Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Thoughts on Windows 8

I have to say I've been pretty excited by Windows 8.  I've been using it for about 6 months now and, although it's quite different, it's got a lot going for it.  I like it so much that I upgraded our two computers (one desktop and one laptop) to Windows 8 the weekend it was officially released.  After all of this, I thought I would blog about what I think of it.  First of all, although I think it's great, I don't think it's perfect.  There are some things that are annoying.  But first, I want to talk about the things that I like.

The New Start Screen

I hear a lot of people complaining that Microsoft ruined Windows 8 by taking out the start menu.  I really don't get that.  They simply expanded it to include the whole screen.  Then they added live tiles that give you updates without even requiring that you open the application.  It's pretty cool stuff.

It's also easy to customize.  I've set up an account for my kids and only put tiles up for programs they use.  Their start screen is a lot more sparse than mine but they know how to find their stuff and they don't get into my stuff.  That is truly awesome.

Also, for the applications you don't put on your start screen, just start typing and the start screen turns into a search screen.  You can search your applications, your settings, your documents, or even within some applications.  It's all right there!

 

 

The New Controls

The new controls take a bit more getting used to.  Some are quite easy (the windows key toggles between the start screen and the desktop) and others are a bit more complicated (you click and drag down to close a non-desktop app).  Over all, though, they are pretty easy to get used to once you spend a bit of time with them.  However, it would be helpful if Microsoft published a list of keyboard shortcuts and mouse commands.  Here are the ones I use the most:
  • Windows key: toggle between start screen and desktop
  • Windows key + c: brings up the Charms bar (which has search, settings, etc. on it)
  • Windows key + l: locks the screen

The New Internet Explorer

Microsoft created a bit of a headache here for me.  Internet Explorer has two flavors - the desktop and the tablet versions.  Unfortunately, which one you get depends on what application calls it or where you select it from.  By default if you select it from the start screen, you get the tablet version.  If you select it from the desktop, you get the desktop version.  This can be frustrating sometimes.

As a desktop user, I don't see the point of the tablet version.  So I went into internet options -> programs and selected to always use the desktop version.  That cleared up that issue.

Other than that, the new IE is fast and easy to use.  It's a good update.

Tablet Applications

The other new thing is that Windows 8 supports/encourages what I call tablet apps.  I believe the official term is Windows 8 applications (it used to be Metro apps) but really they are apps designed for tablets.  The rules for these apps are different than for desktop applications.  You use the Charms bar (Windows key+c) for settings/preferences/search and the interaction is more based on touch than on a mouse.  Once again, it's not difficult to learn but it does take some getting used to.

On the bright side, there are some really fun apps that my kids really like.  Things like Cut the Rope, Physamajig, Pirates Love Daisies, Hydro Thunder Hurricane, etc.  These were all free in the consumer preview but are not free now.  However, they're pretty inexpensive and have trial versions so you can test them out.

Parental Controls

When you set up a kids account, it asks you if you want to get reports.  I said yes and now I get weekly reports of my kids' activity on the computer.  What programs were used and how long they were used for.  What web sites were accessed and how often.  Lots of stuff that lets me keep an eye on my kids' usage.  It also lets you blacklist web sites and/or applications so your kids can't mess around with things they're not supposed to.  I think it's great!

Conclusion

After using Windows 8 for a while, I really do recommend it.  It's faster and offers some great advantages.  On the other hand, it's different and it will take some adjustment so don't jump in with your eyes closed.  At the end of the day, it's a tool and it works well for me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Thoughts on the Second Presidential Debate

I just finished watching the second Presidential Debate and I have to say that I'm disappointed.  Not with the contenders - they both went at it with gusto and I would probably call it a narrow win by Romney (but I'm a Romney fan so that may not be entirely objective).  I guess I'm disappointed with the whole political process.  The debate seemed to focus more on showing up the other guy, on spinning the other's words to make them look bad.  No thought was given to intent, only interpretation.  For example, Romney stated that the President had cut oil and gas leases on government land by 14% (I'm getting the number from memory so it may be wrong).  The President shot back that no, he didn't cut them, oil and gas production is up.  Romney shoots back that the number of leases is down.  The President says he did not cut leases by 14%.  Romney asks how much he cut them by.  The President says, "OK, here's what happened..."

