Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Update December 2012

I read 29 books in 2012, and for the first time I probably read more books digitally than I did in paper. I also read countless articles in Instapaper, on the web and in magazines.

I received an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas and I love it so far - I can tell it's going to increase my use of digital books. I was a late adopter of digital book tools, but I don't regret that - the tools have really matured and they still have a ways to go, but Amazon makes it really easy. The local Hennepin County Library has a decent lending library, and using it with the kindle is easy as long as the publisher doesn't make the book USB only, which many of them still do (but otherwise, it's a plug in, click and drag thing, so it's not a huge deal, but still - having to plug it into a computer seems like old tech). Most of my reading was done on my iPad 3. It's retina display is a huge step forward in reading off an LCD but at the end of the day it's still an LCD display and it makes me bleary eyed. So the e-ink Kindle will come in handy.

I'm proud of my 2 books a month average. I could probably read a book a week or just over 4 books per month if I really put my mind to it, and watched less TV and read less items from the internet, but I enjoy the balance. I also take breaks from reading books and seem to go through spells where I read more.

I didn't read that much that was particularly memorable. I nearly completed reading the "Prey" series by John Sandford. An easy reading thriller/mystery series set in the Twin Cities and featuring a strong protagonist in Lucas Davenport. Some of the later books in the series were starting to get old hat, and somewhat repetitive. It's probably good that Sandford is going to hang it up on this series after another book or two. But it's been a good run. I'm in the middle of Stolen Prey, the last Prey novel. I read some other Sandford books too - I started into the Virgil Flowers series and I read one of the Jason Kidd novels - The Fools Run (which feels horribly dated - it was tech focused but written in the late 80s-but it did give me that nostalgic feeling). Look forward to more from Sandford.

Other notable books I read this year include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - an enjoyable novel about a futuristic virtual reality world, The Ghost in the Wires - Kevin Mitnick's autobiography, and I started the Lost Fleet Series by Jack Campbell (and hope to finish in 2013!). Trying to keep my reading varied and split between fiction and non-fiction but I definitely read more novels this year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Upgrading an old PC to repurpose as a file server

Back in 2005 I purchased what was, at the time, a near top of the line Dell Desktop, a Dell Dimension 9100.  It was a great computer for a number of years as our primary desktop.

It ran Windows XP out of the box, which until recently, I'd never touched the installation of, despite having upgraded other computers to 7. It had a decent size drive for the time, 250GB and 1GB of RAM out of the box. It came with what was a top of the line Pentium 4, a chip that still holds up reasonably well for general computing today. The beauty of this machine is that it is a expandable dream with a great case. I'm a little sad that it was one of the few models ever produced in the failed BTX form factor that never really took off, because it would be a great case to continue using well into the future.

Over the years, we slowly replaced it as our day to day computer with laptops and such, but it was always my central repository for files. When I took baby steps into using Crash Plan a couple of years ago, it was the first machine I set up for backup (I've since converted to a family plan because we got another laptop that my wife uses). I've tried to keep all my photos on this drive, as well as a backup of my entire music library.

Over time, I've done upgrades - the original DVD drive was replaced with a burner back when that stuff still mattered. That drive died recently, I haven't bothered to replace it, even though I could get a replacement for 20 bucks, you really don't need them anymore-booting from USB keys is easier anyway, and I have two other burners on laptops on the rare occasion that I need to burn something (usually a DVD of pictures for my mom). In 2009, I put another 2 GB of RAM in and replaced the video card with a more modern version (which is still holding up well today - and works better with windows 7 then the discrete GPU in my 2008 era laptop).

Most recently, I decided that I was done with XP on this box, wanting to be able to utilize Windows 7 for more modern file sharing and management. A friend also talked me into installing Ubuntu which I'm also experimenting with. Microsoft is going to stop updating XP soon as well, and it's just time to upgrade or retire this box. I looked into building or buying a new box, but it's still cost prohibitive given our other financial priorities.  I would like to dip into the Mac universe again at some point, but not for a file server that would be used primarily with Windows laptops (and also a cost prohibitive option right now).

So, the domino effect of upgrades began. The nice thing about this box is that it has the modern PCIe architecture with multiple open slots. I updated my router to gigabit ethernet recently and replaced all of my switches with gigabit, so only natural that I'd pick up a Gigabit PCI Adapter Card for the main file server box. After that, I bought a copy of Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade . I considered upgrading my laptop to Windows 8 and trying to transfer the copy of 7 over to the desktop, but decided I wasn't ready to mess with Windows 8 yet. I will eventually upgrade my old laptop to Win 8 as an experimental device, but not yet.

