His Nibs

It often seems like the Internet is dominated by large merchants. However, if you look long enough, you’ll find another phenomenon: The sole proprietor who has managed to carve out his or her niche and not only survive on the Internet, but thrive.

Eleven years ago, Norman Haase, a fountain pen collector, began turning his passion into a business. He sold part-time on eBay for six months and then quit his job as a CIO to take his business, His Nibs, full-time. Today, he continues to offer a great line of fountain pens at attractive prices and he laughs at the irony of spending ten hours a day in front of his computer selling old fashioned pens.

I’ve bought a few pens from Norman over the years, so I already knew that he provides great service, quick responses to email, reasonable shipping options and painless payment via PayPal. But I wanted to know who was buying fountain pens these days and I must admit wondering how someone in the USA is able to compete with the growing number of people selling goods directly from places like China.

According to Norman, a good proportion of his customers work in high tech and enjoy writing with a fountain pen because it is, “…an opportunity to take a break from the constant speed of life and the impingement of technology in everything we do.” He also believes many people find that taking a break from typing and writing more slowly with a fountain pen gives them more time to think and, as a result, their writing is better.

Fountain pens are much more common in China, India, and Asia than in North America, Haase explained. In the Shangahi area, there are hundreds of pen manufacturers, most producing for their own market. These are not pens intended for export. They are designed and produced for domestic use. However, because the Chinese write such intricate characters, they tend to produce good pens with fine nibs.

As a collector, Haase also knew that the nibs of most fountain pens, regardless of where they are manufactured, require adjustment. By inspecting and adjusting every pen he ships, Norman has virtually eliminated returns. Happy customers lead to repeat business.

Perhaps what interested me most as I listened to his story was that I realized he’s succeeding on the Internet for the same reasons sole proprietors thrived before the Internet: He offers a good product, great service, and reasonable prices. And he’s pleasant do to business with.

From: CNN.com —

Remember how amazing Chatty Cathy, Furbees and even music-playing greeting cards seemed when they fist appeared on the market?

2008 has apparently produced a bumper crop of toys and grown-up gadgets that could similarly be characterized as hot new techologies in low-tech packages.

As CNN’s Cherise Fong reports, “This holiday season, it seems highbrow concepts are better off making their commercial debut in low-tech gadgets.”


“‘With the current economic situation, I think toys and gadgets which are too complicated, either as a concept or to operate, will not fly,’ says Lawrence Cheung, principal consultant of the Hong Kong Productivity Council.”

With that in mind, Fong offers her pick of the latest nifty new tech gift gadgets, including the bunny-shaped Nabaztag (pictured at right), which can recognize voice commands in five languages and can not only access information for you from the internet — but read it to you, as well.

Then, there’s the TOMY xiao, a digital camera which revisits the classic instant-gratification photo experience popularized by Polaroid back in the 1960s by combining a 5 megapixel still camera with an inkless colour printer that ejects dry prints in seconds.

Consider the Flip MinoHD, billed as, ‘As simple as it is fun’. Basically it’s  an ultra mini HD camcorder that does all the work for you, making all the adjustments for you automatically, delivering what its makers modestly refer to as ‘picture perfect quality’.

…And half a dozen more, all just as intriguing and/or capitvating. If you love gadgets, you’ll adore Fong’s pick of the cute-tech pack!

Microsoft issued a rare out-of-cycle emergency patch fort a sderious vulnerability in its Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser late yesterday.

The critical hole in IE that the new patch plugs is very similar — at least in the way it works — to the one in the popular Firefox browser which was also patched yesterday. The IE vulnerability was first revealed by third party security researchers earlier this month and MS came under increasing pressure from users and critics to get a fix to users.

In both cases, the vulnerability would have allowed cyber crooks to download and install malware on unsuspecting users computers with no other user action than simply visiting a booby-trapped Web site.

The patch applies not only to the current version of IE (7), but to previous versions including IE 5.01, IE 6, and IE 6 Service Pack 1.

If you don’t have Auto Updates enabled on your computer, take a moment sometime today to visit the Windows Update site via the convenient link in your Windows Start menu and get the patch. You can also get more information about the patch and download it directly from the MS Update Web site.

The Mozilla consortium, which supports and directs development of the Firefox Web browser, has issued a number of important security updates for the popular alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE).

Eight separate patches were released yesterday, three of which Mozilla rated as critical.

The most serious of these fixes a vulnerability that could allow cyber crooks to download and install malware on users’ machines with no other user action than simply visiting a booby-trapped Web site. The patches apply to Firefox versions and 3.04.