Here's my problem.  The issue, I think, is whether or not the candidate supports more oil and gas production and exploration in the US.  The answer seems to be that Mitt Romney does and that President Obama wants to look like he does but got it so bogged down in details that it's not really clear what he supports.  Now it wasn't just the President, but that's the part I really remember.

While the debate had some good statements on policy and position, it kept getting bogged down in spin.  Not about what the candidate meant or intended but on how what a candidate said could be twisted to be used against them.  The constant bickering and nit picking spoiled it in my eyes.

That said, here are the positions that I got from the debate:

President Obama
  • Things are getting better and will continue to do so if I'm re-elected.
  • Mitt Romney's policies are the same as George W Bush's policies and electing him would bring back the disaster we're finally emerging from.
  • Mitt Romney will cut taxes for the rich.
Mitt Romney
  • President Obama is a good guy but his policies aren't working and we're not better off than we were 4 years ago.
  • President Obama made several campaign promises which he either ignored or failed to live up to (immigration, gun control, social security reform, etc.)
  • I will create jobs by lowering the tax burden on small business, making regulations less burdensome, and repealing "Obamacare" - oh, and by expanding free trade and making sure China doesn't cheat.
OK, so on second thought, I think Romney won but I didn't walk away with a clear win in my mind.  There was simply too much bickering and not enough debating.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

6 Months with my Windows Phone - Still A Fan

There's been a lot of smart phone hype over the last couple of weeks.  A LOT of hype.  There are new Android phones, new Windows phones, and of course, new Apple phones.  Seeing all of the new phones with their new features (except for the broken maps feature on the iPhone) makes me want one.  I can't help it, I love new techie things.

So this post is a little self-therapy.  Something to help me appreciate what I have instead of longing for something I don't.

It's been close to 6 months since I got my Windows Phone and I still love it!  I did an initial review of the phone back in April and it hasn't disappointed me since.  I use the calendars to keep track of my personal and my work schedules.  I also get to peek in on my wife's schedule so that I don't double book her for something.  Honestly, I don't know how I got along without just the calendars.  Seeing what's going on with the family, the reminders for appointments, and the feeling that my life somewhere near being under control is really nice.

I also like the contacts, especially that it aggregates my Windows Live, Facebook, Linked In, and Google contacts into one.  It's a LOT easier to find people that I need to get ahold of.

I like the texting (organizing everything into one thread per person), the weather app, the flashlight app (I use that one a lot!) and I can't say enough good things about the GPS app, Nokia Drive.  It has not steered me wrong yet.  It's easy to use and easy to follow the turn by turn directions.  It's made vacations a lot less stressful and helped me find things a lot faster.  It's also a great media player.  I have my music as well as General Conference, and some of the kids' music on there.  Oh, and did I mention I can make calls with it too?

So, here's the deal.  It makes my life easier, more organized, and less stressful.  It's not magical, it's just a tool and used properly, any tool can make your life better.

So, with all of the hype over the new things coming out, I have to sit back and think - what do those new phones do (that's useful to me) that my phone doesn't?  The answer:  I don't know.

I guess that means, I get to sit back, watch all the people lining up for the latest and greatest and think:  "There are a lot of people spending a lot of time, effort, and money to get a device that, arguably, will not save them any more time, effort, or money than their current device."  I may need to repeat that to myself a few times but at the end of the day, at least for me, it really is true.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

When Government Gets Out of Balance

I had a thought hit me the other day.  Have you ever seen that movie, I Robot?  The premise is simple, people built robots to make their lives easier.  As robots began to do more and more things, more and more people started using and, in some cases, depending on them.  The robots are controlled by a central computer that uploads updates, etc. to them.  Well, at a certain point, the central computer decides that humans are not capable of taking care of themselves and turns the robots from servants of humanity to their masters.  Now it's the robots who make the decisions, set the schedules and determine what's right and wrong - of course, it's all in the name of protecting humans from each other.  After all, if you're not allowed to make your own choices, there's no crime, no violence, no bickering ... no freedom.

So here we are with a modern government that has some of the same attributes as that central computer.  Government (at least in this country) was formed by the will of the people with the purpose of making life easier - you know, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.  For over 200 years, our government has fulfilled its purpose and served the people of the United States.  However, I worry that there are those in government - some of our elected representatives even - who feel that we the people cannot take care of ourselves.  They feel that government needs to do more for us.  They don't feel this way because they want power (although I sure some of them do) but they earnestly desire to help people.  Unfortunately, the victim is the very essence of our liberty, personal responsibility.