Incidentally, bought and tried to install Windows 8 initially on this old desktop at the low upgrade price, but the installation failed and it reverted back to my XP installation. I didn't try it again - the other thing that started happening is the hard drive was clicking during the Windows 8 install. Behavior which I did not hear once I went back to Windows XP. But it was pretty obvious that something was either incompatible with Windows 8 or this drive was on its last legs.

When the Windows 7 upgrade showed up, I installed it from a USB Key. I made a back up using the Windows Easy Transfer program. It was very easy. (just wanted another duplicate to have along with Crash Plan). Immediately, the disk drive started clicking. Not in a good way. I restored all the files to the C drive with the transfer program. But, by the next day, the system booted into the recovery partition and wouldn't boot or re-install windows. I tried installing ubuntu but that also failed. I know a drive that is toast when I see it. It was the original 250 GB drive from 7 years ago, so I'd say it had a good life. It made it a lot longer than the external 750GB drive that died on me earlier this year.

Deciding that I wanted to continue using this machine as a file server for as long as I could, I purchased a 1 TB 7200 RPM Western Digital Blue drive from Amazon. I also bought a USB 3.0 PCIe card to use with the USB 3.0 external drive. Once all that arrived and I installed, I loaded Windows 7 back up to the new hard drive, creating a separate partition for documents and leaving space for Ubuntu. I also installed Ubuntu but I haven't used it much yet. Eventually, I'd like to run a file server off of it, but that's going to take some time. I had to use a registry workaround to install Windows upgrade media on a fresh drive, but it worked like a charm.

Instead of using Windows Easy Transfer again, I recovered from Crash Plan, to a folder on the desktop. The easy transfer program was nice and easy but it also scattered about many files that I didn't want anymore, and I wanted to isolate them. The recovery process on Crash Plan is pretty straightforward, once you figure out how to re-link an archive on an external drive (which took me some time, not an obvious thing in the software or in the restore directions on Crash Plan's site). It also took a bit of searching to figure out how to re-enable the ability to "adopt an old backup" functionality (comments in this post) once I had restored, and I'm still not 100% sure if that's working properly.

Adopting a backup with Crash Plan is supposed to take all the files and match them up to your existing backup, even if you've moved them around (which I have). I want to avoid sending another 100GB through my internet connection if I can avoid it, and so far, so good with that.  (although there is little information about how this process actually works for the more technically inclined). It was still chugging away at processing the backups a good 12 hours after the install, but it didn't seem to be adding to the archive again so far.

With the installs and upgrades out of the way, I'm moving all of our photos and documents onto this computer to serve as the central repository. I have pictured scattered over 3 machines, the same Apple photo-streams gone wild on multiple boxes (which I am going to consolidate into one on this box), and a lot of duplication that I am attempting to de-dupe. My approach is to move everything onto the documents partition on the server box, and then run a de-duplification program to identify and delete duplicates. This is going to take some time, but I'll come out the other end with a full set of data.

I'm pretty happy with the performance of my newly upgraded box. There is a noticeable performance improvement with the 7200 RPM drive. (so much so, that I'm contemplating putting a small SSD drive in to stick the OS on) The USB 3.0 card makes transfers to and from the external drive a breeze and it's really fast (so much so, that I wish the laptop we just bought last spring had USB 3.0. Sadly it doesn't.) The Gigabit Ethernet card is making file transfers on and off the box really fast from either wired or wireless connections. The processor and system bus are truly the limiting factors on this box now. It even runs Aero Glass on Windows 7 without a problem - the video card that I upgraded a few years ago doesn't choke on it at all.

All of this upgrading and Hard Drive replacement is significantly easier with Crash Plan and a large external disk drive - I wouldn't have wanted to try and do this even a few years ago, but now the materials and backup solutions have become so cheap and easy to use that it's easy to upgrade the hard drive and be back up in running in a day or two.

Barring motherboard or other major component failure, this box will probably last me another 3-5 years as a file server, and it's even quick enough to use as a general web browsing computer in a pinch. I don't think MSFT will discontinue support for Win 7 any time soon, considering some large enterprises (like my own) are just finally moving everybody onto it. Really shows you how much things have slowed down - my previous desktop only made it a bit over 4 years before it got relegated to the trash pile.

I'm going to upgrade that last Gigabyte of RAM in the Dell box to take it to the max of 4GB since it's only $25 to do so at this point, and I may mess around with the storage options a bit more since there's space for a second or third drive. In the end, I've been able to make a bunch of cheap upgrades under $300 total that have served this machine well, with some parts that I can likely bring with me to the next PC rebuild. And in the process, I've re-organized my family's files so that it's all in one place.

