Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Delight in Disorder

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. Here we were to analyze how the structure of a poem is used.

Robert Herrick makes use of rhythm and rhyme in “The Delight in Disorder” to call attention to parts of the poem that are disorderly. In the poem he describes a woman’s garb with attention to the ways that it is imperfect. He declares this imperfection to “[d]o more to bewitch me than when art; / Is too precise in every part.” (13-14) This point is also illustrated in his poem’s structure.

The poem uses closed form, a waltzing rhythm, and imperfect rhyme. Often the rhymes are close but to make them work a word must be pronounced oddly, with syllables stressed in unusual ways. In the case where “thrown” is rhymed with “distraction” the author relies on a foreign pronunciation to make the rhyme work. The form and rhythm help to emphasize traditional beauty, but the rhyme provokes delight in the reader and accurately demonstrates the poem’s subject.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tom on the Fire Escape

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This work is in reference to the Tennessee Williams play.

In "The Glass Menagerie" I believe that the fire escape is used to reflect upon what has happened within the apartment and plan for the future. When Tom is on the fire escape I think he is introspective, regretful, and a bit sad at first. Later he shows signs of hope for change, with which he is excited, happy, and far more emotional. Being on the steps allows him to distance himself from what has transpired, and it is here where he has time to think more calmly upon the strife that occurs when he is home. It’s at this distance that he can see his future and make plans to get there.

In the opening scene Tom addresses the audience directly from the fire escape, here he sets the scene. He’s also telling the audience, in a matter-of-fact manner what they should expect from the play. The next time Tom speaks from the fire escape he is drunk and returning home, yet he speaks with mild excitement of his night in vague innuendo to the earlier fight. Later, it is only after descending the steps that he agrees to his mother’s plan to fetch a beau for Laura from his workplace, he does so with a pointed quip. When Tom and Amanda are on the fire escape together they plan for Amanda’s future, though also secretly plan their own, flashes of excitement are shown but only in regards to their secret aspirations. When Tom is waiting on the fire escape with Jim he gives details of his plans to reach the future in his dreams, which is the most emotional scene outside for Tom, as his excitement to leave has reached its peak. Finally, at the very end of the play Tom addresses the audience again, here he is his most reverent and seems satisfied with the choices he made, but he’s also calm and somewhat morose.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Necklace

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest.

In the short story “The Necklace,” I believe that the necklace represents wealth, luxury, youth, and societal stature. The necklace is all that we covet; the things that are just beyond our reach. It is also a risk and a liability. Lastly, it is a fa├žade and a lie.

When Matilda sacrifices so much to attain the necklace -- and the occasion to don it -- she risks all of the comfort and stature that she has attained. This effort is due to the envy she has of those around her that have greater stature; presumably those who were born of this stature. Her desire for this alternate lifestyle is so great that she is unable to appreciate the life she has.

After the necklace is lost the story turns from one of envy into one of strife. The character grows and is no longer concerned with the lifestyle of others. She is instead focused on finding the means to feed and clothe her family as well as pay back their numerous debts. This is the price paid for the sin of coveting. It is also the result of cost of losing her bet with fate.

When she finds that the necklace was a fake the definition changes slightly. I believe that this is to tell us that the images we perceive are not always what we believe them to be. The necklace that represented her ability to attain the lifestyle she envied was a forgery, and so too was that lifestyle. The friend she envied so greatly that she could not bear her presence wore fake jewels to appear of greater stature.

I believe the author’s intent was to demonstrate that we are usually better to live humbly than to spend all of our time and energy focused on what we have not. We do not have the necklace, and we may never have it. Even if we can obtain it, we may find that it was never real in the first place.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Cable Management

Stop right there! Don't throw away all of that useful packaging! As my gift to you, I'm going to show you how to reuse those annoying twist ties that are included in virtually every toy you buy.

I have a two year old son. He's having a great Christmas. After I took a few gifts out of the original packaging I was left with a mess of twist ties and little plastic anchors.



These ties are used to keep items securely fastened while allowing a clear view and even a trial touch of the item inside. I wasn't originally a fan of these, though they are at least less annoying than bubble packaging. Now I save them whenever I get them. Why? I figured out that they are perfect for cable management solutions.



The first use I realized was that the ties are strong enough that you can wrap them around cables to keep them together and you don't even need to tie them after. Just wrap around a few wires until you run out of tie. The wire is fairly strong and somewhat stiff, though the gauge varies with each product.



Tonight I realized how useful the plastic anchors could be. They have holes in them for the wire ties to pass through and anchor points to wrap the wire around. They come in varying sizes so you could use different ones at different points to keep your cables orderly. As you can see, I've put the wire through backwards so that the cable I'm tying down sits between the anchor points, then I run the wire tie around the back and wrap it in a figure eight to lock it down. On most of these there's even an extra set of holes on the ends, you could use this to lock down another cable or you could drive a tack or screw through it to secure the anchor to a wall or desk.

The great thing about these is that they're free and they work very well. They hold nicely but they're easy to undo. You can reuse them, too. If you're a an environmentally conscious geek father like me these are a great solution to a couple of problems.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Amazon Video On Demand Trial

I like to shop at Amazon. I'm a big fan of their reviews, and I often consult them even when I won't make the purchase from that site. Still, I've been doing most of my holiday shopping there for the last four or five years. I live in the land of malls otherwise knows as North Jersey, and I know better to go anywhere near a mall at any convenient hour in the month or two approaching Christmas. So, I sit at home or work and I review, compare, and buy my presents online. That's not what this article is about.

When I bought my last salvo of presents recently I purchased an $8 copy of Miracle On 34th Street for my aunt. With this purchase I was given a $5 credit to use on Amazon's Video On Demand service. Not bad. Since I like to review streaming video services, I figured that I am obligated to use this credit for just that.

My first impression was that there was a tiny catalog to choose from. Amazon is great at pushing traffic in profitable directions, as such the landing page after you successfully redeem your credit is a list of television series that are available to watch. There is not a clearly defined navigation off of this - not that the links aren't there, they just blend in too well with Amazon's standard navigation - so I considered this to be the choices I had. I selected Battlestar Galactica from a relatively unimpressive lot.

A quick run down of Battlestar Galactica. I'm unfamiliar with the series but I'd heard good things for quite some time. I decided to start with series, rather than the miniseries, which seems like it was a mistake. Then the two episodes I watched weren't in the proper order [my fault, see below] so I was a bit lost. The series seemed interesting and I was able to figure out the general idea. I'm not sure if I can get past the grating sound of the actors proclaiming "frack" instead of "fuck." It's a perfect example of how TV censorship is dumb. Now that I've got that out of my system, back to Amazon...

Starting the first episode was fairly easy. I clicked through, purchased the video, and it played. The video quality is pretty good. So good, in fact, that I didn't realize that I'd selected the standard definition version of the episode. No matter, this was entirely passable for a computer screen. I think if I were to watch it on my TV I'd be annoyed by the visible distortion from compression. Gradients seemed to be the worst victims of this, the result is a fairly high contrast picture. The trade off here is that the video runs very smoothly. I didn't notice any dropped frames and panning scenes seemed very smooth.

