Browsing posts in: Recommended Gear, Books & Stuff

Pocket — One of my best purchases of 2011

Pocket logo

Pocket, the tool I use for my digital consume-it-later file. Previously known as “Read It Later.”

Once known as “Read It Later,” Pocket, the save-content-for-later-consumption tool is my briefcase of reading and watching resources that has followed me for almost half a decade and through at least 20+ mobile and tablet devices. This scrappy and lean startup had me from the beginning with their advanced sharing and tagging tools, and they hustled hard against many similar competitors, including the (at the time) more cleanly-designed Instapaper, one of the darlings of the tech world helmed by the brilliant Marco Arment.

They’ve changed their subscription model, but the $4 (I can’t even remember what the cost was originally) to support them back when it was Read it Later was well worth the value it’s provided me. It’s not just reading, btw, they support and segment out video and photos too, so if you’re looking for something more visual, you can chow through those archives separately, as well as lots of tagging options for building your own workflow. (I’ll post more on my Pocket Pro-Tips soon…)

They now have a premium service for $4.99 a month with archival features, which I would pay for if I didn’t already have Pinboard with that support. (Or if they created my dream media eBook and Audio Book library tool. Or bought PocketCasts or incorporated podcasts and high-speed playback (I know I could probably cobble together an IFTTT for flowing podcasts into Pocket, but native implementation would be awesome), I’d pay for that to have one go-to place for all my ‘news-ish’ / long form / timely reading-listening-watching to do.

It appears they are moving to be more social-focused though, with their new public feed features (which is understandable, social is so hot right now… private digital library collections are so OVER). The new Pocket recommendation feature introduced in August has been pretty freaking fantastic surfacing things I’m deeply interested in but haven’t seen (which is a challenge as much as I read and track my interests) so I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops!


Strategies and best solutions for moving your personal music, photo, video and ebook library archives to the cloud

WhereDidTheSodaGo

After a RIDONKULOUS coffee spill on my laptop (R.I.P) this Fall (Seriously it was a “where did the soda go” scene… full cup, right in the center of the keyboard), I’m rethinking my personal computing strategy (Do I need 2 TB HD for all my personal photos, music, movies, etc.? How can I do this while staying on SSDs for their awesome speed? How much intense video editing (and high RAM, CPU and GPU specs do I need) now that I don’t really work in multimedia anymore? Do I really need the full Adobe Suite?) and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time:

I’m finally surrendering and moving just about everything to the cloud. I’m not going to scorch and burn my hard drive backups, but I’m going to try and rely on them much less, only as emergency archives.

The four biggest hard drive hogs that need to be moved are: 

  • Photos. Especially my digital archive that goes back to … well, the start of digital photography and beyond throughout my career as a journalist back to when I used to do a lot of multimedia and photography. Thousands of travel photos too.
  • Music. Ditto… There’s a lot here since the beginning of digital. Especially a lot of really poor quality mp3s ripped at 96kb from long ago when ripping cds started.
  • Movies/TV/Personal Videos. This is a very random mix of family/friend videos, various Louis CK comedy standup specials I bought for $5 (even those are in the cloud from his site, but he limits how many times you can listen) and other assorted stuff.
  • Books (audio and ebooks). I have hundreds of these and for the most part file sizes are small, but they add up. I’ve wrestled with this challenge before; my digital book library is not very well organized except by high level topics like “Management & Business,” “Design,” “Development,” “Personal Improvement,” etc. I use search for the most part to seek things out.