Cutting the cord is an abject failure

I can't quit you, Comcast, I can't quit you.

Last year, when we were headed into a period with a shifting cash flow as my wife started her in-home daycare business, I made the decision to try and switch to USI Wireless. I wrote it up here. I think it must have been working pretty well when I wrote that, as I seemed pretty satisfied with the service.

And quite honestly, we made it through many months with the service. There were sacrifices, like streaming video didn't work very well, and you'd have to wait 10-20 seconds for a youtube video to start, but for the most part, it was a reasonable service for checking email, looking at Twitter and Facebook and other general work. I tried to work at home a few times, and it was slow, but I could do it, as long as I wasn't doing file intensive work on the work servers (and that was probably due to the latency and low send speed more than anything).

Over the summer, we started to have issues. I had to reset my router/wireless AP a few times a month because it would hang, so I wasn't entirely sure if it was the router or the USI wireless that was having issues. The router was still having some issue post USIW but it was worse when I had the service. Then we had periods where it would get abysmally slow. Then it would be fast and usable for a few weeks, then it would get abysmally slow again.

We had the antenna for the unit installed in an optimal location on the outside of the 2nd story of our house. I had to run a somewhat convoluted wireless setup with a wireless repeater in the basement. It worked OK but probably contributed to speed issues on my overall network as well as probably introduced some local wireless signal strength issues. USI told me they could do a Ethernet drop but I never took them up on that because it seemed like the issues were mostly from their equipment to mine since I could achieve peak WAN speeds some of the time, and I just lived with the computer to computer LAN issues. But this may be an inconvenience for some people considering this product - they can't always install the router in an optimal place, so if you're not hard wired, you may have to stick your wireless router/AP in a sub-optimal location in your home.

Flash forward 11 months. I was already planning on going back to Comcast simply because the USIW wasn't cutting it anymore, but a few weekends ago it was grinding to a halt. So I logged in, found a good promotional deal from Comcast and signed up online. Was back up and running with them after a quick call to activate my existing modem.

USI was easy to cancel, and relatively hassle free - except that they sent me a notice saying they were going to bill me for a renewal, which I ignored.

I was very satisfied with them as a company, their service was good the few times I needed it, and the price was really good for service that was still better than the fastest DSL option. But it can't hold a candle to what Comcast offers.

USI is currently piloting fiber installations in a few Minneapolis neighborhoods and I won't hesitate for a second to switch to it if they begin to offer it in my neighborhood - right now they are charging 60% of the price for double the speed of Comcast. Even if they upgrade the wireless product at some point, I might be willing to try it again - I'd really like to reduce my dependency.

As for TV, well, ironically, now that we have cable back with Comcast I'm feeling more strongly about being able to cut the cable ties. We're not watching much original network or cable programming at all anymore, just a handful of shows during the week. Having kids has caught up with us, just no time to get into new shows. So as things have fallen off in our stable of aired shows, they have been replaced by things on Amazon instead. And with a 20Mb connection from Comcast, that streams anything in HD just fine. Sports is still the lynchpin here, as I subscribe to the Red Zone NFL Channel and watch a fair amount of NBA, NFL and MLB on cable. Still, I envision a day where the cost will exceed my willingness to pay, given Comcast's continued price increases.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

iPhone 5 impressions after a month

With our iPhone 4's on their last legs as telephone communicating devices due to various issues with speakers and mics, I got up to pre-order the iPhone 5's at 2am when they went on-sale. Unfortunately, due to a snafu with the plan configuration software on Apple's website, I had to abandon that effort, and AT&T was no better. Both sites offered me different plans that I did not want. I'm assuming that was caused by our grandfathered existing plans. I finally pre-ordered two phones around 4:30 pm on the first day of pre-orders in an AT&T store where I didn't have to change anything, and was told to expect a 14-21 day wait.

Our phones finally arrived on October 1st, nicely within the 14-21 day window. I tried to order Applecare+ for them over the phone but was told that I had to take them into a store to get them checked out. So I decided to try out Squaretrade, which had no requirement like that and was comparably priced. We'll see how that works out. The process to acquire the Squaretrade warranty is really easy - you just have to upload your receipt.