We live in a free country.  Not free as in you can do whatever you want with no consequence, but free as in you make your own choices but are responsible for those choices.  One of the primary responsibilities of our government is to make a level playing field so that we can succeed or fail on the same terms as everybody else.  We have regulations and break up monopolies so that businesses don't have unfair advantages.  We have constitutional protections to make sure that government isn't oppressive.  That's the purpose of government, in my opinion, to give everybody the same opportunities for success - rich or poor, it doesn't matter; whatever situation of life, it doesn't matter - with hard work and a little luck, anybody can be successful.  That is what government is for.

Does it always work?  Of course not.  Things get out of balance.  Programs and policies suffer from unintended consequences.  People make mistakes.  That's life.  The question is, how do we get things back in balance?  People tend to go in one of two different directions:  One extreme says that government needs to exert more control, control more things, make more decisions, dig deeper in.  The other extreme says that government needs to pull out entirely, just turn and walk away.  I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  Government is doing a balancing act.  Laws, regulations, programs, etc. are necessary to keep the playing field even.  However, too much government and we start to lose our liberty and run the risk of a big brother state.  Too little government, on the other hand, and we risk anarchy and chaos.  The answer lies in the middle: balance.  Enough regulation to keep the playing field even while having enough freedom to allow for huge success as well as huge failure.  Why both?  I submit that you cannot have success without risking failure.  Not only that, but many successes are built on failures and what was learned from them.

It should be government's responsibility to make things possible for everybody and it's our responsibility to take advantage of those possibilities.  We may not always succeed but we can always grow, and when we do succeed, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that it was our accomplishment.  We built this!

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Video Services

A long time ago, I cut my cable.  I bought a pair of rabbit ears and, within 3 months, I was ahead financially and I found that I really didn't miss it.  Then, a few years ago, I subscribed to Netflix (this is when I realized that I was spending about $15.00 per month renting movies and I could get more movies for less money through Netflix).  Soon after that, I found that I wasn't really buying movies any more.  If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd just have it mailed to me.  Then Netflix introduced streaming video and I found myself watching TV series without any commercials and the kids loved all of the kids stuff on there.  I was getting a lot of entertainment for an excellent price.

Then came along some competitors.  Hulu came out with recent and current TV shows and Amazon started their instant video where you get free movies and TV shows (with a Prime membership) and the option to purchase or rent most others.  Well, over the past month or so, I've had the opportunity to try all 3 and here's what I found:

Netflix


Netflix has great streaming content but their selection is not up to date.  Most new movies and TV shows won't show up on Netflix for a while.  In fact, even with the DVD service you usually end up waiting for a few months after it's out before you can get it.  However, their kids library is very strong, the service is easy to use and a navigate through, there is enough entertainment to keep me mostly satisfied (until I catch up on a series that Netflix doesn't have all of).  Overall I'm very happy with Netflix and don't see myself discontinuing the service any time soon.

Hulu


I signed up for Hulu Plus for one series:  Warehouse 13.  My wife and I finished up seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix and found that it was starting season 4.  I looked on Hulu and found they had the last 4 episodes of season 3.  I signed up hoping the get the entire season.  No luck.  Not only does Hulu Plus have commercials but I didn't get the extra episodes I wanted.  I was very disappointed.  Also, their user interface isn't very intuitive.  They have a queue that I can't seem to find most of the time and favorites that I'm still trying to figure out.  However the worst thing is commercials.  I guess I'm spoiled but I can't stomach paying $10.00 per month for a service and still having to deal with commercials.

Amazon Instant Video


Amazon has a pretty good service going here.  You can sign up for Prime which is a Netflix like service and they fill in the gaps with the option to purchase content that you can't get for free.  Their free content isn't as good as Netflix (my opinion) and their user interface is also not the best.  However, the worst thing is they don't support subtitles.  My wife is a bit hard of hearing and the subtitles are necessary for her to enjoy a show.  I've gotten used to them to the point where I prefer them because I tend to not miss any of the dialog.  I can honestly tell you that we didn't use the Netflix streaming very much until they added subtitles.  Also, Hulu (for all it's other foibles) has excellent subtitle support.  When I saw what Amazon had to offer, I figured I would use them to supplement anything I couldn't get from Netflix.  However, until they offer subtitles, I'll look elsewhere.