I was most impressed with the resources this required. Something tells me that Amazon's service would be great for people with slower PCs, at least comparably. Even though it uses a Flash-based player, it didn't tax my system the same way that Hulu and most other Flash video services do. Even when I watched the second video in HD the experience was better than most streaming services I've used. Netflix is the only other service the comes to mind, but they use Silverlight.

The next video I made a point to watch in HD. Their HD videos allow you to choose from 480p and 720p. To get 720p you have to use the pop out interface, but from there I couldn't find a way to make the video full screen. Why didn't the interface on the pop out have a button for full screen? Perhaps if the player detected a faster connection it would allow me to watch 720p without the pop out, but I don't see why because I didn't have any problems watching the 720p version when I did. The picture quality is, of course, even better. For my laptop's screen I didn't think it was so terribly much better that it justified the price difference. The previous problems with noticeable compression disappear. Everything is crisp and the colors are good. The picture quality of 480p is on par with DVD, and 720p lives up to the HD moniker.

Of course, I was again too quick to judge their navigation and I clicked on season two thinking it was episode two. This was quite annoying once I realized what I'd done. As a user, I internalize this and feel dumb. As a UI designer, I realize that this is at least as much of a failing on Amazon's part as it is mine. Their UI works great for other parts of their store, but I think they're both trying too hard to retain consistency between Video On Demand and the rest of Amazon, or they're not trying hard enough. I think a large part of my confusion came from my expectations of how Amazon navigation works, my past experiences with their navigation, and my past experiences with competitor's streaming interfaces. Overall I was very disappointed with this aspect of the service.

Once I took a few seconds to acquaint myself I was able to navigate a bit better. I checked out the rest of their selection. I'm not overly impressed by it. Since this isn't a subscription service that isn't a huge ordeal, though. When I did find something to watch, like Battlestar Galactica, I was impressed with the completeness of the offering. The worst thing about Netflix and Hulu is that they often fail to secure entire series for streaming. If I'm going to watch something via streaming I'd like to be able to finish, and if I'm forced to start with DVDs then I normally finish that way. If I wanted to it seems I could watch all of this series via Video On Demand, which is comforting and I'm sure makes it easier to part with money.

Which brings us to the last issue with Amazon's VOD: money. There's not a lot of free content on this service. Instead you're purchasing videos, either individually or in a bundled package. The SD video I watched was $1.99 and the HD one was $2.99. I could have purchased an entire season in SD for $17.99 or in HD for $44.99. That ads up very quickly. By contrast, a month of Netflix at my current service level is only $24.99. During that time I could surely watch a season of a show if I want, and I've done that a few times. Hulu is even cheaper. I just have to be willing to sit through some commercials. It seems that Amazon is trying to compete against Apple and DVDs. They may have a decent shot at Apple, but I think there's still a lot of value in DVDs that VOD isn't matching. The sense of ownership, portability, and permanence in DVDs is missing and I'm not convinced that they've done anything to top that.

Overall, I think that Amazon's Video On Demand is a competent player, but they're overpriced right now and they still have some navigation issues to deal with. I'd like to see an expanded catalog and perhaps a subscription offering or ad-supported content. Shy of that I'll probably stick with other services.

Review of Four Authors' Styles

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This assignment was for the class to read four stories and write what we thought about each author's style.

Hemmingway’s The Killers is a quick, choppy, simply written story. It’s very light on detail, leaving the reader to decide what kind of town this is set in using a few clues. At the beginning I found the abrupt style to be difficult to follow, the short volleys of wry dialogue are sometimes confusing. By the end I was accustomed to this and easily followed along, it was almost as though I were part of the conversation. The style of the work leads the reader to feel only slightly connected, but not entirely enthralled in the story, which seems to be a similar commitment level as shown by the characters Nick and George.

In a rather stark contrast to Hemmingway’s style, William Faulkner writes flowing, expressive prose in A Rose for Emily. The story is peppered with metaphor and period specific phrases, this along with lengthy descriptions paints a very complete picture. The narration indicates that it is written from the viewpoint of a busybody who feels inexhaustible amounts of pity for Miss Grierson. I believe that it is the writer’s intent for the reader to foresee the ending and perhaps pity the narrator and the townsfolk for their inability to solve the mystery sooner.

We find simpler wording, but longer, broken sentence structure in Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing. The story is told from the viewpoint of a mother who is disconnected from her oldest daughter. She belabors the failures of her first attempt at raising a child. If Faulkner attempted to claim sorrow for a character but evoked sorrow for the narrator then Olsen does the opposite, I feel that the narrator wants to be pitied while it is obvious that her daughter is more deserving. I had difficulty connecting with this piece, which may be due to my contempt for the narrator but I also found the style to be boring and arduous.

Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart is another very expressive piece. He uses longer, broken sentences with repetition and extensive punctuation to heighten the sense of madness in the story’s main character. There is a strong irony present throughout the story as the protagonist vehemently maintains his sanity while his deeds and tone betray the opposite. The style of this story was the most compelling of the four for me, told otherwise it may merely be boring police drama.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. I was trying to write about my favorite piece of writing. I succeeded and I failed. I do love Shirky's piece but I've thought since that I should have selected another work.

On April 29, 2003 Clay Shirky gave the keynote at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in Santa Clara. I wasn’t there. Fortunately, Mr. Shirky saw fit to post the text of his A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy keynote online shortly thereafter. A few years later, on the recommendation of a friend, I read this for the first time. I’ve returned to it frequently since.

The topic of Shirky’s piece is social networking. He commented on this shortly before the massive explosion of self-aware networking sites and just as blogging was becoming a mainstream concept. While the topic was hardly ahead of its time, many of the focal points were of the distant past. He saw fit to remind everyone that group dynamics and human interaction are nothing new. Neither, it would seem, are the troubles that social software operators encounter as those group dynamics are at work.

He begins by explaining the title and its origins. He explains the story of W. R. Bion, a Psychologist who published the results of a study in his paper Experiences in Groups in 1950 about a group of neurotics. It is Shirky’s opinion -- if not Bion’s, I have not read that paper -- that we can determine many behavioral patterns of a group from this study. He explains using parables of Internet communities that have long since passed, most notably “LambaMOO.” Then he explores the question of “why?” social networking is about to explode. While he continues in-depth on the subject he begins this analysis with the conclusion: because it’s time. In retrospect we can see how right he was. Still, it’s enlightening to see that moment captured and understand how everything started to come together.

Lastly, he offers advice on what not to do if you are running a community and what you may want to plan for at the onset. As someone who has participated in numerous online communities and created a few this is almost sacred text. Yet, I believe that most participants in communities could benefit from this thousand-foot view of how they operate.

I find myself drawn to this text so strongly because it all rings true to me and many of the topics are ideas that I have expressed at some time or another. Shirky brings everything together with great style, though. His words are straightforward and mostly simple. He balances heavy content with friendly presentation that does little to scare away the non-technical reader. I believe the true power of A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy is in the ability to make any member of a group more aware of the role they play. In some cases, they may not realize that they are part of that group at all. I think the most important audience for this, though, are those who seek to create, run, or oversee a group. For that audience I believe that this should be required reading.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Comments on My English Class Postings

If you've been following along you've noticed that I am attempting to post much of the writing I do for school online. I believe that this is something more people should practice. After all, that's how knowledge is spread. In my case, I'm paying for the classes and putting in the hours to produce this. It would be a shame for this work to forever be condensed to a letter grade and forgotten.