First impression of the iPhone out of the box was how light it was, and also that the build quality was better than I was expecting given some people's complaints about it being prone to scuffing, etc. I already have a couple of dings on the outer band from dirt getting into the case. It does seem to scratch easier and since the black model has a coating, it's immediately noticeably  But I've never been one to treat my devices as they are in a museum. We kept our old phones to use as music players around the house, and I expect we will do the same with the iPhone 5's, so these devices will likely not have another owner.

The phones went right into cases that I had purchased the day before. I've never been a naked phone person as it gets dropped and just generally mishandled too often for me to take my chances. (hence why we also purchase the extended warranties/damage protection even though they are generally considered a waste of money). My wife has dropped her phone multiple times already in the first month, so I'm glad it is in a case.

I backed up both our old phones to iCloud, so I started an iCloud restore to both of them. This took all night to complete on my slow internet connection, due mostly to the number of apps and photos that were still on our camera rolls. Katie's phone actually got stuck in restore mode, draining the battery by constantly trying to connect but not actually downloading her whole camera roll. I finally fixed that the next night by restarting her phone.

My first impression upon actually getting to use the phone was that it was significantly faster than my old phone. Everything is snappy. The camera loads very quickly and takes excellent pictures. I'm jumping 2 generations, so I'd expect that, and it didn't disappoint.

The larger screen size is appreciated more than I thought it would be. The extra home screen icons are a nice benefit, as well as the ability to fit more content on the screen in apps like Mail, Tweetbot and Listary. The new technique for integrating the touch sensor with the screen is nice, it does make it feel like the screen pops a little bit more.

iOS 6 is a nice update with a lot of new subtle features, but not a a ton of major updates. Maps changed, tons has been written on this. I have mixed feelings about it, mostly from a search perspective, their local database is not as good as Google's, there's absolutely no doubt about it. Simple searches for things like Gas in my area omitted gas stations, a search for Hardware pulled up a store that's been closed for over a year, and other things like this just on searches in my area. I've found some substitute apps like Quick Route, which uses Google's database on Apple's map tiles in iOS 6, but none of these solutions is perfect. To be honest, Google Maps wasn't always perfect either but it's probably still the best for local search. Yeah, you can use an html version in Safari but it's a sub-par experience at best.

One area that I'm not thrilled with is how the Music app now handles iTunes match. In iOS 5, you could download music to your phone on an individual track or full album basis, and then pick and choose which tracks remain on your phone, deleting items you didn't want to store locally. I used this quite a bit to load and remove items locally. On iOS 6, Apple manages the downloaded tracks for you based on free space. It doesn't give you a way to delete the tracks manually when iTunes Music Match is turned on. You can delete tracks off the phone, but you have to flip music match off, delete the tracks, and then turn it back on. It's a bizarre head scratching change to what I thought was otherwise a well designed service. Since I am using my iTunes library less these days due to Rdio, I am considering not renewing my Music Match and going back to managing tracks the old way. I hope Apple addresses this in a future update, and I'm not the only one.

Much has been made about the integration with Facebook and the feature where you can integrate the address book. I was leery about using this feature at first, mostly based on anecdotal evidence from other platforms, where Facebook contact data permanently merges with the data set used locally on your phone. Apple does a very good job of keeping the data segregated from your built in contacts unless you explicitly hit a button that merges the data onto your phone's data set. For people that it can match up, it shows a unified profile when you click on their name, and it's pretty evident where the information is coming from. This unified profile works pretty well out of the gate, though I had to adjust some of my friend's names to get them to match up. Since I use Facebook only with people I actually know, I've actually found this to be a somewhat useful feature for filling in contact information gaps on a few occasions already. I honestly wish more of my friends would put their phone numbers and address information into Facebook, but I understand the reluctance to do so. I feel like Apple handled this integration very well given privacy concerns of past implementations of this on other platforms, and I plan to keep using the feature.

One other feature that I'm enjoying more than I thought I would is Passbook. Here's an example of Apple going out and evaluating NFC, probably deciding that it wasn't ready for prime time yet, and coming up with something of a stopgap solution which may turn into a more permanent one should NFC never fully take off to its potential. I would kill to get rid of my wallet as it exists today and just carry a phone around. I think we're still a few years away from being able to do so, but Passbook could and probably will go a long way towards reducing the size of my wallet. I'm already using it for Starbucks and Walgreens on a regular basis (having never had a physical Walgreens rewards card, since they just started rolling the program out) and I'm hoping most of the other loyalty programs that grace my wallet find a way to get on this platform soon.