Mozilla also notes that this will be the last set of updates for its 2.x series browsers, which it will cease to actively support at the end of this year. It’s probably a good time for users who haven’t already upgraded to version 3.x to do so. Give yourself an early Christmas present!

The latest Firefox patches have been pushed out to most users already, via the browser’s automatic update system. A pop-up in their Firefox browsers will tell users when the updates have arrived on their machines and instruct them to restart their browsers to activate the patches.

If you’re feeling a bit blue as winter sets in, you’re not alone. According to Dan Adams, Research Manager at Apollo Health (now part of Philips Home Healthcare Solutions) 14 per cent of the US population experience the “winter blues” and 6 per cent suffer the more severe symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

In years gone by, humans rose and set with the sun, keeping their circadian rhythms in sync with nature. When the light bulb was invented, our sleep problems began as technology interfered with darkness, our natural sleep cue.

Today, Adams and the team at Philips work with leading researchers to better understand how light effects us and to apply new technology to the problem. They’ve made a lot of progress in the last several years.

Our bodies produce different hormones during the day and night, and early studies established that light causes the body to stop producing melatonin. This led to the first light therapy products, which used 10,000 LUX of white light (usually fluorescent) to simulate sunlight. While that’s much brighter than normal indoor residential lighting (typically 50 to 200 LUX), it’s still less intense than what you’ll experience outside on a sunny day (50,000 to 100,000 LUX).

Then, earlier this decade, things got even more interesting.

In 2001, Dr. George Brainard, a neuroscientist, discovered the “action spectrum of light” at at a wavelength of 464 nm and hypothesized that, since 464 nm didn’t correspond with the known response ranges of rods and cones in the eye, there must be a novel photoreceptor that was responsible for circadian regulation.

In 2002, Dr. David Berson at Brown University discovered that this novel photoreceptor was melanopsin. The discovery set off an explosion of interest and studies and, later in 2005 and 2006, several articles were published in Nature and Science, describing the role of melanopsin including how it regulated pupilary constriction and dilation and the circadian response.

Since LEDs can be manufacturer for specific wavelengths, this series of discoveries has lead to the development of smaller, lighter and safer light therapy products. For example, the Philip’s goLITE BLU emits the approximate equivalent of 200 LUX.

The device is 14 cm x 14 cm x 3 cm (5.5 in. x 5.5 in. x 1in.), weighs 400 g (14 oz.) and is rechargeable — all things simply not possible in a 10K LUX lamp.

During my research on the topic, I found Web sites, including that of another manufacturer, claiming blue light is more dangerous to the eyes. Adams explained that any colour of light can be dangerous if the intensity is too high but that, to put it into perspective, the goLITE BLU produces about 5 per cent of the blue light that one would be exposed to by walking outside on a sunny day. According to Adams, the company has performed safety studies on the product and two independent third parties have also confirmed that the product is safe.

For another opinion, I asked my optometrist. He confirmed that the primary concern is exposure to ultra violet (UV) light and that the blue light therapy devices are considered safe (assuming no UV, which is the case with the Philips products.)

The goLITE BLU is used for 15 to 30 minutes per day, at about an arm’s length away off to one side, while eating, reading, etc. Light reaches the melanopsin through peripheral vision and it is neither preferable nor more effective to stare into the light. In essence, the product simulates exposure to sunlight, which can reset your internal clock and also help compensate for the decreased sunlight those of us at higher latitudes experience during the winter.

Philips offers a free online assessment on their Web site. You simply answer a set of questions, and the site determines what is happening to your circadian rhythm and presents recommendations on when and for how long you should use the product. And, if you’re a business traveler, they also have a neat tool to help you beat jetlag.

The Philips Home Healthcare Solutions product portfolio also includes another interesting product, the Daybreak Duo: A clock radio that controls your bedside lamp to simulate dawn and dusk.

According to their Web site, “The Daybreak Duo creates a natural sunrise that tells your body clock that it’s time to wake up, gently waking your body from its final sleep stage so you can wake refreshed and alert.”

The theory behind this, Adams explained, is that our body recognizes even a small amount of light as dawn, and it triggers us to stop producing melatonin.

Philips was kind enough to send me both a Daybreak Duo and a goLITE BLU to test. Keep your eye on techlifepost.com for upcoming full reviews!

As for the future, it does appear that circadian regulation effects all of the body’s major systems and that light plays a critical role in our internal body clock. To quote Dan Adams, “This science is young but we’ve made great strides and I think you’ll see even more amazing revelations in the future.”