Google Play Movies


Google seems to be limiting their TV and Movie content to Android devices (phones and Google TV).  Since I don't have any of those, it's a non starter for me.

iTunes


I'm not an Apple fan and I don't use iTunes so I don't know how good it is.

How Do I Get Content


So, how to I get my Netflix, Amazon, Hulu content?  I'm a huge fan of the Roku streaming device.  It does a great job of streaming my content from Netflix and Amazon (I haven't tried Hulu yet) and it has custom channels that are a great bonus for me.  Specifically BYU TV and the Mormon Channel (for all you Mormons out there, you CAN get General Conference from the Roku - although I can't remember if I used the Mormon Channel or BYU TV).

So there you have it.  I use Netflix for streaming and DVD rentals.  I don't see myself using Hulu too much (I'll most likely cancel before the free trial is over).  I will most likely use Amazon for what I can't get on Netflix but, until they support subtitles, I'll probably just wait.  And I watch it all from my Roku.

Easy :)

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Pick Your Poison

Sometimes people ask me for my advice on technology.  What kind of computer to get, should they get a tablet, what smartphone is the best, etc.  As I have tried to answer both honestly and personally (I don't recommend the same thing every time) I have found that it all comes down to ecosystems.  While most gadgets will interact with most other ecosystems, they work the best (and with the fewest headaches) when they're in their own.

For example, when you buy an iPhone, you're not just buying a phone, you are taking a step into the Apple ecosystem.  iTunes will be used to move music and applications onto and off of your phone.  You will be able to purchase music and TV shows and movies through iTunes.  Is that what you want?  I was recently asked about whether a couple should get iPhones or Android phones.  I asked, "Do you own any Apple products?"  They owned a couple of iPods.  Then I asked, "Do you like the iTunes environment?"  They said they were fine with it.  Based on that, I recommended iPhones.  They had already bought into the Apple ecosystem and liked it.  The iPhone would just be an extension of that.  In addition, an iPad is a further extension as is the Apple TV, etc.

Another possible route is with Android.  Google has also built an ecosystem around their Android phones.  They have music, movies, and apps available for purchase.  They work great with gmail and other Google services.  If you enjoy the Google environment, you should be buying Android smartphones - they will fit in the best.  However, as a caution, the interface with an Android phone varies from phone to phone.  If you are getting an Android phone for yourself and a significant other (a spouse for example) and you'll be swapping phones every now and then - my wife will grab my phone when she doesn't have hers on her and visa versa, make sure you get the same phone so you will have the same look and feel.  It will save you a lot of headaches (I recommend a Nexus phone in that case as it always has the default look and feel).  There are also a lot of tablet options as well but I would probably recommend the Nexus 7 tablet or maybe something by Samsung or Asus.

The route that I took was with Windows Phone.  As with the others, there is a ecosystem that I bought into.  Windows Phone is deeply integrated with Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Notes, etc.) which is great.  It also has a service called SkyDrive that allows you to synchronize your files among various computers and the cloud.  This means that I can create a document on my desktop, update it on my Windows Phone, and then print it from my laptop without going through any extra steps (after SkyDrive is set up).  It also integrates with Hotmail (soon to be Outlook.com) and Microsoft's online Word, Excel, Notes, and PowerPoint applications.  As far as tablets, there really isn't one for Windows yet but the Surface is coming this October and looks to be a great tablet that really complements the Windows ecosystem.

All of these routes have positives and negatives.  Usually I recommend that if you've already bought into one, continue on.  If not, you need to weigh the pros and cons based on how you will use technology.  Don't just "follow the crowd" find what works for you and go with that.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

SkyDrive - The Perfect Backup Solution?

Sometimes I worry about my data.  I have documents, music, and pictures (lots and lots of pictures) that would be difficult to impossible to replace if destroyed.  Not only that, but I'm spoiled too - I want to be able to edit my documents where ever I happen to be - home, work, vacation, whatever.  Until yesterday, that was nearly impossible (without a lot of effort), but now it's not.  Why?  SkyDrive.

SkyDrive is a service from Microsoft that allows you to synchronize anything in your SkyDrive folder on your desktop with 7GB (or more if you're willing to pay) of online storage AND any other desktop you configure.  There's a great article on it here.