One challenge I'm still having is the phone seems to have a much higher latent use of data. I'm using this term to describe data use that's occurring in the background or by system processes that's not explicitly triggered by the user. Apple's always been really good about giving the users control over this data, but something on the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 seems to be violating these settings. I'm using double the data I was before, and I haven't changed any use patterns that I can determine would be driving this increase. My wife is also using more data on her phone, though she's such a light user that it's a huge deal. It's just really curious, and Apple does not give the user the tools to figure out what's using the data, and blocks apps that try to do so. This is one area where they need to improve.

Overall, the iPhone 5 is a nice upgrade from my iPhone 4 that will serve me well. Many of the things I liked about my old phone are true here. It's comfortable and familiar, and I like that, for now. I'm still not ruling out looking at Android, we'll see what things look like in another two years.

Figuring out what to do with writing

I work in corporate finance for a major bank supporting a business line. I spend most of my days knee deep in spreadsheets and reports. I write and receive a lot of emails. Most are a couple of sentences. They do not challenge me as a writer. I love my job and what I do right now, and I have no desire to change my main career focus at this point of my life. I envision a time where I'd burn out or tire of working with numbers all day, but now is not the time.

However, I want to write more than I have been. I am a voracious consumer of the written word. I typically read for several hours a day on my iPad, both novels, as well as shorter form pieces in Instapaper and on the web. I want to rededicate some of the time I spend reading to writing. But this is where I struggle.

What should I write? I have a lot of interests that I could write about on a blog, this one, or another one I create. I've kicked around starting a blog focused on technology and how it integrates into a young family's life. There's a bunch of daddy bloggers out there covering this angle. I dislike reading most of them because they tend to judge, preach, or just act like general assholes. I think there's a place for something else but I also see myself falling into that same trap.

I should write more about my kids and their lives. We have a blog for my daughter that we haven't updated since her sister was born, and a domain parked for her sister. I'm not really sure what to do with these. I never want to write them. Serious lack of motivation.

I see a lot of Apple and technology oriented writers making a living writing and freelancing, building up multiple income streams. I don't desire to be that serious about it at this point in my life, but I like the way some of them approach it and some of the things they do might be applicable to what I eventually want to do. I don't aspire to be Kottke, but I like his style.

A lot of ideas are floating around, and I know I can do anything I set my mind to, it's just an issue of making the time to do it and having the motivation to do it. The motivation is growing stronger and I can find the time.

So this is the first step, just to put this out there and think about it a little more.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Podcast Update

Listening to Podcasts has really become a regular part of my life over the last 2-3 years as the podcasting apps on iOS have evolved to the point where it's relatively frictionless to download and listen to shows. I enjoy being able to listen to relevant content in the car instead of the radio or music.

What I use to listen:
I currently use Downcast, which out of the myriad options I find works the best for me. The only downside to Downcast is that it can be slow as molasses if you subscribe to a lot of podcasts. iCloud sync is also not perfect and it's caused me some issues. It is also very feature laden, which I appreciate, but for the more casual listener may be a little unnecessary. I've tried other options in iOS like Instacast and I used Podcaster for a long time but I keep coming back to Downcast.

My Listening habits evolve:
As far as listening goes, I used to be a big listener of the TWiT network with Leo Laporte and crew, but lately I've gotten away from the TWiT network completely, deleting the last show off of my podcast client last week after realizing I'd been deleting it for the past 2 months. Similarly, I listened to a lot of ESPN podcasts (the "Today" podcasts and some of the ESPN Radio offerings), most of which have gone by the wayside.

I got more into the 5by5 network in the past 6 months, which I discovered via Marco Arment's twitter and blog feed, which then spurred me on to listen to other shows on the network. I've settled on a few podcasts that I listen to from there.

The newest network to garner my interest is 70Decibels, run by a British Guy named Myke Hurley. I found this network through somebody linking to the Homework Podcast and from there found a couple of other shows that I like. It's in a similar vein to 5by5 but things feel a little more fresh and there's a wider variety of voices on the network.

Shows I listen to nearly every episode:
 Economics and Money
NPR Planet Money - A great podcast on the global economy. Generally less than 20 minutes and focuses on one subject. I learn a lot from this podcast as it tends to be a great explainer.

Frekonomics Radio - a podcast that intersperses 5 minute segments on APM Marketplace with longer podcast that explorer economic topics in a way similar to the books of the same name. I'm a big fan of Stephen J Dubner.

APM Marketplace Money - Good personal finance show that is weekly and one that can be listened to in the background. 

Build and Analyze - Marco Arment and Dan Benjamin - 5by5 network - Theoretically about iOS development and development in general. An area that I don't have a ton of interest in, but I find they spend more time talking about strategy and things that do interest me a lot more. And also hobbies and lately, kids. Marco's a really smart guy and has a good take on everything iOS.