I want to advise caution to those who may read my English work. If you are in school and wish to use this work you do so at your own peril. I'm sure that any student who has found their way to my blog specifically for these posts was directed by a search engine. Keep in mind that your teachers likely understand how the Internet works as well.

While I did not put these works up to be plagiarized, I also am not particularly concerned with such things. If you want to use my old schoolwork for any noncommercial purpose then feel free. That's not my goal, but I am powerless to stop it. The same is not true for any professors out there who want to keep their students honest. They can and will stop plagiarist. The easier it is to find a work once the easier it will be to find it twice.

That's not to say that I want to claim ownership of my ideas. Please take my ideas and build upon them. Cite me as a source if you really want, but it is not necessary. When you take my ideas you should do the work to make them your own. I have never had a thought that was perfect. There is room for all of these ideas to grow. That is why I've posted these.

I also want to note that I have not posted any group projects. I claim ownership to all of the works that I post here unless otherwise stated. I'm unwilling to obtain consent to post entire works that I cannot claim as my own. Since I cannot claim ownership of a group effort I cannot in good conscious reproduce them here.

Lastly, I want to point out the timing of the postings. I waited until after my class and was sure to post a note on every work stating that it is a reposting from prior school work. This is important because I do not want to run the risk of a teach accusing me of plagiarism. If you decide to self-publish your schoolwork then you should do the same. Even if you can convince the professor that you've merely reproduced your original work online you'll still have to waste time in doing so.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Real Reason Behind Capitol v Vimeo

Capitol records is suing the video community site Vimeo. The complaint is over a short they created in which the employees of Vimeo lip sync the Harvey Danger song Flagpole Sitta, a late 90's alt-pop song that enjoyed a brief bit of success. It is a white kid in skinny jeans anthem and they fit that bill.

I don't find the lawsuit itself particularly interesting. From the sound of it, I believe Capitol will win on at least one count of copyright infringement. The video itself obviously infringes, though I don't see how it does any damage to Capitol's property. Still, their hook is compelling from a legal point of view. Check out this excerpt from NewTeeVee:

The difference, according to Capitol, is that not only has Vimeo not tried very hard to protect copyright owners, but it actively encourages infringement. Capitol alleges that Vimeo’s use of copyrighted material is “not an accident,” claiming that the web site contains “a massive amount of content that features, and draws most (if not all) of its appeal from, the use of copyrighted works.” As a result, according to the complaint, Vimeo is not only aware of copyright infringement happening on its system, but “actively promotes and induces that infringement.”


What's interesting about this is that Vimeo's appeal is the high quality of its unique, user generated content. Just like in the video, the compelling element is not the song but they way in which their employees are lip syncing. I would go so far as to say that it's more interesting than the original video, though I haven't seen that in a decade. Vimeo is one of the user generated content sites that is relatively free from blatant copying. Perhaps copyrighted works are used as background music for these videos, but they are rarely, if ever, the central focus.

That's why Vimeo is being sued. Not because their site is rife with copyright infringement. Not because their site encourages infringement over unique content. Specifically because the community at their site has flourished into one that consistently puts out unique user generated content of high quality. Vimeo is like YouTube with the noise turned down. This scares the pants off the content industry.

As the trend towards Internet Television strengthens the monopolies of the content industry weaken. Quality user generated content is a direct competitor to professionally generated content. The content industry has a long history of using the legal system to ensure that they squash the competition. That's what they're doing here.

I feel bad for Vimeo. They made an innocent video to show what a fun-loving bunch of wacky kids they are at their little Web 2.0 start up. They probably thought that like other various mashups and non-malicious infringements that their video would either fly under the radar or become a success such that the content owner would appreciate the attention drawn to their work and see the positive aspects of it. What they didn't realize is that they've become the nemesis of big business. Big business does not treat its adversaries well.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Algorithmic Authority and Me

I'm a big fan of Clay Shirky. His assessment of sociology in online communities always seems spot on. When he recently wrote about the idea of algorithmic authority he continued the trend.

What is algorithmic authority? Here's Shirky's definition:

Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying “Trust this because you trust me.”


There is a lot more to it than that, and I invite you to read the full piece on his blog. If you want, go do it now. I'll still be here when you're done.

Anyway, I'm sure you're wondering why the heck I'm writing about it? Well, for one I think it's just an interesting idea. I think we all recognize it to some extent, but to codify it in definition and to think about how it affects us is a little different. Of course, I don't usually like to write about things on here without adding at least something of my own. The real reason I'm writing this is betrayed in the title of the post: algorithmic authority affects me greatly, specifically in reference to this blog.

When I started writing The Design of Ignorance I likened it to yelling in a paper bag. I was far more interested in blowing off stress in a productive manner, and documenting my random thoughts and ideas, than I ever was in things like readership. I certainly never plan to monetize my blog, for instance. What I did not consider was the effect that my choice of the Blogger platform would have on the potential for an audience.

That's where Google Analytics comes into the equation. Since I put Google Analytics tracking on my blog I've been able to see who hits the website, from where, how long they stayed, and how they were referred. It doesn't track RSS subscribers [Hi Justin!] but that's on purpose, if I'm ever curious about that I'll switch to Feedburner. It does show me what keywords caused someone to land on my blog, and to what page they were directed. Without question, the two biggest sources of traffic are searches for "best streaming site" and "hd stretch." As of this writing, my blog is one of the top results for either of those searches.

In short, Google PageRank has declared, using its authority, that I am one of the best places to get information on these topics. I cannot tell you how guilty and pressured that makes me feel. I don't like the idea of being an authority by fiat on topics in which I profess little authority, yet I have a strong opinion. I also hate the thought that people out there are searching for information and, upon finding my blog, are potentially disappointed.

I tried using the social searching features to promote other sites. It doesn't seem to do anything. I've modified the original post about hd stretch to send searchers in the right direction. At least I can take that approach.

This pushes me to write more on the subjects. I'm not convinced that I want to do that, even if they interest me. Yet, here I am playing amateur pundit and frighteningly I have an audience. I cringe to think of myself in league with other amateur pundits.

So, I try my best not to let this influence me too greatly. I'll continue my streaming reviews at my own glacial pace. I'm less bothered by the stretch issue, so I doubt I'll write much about that in the future.

It nags me, though. Perhaps that's for the best.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Online Degrees

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I think there are two primary questions that a hiring manager would consider when reviewing a prospective employee’s education: What is the reputation of the institution? And, does this education significantly qualify the application?

As for the reputation of the institution, it serves to note that most online-only schools are not well established institutions. Further, the initial wave of these schools served to sully their own name while they experimented with teaching and business models. As another student said, some of these institutions are known as “diploma mills.”

One particular such institution is also known for aggressive recruiting practices, so much so that they are the subject of a lawsuit that will go forth next year. That same institution has a reputation for extremely low standards for its professors, and not much better standards for the education of its students. While I’ll avoid naming the institution in question, I think that most who read this will immediately know the one which I allude to. If you can guess, then you can be sure that those who would hire you can as well.