The way it works is simple.  You sign up for a Windows Live account (which you will use to access your stored data) and download the SkyDrive client for your desktop.  During setup is will ask you to log in to your live account.  Once it's set up, you will get a SkyDrive folder on your computer.  Now any document you put in that folder will automatically show up in you SkyDrive online storage as well as any other computer you install the SkyDrive client onto.

But wait, it gets better.  Log in to your SkyDrive account and find a Word document that you just uploaded.  You can now click on it and it will open in Microsoft's online Word application.  Same thing for Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.  Cool!  I can even edit document on my smartphone!  Sometimes, technology really is great.

So, with that set up, if my hard drive crashes, all of my data is safe online and on any other computer I have the client on.  If I need to access a document away from my computer, I can do it from any web browser.

It keeps my data both safe and accessible - AND - it takes care of itself.  No manual copies.  No saving in two places.  No flash drives to carry around.

It's simple, easy to use, and easy to maintain.  It's almost hard to believe it came from Microsoft.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My First Week With a Windows Phone

As you are probably aware, I suffer from a malady called gadget lust.  Whenever cool new tech things come out, I find myself really wanting one.  I go through several iterations of justification and, usually, it turns out that I don't need it and I wouldn't really use it very much if I got it.  So, I have to say a tearful goodbye and get over it.  However, sometimes, it turns out that the return on investment is justified.

Recently my wife's phone died.  Coincidentally, her two year contract with T-Mobile was just about up as well (which means we could get a subsidized phone).  So it was time to look for a new phone.  I cruised around the T-Mobile site to see what was available - plan-wise as well as phone-wise.  I found that combining my prepaid and her individual account into a family account would actually cost a little bit less that what we were paying now (since I started managing projects, I use a lot more minutes on my phone).  Then I found that we could get smartphones for just a little more than we were paying now.  I talked it over with my wife and we decided it was time.  So we got a pair of Windows Phones.  Specifically, we got the Nokia Lumia 710.

Here's the reasons we decided to get smartphones:


  • Shared Calendars - This is a killer feature for us.  Now I can see what my wife's schedule is as well as my own and my wife can see my schedule.  It makes things easier for planning events and coordinating responsibilities.
  • Contacts - Now we always have all of our contacts with us.  No more trying to juggle between email, phone, and paper address book.
  • Reminders - This is something I really missed from my Palm Pilot days.  I love that my phone reminds me of appointments.
  • Online Docs - This is pretty useful.  With a Windows Phone, I can see all of my docs on my SkyDrive account.  This is nice for taking notes (Microsoft OneNote is a great note-taking app) and if we need to refer to any of our docs while we're not at home.  Honestly, I don't see us using this one very much but it's pretty cool.
  • Texting - As much as we've tried to fight it, texting is just a reality of life.  There are so many people and businesses that use texting constantly (I just had the pharmacy text that our prescription was done).  However, on our old phones, texting was clumsy and awkward.  Now it's much, much easier.
  • Family Pics - Go ahead and laugh but it's important to me.  I like having pictures of the family always available.
  • Camera - I've missed lots of picture opportunities because I didn't have my camera with.  Well, that's not a problem any more!
It took some adjustments to get our calendars where we need them and a little time to get used to the interface, but I'm already wondering why I waited so long.  Not only do the phones simplify some of the things we do, but it has some pretty cool features that I hadn't even thought of - but now I love.

  • Voice Commands - It seems a little silly but just telling the phone to call my wife is convenient when my hands are busy and we searches using voice commands is a lot faster.  Heck, the kids treat it like a game!  "Find McDonalds", "Find ColdStone", "Find Krispy Kreme" - you see a pattern there?
  • Local Scout - This is a handy little app that gives you everything going on in your area - restaurants, movies, events, etc.  It's a lot of fun to play with.
  • Custom Alarms - It's nice to have an alarm for Monday through Friday but to be able to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday (just so you know, 6 AM is sleeping in for me).
  • Live Tiles - I'm a gadget person and I like to see what's going on at a glance.  Live tiles on my Windows Phone shows me, at a glance, my next appointment, missed calls, messages, etc.  It's very useful.
One thing that I have to recommend, if you're getting phones for you and your spouse, get the same phone.  When my wife needs to use my phone for whatever reason, she's already thankful that the interface is the same.  I am too - it's so frustrating to have to spend a few minutes to figure out somebody else's phone just to make a phone call.