B&B Podcast - Ben Brooks and Shawn Blanc - 5by5 Network - two dudes in the iOS/Mac Sphere with popular blogs that I read. Very conversational, and could be a conversation that I'm having with one of my friends a lot of the time.

General Interest
This American Life - Podcast version of the weekly radio show produced by WBEZ in Chicago. One of my favorite radio programs of all time. Almost always a compelling listen and I've been a listener on and off since the inception of the show in the late 90s. I stopped listening for a number of years though, but the nice thing is that they fill in with old episodes pretty often. Still annoying that they only serve the last week's show in the podcast feed but I also bought their iOS App at some point and it streams all of them.

You Look Nice Today - another Merlin Mann vehicle on the comedy side of things. These guys have awesome off the wall conversations and make me laugh a lot. Not published very frequently.

11 Minutes - Similar to You Look Nice Today, a funny (and short - hence the name) comedy podcast. Can be really funny and random/off the wall.


Homework Podcast - Dave Caolo and Aaron Mahnke - Relatively new podcast aimed at people that work out of the home. While not directly useful in a lot of ways to me - I don't work at home that often - there's other concepts that are interesting here, and I like the hosts. I'm also doing some work for my wife's business at home and I'm thinking about doing more freelancing and other types of work in the future, and this is also helpful to think about that.

Mikes on Mics - Mike Vardy and Mike Schechter - another relatively new podcast which goes over productivity tools and how to get things done.

Back to Work - Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin- 5by5 Network - I like Merlin Mann, he tends to be a bit eccentric but he's one the kings of productivity and worth listening too.

Big Brother Gossip Podcast - seasonal while Big Brother is on the air. Love their take on the show and it's a good way to get a recap when you don't have time to follow more closely.

Shows I generally listen to but skip if the subject matter isn't interesting to me or I run out of time:

WTF Podcast - Marc Maron - good interview podcast with comedian/entertainer Marc Maron. He's a great interviewer and very entertaining. Have to quickly skip if it comes on while my daughter is awake as there's a string of f-bombs right at the beginning.

Nerdist Podcast - another good interview oriented podcast that also features the guys from the nerdist. I like Chris Hardwick and the other guys on this show are entertaining too. They interview interesting people.

NPR On the Media - Good show on the media business by WNCY in New York - the media business is still an interest of mine, even though I'm no longer interested in a career in it as I once was. Usually a segment show with 4-5 in depth segments, but occasionally they do full length episodes on one topic. The May 25th show about the future of television was fascinating.

Hypercritical - John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin - 5by5 network - I'm on the fence on this one. Siracusa is an interesting guy, though he tends to go deeper into a lot of subjects than I could possibly care about. But some subjects do interest me. He's a big TiVo user and where he talks about TiVo is always interesting to me. But Macintosh file systems ad naseum? Not really my bag.

BS Report with Bill Simmons - ESPN - I tend to listen to this one more in the fall when in NFL season, as during baseball season he tends to talk ad nauseum about the Red Sox and Yankees, and I don't really care about that. I don't even read Simmons column any more but I still like to listen to him talk with various people. He also will probably talk a lot about 30 for 30 when that starts again in the fall.

NPR Fresh Air Podcast - segements from the radio program of the same name. The podcast is no longer the full radio program, which is kind of nice since it was too overwhelming before.

The Talk Show with John Gruber - Gruber is kind of arrogant and that's annoying, but he's also entertaining and that's worth listening to most of the time. He's also well connected in the Apple community and has interesting insights. He recently left the 5by5 network and Dan Benjamin to do his own thing.

New Podcasts that I'm still evaluating:

Enough - The Podcast - Patrick Rhone - 70Decibels - I enjoy Patrick's writing and recently started listening to the Podcast which I find very conversational and listening. I'm guessing this one will end up on my always listen list.

Cooking With Brett and Myke - 70Decibels - Show on a wide variety of subjects. Jury still out.

The App Orchard - Podcast about applications - iOS and Mac mostly. It's shorter, generally a half hour, and interesting to hear about new apps. Warning -This is not good for your wallet in the iTunes store though. Another one that will probably end up on my always listen list.

The Bro Show - General Tech news podcast, focused on the Apple side of things. I'm not sure about this one - these kids of shows are sort of boring to me and tend to rehash things I've already read elsewhere. This is also why I ditched a lot of the shows on the TWiT network.

This is an ever evolving list as I'm pretty liberal with deleting them when I get bored with it, which seems to happen after a while.

