How far does $2.00 go these days? [motivation]

I realized on my commute in this morning that my perspective on $2.00 is greatly skewed. On the one hand, I spend $2.50 every day in tolls to and from work. This is simply for the convenience of avoiding the (more) overcrowded alternate highways.

On the other hand, I get choked up when I’m about to spend $1.99 on an iPod Touch application – an app, mind you, that will, in most cases, provide hours of entertainment to either me or one of my children. I know this because a few of the pay-for apps I’ve gotten have indeed provided priceless hours of distraction (please, don’t start lecturing me about being a “digital dad” – I know it, I embrace it!).

So why, with the daily expenses in tolls I incur, do I pause when I’m about to purchase digital goods? It can’t be the lack of substance,  because a toll and my commute are certainly as intangible as the bits that make up an iPhone app. Or is it the guilt of luxury of purchasing a game that will provide mindless activity?

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How can we maintain productivity while increasing portability?

FastType_crop380wI was wrong.*

Just a short while ago, I wrote about how I had found the ideal netbook. After testing some of the popular models, I ended up liking the the Asus EeePC 900A with a version of Ubuntu Linux loaded on it. But after less than two months, I’ve already sold it on eBay.

Why? I’ve already written about why I abandoned Linux. But the other reason I got rid of the 900A was the hardware. I found myself defaulting back to my ThinkPad more and more because I could type faster on the full-sized keyboard. Which signaled to me that I had sacrificed productivity for portability.

Consider the following:

  • On a desktop PC using an ergonomic (“wave”) keyboard, I can type 97 words per minute (WPM) (gross – accounting for errors; as measured on typingtest.com)
  • On my 14″ Lenovo ThinkPad with a full-sized laptop keyboard, I can type 92 WPM
  • Using the same test, I could only manage 73 WPM (gross) on the 9″ 900A

Some quick math shows that the 9″ Asus only afforded me 75% of my max speed which severely hampered my productivity.

I decided that I still wanted a netbook and set out to find the best 10″ model on the market. While the increased screen size seems nominal, the wider screen means a wider overall case, which means a larger keyboard can be included. After conducting lots of research (including a fun and insightful “Netbook Madness” competition conducted by Laptop Magazine), I decided that the 1000HE was the best of breed of the low-cost 10″ netbooks.

With the 10″ 1000HE, my speed was back up to 90 WPM; not quite as fast as on a full-sized keyboard, but sufficient at almost 93% of my max.

The problem is heightened even further on pocketable devices with on-screen or “tic tac” type keyboards. In addition to the 900A, I also recently tested a Nokia N810 internet tablet device. With a slick slide-out keyboard, I thought it would prove to be a useful device. I quickly realized, however, that most of my web use involves typing – responding to Facebook posts, updating Twitter, writing blog posts, commenting on blog posts, etc. And I realized equally as fast that the keyboard was functionally no better than the tiny keys on my Samsung Ace, a Windows Mobile smartphone. In fact, because of hardware limitations, I couldn’t even take the typing test on the Nokia tablet.

For this and a variety of other reasons, I didn’t hang on to the Nokia. Instead, I decided to test out the iPod Touch and it’s infamous love/hate touchscreen keyboard. Despite its critics, I found the onscreen typing experience to exceed that of my smartphone and the Nokia. However, without Flash support, I once again was prevented from taking the typing test on the Touch. From my personal estimation, I predict that my results on both the Nokia and the Touch would be abysmal.

So how will the consumer electronics market reconcile the idea that the pocketable computer is the future de facto standard but productivity using such a device is hampered (currently) by the form factor? Will we see a move towards voice recognition (assuming, that is, that such technology improves drastically in reliability)? Or will another, as yet unknown, kind of input solution be introduced?

* With that single statement, I practically guarenteed that every woman reading this post stopped, printed off the page, and proceeded to torment a male significant other about the fact that a man can, indeed, admit when he’s wronng. To those men, I apologize. To the women, this is a very rare occurance – just ask my wife.

83 WPM (gross) @ 6:00 AM – laptop 92 WPM (gross) @ 7:00 PM – laptop 73 WPM (gross) @ 8:00 PM – netbook

Throwing Money away [personal finance]

trash_moneyNo, not throwing away money as in cash, tossing Microsoft Money as my financial software. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that they would discontinue the popular software Money after June 30, 2009.

I’ve used Money for many years but lately I’ve been increasingly frustrated with it, so I’m not sorry to see it go. Furthermore, this is finally getting me to move to a fully online solution – a decision I’ve putting off but which will offer me much more flexibility for how, when, and where I can access my account information.

But what options do I have for web-based financial management? A financially-minded (and savvy) colleague of mine recommended yodlee.com and mint.com. Others, like Geezeo, are still too immature for me to invest much time in.

I had tried Mint about a year ago and I found the interface clean and easy-to-use. But I was ultimately dissatisfied by several of its features – or, more appropriately, lack of features. Mint wouldn’t let me create my own categories and subcategories, it wouldn’t let me split transactions into multiple categories (like those from Target or Costco), and it wouldn’t let me add accounts such as my mortgage, 401(k), and IRA. A year or so later, most of these discrepancies are still there. The one feature I thought was clever about Mint was that it analyzed your spending and suggested ways to save money. Unfortunately, all of the suggestions it provided me were useless, so I’m not too upset to forego that feature. Pass.