Dear People Who Design Computers:

I would like to bring to your attention a design flaw that has been bothering me.

Over the years, Bill Gates has trained us to use the Start menu to shut down our computers. (Heck, does anybody actually turn their computers off these days, anyway?) Even when the three-fingered salute fails and I have to reach down for a hard reboot, I’m never in a panic to turn it off.

The ‘hold door open’ button on the elevator needs to be large and glowing. The talk button on my cell-phone needs to be more obvious and prominent. But the off-switch on my computer does not. Wouldn’t you think, in fact, that something as vital as a power switch would, instead, be buried in a recessed corner, under a flap, with a child-proof lock on it?

Why so big?

Given that it’s probably one of the least-used features on the computer, why on earth do you continue to make the power button on the CPU a large, glowing circle? In my case, it’s a large, glowing neon-green button smack in the middle of the front of the CPU. A large, glowing neon-green button that is absolutely irresistible to my newly-crawling 10-month-old child, and at about 10 in. off the ground, just about the perfect height to drawn him in from anywhere in the room. That boy, who just learned to crawl this week, will bypass $400 of baby toys to answer the siren song of a glowing power switch.

And, while you’re at it, could you make the laptop cord a little less interesting for the baby, too? Mommy needs to blog, you know…


Danielle Donders is the author of the popular blog Postcards from the Mothership. She graces us with her take on how technology impacts the parenting (and motherhood) process each Thursday in this space.

From: AFP via Yahoo! —

A new Harris Interactive study commissioned by microprocessor maker Intel Corp, reveales that almost half of the women polled would rather give up sex for two weeks than give up the Internet for the same period of time. Almost two thirds said they would rather give up television for two weeks than forgo Internet access for even one week.

As Agence France Press reports, in Yahoo!’s Tech Guide: “Far fewer men would choose to go without sex, according to the survey of 2,119 adults. … Ninety-five percent of [all] those surveyed said it is ‘very important, important or somewhat important’ to be able to access the Internet.”

Among the survey’s other findings:

More than two-thirds of those surveyed rated Internet Access a higher priority than other ‘descretionary spending’ items including (in descending order of importance) cable television, restaurant dining, new clothes or health club memberships.

More than 80 per cent of those surveyed reported that they had saved money by comparing prices online and finding the best deals before making purchase decisions.

The full story on Intel’s Internet importance survey is available at the company’s Web site.

Saying that, “trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers,” Apple Inc. has announced that the company’s participation in Macworld Expo 2009, will be it’s last.

“The increasing popularity of Apple’s Retail Stores, which more than 3.5 million people visit every week, and the Apple.com Web site enable Apple to directly reach more than a hundred million customers around the world in innovative new ways,” the statement explained.

Apple has been gradually withdrawing from trade and consumer shows in recent years. Macworld Expo was the last major show in which the company regularly participated.

Not only will Macworld Expo be Apple’s last appearance at the show; the statement revealed that, for the first time in ages, Apple CEO Steve Jobs won’t personally deliver the keynote address. Instead, Apple’s Senior Vice-President of Worldwide Marketing, Philip Schiller, will speak at the January 6 event. That announcement has sparked speculation within the volatile Apple fan community, that Jobs may be preparing to follow in the footsteps of his arch rival these past 30 years, Microsoft’s (MS) Bill Gates, and ‘step back from day-to-day operations’ at Apple.

Macworld Expo 2009 runs from January 5 through 9, 2009, at San Francisco’s Moscone Centre.

The folks at Internet security leader McAfee Inc. are celebrating the holidays by sharing with us all their 12 Scams of Christmas.

Some are familiar; some are new. But all are nefarious attempts to take advantage of the charitable, giving — and spending — impulses we all have at this time of year.

Among the more innovative criminal connivances the Bad Santas have cooked up for us this holiday season:

Charity phishing scams. These use fake charity appeals to extract personal information from unwary users via bogus year-end-contribution request emails.

Holiday e-card solicitations. E-mails, often containing logos and images stolen from real e-card sites, that fool you into clicking on a link by claiming that someone has sent you an e-card but you need to download a plug-in to view it. What you actually get is a new virus infection.

Fake “New Friend” flags. On social networking sites. All you have to do to download a hidden virus is click on the link.

Among the common sense cautions that bear repeating:

Don’t leave your laptop unattended in a public place — even for a second — or in plain sight in your car, no matter how well locked the vehicle may be.