You might be thinking - how does he have time to listen to all these podcasts? It's a good question. I have an average of an hour a day commute total (half hour each way). I listen to podcasts a lot at night around the house while doing chores either on my headphones or on the speaker dock, and then I end up listening to them while I'm playing with my kids or trying to get my 4 month old to go to sleep. I manage to make it through quite a few, but I am also liberal about deleting if I get behind. I also listen at work occasionally, but the work that I do is not generally conducive to listening to spoken word podcasts with any kind of comprehension. I also tend to listen at at least 1.5X and often times 2X which helps. The other thing for time is I try to avoid listening to daily podcasts altogether. I found that I was skipping them more than not and the content was just too much for me.

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Twitter Vacation experiment.

I've often thought lately that I should just cut myself off from the stream of social networks I enjoy every day for a couple of days, just to see how that goes. Not to this kind of extreme, but a trial of sorts.

I was at Town Hall Tap with Katie on Thursday night enjoying a rare night out when this came up, and Katie bet me that I couldn't do it.

A few minutes later it was on - 3 days starting at midnight Friday the 11th of May to Midnight on Monday May 14th.

And for good measure, I decided to extend it to Facebook, Google + and the like, and also avoid Google Reader as much as possible.

Day 1 was easy as I was at work and I have many days where I don't look at these things at all while I'm working. It got slightly more difficult when I wanted to see what food trucks were available, but I knew if I just walked out the door of my downtown office building I'd see something I wanted. I'd been wanting to try out Hola Arepa and they're always on that block of Marquette, and sure enough, they were there. Crisis Averted!

It was a little trickier in the down times on my Friday commute and while I was waiting for the food truck (long lines at Hola Arepa!). Normally I'd do a quick peek onto Twitter during these times, but not this time. I kept a podcast playing as I usually do and I did read a few things in Reeder and Instapaper which were not off limits.

The weekend was better - I do tend to zone out on things on my iPad or phone during the day when I'm home with family, sometimes to the detriment of whatever is going on in that room. It was easy to stay distracted with the kids and be present. It was definitely noticed by Katie.

The thing I did realize is how incredibly plugged in I am to this stuff and how it's probably mildly unhealthy. I did feel a little bit of withdraw symptoms throughout the 3 days, not unlike quitting smoking or other addictions I've faced in my life. That was a little wild because I did not expect that at all.

I don't feel like I missed out on anything urgent. Katie said to me at one point "Do you really need to be one of the first thousand people on earth to know about Maurice Sendak dying?". Good point, and probably not. I did miss out on the premiere league crazy championship game, but if I was really more of a fan I probably would've had that on anyway.

I was able to go back through my friends list this morning and catch up on their weekends, and just let the rest go.

If you are one of those people that's never far from a Twitter client, I highly suggest trying this yourself - it was very therapeutic. It made me realize the extent to which it was ingrained in my life and to evaluate ways in which that was probably not good for me.

So I'm back to Twitter this morning with a barrage of Tweets, some from a list I made over the weekend when I couldn't tweet. But there are some general principles I've created: 1) don't use when the kids are awake and present in the room with me. 2) don't use when out with the wife or interrupt other 1:1 time with wife. 3) don't constantly check and feel the need to read every single tweet in the timeline (I don't follow too many accounts). 4) Feel free to let it go for a day or two if life's just too busy.

Should work for now...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The cult of Apple strikes again

Lock me up and throw away the key. I pre-ordered a new iPad yesterday. If I wasn't Apple crazy before, I am now. Koolaid drinker. Whatever, I don't even care.

All kidding aside though, the increased screen resolution and beefed up graphics could have been the only change from the iPad 2 that I bought a year ago and I'd still buy it. I still notice a difference between my iPhone screen and iPad, and I will often switch to read things on my phone because of that difference.

I have an ailing laptop where the screen goes in and out of working. This was a problem a year ago, but now, I don't even care. It sits in a dock and we use it as a deskptop (sparingly) For the things I was using it for on my lap, the iPad works just fine. I use it daily, it's become my go-to consumption device at home. I have kids. I spend a lot of time at home surfing the internet. On the few occasions I did travel, I did so only with my iPad. It works for me. I have no desire to get another laptop type device right now.

I bought the 64gig AT&T model yesterday, the same model I have in the previous version. I only used the AT&T connection a handful of times but it was enough to convince me to get it again.

Marco Arment has an excellent post if you're thinking about buying one about things to consider. Totally agree with this:
The Retina screen alone is going to be a huge improvement for the tasks that people do most on iPads: reading and web browsing. It’s also going to be very significant if you like viewing photos on your iPad.