Yodlee, as it turns out, has been around since at least 2002 and serves as the “data layer” for Mint and many of the major online banking sites (like Bank of America). This means that all of Mint’s data goes through and comes from Yodlee – saying you’re secure and having a customer base to prove it are very different. I’m confident, in fact, that my data is safer on Yodlee than on my home PC (which has succumbed to numerous crashes). While not as pretty as Mint, it’s functionality more than makes up for it.

The main area that Yodlee trumps Mint on is the variety of accounts it keeps track of. Mint can manage bank accounts and credit cards, whereas Yodlee literally keeps track of everything – banks, credit cards, investments (stocks, 401k, etc…), frequent flier/loyalty accounts and very, very usefully billing accounts – that is, companies that you need to pay off like utilities, cable and cellphone companies. It shows you all in one convenient place all the bills that you need to pay, how much you owe and when it’s due. The budgeting and automated weekly and monthly reporting by email features are also outstanding.

After the initial setup (like finding records for an audit, gathering all the usernames and passwords for the various web sites was painful), Yodlee has worked flawlessly for me save for one missing feature: the ability to reconcile my accounts with my receipts. I have found a workaround and provided feedback to Yodlee, but this discrepancy will not keep me from staying with the service.

What do you use to manage your finances? Do you trust the online banking services or do you prefer a desktop application (it would seem Quicken would be one of your only choices now)?

I cheated on Windows…but it took me back! [rant/rave]

back to windows

The last time I changed operating systems was in the summer of 1996. Up to that point, I had been a Mac guy – well, I can say a “Mac guy” because I’d owned two Macs (my first computer was actually a Commodore 64, but that was my mom’s so I won’t count it). My first was an old Mac Classic that a friend of mine gave me. My second was an LCII that got me (and several dormmates) through four years of college, many term papers, and my first foray into the interwebs. That is, I could, with my external 2400 baud modem, dial into my school’s mainframe to access a Unix shell for email and “web surfing.” Wow, what incredible cutting-edge technology that was at the time!

In grad school, I realized I would need to upgrade my aging Mac. However, my budget (still) wouldn’t allow for a new Mac, so I rationalized getting my first PC, thinking it would prove useful as I entered the corporate world. For over thirteen years I have only occasionally flirted with the idea of going back to a Mac, but I suppose Windows never quite bothered me enough to justify Apple’s price tag.

Out of the clear blue, earlier this year I delved into the world of Linux. I’ve tracked the story of Linux, of course, as a masterpiece of open source software and I had heard the riotous claims of the faithful decry it’s superiority to all other operating systems. I figured I’d get hands-on with it and draw my own conclusions.

So I played with two gadgets running Linux: An Asus EeePC netbook running Eeebuntu (a customized version of Ubuntu) and a Nokia N810 internet tablet (running Maemo). By “played,” I mean devoted countless hours to tinkering with…much to the chagrin of my wife and children (thank all you for your tolerance, understanding, and patience!) :). Limitations of the hardware aside, I was frankly not impressed. Mind you, while I’m a technologist by spirit and trade, I’m not a developer. So I assessed Linux based on the persepective an ordinary user. And came away with the opinion that it’s just ready for prime-time…for PCs, anyway.

While this was my first “official” test of Linux, I realized that I’ve actually been using it on many of my devices – a Garmin GPS, other media media players, and even TiVo – that use Linux at their core while providing a heavily customized user interface.

And therein lies the future success of Linux.

I agree, in part, with John Gruber’s explanation for why most people have never switched to Linux:

Early versions of Gnome and KDE were pretty much just clones of the Microsoft Windows UI … Ubuntu’s default Gnome desktop is in most ways better from a design and usability standpoint than Windows Vista. But it’s still fundamentally a clone of Windows … The idea being that if you want Windows users to switch to Gnome or KDE, you’ve got to make it feel familiar. But that’s not how you get people to switch to a new product.

Yet it wasn’t the similarity with Windows that put me off of Linux, it was the differences. Missing drivers for my webcam and other peripherals, “plug and play” that didn’t, and control panels that – surprisingly – were more confusing than those created by Redmond. Unlike Firefox, which, while being open sourced, is a polished and fine-tuned piece of software, Linux struck me as half-baked.

So I’m back to Windows XP (with a planned upgrade to 7 in the Fall) on my new 10″ Asus EeePC and happy to be in familiar territory again. Perhaps it’s the “devil I know” – I’ve become an expert in troubleshooting nearly every Windows problem encountered – but unless Macs come down in cost anytime soon, I’m sticking with Bill.*

* stay tuned for an upcoming post where I contradict this statement as an iPod fanboy.

In my opinion, it’s basic economics at work combined with the human need to connect – with others and with something greater than themselves.

Does your definition of success control you? [TED talk]

In one of the best and most original TED talks I’ve seen in a while, Alain de Botton presents a compelling – and often humorous – analysis of how our definition of success can drive us to despondency. Some interesting tidbits from this talk:

  • Our measures of personal success are typically based on our perception of how we stack up to others like me? I don’t compare myself with the Queen of England (and her wealth, lifestyle) because she’s too different from me.
  • We’ve increasingly become a meritocracy in which failure is seen as a direct result of our own shortcomings (rather than accounting for random variables like illness or timing).
  • The mainstream media compounds the problem with biographies of individuals like Bill Gates who are seemingly “average Joes” who simply applied themselves. If they can, why can’t I? [Note: Malcolm Galdwell’s recent book “Outliers” makes the opposite case: that many recent stories of outstanding success are having the right idea at the right time with the right opportunities.]

During his concluding remarks, Botton challenges the audience to examine how they measure success to see if their criteria are based on societal expectations and if they agree with those standards.

Does this make you rethink your personal definition of success?

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf