Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


[Updated] SpiShutter hands-on - a great webcam privacy solution for MacBooks

A while back, I shared how you can use cellophane tape to keep people from spying on you with your webcam.

For the past month or so, I've been using an alternative called the SpiShutter which I really like so I wanted to share it with you.  Here is a brief video walk-through showing how it works:

I have the black version of the SpiShutter, but they come in a couple of other colors, as well. 

By the way - the privacy screen I mention is the 3M Gold Privacy Filter for MacBook Pro Retina computers - they are available for most other computers, as well.  That's meant for a different kind of privacy - namely, to combat shoulder surfers and neighboring travelers - and I swear by them. [Updated - corrected broken link]

Productivity tip for podcast listeners

I listen to a lot of podcasts during my commute, while traveling, and while running or walking.  For me, this is a crucial activity to "feed my head" with data about topics I care about.  If you like podcasts, but feel like you don't have enough time to keep up, I have a tip to make it more productive:  Variable Speed Playback

Back in the day, I began listening to audio books on my iPod and discovered that the iPod had a built-in setting to allow me to adjust the playback speed of the books (you could slow it down, as well as speed it up).  I began to enjoy the time-compression advantages of listening to the audiobooks faster (typically 1.5x) - after all, a 30-hour book suddenly became a 20-hour book - what's not to love?

Since then, Variable Speed Playback is a must-have feature for any podcast player I use.

Here are some additional tips and things I've learned about this:

  • Not all time-compression algorithms are created equal.  All of the variable-speed algorithms attempt to speed up the playback while maintaining the pitch of the voice so people don't sound like chipmunks.  Some players use algorithms that are good at this, others suck at it - you have to try them out to find one that sounds 'natural enough' to you.
  • If you are bothered by the faster voice rate, give it 3-5 minutes to settle in.  Your brain will adjust and it will sound normal after a few minutes.
  • My default playback rate is 1.5x, but there isn't a "one speed fits all" option.  Some podcasters talk very slow, so you might need to go to 1.75x or 2x.  Others talk very quickly, so you may not be able to speed them up at all - no biggie, you're being productive enough because they are loading you up with high-density information.
  • Some podcasts are not well-suited for speedups - for example, those with a lot of music, or being presented by people with strong accents, or by groups of people with at least one "fast talker" in the bunch.  You'll get to know which of your podcasts are accelerate able, and which aren't.
  • Along the same lines, I prefer podcast players that can maintain a speed setting for each podcast so you don't have to adjust any time a new one starts.
    • On iOS, I love Downcast (image on the left at the end of this post) - it has a default setting that works globally, as well as making it easy to define a local setting for each podcast.  It also has a great variable speed algorithm that works well for a variety of podcast types.
    • On Android, I like BeyondPod (image on the right at the end of this post) - it has a default setting globally, an easy way to adjust the playback speed on the fly (with pre-set rates, or an variable slider), as well as a great algorithm for variable speed playback.  The only thing is lacks is the ability to remember the speed setting for each podcast individually - still on the hunt for that on Android in a player that isn't fatally flawed in some other way.

I've had a few folks who thought I was crazy when I recommended this, but several of them have come back telling me they are believers.  By the way, I use sped-up playback with the Audible player for audiobooks - also a huge time saver.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.


Downcast for iOS
(click to embiggen)

BeyondPod for Android
(click to embiggen)


Never guess at multi-time zone meetings again

I've been traveling internationally quite a bit this year, and often find myself scheduling meetings with people in a variety of locations.   One of the challenges is mapping the time zones correctly so that everyone actually shows up at the right time.

I've tried a variety of methods to resolve this, but have found an iOS app that is just great for this.  The app is called "AllHours" and it makes time zone coordination a snap. 

In the interface, select the desired time in one time zone (generally the one you're in)  and it will adjust the time in the others to show you what the various local times will be.  

You can then tap on the little envelope button (see the screen shot) to open your email client with a pre-composed list of the cities and the local dates and times you've selected in the UI.  That makes it easy to send proposed meeting times to others to review.

If you're ready to schedule the meeting, tap on the little calendar icon and it will open a meeting request for the time you've selected.

AllHours is a great (free) solution for iOS.  If you've found a good app like this for other platforms, please leave a comment with your suggestions. 