My strategy and solutions for going to the cloud, trying to manage security, privacy, cost and future-proofness:

  • Music – I already use streaming services for music and most movies/tv video, so … I’m not sure how productive it would be to move everything to a cloud server. I have uploaded specific playlists and curated collections for offline saving into Google Play Music (that allows for offline saving) and so far it’s working well. They seem to be building this platform out to compete with the very intense streaming music market, and add new awesome features like how this year they raised the song upload limit to 50,000 songs up to 300 mb each (great for audio books that sometimes are just 1 big file). They’ve also announced they’re adding support for Podcasts. It will take a lot to tear me away from PocketCasts for podcasts, but if Google adds podcasts, allows playback speed control, AND allows up to 50,000 audiobooks and music, it would be hard to turn that down. (PocketCasts does allow you to upload audio books only through a custom folder on a MicroSD card though, so that kills the feature for about 90% of the mobile phone user base.) 
  • Movies/TV/Personal Videos – Similar to music, I stream most movies/tv now, so there’s not much value to uploading about 100 GB of video. For personal/family movies I’m going to move those to private channels on Youtube. Google keeps building the platform, offer so many data portability and streaming options, it seems pretty future proof and free.
  • Books (audio and ebooks) – I’ve already moved a large portion of my actively read/referenced books to Google Play Books, which allows you up to 1,000 ePubs or PDFs (up to 100 mb each) with pretty decent search, so that covers me. Audio books, I will probably move to Google Music (as previously mentioned) if they add variable speed playback when they add Podcasts to the product.
  • Photos – This brings me to the one area of moving life to “the cloud” that I haven’t really dove deep into — my photo archive. I have a mish-mash on Instagram and Facebook, and auto backups on Dropbox, but my full photo archive is humongous and not organized extremely well (largely around periods of my life based on where I was living, i.e. “St. Louis,” “Chicago,” “Florida,” etc.). Not having my photo archive on some sort of cloud service has probably been the biggest pain point of all of these digital content archives; being able to pull pictures when you need to explain something quickly, like show photos from my epic Halloween party, or remember the name of that Kenya campsite where we saw the elephant outside of our tent in the morning, would be revolutionary! I’ve had all these digital archives that I should have been enjoying, but they’ve essentially ‘been in a shoebox’ (on a hard drive elsewhere) like the photo prison most people’s memories were subjected to before the digital revolution. :) I’ve been shopping around for different options, but I think I’m going to go with Google Photos (I know, it’s kind of ridiculous… I’m handing my entire life over to them!); after reviewing the other options Google Photos is pretty exceptional for a bunch of reasons:

I may regret this, and I’m not throwing away my backup/external hard drives anytime soon. But it’s time I joined everyone in the future and embrace the cloud.

 

To the cloud!


Use a child bike seat on your velocipede for gear, safety and theft prevention

I had a crazy idea this week when I saw a guy truckin’ down Pennsylvania Ave. through traffic on his road bike with a rare accessory: Get a baby bike seat to make your ride more handy.

Here are four major reasons this might be brilliant and useful:

1- Carry gear easily and securely.
If you’re bike commuting or traveling with groceries or some treats for a party, you need somewhere do secure your cargo of various sizes. There’s a lot of racks and saddles and options for storing bike gear, but a kid seat has built in seat belts, can hold up to 30-50 pounds of various sizes and shapes! Plus, you can use it for it’s intended use and carry a kid, if you need to.

#2- Theft protection.
Let’s say you’re a scumbag bike thief and you roll up to a rack of bikes looking for your next victim — are you more likely to steal the dozen without the baby carrier or the one with? Of course you’re not going to steal the baby carrier bike. Also, what parent is going to have a super expensive, fancy or high-value bike? He/she has to save their money for diapers. The dad/ mom-bike thing totally melts away any sexiness of a bike.

#3 – Safety.
If someone sees you* with a kid’s bike seat and they’re not total jerks** I would wager that they might be a little more mindful driving around you and passing you. From behind, they usually can’t see if you have a baby in there, so it has a magical way to get a safety bubble of protection.

* = If someone sees you is the sticking point there since folks in DC often don’t see bicyclists, especially cabbies who often don’t care or tourists who are lost and/or oblivious looking at monuments and not the road.

