking, I would know not to click on the thumbnail. But too many times, I don't actually think about what I'm doing. I see a play button and I click on it - it's just a habit that has been formed over years of clicking play buttons, and I have been conditioned over time to expect a specific action to take place.

You might say I'm nit-picking, and this whole blog is over nothing important at all. And you wouldn't be wrong. But it's stuff like this that defines a great user experience. A great user experience is one that takes into account the mindless users like myself and gets me where I want to go, the first time.

What NOT to say when replying to a freelance job posting

From time to time, I post freelance job listings on various online job boards when I have projects I don't have time for, or just don't want to do. I never cease to be amazed by some of the contents of the emails I receive.

SO, as a benefit to people who respond to these online job ads (especially design/digital work ads), here are some things NOT to do/say that might help increase the likeliness you get a reply.

Note: All examples below are from responses I received today.
  1. I don't want to know that you have 10 years experience in HTML and 8 years experience in PHP. Large corporations might want to see these big numbers in a resume, but I can guarantee you that 99% of people posting freelance jobs online don't care.
  2. Don't start an email with "Dear sir or madam", "Human Resources", "Hiring Manager" or "To whom it may concern". Save this for a printed letter that you send to your cell phone company to dispute your bill. It's far too general for an email and an instant red flag. Use something like "Hey", "Hello", or "Hi there".
  3. Don't send anything but your best work. In an email I received today, an applicant informed me that he is working on a new portfolio that is "more up to date". Why do I need to know this? If you don't think you can sell me on what you sent me, don't try to upsell yourself by saying you have better work out there. Just update your portfolio before you email me!
  4. Send me a LINK to your portfolio. If you refer me to "" and it doesn't have a hyperlink, don't count on my copy/pasting the url into my browser.  I should be able to click on your link in my email!
  5. Don't send me a 5 paragraph essay. The most effective emails are short and to the point - 3 lines. Sell me on yourself by showing me how great you are, not by telling me.
  6. DO NOT link me to a zip file in your email. And don't attach a zip either (or any other sort of attachment, for that matter). The best emails can be read in under 5 seconds before clicking out to a link to check out work. I'm not going to dedicate the time to open a zip file if I'm not already familiar with your caliber of work.
  7. Don't link me to my original post. Chances are, if the subject of your email relates to my post, I'm going to remember posting it. Adding a link to my posting in an email only tells me that you're replying to so many posts that you want to keep them all straight and add in a link for your reference.
  8. I don't want to hear from a company. I want to hear from YOU! If you approach me as a representative for a "design firm" with a team of designers, I'll probably delete your email. Unless my post specifically asks for a team with a bunch of overhead or a request for an RFP, I'm most likely looking for one person to come in a tackle a project. Oh, and don't have your personal assistant email me, either. That just tells me you're paying cheap, offshore labor to spam as many people as possible.
  9. Use proper grammar and not SMS lingo. This is from an email I received: "kindly find my grafix work at [link] and let me know if its wat u r looking for. thx." Just, no.
  10. Remember where I posted my ad. If I posted an ad on Authentic Jobs, don't contact me "regarding the post on Craigslist." Stuff like this tells me you copy/pasted your form letter and probably didn't read my ad.
  11. If my post is in English, don't send me your portfolio in another language. 'Nuff said.

I hope I don't sound harsh or critical with these points. But you have to understand that, not only are the people posting these listings probably extremely busy, but they also receive hundreds of these types of emails in a very short amount of time. To get a response, you've really got to stand out. Hopefully these tips will help you get the kind of response that you deserve.