Take care when shopping online and never surrender personal ID, banking or credit card information unless you’re sure that the Web site you’re dealing with is legitimate.

Don’t ever respond to any email request that claims to be from your bank, asking you to reconfirm your account etails via retuern email. Banks don’t do that!

For your holiday peace of mind — and wallet — check out the full version of the 12 Scams of Christmas at the McAfee Web site and (re-)familiarize yourself with all the scams going around this season…

There may not be enough time left before Christmas to knit one yourself but there might still be time to order one with express delivery — if only we could tell you where to order it from. Nevertheless…

On news that the next version of the Firefox Web browser will have a ‘private browsing’ feature, someone has come up with a retro-tech device that you can easily retro-fit to your existing browser, regardless of ‘make or model’.

Okay… This is a different kind of ‘private browsing’ than Firefox is fixing to offer. But we think many users may deem it more important to protect their public-place portable computing activities from shoulder surfers and other snoops than to conceal what and where they’ve been browsing.

Perceptive readers will, by now, have realized that any large, over-sized or fatally-stretched-out sweater with a suitable neckline can be used as a private browser device. Just put it on ‘inside out’ and push up the sleeves…

Note: The photo above, snagged by researcher Erin Nichols while browsing aimlessly this past weekend, comes with no provenance nor context. (If anyone knows to whom it should be credited, please let us know!) We just couldn’t resist sharing it with you…

Third-party security experts are recommending that Web surfers use a browser other than Microsoft’s (MS) Internet Explorer (IE) until a serious flaw in the application is fixed.

The flaw, which first surfaced about a week ago, allows cyber crooks to take control of victims’ machines by duping surfers into visiting Web sites rigged to download malicious programs. Most of those programs are apparently designed to steal user IDs and passwords for online computer games, which can command high prices on the black market.

Security experts are concerned that the technology will soon be adopted by cyber thieves interested in bigger game: credit card and bank-access information.

MS says it has detected attacks only on users of IE 7 thus far — but confirms that other versions of IE are also vulnerable to the ‘exploit’.

As for the cure? MS has only said that it’s working on it and may issue a rare ‘out of cycle’ patch when the problem is finally solved — which, they say, should be sometime today.

Stay tuned…

X-Ray Specs!

See the bones in your hand, see through clothes!

Well, see through clothes, anyway.

Peering into the tea-leaves today, I see an advertisement:

Victoria’s Stealth

Block unwanted attention with our new close-weave
3mm and 1.5mm dielectric mesh technology.

Combined with X-ray absorbing polymers,
He’ll only see what you want him to see!


It was towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century that the old induction-based ‘metal detectors’ were replaced at airports by new ‘millimetre wave’ radar and X-ray backscatter devices. These were initially large, fixed booths that gave an image of the prospective traveller, minus clothing. Concealed weapons — even ceramic ones — and chemicals were easily visible though the faces were deliberately blurred.

Even in those early days though, there was a ‘fine grain’ mode available — one carefully not appearing in the blurry shots used to ‘sell’ the legitimacy of using the equipment to the public. As one sales rep quietly put it, they could tell what brand of tampon a woman was using. That “fine-grain”. Improved computer processing of the microwave images meant the resolution was down to half a wavelength — call it 1.5 millimetres — or even less using phased arrays.

Earlier systems much less sophisticated
(Photo: RetroToys.com)

While the very low power X-ray devices would always be, by their very nature, fixed devices, portable microwave equipment was developed very early in the piece, with effective ranges of 10 to 30 metres. Multiple transmitters and improved processors soon meant that the standard surveillance cameras in secure areas such as car-parks were soon upgraded, to see beneath clothing, at much greater ranges.

Soon, nude shots of celebrities were on the web, the original quite low resolution monochrome originals digitally enhanced and colourised. Not as good as a high-definition photograph but quite good enough for the 4096 x 2048 pixel arrays that were standard on digital monitors by 2025. Legal challenges to the safety of the equipment led to it not being used widely in the US. But, elsewhere, the resolutions got better and the images sharper.

Enterprising entrepreneurs soon started making undergarments — and then overgarments — that reflected or absorbed microwave emissions. Impregnation of clothing with Infra-Red absorbent chemicals — soon available as aerosols — were used to frustrate the Thermal Imagers that the paparazzi used in their microbots.

It was only around 2040 that the wearing of non-stealth underwear came into use as a signal by the young (and not-so-young) that they were willing and available.


Futurist Zoe Brain really is a rocket scientist! She shares her visions of our collective near-future in this space every second Wednesday…