So, it's been almost a week and I'm very happy with my phone.  There was one little hiccup setting up the email but that's been resolved and we're all good now.

Friday, April 13, 2012

My New Windows Phone Can't Sync to Google! - Resolved

My wife and I finally took the plunge and got ourselves smartphones.  We got matching Lumia 710 Windows Phones from T-Mobile

They're really cool!

I love the interface, the live tiles, and other features.

I did run into one issue though.  I couldn't sync my Google account (gmail, calendar, and contacts).  This was really frustrating!  It was so bad that I was considering returning the phone.  After all, I do all of my email and calendar in Google.

Fortunately, I found a resolution on the Nokia forums.  Basically, Google makes you pass a captcha test (you know - "type in these letters" sort of test) to log on from a new device.  Well, with Windows Phone, it signs in automatically so there's no option for doing the captcha.  No captcha means no access and you get the following error:

"m.google.com is currently unavailable. Try again later."
and the error code 85010017.


Well, to fix it, you have to have Google suspend captcha verification.  Simply log into Google, and go here.  It will suspend captcha verification for 10 minutes.  Enough time to start syncing your gmail account with your Windows Phone.

Sometimes I think that it shouldn't be this hard...

UPDATE:

OK, whatever the problem was, it seems to have been fixed.  After I jumped through all of the hoops to get my phone working, I went to fix my wife's phone and it was all synced up and going.

This was definitely an issue on the Google side (nothing changed on the phone) but I'm glad it was fixed.

I really am loving the phone!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why I Support Mitt Romney

Let's face it - we're not doing as well as we could right now.  Government is spending way more than it has and the long term outlook isn't good (in my opinion).  So, why do I think Mitt Romney has what it takes to pull us out of this funk?  I'll tell you - he's a fixer.

Mitt made his fortune looking for how to improve companies.  Lower their expenses, improve their processes, help executives work toward a common goal, etc.  The goal in turning around a company is to make it run more efficiently than its competitors - that way it can charge its customers less and still make more.  He's so good at this that he's made millions doing it.

What if we applied that to government.  I mean what does everybody complain about government?  It's big and bloated right?  So here we have an expert at trimming things down.  Keep the same or better service, just do it for less money.  Government saves money which means the taxpayer (us) saves money which means the deficit goes down without having to try to get Congress to make cuts or raise taxes or whatever the agenda is.  And frankly, getting Congress to do anything is iffy at best.  So, in Mitt, we would have a President that could save us millions (if not billions) without having to pass legislation.  Sounds pretty good so far.

Another big responsibility for the president is foreign policy.  As a businessman, negotiating deals (treaties, etc.) is common.  The trick is to give your customers/partners, etc. what they want while not sacrificing your own interests.  Isn't that exactly what we want in a president?

I support Mitt Romney because I think that when it comes to the real world, he will be far more effective than others who must rely more on ideology than experience.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Control Your Money - The Dangers of Penny Auctions


OK, I have to say this.  I've been seeing a lot of ads for these penny auction sites.  You know, the "get a brand new big screen TV ($800 retail) for $23.96" sites.  They make it sound so easy to get things so cheap - like it's too good to be true.  Well it is.

Here's how it works:  you pay to get bids.  The price usually comes out at about $0.60 per bid (you buy them in lots of 100 or so).  The bids only go up in one penny increments.  So that TV that sold for $23.96 required 2,396 bids.  At $0.60 per bid, that's $1,437.60 the site made on the TV (plus the $23.96 you paid for it).  Somebody's making out like a bandit, but it's not you.

Basically, these sites are gambling sites.  You pay money for a chance to "win" stuff.  However, just like all gambling places, the house always wins - even if you win the auction.  If you lose, well you're just out a few bucks - just like playing the slot machines.

So, here's my view of penny auction sites:  Their deals are not deals and there are far more losers than winners.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My eReader: The Kobo Touch


As you may know, I suffer from a malady called Gadget Lust.  I try to keep it under control and make sure when I purchase a gadget and have the means and I will actually use it.  Well, I love reading so it wasn't hard to justify an eReader although it did take some time to save up for it (I do have a strict budget you know).