Nobody outside of Apple knows what the next iPad will be like, but it probably won’t come for another full year, and it will probably be a more incremental update (faster, better camera) compared to this update with the Retina screen.
If you prefer to skip generations, I bet it will make good sense to buy this one and skip the next one.
 That's pretty much where I'm coming from.

MG Siegler over at Tech Crunch:

It’s one of those things where it may be a little hard to tell at first because the images on the screen are the same. But when you look closer, you get it. And you’ll never be able to use a non-Retina iPad again. The new iPad display makes everything look like a printed photograph. By comparison, the old iPad display makes everything look as if I’ve taken my glasses off. Blurry.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New Credit Card Strategy in effect

(If you know me and are interested in getting the American Express cards, please get a hold of me - I can refer you and you'll get a better account opening offer than is publicly available, and I'll get a small reward too)

Lately we've been finding ways to save more money without necessarily curbing the lifestyle we've grown accustomed to. One of the areas in which I knew we could improve was the rewards we were getting on our credit cards. I am now employing a 3 card strategy where we use an American Express Blue Cash Preferred Rewards card for Groceries and Gas, a Chase Freedom card for the reward bonus categories quarterly, and a American Express Delta Gold Skymiles card for most everything else where the bonus is not at a higher rate than 1%.

For a number of years, my wife and I were heavy debit card users for things like groceries, gas, and other bricks and mortar purchases. For restaurants and online purchases, we've primarily used a Capital One No Hassle Rewards card. Previously, I was almost entirely using my debit card, but after several fraudulent transactions for $750 hit my debit card, I switched to using a credit card for higher risk transactions (restaurants are where a lot of cards get skimmed, and online, well, things get out.) This curbed the fraud to the credit cards where it's easier to manage a purchase that you didn't authorize since it doesn't immediately cause cash flow issues.

We had been happy with the Capital One rewards, procuring various gift cards over the last several years that have allowed us to buy quite a few items from Amazon and the like.  The card we have has multiple options, but the gift card options pay the best, at 1% (1 point equals .01). The cash options only pay .05% (1 point equals .005%) and I haven't looked at the travel options to figure out what those are working out to, but I suspect they are probably averaging around 1% or slightly more as well.

When our American Express Skymiles Gold Delta card came up for renewal in November after having it for a full year, I debated cancelling it as to not pay the $95 annual fee. Katie and I decided to renew it simply for the fact that they give you a companion voucher where you can book a flight with a companion and you only pay $99 for the companion's ticket. Its value is typically more than $95 just for that transaction (average airfares out of Minneapolis-St Paul, a Delta hub are in the $300-$500 range for the places we regularly travel). Not only that, but the card allows you to waive one bag fee per passenger on the booked itinerary up to 9 people, so it can pay for itself after only one trip if you have multiple travelers and checked bags. Which as a young family, with two small kids, we do. 

So, we allowed the annual fee to be charged, and at the same time, I also decided to stop using debit cards completely. I did this for two reasons - at the time there were rumblings of the banks charging monthly fees to use these cards, and there was no value there for me. Also, my bank discontinued their rewards program for debit cards (it was pretty meager to begin with, but it was something). An added side benefit, which I realized in hindsight is that it actually makes cash flow management easier as long as your are disciplined in your spending. Which, for the most part, we are.

Since I moved to credit cards for everything, it made sense to see if we could do better than 1% gift cards on the CapOne card. After reading this blog post I decided to start employing the three card strategy described there, with my third card being the Amex Delta card we've already been using. It pays something a little over 1% on average which isn't the best for airline rewards, but since we're hub captive to them and the card provides other benefits with a good value, I figured it's worthwhile to continue using it. I may explorer payouts on other travel reward cards in more detail if we start traveling more.

So I have the two Amex cards and the Chase card now. The current bonus on the Chase freedom card is and Gas stations, which we are using it on. I also get $200 if I spend $500 in three months. No problem, we'll be there in a couple of weeks if we use the card. Amex card also has a bonus if you spend 1000 in 3 months, which we'll get next. The Chase Card has no annual fee, and the Amex Card has a $75.00 annual fee, and break even is if you only spend $25 a month on groceries. So that's not hard to get hundreds at 6%. For everything not in the bonus categories, we'll continue to use the SkyMiles card for now.

It seems a little complicated, but once you get used to it, it works great and it stands the potential to have $1000 or more back in my pocket every year without doing anything other than switching the credit cards I use.

I'll give periodic updates here on how well it's working for us.