Saturday, December 29, 2012

US shopping: Booze and bulbs

Trips back to the US always include home repairs and travel provisioning, trips to the Home Depot and the Safeway.  It still feels odd to find the stores so large, the opening hours so late, the parking so vast as compared with the Netherlands.  Nor an I used to hopping into the car and tootling off to the store at all hours for no reason, rather than walking to the Jumbo for a few things for dinner.

The stores generally seem quieter this year, people making less eye contact, everyone a lot ruder in the parking lots.  I think that folks are pulling into themselves a bit, sullen after the election and worried about the likely tax raise on Jan 1.

Washington State transitioned from selling liquor in state-owned stores to allowing full retail sales several months ago.  I voted against the ballot measure (People wanting 24/7 access to  liquor stores probably need to think about why), and I’m underwhelmed with the result.  There re now liquor aisles in the food stores, heavily taxed and with prices higher than the state stores were.  But worse is that they only stock what sells.  I needed cranberry liquor for a recipe, wanted a nice single-malt for a friend.  None is now available.

When stores market to the masses, they stick to the familiar, the cheap, and the bulk brands.  Choice is vanishing. 

Social problems are multiplying. Theft of bottles and distribution to minors is way up

Fees and taxes have closed businesses rather than stimulating them. Sales have increased in Idaho and Oregon.  More drinking drivers are on the roads.

I also had several light bulbs burn out: getting replacements is getting harder.  The federal government passed laws promoting energy efficiency,  requiring incandescent bulbs to be phased out in 2013.  The alternatives are limited.

Coiled florescent fill the aisles, but are more fragile and expensive than the older bulbs.  They cost $5-7 for a single bulb; incandescents used to sell for a couple of bucks.

Long-life bulbs claim up to 9 years operating life, offsetting the costs, but mine seem to blow out within six months.

The quality of light is much harsher in the new bulbs, a white “daylight” that cools and sharpens rooms to an industrial ambience.

I’m sure I sound like a grumpy old man,  but I’m really not.  These are two examples of  policies with beneficial intent that, in practice, have raised economic and social costs while lowering product quality and choice.  It’s a good lesson in unintended consequences, with business, consumers, and government all bearing some responsibility for making things worse. 

A partial solution might be to appoint review panels that evaluate the effect of laws a year after they are implemented.  The goal would be to see if policies have had the desired effect and what secondary changes have taken place.  Then laws could be intelligently tweaked lessons taken forward to future legislation.

I’m not hopeful about how this foreshadows legalization of marijuana in Washington State in 2013.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Contacts dilemma

Contacts CalendarsI’m in the quiet period that ends each year, always a time for thinking on events past and opportunities to come.   I’ve resolved, if nothing else, to get the cloud-office cleaned up and functioning this year.  Email, social media, contact lists, web sites, and calendars need to be spruced up and functioning as I head into 2013.

Email:  Accounts, each linked to my business websites, feel scattered, but aggregators have gotten much better.  I can collect mail from every source in a single client and access it from phone, tablet, or PC.  The early glitches that caused downloaded mail to be automatically erased, or of carrying a page of port numbers and security settings for each account, seem to have passed. Bliss.

Phones: I standardized on simple USB-capable Nokia phones, one for each country, and synchronized contact lists between them.  This also works great.  And no smartphones yet:  the more features a handset gets, the less able it is to make regular voice calls.

Calendar:  I’m trying to get the Google ecosystem running, but it’s been a struggle.  Our office assistant has organized calendar sharing, but getting everyone to enter, maintain and heed event notifications remains challenging.  I want to stop using paper diaries, but the cloud isn’t (yet) cooperating.

Contacts are a whole ‘nother story.

I want to integrate my Contacts from across my email and social media into a single address book with fewer than 500 entries.  It should be self-maintaining:  As people update their contact information on social networks, it should update in my contacts.  Business cards and new email contacts should flow into the list automagically.  I should be able to subgroups for Christmas cards.

Reality differs.

I currently have about 1000 contacts.  Half should be culled: they are in the book because Live Mail adds people if I write to them more than three times. 

There are lots of errors.  Thinking I could solve this by computer, I imported everything to Plaxo to run a general clean-up on the lists, resolving duplicates and linking social media informtion.  It was a disaster: Plaxo spawned new contacts (Debell Fred J Debell DeBell), leaving me with a terrible mess of 3500 entries.

So, I‘ve set a 30 day goal of going through the alphabet with my Outlook.com address book and get that right, then propagate it to other devices and mail/phone clients. It’s a 4-step cure:

Delete the obvious duplicates and marginal people, fix the First and Last Name errors in the  rest.

I’ve decided that if someone isn’t a connection on some social media, then I’ve lost touch.   Delete, or send an sending an invitation to connect.

Delete old work, address, and phone information entirely so that those fields can be updated by imported data.

Attach a group designation so that I can do some minimal sorting and filtering.

I can get one letter of the alphabet done each day, so I’ll hopefully be done by Valentine’s.  Hopefully for the last time.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Unboxing the Nexus

For months, I’ve eyed my shoulder bag, filled with books and magazines, date books and expense books, camera and Mp3 player, Dutch dictionary and working notebooks. There must be a better way.  So, this Christmas, I worked with Santa to acquire a Google Nexus: 7” version, WiFi and 3G, 32 GB, ordered from the Google Play store.  