However, this is not a phenomenon that is specific to online universities. Trade schools generally share this fate, making them all but worthless for most professions. Traditional universities have been known to fail as well, though they have far more invested and as such far more to lose by such actions.

That is why I believe that online curriculums offered by traditional universities offer the best of both worlds. Such an institution has the necessary legitimacy to function without online education, yet it is extended – and by proxy its legitimacy – to the online arena. I don’t believe that the absence of this precludes online-only institutions from legitimacy, but it helps to explain the prejudice that some may hold against them.

The other side is the student. It is important to remember that a poor student can be offered the best education and learn nothing while an excellent student can attend a terrible university and still achieve their goals. This makes an evaluation difficult, but if you are hiring you do not want to allow prejudice against an institution exclude a great candidate.

As someone in the class mentioned, the motivation of a student is important for online learning. If a student is not self-motivated and self-sufficient they will likely fail. However, I would add that they may not fail their class by this, but merely fail to learn what they should. This ties into the institution, because if an institution has a reputation for allowing students to easily pass then the student without motivation may be able to cruise through. This person is likely not a great asset to your organization.

Studies show that it is easier to cheat with an online-only class. This is a fault with the system, not necessarily the institution or the teachers. Students attending such classes should have the maturity to know that they only cheat themselves and waste their money by doing this.

Beyond that I would mention that it takes the right personality and curriculum to succeed at an online-only program. Some people will learn better through the immersion and focus provided by a classroom. These people may shortchange themselves by attending online classes. That would be difficult to detect when hiring such a person.

Lastly, I think online-only schools lack much of the socialization that is a part of the college experience. Dormitories, classrooms, and other in-person interactions not only build bonds but teach important lessons. Were I to interview a candidate who attended an online-only institution immediately after high school I would be weary of their social skills. They may communicate view email exquisitely, but how will they act during a meeting? After skipping the dorm life, how will they react to the cubicle farm?

I think that online curriculums are gaining much legitimacy. They deserve different questions, but it is my hope that fewer people see them as inferior. Still, there will always exist prejudice about certain institutions, whether they be online or not.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Backups

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I don't backup my computer, per se, so much as I backup important content. Things like photos, videos, and documents I replicate between multiple computers. As much as reasonable I try to also put these files into the cloud using one service or another. For instance: many of my photos are on multiple computers, uploaded to Picasa web, and also uploaded to Facebook. I store almost all of my documents in my Dropbox account, which stores the documents on their servers and automatically replicates them to multiple computers.

I admit that this is not an entirely adequate backup solution, but it's worked quite well so far. Two years ago my laptop died. I was able to recover the hard disk from it, only to find that I didn't need any of the data off of it. Last year the hard disk in my wife's computer died and almost nothing was lost. Even though I've been fairly lucky, I am working to rectify the situation with some more formalized and complete backups.

At work I save everything onto network storage which is backed up using NetApp's SnapVault.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Monitoring Internet Usage

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I'm not against monitoring internet usage in the workplace. I am against ham-handed management of people's communication. Often I find that this argument is oversimplified: You're at work to work, and you can't possibly be working if you're online on an outside instant messenger or checking your email. This argument ignores all other factors, such as lengthened work-weeks and jobs where productivity is held at a higher value. I think that a situational approach and proper management are required, no monitoring technology can replace these.

This boils down to metrics: Is someone's productivity and worth to an organization measured in how much time they spend online? I posit that it is not. You are not paid to not use the Internet, you're paid to perform certain tasks. Depending on the type of tasks and the expectations of your employer, this may preclude using the Internet, but it likely does not. Instead we should judge employees based on their ability to get their job done, only when they fall short of that should we question how they use their time.

Work/life balance is another issue to consider. When employers ask increasingly more time out of their workers’ lives they should expect a compulsion to bring the home life back into the mix to find a better balance. This is especially true when it comes to IM where that communication can be vital to maintaining healthy home relationships. It can also be said that the workplace continually creeps into home life. How is IM unacceptable at work when BlackBerries are required to be on at home? Again, this is about balance and it will vary individually. The employee who works minimal hours has less claim to this than the one who works dozens of hours overtime and some employees allow their home lives to affect their work. Managers should deal with these employees individually and realize that their Internet usage may not be a particularly useful metric to fixing the problem.

Lastly, I will side with employers from a Human Resources perspective. I think this is where monitoring, and even filtering, is important. Employees should know they are being monitored and they should have a few clear usage guidelines for the Internet. It may be acceptable to communicate with your family and friends, but not everything is acceptable to do from work. Companies need to take a zero tolerance stance on pornography, discriminatory practices (take for instance the Human Rights Watch worker that was recently found to post on Nazi bulletin boards), harassment, industry secrets, etc.. Such offenses should be taken extremely seriously and should be actively monitored. Employees that cross the line should be dealt with immediately. Policies like this should be clearly stated, though.

Schools are somewhat similar. I think there, since you’re likely not dealing with adults, you should be a little more proactive in monitoring and stopping abuse of technology. I see most of this as twenty first century note passing. Other content should be filtered, though pretty much any filter can be broken. This is still a situation where filtering and monitoring will not take the place of parenting and teaching. If a child is struggling you might look at abuse of technology as a contributing factor, but it is dangerous to assume that it is the definitive factor and even more dangerous to act on such an assumption without considering how it may effect the child.

With parenting, I think that young children should be monitored closely. This isn’t to say that I’m afraid of what they might see or who they might talk to. It is that they are far more likely not to understand, to take things wrong, and to make poor assumptions about what they’re seeing. I don’t want my child reading a hate website unattended, lest they believe such foolishness is true. I don’t want them to use social networking sites unattended, more because of cruelty like that of the Lori Drew case than worry over someone appearing on To Catch a Predator. The younger the child the more help they need with interpreting the situation Eventually they grow older at which time I would scale back monitoring only to avoid more serious problems such as lawsuits over infringement. Though such things may be a little easier to block than to monitor.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Operating Systems

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

I have a really funny story about how I crashed the VAX server at my father's work in 1983, but I'm going to spare you. Instead, I'm going to focus on operating systems that I have more direct, coherent interactions with. I'll try to do this in chronological order.