Keeping Your Life Synced Up

Everywhere you look these days, you see someone using a tablet.  That happened fast - in fact, my daughter's school just issued tablets for every student in the school - a big change from when I was in high school.

Pew Research says that 56 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and 34 percent own a tablet. Most people have more than one mobile device. The more devices you have, the harder it is to keep them in sync. You'd like to be able to use your laptop, tablet or smartphone and have access to the same information. It's time to get your life synced up and start using the apps that help keep your life organized.

Syncing and the Cloud

Early sync technology worked by downloading the same files to your devices to make them all have the same information. Cloud technology changed that by allowing you to store your files in the cloud where all of your devices can get to that information. There are two major ways that apps keep your information synced up now: through files or through an application.

An undeniably popular cloud service has been Dropbox. This application is a preferred pick for keeping files in sync because of its reliability and ease of use. Once you create an account, which is free until you need more space, you'll download a small app onto your smartphone, tablet or laptop. This creates a Dropbox folder in which you can create other folders. Just drop files into one of the sub-folders, and it will now be accessible to any device you connect to your account.

For example, you can take photos with your smartphone and place them into a photos sub-folder in the Dropbox folder on your phone. When you get home, you can fire up your laptop and go into its Dropbox Photos folder and touch up those photos before posting them on your Facebook page. Later, when you have more time, you can bring the photos up on your tablet from its Dropbox Photos folder for review.

There are other services that offer a similar cloud service. such as Microsoft Skydrive,, and Google Drive which all do something similar and allow you to keep the files on all of your devices in sync. With the speeds available to you through broadband, high-speed cellular connectivity, and even satellite Internet now, keeping your files in sync between all of your devices is quick and easy.

Syncing With Applications

The Evernote application, one of my "go to" apps, gives you a tool on all of your mobile devices to make notes and save web pages and images, and it keeps everything in sync for you. There are no files to deal with. You can browse a website on your phone, copy it into the Evernote app, and make some notes about it. When you get home, you can bring up Evernote on your laptop, and do some further research on that website.  One of the killer features of Evernote is to do character recognition on things like whiteboards - you take a picture of them and the handwritten text becomes searchable.  Very cool.

Google Sync is a way to keep the calendar and contacts on your smartphone or tablet in sync with your Google Calendar and Contacts. This is a small app that runs in the background on your mobile device at specific intervals that you pick during its set-up.

Toodledo is an example of one of many task managers that will help you create and manage a to-do list on all of your mobile devices and keep them in sync.

For your entertainment needs, Apple's iTunes will keep music, movies, TV shows, and audiobooks on all of your mobile devices in sync. Given Apple's focus on its own ecosystem, this app is streamlined for iOS devices, and there are some restrictions for Android devices, but you can use tools like DoubleTwist to bridge the gap and make it easy to sync your iTunes content to your Android device.

Finally, some streaming services are creating apps that let you control your TV viewing from multiple devices. For example, DirecTV Mobile Apps work on smartphones and tablets. You can start a movie from your smartphone on your TV, then go into another room, bring up the app on your tablet and watch the movie from where it left off on the TV. While not truly syncing, these apps allow you to use different mobile devices to access the same information.

Stop people from spying on you using your webcam

With all the talk about unwanted surveillance these days, one of the things I've heard people worry about is the privacy of their webcams.  "Could someone spy on me via my webcam without me knowing it?"  It's unlikely, but possible. 

If you don't want to be seen without your consent, there is an easy way to handle it:  ‎Scotch® tape or its equivalent. 

I've heard of people using duct tape, electrical tape, masking tape, etc. but I prefer the clear, but opaque ‎Scotch® tape for a few reasons:

  1. ‎Scotch® tape allows light through, which enables your computer's light sensor to gauge the ambient light and adjust your screen brightness accordingly.
  2. This tape allows you to see the "camera active" LED next to the lens when it comes on.  This can be an indicator that someone is watching, so you'll know when it's happening.  Note that some eavesdropping toolkits are able to monitor your webcam without  turning on the light, so the light alone isn't a perfect indicator.
  3. The tape is easily removable without leaving a residue.  That means you can easily use your webcam when you want to without a lot of hassle. 

How well does it work?  Take a look at these two views - one normal view, and one with tape over the lens. 


As you can see, a simple bit of inexpensive tape does the trick. 

One other thing to keep in mind:  This does nothing to keep people from listening in on your microphone...