I chose the Nexus for it’s combination of apps, screen resolution, price, and performance.  Reading and movies are important but not enough, ruling out the Kindle, while the iPad mini seems expensive.  A 10” form factor, the Surface or regular iPad, offers little advantage over the netbook I usually carry.

So I’ve been playing with the new device for a couple of days now, and I really like it.  I haven’t fully crossed over to using it as a shoulder bag, but I’m making a full effort to be thee within a couple of weeks.

The device is bright and fast, pretty intuitive to operate and I like the touchscreen interface for everything except typing text.  The battery life is excellent: I can go most of the day without charging, and the WiFi connectivity seems seamless.  The ‘Live Tiles’ update more reliably than the Win8 tiles, and with better variety and configuration options, so I’ve actually started removing application shortcuts in favor of the little preview widgets.  I like the drag/swipe/resize touch controls, and it makes me think that I would like Win8 much better if I wasn’t constrained to using a mouse.

I need to get a cover for it, which has been hard to find: stores seem to stock for the iPad and Kindle, but never the Nexus.  A reasonably priced “Pay-as-you-go” data plan has also been elusive, running about 50 / month for reasonable support.  And international coverage is pretty much a lost cause.

I’m going to treat the Nexus as a content consumption device rather than a content creation one, so I’ve resisted the urge to hook up a keypad and run a file manager and shell script interpreter.  So that means loading and configuring apps.  There are lots of good recommendations on line for the best app for different purposes: here’s where I‘ve ended up so far:

  • Social Networking:  Facebook, LinkedIn, Plume for Twitter, Google+ al have wonderful live interfaces.  eMail in place of gMail is working well for aggregating mail and plays nice with Windows Live Mail on my other machines, sharing the cloud without deleting my messages.
  • News and Media:  The FT works nicely; the Economist doesn’t.  Stitcher and TuneIn for radio and podcasts.  Audible and Kindle for reading: Adobe Reader coupled with DropBox has brought my collections of .pdf’s within each without burdening the device memory. I’ve loaded media sources Zinio, Pandora and Netflix, but I haven’t played with them yet.
  • Travel:  Orbitz, Skyscanner, TripAdvisor, Booking.com cove my usual sites.  NS, 9292, and National Rail all have apps for train schedules, OV and Oyster for (uselessly) managing your cards, but NL Train Navigator is really good, literally putting the station displays and delays in your hand. I’m still choosing among currency exchange rate calculators.  Delta’s app doesn’t work; Weather Clock is very nice.
  • Business:  Skype, of course, and I plan to experiment with receipt- and business card- scanners.  OneNote and Pocket for capturing thoughts and web pages respectively, and Documents to Go for reading Office files.  I need to get Calendar and Contacts resolved, but that is a much larger task.
  • Dutch:  Kranten en Tijdschiften NL gives all the dailies, but I haven’t found a satisfactory dictionary yet.  Google Translate works well, I need to find radio and video access so that I can stream in my practice media.  Rosetta doesn’t have a widget, so I’ll need to configure the college materials.
  • Misc:  Photo capture, edit, upload seems important and I’m fiddling with Snapseed and Pixlr without being convinced.  There is only a rear-facing 1+MPix camera: great for video-conferencing, but no substitute for snap-and-shoot.   The Flickr app is not compatible.
  • But I can still play Pocket Tanks and NetHack.

Further suggestions are welcome, of course 

The device feels nice in my hand and it take almost no space within a much smaller shoulder bag.  Overall, the reading / watching experience is very good (even for my 58 y/o eyes).  It’s nice to use around the house for email, browsing , and social media, but I’m not sure whether to take it to exercise for reading / listening on the bike.

And I’m really looking forward to seeing how it works on the road.

Disclaimer: I was neither asked to, nor paid to, use these products.  I choose and buy what I use, buying retail and paying retail, and write what I think, for better or worse.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing day

Christmas in Seattle was wet, cold, but nice.  I’ve been catching up with assembling the last of the holiday and finishing some minor home repairs: entropy sets I month by month.  We opted for a smaller tree this year, $28 for a 3’ Noble fir.  The light strings were 3/4 dead so I needed to get more, but tree trimmings were long since on sale and it cost only a couple of dollars to put things right.

Christmas eve I was still finishing the baking: rugelach and my grandmother’s cutout cookies. We alternated cinnamon and Nutella fillings on the roll-ups , and the frosting went pretty quickly.  We had eggnog toasts when finishing, still hours to spare before midnight.

Christmas dawned warm and wet (snow had been predicted), we got off to a slow, boozy start with Mimosa’s and stockings, the video Yule Log and the ritual scratching of the lottery tickets (no winners this year) and shredding of dog toys.  Everyone did a good job picking their gifts for each other, and we spent the rest of the morning on calls to the extended family. 

I hope that everyone enjoyed their Christmas morning (or holiday break) and have warm and happy times with friends and family. 

And be sure to make 2013 a full and remarkable year. filled with family, friends, and opportunities to make the world a better place for everyone.

Very best wishes to all!