MS-DOS 4, 5 - My first experience really managing a system. High memory, what a throwback.
Windows 3 - I strongly preferred DOS to Windows at this stage, I thought of it as a gimmick and totally unstable.
MS-DOS 6.22 - The high point for DOS. Improved memory management (though I remember we used QEMM) and disk management. Good stuff. Anyone for a modem game of Doom?
Windows 3.1 -That minor revision made a big difference. Also, the business world started to catch on with Windows so more utilities came out. This was about the time I started using the Internet, and compared to today it was absolutely terrible. I still preferred DOS when I could use it.
Windows 95 - It was such a big deal, and it was a huge improvement. I think it was slightly overhyped. Ultimately I found myself still going into DOS for a lot of things.
Windows 98 SE - I think that this high point of the Windows 9x line. We waited until Second Edition was released before we upgraded. It required some initial work to make it run well, but after that it was rock solid.
OS 9 - I helped a few friends that had this work on their computers. It was neat, but I absolutely hated it. It was so difficult to do any maintenance to the system and everything was so slow.
Windows Me - Oh my, what a disaster. I don't recall any useful feature upgrades from 98 SE but it seems that Microsoft tried to do too much with the 9x code base. It didn't work, this was the most unstable and unusable OS I've ever experienced.
Windows NT - I have limited experience with this, as I switched employers and they were on the verge of upgrading to 2000. Still, I used it. It was largely unremarkable.
Windows 2000 - By combining the architecture of the NT series with the better UI of the 9x series, this was a huge improvement over everything out there. I'm less thrilled with 2000 server.
Windows XP - I remember how excited I was that the better architecture of the NT series would be available to home users. On the down side, Microsoft created a highly networked OS that largely ignored all of the security lessons learned in the Unix community, which lead to rampant viruses and onslaughts of malicious software that continue to this day.
FreeBSD 5 - This was the best server OS I've used. It was highly stable, great performance, and Ports is awesome. I was able to do so many various things with this system it's hard to believe. I regret switching later.
VectorLinux - After inheriting a relatively ancient laptop I was able to use this Slackware varient to get it working. It has a tiny footprint but provides little in the way of ease of use.
Gentoo Linux - When it came time to replace my FreeBSD machine I chose this OS. It had more active development and great documentation. Unfortunately it also had days of compiling and eventually dependency problems.
Windows XP MCE - This was the best version of XP. It has a slightly better UI and just the right mix of enabled features to allow the home user to get things done. Specifically, I liked that it had IIS so I could do ASP.Net development without a hack at home.
Ubuntu Linux - This is by far the best that Linux has for the home user. Setup is a breeze and it recognizes tons of hardware. Of course, using Linux can be quirky and this one comes so close to being complete that it's a let down when something that "requires" a Microsoft product forces you to stop using it.
Windows Server 2003 - Good improvements over 2000, I like IIS 6.
Vista - I used this a few times. What I saw was that Microsoft tried to fix the security problems they've had and overshot creating this annoying system of prompt after prompt after prompt. I noticed that after a weke of using this OS most users would dismiss any and all dialog prompts without so much as a glance. They shifted the security problem from systemic to psychological. It was enough to tip the scales for me to buy a Mac.
OS X Leopard, Snow Leopard - I'll admit that I waited a long time to really try out OS X. I knew what it was like from years in the industry. OS X gets so very much right, and with a few tweaks it's an absolute dream to use. Most things in OS X just work, the usability of the OS is great, and I don't have to jump through hoops to get it to work with most of my stuff.
Windows Server 2008 - I only recently started using this. I'm not sure I've seen a huge improvement over 2003, especially in the management interface which I haven't gotten the hang of yet.
Windows 7 - For the first time since OS X was released it seems that Microsoft has taken the lead in usability. The security problems seem to finally be fixed, there's a clear point where you have to tell the system that you want to be an administrator but you're normally just a user. I'm very excited for this and I can't wait for Apple to truly respond.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Which I Pretend to be a Sports Writer...

I wrote this in response to last night's Patriots-Colts game which was decided by a last second touchdown by the Colts. The main points of contention were a controversial coaching decision by the Patriot's coach, Bill Belichick, and a close call at the end of a pivotal play. I originally posted this in a forum, but I like to repost writings I'm particularly happy with.

I had phoned it in on this game. I missed the first part of the game reading to Kevin, and generally trying to convince him that yes, he did need to go to sleep. Then I turned it on and Indy was already pretty far behind and things looked rather bleak for them. For most of the game I decided my time was better spent with the volume muted and me catching up on Google Reader.

I started paying a little more attention in the second half, but I was prepared for it to ultimately be a let down with some sort of controlling performance late in the game by the Pats. I kept the game on, but it was either muted or half-muted the whole time. I keyed in when they scored making it 28-34 with almost 3 to go. Now it was interesting, but for whatever reason I couldn't bear to watch. I figured that Brady would throw a series or short passes then they'd just sit on the ball after a first down or two. So I was surprised when it got to 3rd down. Either the game would end there, because a first down would at least allow the Pats to run out most of the clock, or we'd get to see Peyton's two minute drill.

When the 3rd and 2 pass was almost intercepted my heart raced. I saw the frustration on the defenders face that he had the ball and couldn't complete the pick, which may have been a pick 6 if he had. I said to the TV, "but it doesn't matter because you stopped the pass, so you'll get it back on the next play."

So I dropped my eyes back to the reader figuring I'd have a few moments of uneventful punt return and commercials. I was stunned to see the offense on the field for 4th down. It was scary. That offense is imposing in such a situation. I didn't event think to question the coaching. I was in too much shock at the audacity. I'm not a pro football player, but I can imagine that the Indy defense had to feel some of that apprehension. Two yards of 11 guys versus Brady & Belichick, and I considered the 11 guys the underdogs.

It was close, but I think officials got it right. There are close calls, bad calls, and controversial calls. That was not a bad call. For it to be a bad call there would have to be clear evidence that the official got it wrong. Most of the evidence appears to confirm the official got it right or at least that it could go either way. It wasn't a controversial call, because I think that only a true Pats homer would argue the call at this point (or someone that didn't see it). It was a close call.

There's no point arguing close calls after the time to challenge has passed. The game is full of those and you can count on at least one per game going against you. Pats fans really should never complain about close calls, the team has had more than their share of close calls go their way in the last decade, not to mention that they tend to be on the winning side of controversial calls more often than not as well. In fact, it was the Pats success that is often credited to their luck with calls that led me to realize this about football. Good teams can win even when a bad call, let alone a close or controversial one, goes against them. Good teams also capitalize on calls that go their way. It's the mark of a great team when both of these happen.

What you can't do is try to blame the refs. It's not the refs fault that the Colts were within 6 that late in the game. It's not the refs fault that they had a close call to deal with, either. If the ball were thrown a yard further then it would have clearly been a first down. Most importantly, of course, it's not the refs fault that they went for it on 4th and 2.

The reason why any armchair quarterback was shocked by that is because you know that this is the one situation where it was a terrible idea. The Pats were at their own 28. The Colts were hot in the 4th but not unstoppable. The play would end with the 2 minute warning giving a premier quarterback with a hot offense 2 minutes to cover 30 yards if you don't make the first. It changed the dynamic of the Colts offense and allowed them the option of the run or the pass, which is important because Manning had already thrown two picks that game and there were clearly moments of confusion between he and his receivers.

So the Pats lost.

Now the kicker: If you're a Pats fan, or a member of their organization, your response should be "big fucking deal." The way you're playing now you're in the hunt for a first round bye in the playoffs, and you're surely going to win your division. So, you'll likely see these guys again, right? These guys that squeaked one out on you. These guys who've collapsed several times against you in the playoffs. And you'll be driven. You'll be mad that they stole it from you last time. Maybe they'll be cocky. And it will be the rematch of the year.

Favorite and Daily Use Applications

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

My favorite application is Google’s Picasa. Picasa is a great photo organizer that allows you to effortlessly move photos from your digital camera to the web or print. It has most of the tools needed to clean up an image, and they’re all very easy to use. Yes, I could always open Photoshop, and sometimes I do use it for a particularly troubled image, but normally that is akin to driving a finishing nail with a sledgehammer. Picasa is powerful enough that it works for more advanced users, but simple enough that even a novice can use it with relative ease. That range of usability is extremely impressive.