Initially I wantedI a Kindle.  In fact, I've wanted a Kindle ever since they came out.  The whole eInk concept is amazing and I do get eye strain from regular monitors.  Unfortunately, I have since learned that they are limited to Amazon's store and little else (yes there are tools for getting other ebooks but they're not supported natively).  This put a real damper on things since I prefer to check books out of the library vs purchasing them, although, if they are really good then I might just purchase them.  The other thing I've become hooked on is the touch interface.  The Kindle currently does not have a touch interface and doesn't support checking out books from your local library.  These things were deal breakers for me and I decided I would have to look elsewhere.

I looked around at several and finally settled on either the new Nook Touch or the Kobo Touch.  They both have touch interfaces, they both support checking out ebooks from the library, and they both support loading ebooks from outside of their bookstore.  I read some reviews and comparisons and they all scored the two ereaders very close to each other.  I was leaning toward the Kobo when I went to check out my soon to be out of business local Borders store.  They had the Kobo for 20% off (just over $100) and I couldn't resist.  So, now I've had one for 3 days and here's what I think:

First of all, eInk is truly amazing.  It really is like reading a book.  No eye strain and no issues with sunlight.  The sunlight is pretty important as I live in Arizona and there is a lot of sunlight here :)  It is truly a joy to read.

The interface on the Kobo is simple and while I would suggest reading the included tutorial for some of the less obvious tricks, you can get started without any help (or, at least I could).  The Kobo store has a fair selection of free books as well as most of the ebooks that any other store has.  By that I mean that the titles I couldn't find on the Kobo store were also unavailable on the Kindle store and the Nook store.

I also found that checking out books from the library is very simple.  You simply have to get Adobe Digital Editions.  You download the book from the library, drag it into Digital Editions, and drag it onto your Kobo (plugged in via the USB cable) and you're done.  Simple.

The Kobo itself is lighter than most of the books I read so I don't have any issues with my arm getting tired from holding it.  It fits comfortably in my hand and is easy to use one-handed.  All in all, a very nice ereader.

That said, it's not perfect.  There are a couple of things that I was not expecting that disappointed me.

First, it treats non-Kobo ebooks differently.  It calls them sideloaded books and one of the first ebooks I downloaded is the LDS standard works (free from lds.org).  This has the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price all in one ebook.  It has a hyperlink-based table of contents which worked fine in the Adobe Digital Editions software but doesn't work at all in the Kobo Touch.  With over 4000 pages, the Kobo interface for finding a specific spot in the book is very difficult and time consuming.  That was my big disappointment.

Other things that would be nice are the ability to have collections (like labels for your books so that you can find titles easier) and the ability to share an account with two ereaders (so if my wife gets one we can share books we might purchase from Kobo but it would share our bookmarks, progress on books, etc.).

So, there are a few drawbacks but, overall, it's a very nice ereader.  I also would not be surprised if my list of gripes was shortened in the near future.  The Kobo developers are very active and have already improved the handling of sideloaded books (not up to where I need it but getting there) and continue to improve on things.  In fact they actually read the forums on MobileRead.com and respond to them.

In the end I have to say that I'm happy with my Kobo Touch.  It was a good price and it's great for reading books.

UPDATE (8/2/2011):  Kobo latest software update enabled hyperlinks in sideloaded content.  You simply need to double-tap the link.  Go Kobo!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Control Your Money - An Easy Way To Save


I'm always on the lookout for new ways to save money.  I recently ran across a great article about the fundamentals of saving money.  It's called How To Save Money.  It was a good article.  Nothing new (for me anyway) but worthwhile stuff.

What struck me (and inspired this post) was a question posted in the discussion section.  A person simply posted:  "I need an easy way to save".  Don't we all!  My first thought was, too bad for you - there is no easy way to save.  Then, I thought about it.  Perhaps there is...

The problem is that saving money depends very heavily on how you spend money.  Each person is different.  Each person has a different definition of what is easy.  About 10 years ago, I cut my cable.  At the time, I would have called that moderately to extremely difficult.  Now I would call it easy.  It has saved me a lot of money and I don't miss 300 channels of nothing on.

So, back to the question.  What's an easy way to save?  I think the real answer is to know how much you spend.  If you keep track of how much you spend and what you spend it on, you can almost always find a few easy ways to save.  Of course, keeping tabs on your own money may not be easy, but I still think it's the best way to truly know how to save.