** = I can’t help you there. Jerks be jerkin’. Maybe put a funny sticker on the back or something to lighten their mood.

Also, I think having the actual seat up high on the back of the bike helps you get more visibility and be a larger thing to see for others (more than one of those kid bike trailers, which is another option). You can load it up with reflectors too — who cares you’re a dad/mom with a baby! You’re not sexy anymore!

#4 – Use it for its intended use and carry a kid to have fun, make memories and inspire a new generation of cyclists.
Get some exercise and adventure and instill a love of biking and respect for bikers with our next generation. My parents weren’t zealots about biking but I do remember riding in my dad’s bike seat as a kid with the cool wind blowing through my hair and sights of our neighborhood and nature whizzing by. That eventually instilled a love of family bike rides and an adult life-long love of biking.


Decluttering your home using the Kondo method

This week I came across an excellent article about a popular decluttering and organizing strategist, Marie Kondo, in Business Insider:

She also has clients in Japan that seek her out to help them tidy their homes. She encourages them to clean everything in one fell swoop and only keep the objects and clothes that they truly love.

“There is an order to follow: 1. clothes, 2. books, 3. documents, 4. miscellaneous items, 5. mementos,” Kondo told Business Insider about her method. “Working in this order, you can improve your judgement and determine which items spark joy.”

She told BI that you can tell when something sparks joy when you “feel your body go upward.” If something doesn’t make you happy when you touch it, Kondo said you should “thank it for its service” and get rid of it.

A lot of her strategies I’ve been employing for years, including the sock balling method but there’s a few pieces of her advice I’m going to pick up and use now — like the shirt stacking strategies.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned, which I think is critical is to only buy/rent enough apartment/house to serve what you need. I find a lot of people are like goldfish and will fill/grow their possessions to whatever space is available. So if you buy a big house, they’ll buy tons of stuff to fill it. The Tiny House movement has been an interesting cultural shift pushing in the opposite direction, and while I’m not that extreme, I do admire and dig learning from their efficiency and living strategies.

Much of her strategies echo a maxim from Ghandi I’ve tried to live by since my teenage years, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”


Amazon Prime — One of My Best Purchases of 2011 (and beyond)

Amazon Prime

One of my best purchases of 2011 was joining Amazon Prime. At first when they announced it the membership sounded too good to be true, paying just over $70 for a year of free, 2-day shipping on most of what Amazon carried? That would pay for itself in 3-4 purchases! And boy did it. It really changed my behavior and made me become an “Amazon-first” customer, frequently checking prices there before making local purchases. (Yes, I know it’s horrible. But the convenience is too addicting!)

It’s changed the world of shopping for me and now roughly 37% of my purchases are through Amazon (which I use the Smile Always plugin to help fund the EFF’s important work), 38% through Costco, and 25% through local stores.

Over the years, Amazon has continued to add more and more extras to Prime members and kept me year-over-year. Besides the two-day shipping and free returns, the most notable, newer benefits include:

Pro tip: The past few weeks Amazon has been HEAVILY touting “Amazon Prime Day” on July 15, 2015 (this week!) with ‘better deals than Black Friday,’ there’s still time to register if you want to give it a try.

Bonus Prime Pro-Tip: If you have a Prime account, you can share the 2-day shipping benefits with up to 4 friends/members of your household! I’m sure this feature will go away at some point once they get everyone hooked on Prime, but while it’s basically free to share, might as well do it.


Iceland travel pro tips (also one of my best purchases for 2014)

The Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik, Iceland towards the end of the 2015 solar eclipse (the timing was total dumb luck).

The Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik, Iceland towards the end of the 2015 solar eclipse (the timing was total dumb luck).