However, I do not have a need to use Picasa daily. My favorite daily application is Firefox. The best thing about Firefox is that it just works on almost any platform. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my work computer, my Macbook, my Windows 7 machine, or a Linux installation. All of them have Firefox and it works with very little deviation in function. This ubiquity has led me to use more in-browser applications as substitutes for desktop applications, such as GMail instead of Outlook, or Google Docs instead of Excel.

Since I use so many computers, another application I would be lost without is Dropbox. Again, it’s cross platform, and again it just works. Dropbox creates a folder in your profile that it monitors for changes. When you add a new file to that folder it uploads the file to the Dropbox server. Once the file is uploaded, your other computers will download that file immediately if they are online, or upon the next login. Also, you can login to the Dropbox website and access those files from any computer. It’s far more convenient than carrying a thumb drive. Did I mention that it's free for up to 2GB of storage? Well, it is.

Other daily applications include Microsoft’s Outlook (for work email), Visual Studio 2008, and SQL Server Management Studio 2008. At home on my Mac I use Quicksilver, which is basically the best application launcher ever, and I proof most of my work in Pages.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Netflix Streaming: The Holy Grail of Online TV?

I write a lot about online entertainment. I suppose it makes sense, because I'm writing as a hobby and most of my other hobbies somehow involve online entertainment. I also write a lot about Netflix. I really like the company and the service fits me almost perfectly. Are they the best, though?

When I previously wrote about Hulu and ABC I mentioned Netflix. Actually, I tend to use it as the bar with which other streaming sites are measured. It's bothered me since then that I never came back to write a review of Netflix's Watch Instantly.

Netflix was founded with a purpose: Deliver users television and movie content via the Internet. That may go against what you think of the company. Chances are you associate them with mail order rentals. It's true that they shifted to that business model, but only after they realized that the infrastructure for streaming video was not in place in the late 90's. When they finally were able to start offering this service they were neither pioneers nor were they pushing the limits of technology. However, they have a long history of getting things right and they continued that tradition here.

The Watch Instantly service was originally somewhat of a dud. The interface and process was well done, but the content on there was mostly terrible. There were a few exceptions, mostly documentaries, but the majority of that first generation of content was the stuff that doesn't even get late night plays on third rate cable stations. I watched a few movies from that era and I was excited, but I also wasn't worried that I would go over the 17 hours of playback per month they offered.

I think the potential must have been obvious to the studios because Netflix struck several deals and significantly expanded their offerings. Of the 17,000 or so streaming titles in their catalog it's fairly easy to find something you would like to watch. Still, the vast majority is rubbish. That's the way the long tail works. One can hope that as the catalog expands better content will continue to float to the top. Still, this is a stark contrast to Hulu which has a wide variety of first rate content.

When you're looking for that content you can go a few ways about it. What I usually do is browse through the Watch Instantly selection where I can drill down into subcategories, from there I can sort titles alphabetically or by rating. The rating data is useful, but I wish it were more applicable to me - more on that later. This works a little like Hulu's "Channels" and allows me to quickly find new content that I may want to watch. It's not as focused as Hulu is, though, and there's a lot more noise to clutter the decision. The other way is to browse through the catalog as usual but instead of adding a DVD to your queue you either watch the content right then or you add it to a streaming queue. It's kind of nice, you look for something and get a surprise that you don't have to wait.

Once you've decided on a program to watch you get to experience the real gem: the player. Netflix play is great in that it gauges your computer and connection in order to deliver the best possible quality of video with the least interruptions. At first I found this annoying, I wanted to be able to get the highest quality of picture and I was willing to let it cache for longer in order to get that. Now I'm convinced that this is a good way to go.

Why? It seems that Netflix has more shades of gray in their quality settings than Hulu does. With Hulu it's high or low quality (and their standalone player has a medium setting). The difference between the two is stark, the low quality is often unacceptably bad and the high can burn out all the fans in your system in a single viewing. Netflix dynamically pics the right quality setting and only occasionally have I been let down by this. Unlike Hulu, I can watch a show with acceptable video quality without noticeable dropped frames or having to crank the volume because my computer is doing double duty as a furnace.

The down side to this is that every time you skip back and forth the stream is interrupted and the player goes through the negotiation process again. If you're watching a series and you want skip the opening and ending sequence you have to renegotiate. If you missed something and you want to go back 30 seconds you have to renegotiate. Also, sometimes if your connection has a hiccup you'll find it switching to the lower quality setting. A refresh normally fixes this, but that's annoying.

Still, it's a bonus that once you start watching you aren't constantly reminded that streaming content is still playing catch-up to traditional TV. If I were watching this over my TV I'd probably not think about the source at all.

Other notes about the player: I like the interface for skipping around. When the movie loads it loads a series of still frames taken at 10 second intervals. When you skip it gives you a timeline of these and you select one to skip to. It's very fast, but you lose precision. You cannot skip to 3:16, you have to go to 3:10. The other controls are fairly standard. I'd like to see integration with media buttons for the in-browser player, as it's the only thing available for Mac.

It uses Silverlight. I'm not a huge fan of Silverlight, and Flash made some big strides shortly after Netflix committed to the change. Still, I think that Flash is a resource hog and Silverlight may be slightly better.

Of course, Netflix also has the widest variety of available players. They don't have a standalone player for Mac that I know of, but they do have integration in Windows Media Center and that works very well. You can also access this content on a few gaming systems. Plus there is the Roku player and a whole host of other devices that are ready to stream from Netflix. For the sake of this review I'm focusing on the in-browser player. I'd like to do a head to head comparison of Windows Media Center Netflix vs. Hulu standalone. I'll save that for another day. I probably won't be comparing any of the other devices anytime soon. I don't feel particularly compelled to buy any of these TVs or Blu-Ray players that only work with Netflix, being a two trick pony isn't that much better than being a one-trick pony. I think I'd rather buy the Roku player since that company seems to be expanding its offerings all the time.

The elephant in the room: subscription fees. I'm going to ignore this elephant, sort of. If you're not a Netflix subscriber then I don't think you should become one just for streaming. You should become one because the DVD-by-mail rental model is superior to other rental models and the streaming is a bonus. That's my take on it. I've had Netflix since 2002, long before they offered streaming content. When they offered it I considered it a perk, and they didn't charge me any extra. For me this service is essentially free. I'd pay for Netflix even if they took it away. Some may not agree with that, and certainly if you're one of the people who dislikes the DVD rental model they use then you would value it differently.

My biggest gripe: no streaming for additional profiles. As I've said before I'm very particular about the way I rate movies and I have very different tastes from my wife. This really hurts Watch Instantly because I can only access it via my wife's account. Netflix doesn't even have a way to migrate accounts, so if I were to offer to pay them more and have separate accounts. I would have to go back and re-rate all of the movies I've seen, 1400 and counting. When I go into my wife's account I find that many movies I enjoy or I may enjoy are rated poorly. This is because Netflix displays ratings based on what you've rated in the past and how you've rated different types of movies. It doesn't completely kill the value of the ratings shown, but it comes close.

The verdict: Netflix is king of the browser. For all its faults, Netflix still reigns supreme if you want to watch content from your browser. It isn't perfect, but neither is the competition, so I say that it wins. That's just for the browser. On the desktop the showdown has only recently begun. Next up: Netflix Media Center plug-in vs. Hulu Desktop. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Computers and Mac vs PC

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of. While working on this I compiled a list of my computers that I posted earlier.

About 50 hours a week I use my work machine, a Dell Precision M65 laptop running Windows XP Professional SP2. When I’m at home I primarily use an Apple MacBook White laptop running OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). Often, I connect into my file server, which is a Dell Optiplex 170L desktop running Windows XP Professional SP3. The file server, which I have dubbed “Kowalski,” is in my office and does not have a keyboard, mouse, or monitor attached to it. Other than hosting copies of my media files, it also serves as secondary desktop and I use it as a print server.

Other machines in my house include my wife’s Lenovo S10 netbook, a Dell Dimension 4700 desktop running Windows 7, and a Compaq Armada 1500 laptop from 1996 running VectorLinux that I saved for my toddler to play with. Roughly 6 years ago I received the Compaq laptop, at the time it was my first laptop, so I worked hard to make it useable again. I’m proud to say that it works well for light internet use and simple games, it even has a working wireless NIC.

As for my thoughts on the Mac vs. PC debate. Well, I find that it’s not much of a debate. Instead you have a majority of people who simply don’t care and a tiny minority of geeks who are passionate about one system or another to a religious extent. Very little debate happens due to this, instead each side focuses on circumstantial issues, biased opinions, and stereotypical members of the other camp. While this is great for strengthening the resolve of the group, it’s terrible at exposing the true strengths and weaknesses of each operating system.
In my opinion, the market leader (not to be confused with the sales leader) changes every few years. It’s about to change back to Microsoft, after Apple has enjoyed several years of superiority with OS X. The problems with Windows over the last several years have been security, polish, and a fear of breaking backward compatibility. Apples issues have more to do with their longstanding inability to attract corporate users [builds familiarity] and software vendors [more tools to get things done] and cost of entry.

Microsoft made a great stride in addressing their issues with Vista, they came close to fixing some of the worst security problems. Unfortunately, Vista is bloated due to the backward compatibility, and it is severely lacking in polish. [For a great breakdown on the polish issue search for “Joel Spolsky Yale talk” on Google.] After some time using Windows 7 it is clear that Microsoft has further refined their security, nailed the polish, and it seems that their implementation of backwards compatibility was taken right from the OS X playbook.

Meanwhile, Apple has mainly rested on their laurels with their operating system. The jump from OS 9 to OS X was huge, and for good reason: OS 9 was terribly outdated and only the staunchest Mac users remained. Since, they’ve further polished the system, and I can say that Snow Leopard has great usability from experience. The only issue that they’ve addressed at all in the time has been entry price, you can get a computer similar to mine for about $900. I did find that there are plenty of software vendors for the Mac world, I only ever need to use a Windows desktop if a site require Internet Explorer or to verify that my Pages document is formatted correctly to display in Word, but I know that plenty of people out there require software that you cannot find for Mac. Similarly, I’ve seen almost no increase in consideration for Mac users in the corporate world. Firefox has done much on the Web to expose the need for platform independence, but little else has changed.

Last year when I bought my MacBook I did so because I was fully aware of the issues with Vista. I did not want to buy a Vista laptop. I knew the Vista Capable debacle. [Though I don’t know what happened to the lawsuit that it caused.] When my Inspiron 6000 died I knew I would have to either buy a Mac or a PC with Vista, and at the time a PC with similar specifications was no cheaper than the MacBook. Ironically, Vista’s issues and the success of netbooks have pushed the PC manufacturers to sell respectable machines for far lower prices. Right now the PC truly is the better deal.

Windows 7 will re-energize Microsoft’s slumping sales. If we can assume that the price of a new PC will remain somewhat flat, or only rise a small amount, then I think they will fly off the shelves. People will be happy with them, and the bleeding in the laptop segment will stop for Microsoft. The debate will still go on, but it’s clear that competition is a good thing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

PS3 or XBox 360 for Netflix?

Mike over at Hacking Netflix has a brief comparison of the two gaming consoles that can stream Watch Instantly content.

Reliability: The Xbox 360 suffers from the infamous "red ring of death" and is the console with the lowest reliability (23.7% system failure rate), according to Square Trade. Winner: PS3.

User Interface: The Xbox has had almost a year lead on the PS3, so it has a unique party mode feature and Xbox-style UI while the PS3 is slower and has the "generic" Netflix streaming UI. Winner: Xbox 360.


Of course, I have neither of these. I have an old PS2 that is never used. My wife keeps telling me that she wants a Wii, but it seems like a big expenditure for a platform that was aged the day it arrived. I also have my reservations about whether a Wii would be used after the first two months until my son is older.

Of the three companies, I would definitely prefer to support Nintendo. Sony and Microsoft are bullies and I strongly object to their business practices. That would make my decision quite tough. The XBox seems to have more ways to interact with your media while the PS3 opens the door to Blu-Ray. If I were to make a snap decision today I'd probably buy a PS3, at least I'd get a Blu-Ray player out of the deal if we stopped playing games on it, and it doesn't require expensive secondary purchases and online subscriptions to use it for Netflix.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Favorite Websites

This is the first post in a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

Like the vast majority of Internet users, I get my search results from Google. I avoid Live.com like the plague. Interestingly, I recently took a blind comparison between the three major English language search engines and found that I preferred Yahoo! slightly over Google. That is not enough for me to change the default search on my phone and many computers.

I use GMail for almost all of my email needs. When I was given I GMail invite long ago I admit that I was skeptical. Ultimately, I think that GMail’s concepts of email conversations and labels were revolutionary. I know they invented neither but their implementation is top notch. I can hardly wait for Google Wave.

Facebook is the unquestionable king of social networking. No site on the Internet is better at helping you find and stay loosely connected to a group of people. Their suggestion data mining is so good it’s a little scary.

Netflix is my favorite site, and my top pick for entertainment. I've been using Netflix for seven years. In that time I've seen the site grow from a simple rental-by-mail service to a community of movie fans. This site has the best selection of streaming content on the Internet, though Hulu is closing fast. I'm also a fan of Bill Scott, the director of UI engineering for the company. I've rated over 1400 movies, according to my Netflix profile, and roughly 500 of them were rented or streamed from the company.

Honorable mentions include: SlickDeals.Net for bargain hunting; Lifehacker for, well... "lifehacking;" and Wondermark.com for humor.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cablevision

I'm a fan of Cablevision. As an addendum to my recent decision to cancel cable again, I want to clarify that it is not the fault of my cable company. I may not like giving them too much of my money, but I'll likely remain a customer of theirs as long as feasible.

Their services are great. I realize that they're a little pricey, but you get top notch service for the added cost. My Optimum Online connection is reliably fast, and I certainly could not do better for the price. At the very least, not without signing a prolonged contract that would surely balloon in cost after some period of time. Their cable packaging is a bit more expensive than Time Warner at the top tiers, but they offer lower tiers that are cheaper than what you can get elsewhere. I'm a little less bullish on their phone offerings, but I think they're good for a cable company. I truly believe that the totality of their services provides great value compared to others in the industry.