Is there really an easy way to save?  Maybe, but I can't tell you what it is.  You have to find that answer for yourself.  Just ask yourself what you spend your money on and figure out a way to cut back.  It probably won't be easy at first, but if you stick to it, it will keep getting easier.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Control Your Money - Saving Money Takes Time


One of my problems with money is that I want to save a lot - all the time.  Unfortunately, life has taught me that it doesn't work like that.  For every person that touts getting rich by doing "this one simple thing", there are hundreds - if not thousands - that failed at the same thing.  What's the moral here?  Don't expect to grab a few tips on saving money and end up with piles of cash at the end of the month.  It takes time and the piles tend to be smaller than you imagine.

In fact, I would say that learning to effectively save money is like getting in shape.  In the beginning, it hurts a lot and you don't see much result from your effort.  The key to success is to stick with it.  You have to be frugal every day.  You have to be on the lookout for ways to economize.  As time passes, your dedication begins to pay off.  You start to see success.  Your debt starts shrinking faster.  Your savings slowly increases.  You don't stress so much about unexpected bills.  You start to feel more confident and have more self control.  You may never see piles of money but your healthy finances will be a blessing in your life.

The strategy that has worked best for me is to start really small - maybe only $5 to $10 per month.  Then, when you get a raise or some other addition to your income, add part of that to your savings amount.  This is a slow process but it hurts a lot less than trying to all of a sudden put a huge chunk of money into savings.  Slow and steady wins this race for me.

There are a myriad of good results from begin frugal and saving your money, but it's not a quick fix.  It may take years to really see the fruits of your labors but you will look back and be glad you put in the effort.

Remember, there are two kinds of people in the world.  People who spend more than they make and people who spend less than they make.  One of those kinds eventually becomes rich.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Control Your Money - Control Your Wants!


A little while ago, I wrote about Gadget Lust - that is, wanting to get the latest and greatest gadgets.  It sometimes seems to cause a constant battle in my head between wanting a cool new toy and knowing that it's not practical or, in some cases, not even very useful.

A recent event caused the conflict to flare up again.  The retailer Staples issued a coupon for $100 off any tablet in stock.  Ooohh - could I afford one now?  I went to the website and looked at what was available.  Then I started looking up reviews to see which ones were the best.  The more I looked into it, the more I wanted one.  I started justifying why I needed to get one and had myself pretty much convinced that I deserved it.  Then something happened.  I don't remember exactly when I had the realization - either while talking with my wife, or studying my scriptures, or some combination of the two, but I realized that a huge portion of my desire for a tablet had come from allowing myself to obsess about it.

That was my big epiphany.  The more I think about something I want, the more I want it.  Once I made that realization, I was able to drag myself back to reality and realize that, apart from the coolness factor, I really didn't know why I wanted one so much.  So, I still don't have a tablet but I saved myself a fair chunk of change (for me anyway) and I probably saved myself some disappointment at buying something that really isn't useful to my right now.

So here's my advice, avoid spending too much time thinking, wanting, etc. unnecessary things.  If you get your wants and needs closely aligned, you will find that your expenses become significantly less.  In other words, the best way to keep yourself from buying things you don't need is not to want those things.  If you can do that (and it's quite a bit more difficult to do than to say), you can save a lot of money.

I think it's human nature to spend a lot of time thinking about the things we want.  Conversely, we may find that the things we spend a lot of time thinking about become the things we want.  So don't let good advertising (or coupons) control what you desire.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Being Optimistic


It really is a wonderful time to be alive.  Sometimes we let our cares and responsibilities get in the way of appreciating that.  But here we are with the wonders of technology, a peaceful society (well, mostly peaceful), and indoor plumbing!  We live better now than kings did a few hundred years ago.  Pretty amazing.

A wise man once said, "We cannot control the things that happen to us, but we can control our attitude."  I don't know why I put that in quotes because it's probably not even close to what the actual quote is, but the gist is the same.  I can't stop work from being busy, or the bills from coming in, or the kids from being - well, kids.  But I can stop work from being stressful, or the bills from being depressing, or the kids from being frustrating.  That's where attitude comes in.

A negative attitude makes bad things worse.  A positive attitude can make bad things better (or at least not so bad) and helps to focus on the good things.

I choose to be optimistic.  It doesn't make my problems go away but it allows me to be happy anyway.