The customer service at Cablevision has consistently been top notch. The only unpleasant experiences I can recall involve installation. Like the time that we had to have the installer dispatch four times because they kept installing at a business with a similar address down the street. That happens so rarely that it's pretty much a non-issue. Every time I've called customer service or visited one of their locations the people have been helpful and friendly.

The impetus for this post was a reflection on their customer service during my cancellations. I was never treated poorly. I was never deferred to a retention specialist. There was no push back, no fight, no pleading for me to stay. Each time I was treated with respect and a friendly person helped me accomplish my goal.

These things matter. Service and value are the sign of a good business. More importantly, I can't think of the last time I thought of these things as the strength of a cable or phone provider. Typically, this industry thrives on anti-competitive practices, coercion and cost-cutting measures. I honestly believe that Cablevision has better values than most of its competitors. It isn't their fault my values have changed such that I no longer need as much of their services.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Canceled Cable... Again

After a few fairly successful months of having limited cable service, I reinstated most of what I had canceled. Now that the summer is done, I've gone back to the previous system. Why did I reinstate and subsequently cancel? Read on...

Why I Reinstated Cable

I had to do it for my mother. My wife was to take some summer classes that would involve her presence on campus four days a week for a couple hours each day. In order to accommodate this we would either have to put my son in day care four days a week or have a babysitter. We decided that my mother could watch him for a few hours at a time, so we asked her to come out from Ohio. My mother watches a lot of TV, and many of "her" shows are on cable-only networks.

My mother is also tracking the latest release cycle for many of these shows. That means that DVDs can't fill the void. I still don't have my computer hooked up to the TV, nor do I have the remote working with it, so she couldn't use that. Besides, we're lucky if she can use a DVD player, I'm sure most Internet TV interfaces would be beyond frightening to her.

I wanted my mother to be able to spend time with her grandchild. I wanted her to be at least reasonably comfortable here as well. Lastly, I wanted an unlimited calling plan again since she would want to call friends and family who are out of state. It was clear that I would have to pay more to the cable company to achieve this.

On the plus side, since I spent those months at the lower service plan I was eligible for their big discount offer that allows you to get most of their available services for about $100 per month. That's roughly $40 more than I was paying them.

One last, selfish reason: Sports. I was able to reinstate ahead of my mother's arrival during the height of the NBA and NHL playoffs. Many of these games are only carried on cable. I have to admit that I also had a hard time with canceling because of the football that is only on cable.

Then I Canceled

In the end my mother only stayed for three weeks. I had cable for roughly five months. It was enticing to stay because of the discount offer. In the back of my mind I knew it was a trap, yet I was falling into it.

My son was able to watch Nick Jr (formerly Noggin) again, which is more a benefit for us than for him. Even if the Nick Jr channel mostly shows a limited set of reruns its still more diversity than our DVD collection has. After a while of watching the same four episodes on a DVD you start reciting lines in your sleep. We let him watch shows only at certain times, so it's not life altering for him to lose the channel, he's fine with the DVDs.

The sports were compelling for me, but it's not worth almost $500 per year. I'm not that crazy about college football, and that's the biggest loss here. I will miss Monday Night Football games, but if I really want to see them then I can go to a sports bar. Beyond that, there are very few times when I want to watch a sporting event that is only on a cable station. Generally, these are the earlier rounds of the playoffs. Even if I limited myself to half of the money saved by canceling this service I'd still have $8 for every sporting event I care to watch that's only on cable. I can use that money to get out of the house instead.

There's nothing more that's compelling to me. That's it. Those were the two things that I will legitimately miss about having that cable service. I did watch a bit more TV since I had it, but I can do other things instead. Most of the shows I would watch were out of boredom, not a strong desire to watch them. There's a ton of content online now. I have no reason to pay the extra money to the cable company.

Lastly, it really is a trap. They offer the first year of this deal at a discounted price. It's about $50 more per month after the discount expires. It may be possible to negotiate to keep the discount, but I hardly see why that's a worthwhile endeavor year after year. Ultimately, I'm back to saving $85 per month over what I was paying at the beginning of the year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Moving? Get a PO Box

I recently moved. We were having problems with our neighbors, so we knew several months in advance that we were going to move. About 3 months before the move we decided to get a PO Box and forward our mail there. It was a great decision.

The last few times we’d moved we had mail go missing because the forwarding simply failed. The USPS is pretty good, I’m not knocking them, but sometimes things slip through the cracks. Previously, we had good relationships with our neighbors and so we’d end up getting the mail that wasn’t forwarded. We knew that wouldn’t be the case this time, so we setup as big of a buffer as possible.

What’s great about this approach is that you can redirect your mail before you move. This gives you a few months to see what doesn’t get redirected and to change the address on your accounts when you see they’re still set to the old address. I kept track of these accounts in a spreadsheet so that I’d know to change them again later. Then once you’re settled into the new place you can start changing the address on your accounts to mail you at your new home.

At the end you have a choice: You can keep the PO Box if you want. You can cancel the PO Box and file a change of address to your home. Or you can cancel with no change of address. If you do the latter then you’ll effectively cancel some of the junk mail you receive, but the danger of that is that you may miss some random piece of mail that you didn’t anticipate.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Computers

I'm currently in a Computer Literacy class. I'm only taking the class to familiarize myself with the school environment and because it seems like too much work to test out of it.

Anyway, I made this list of my computers and some of their pertinent stats. I thought it would be interesting to throw up here so that I can reference it later when these systems won't be as powerful as my cell phone (my iPod is already more powerful than the one). Here's the list:

· My Work Computer: Dell Precision M65

o Display: 15” integrated, capable of WSXGA+ resolution

o Secondary Display: 2 external 20” wide-screen ViewSonic monitors (running WSXGA+ resolution, 1680x1050)

o Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo, 2.4 GHz

o Memory: 2 GB RAM

o Storage: 80 GB hard disk

o Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2

· My Primary Home Computer: MacBook White

o Display: 13.3” integrated display set to WXGA resolution (1280x800)

o Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo, 2.0 GHz

o Memory: 2 GB RAM

o Storage: 160 GB hard disk

o Operating System: Apple OS X version 10.6 (Snow Leopard)

· My Wife’s Primary Home Computer: Lenovo IdeaPad S10

o Display: 10.2” integrated set to WSVGA resolution (1024x600)

o Processor: Intel Atom, 1.6 GHz

o Memory: 1 GB RAM

o Storage: 160 GB hard disk

o Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Home SP3

· My Media PC: Dell Dimension 4700

o Display: external 20” wide-screen ViewSonic monitor (soon to be a Toshiba 32” LCD TV)

o Processor: Intel Pentium 4 with HyperThreading, 3.2 GHz

o Memory: 2 GB RAM

o Storage: 200 GB primary hard disk, 40 GB secondary

o Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 (RTM version)

· My File Server: Dell Optiplex 170L

o Display: None

o Processor: Intel Pentium 4, 2.8 GHz

o Memory: 1 GB RAM

o Stoarge: 80 GB primary hard disk, 200 GB secondary

o Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP3

· My Son’s Primary Home Computer: Compaq Armada 1500

o Display: 12.2” integrated TFT

o Processor: Intel Pentium II Mobile 266 MHz

o Memory: 32 MB RAM

o Storage: 4 GB hard disk

o Operating System: VectorLinux Standard