One of my best purchases of 2014 was a trip to Iceland with my brother (which we completed/traveled in 2015). It’d been a long while since we’d adventured together and besides the brother bonding, it was a fantastic expereince — Iceland is amazing. We did a 7-day trip from DC and it was the perfect amount of time to explore but not so much that we were bored. In fact, I’d love to go back again during a different period of the year because it seems like the country changes every three months with the seasons/sun. Here’s a handful of quick pro tips and things I wish someone had told me (or that I had listened to/prepared better ahead of time):

  1. Really research and plan the time of the year you’re going to go — it changes massively every 3 months — from Northern Lights to puffins to daylight, roads / sections of the island closed due to Winter weather. We’d planned to try and arrive around an Equinox, when the Northern Lights are generally at their peak/most active, so we went from March 19-26 (March 20th being the Spring Equinox). We also just happened to be there during a solar eclipse (total dumb luck) which was awesome during the morning of our trip to the Blue Lagoon.
  2. Bring good hiking shoes. Seriously, there’s a lot of hiking to get to the awesome waterfalls.
  3. Bring a good rain coat. Waterfalls are water. There’s also a lot of weather changes, quickly.
  4. Bring warm clothes that you can layer. Seriously. It’s called ICEland for a reason.
  5. Bring a good camera — with a firm tripod. Especially if you really want to capture the Northern Lights. (This was my biggest mistake/regret on this trip.)
  6. Food and drinks in general are quite expensive (even for a DC resident), so plan accordingly. If you can bring in any booze or easily transportable munchies like nuts to cover a meal or something you can save a lot. It’s easily $10-20 per meal, even at the cheaper/less fancy places. If you can’t/won’t bring stuff, hit up the grocery store and explore some of the local cuisine and munchies. Do some picnic breakfasts and lunches and save your self a ton for a daily dinner out. (The restaurants and food is also not that exotic for the most part — mainly English/American/European, so it’s not like you’re missing much by eating a few meals of PB&J).
  7. Hit up the Airport duty-free and city-tax-free booze. My brother read something that recommended doing this and I kind of blew it off as an arrogant, experienced world traveler with a George Costanza stance on Duty-Free, but Iceland is drastically different. If you plan on drinking booze in Iceland, when you get off your plane I’d highly recommend picking something up at the airport duty free shop. (And if you plan on partying a bit while abroad, I might recommend on planning some vorspiel pre-partying in your plans because it’s expensive to drink out in Iceland.)
  8. Buy 6 months ahead of time or in the border seasons and you’ll save half a grand easily. Figure out in general when you want to go a while ahead of time and then watch the travel deal sites. We found a pretty excellent deal through Travelzoo that included air, hotel and two day trips for just over $100 a day each (contingent on double occupancy).
  9. Or do an Iceland Air stopover en route to Europe. Another trip planning option to consider is Iceland Air also offers an awesome option to do a ‘stopover’ in Iceland en route to one of their many European destinations. We were originally going to do that, but found this Travelzoo deal and went with that instead.
  10. Don’t worry about the language. Everyone speaks English (My brother was concerned about this). Sure, things have crazy Icelandic names but language is not a barrier at all.
  11. Check out Sad Cars if you’re going to rent and drive a car around (which you should do). They’re really cheap, super mellow and friendly and you can bring the car back with whatever gas you want (no need to fill it up or fill it to X point like many rental places). It’s kind of like if a Youth Hostel ran a car rental place. They’re not the newest cars, but the savings are worth it. We booked online ahead of time and also saved 15%!
  12. Try the rotten shark, dried fish, Skyr (yogurt), hot dogs with mayo and crunchy onions. It’s a thing. The shark is not as bad as you would think — it just smells bad.
  13. Most of their gas stations are prepay by credit card with no attendants or any help. It’s a little different than most places in the U.S. so make sure you have a credit card that is going to work abroad without issue because there’s no one there to help you most of the time.
  14. Fill up on gas when you can if you’re not going in a high season. Some of the gas stations are few and far between and very small/easily missed.
  15. Reykjavik can really be pretty thoroughly explored in about 48 hours. The museums are ok, but not all ‘must sees’. The most unique one is probably the Penis Museum, which is quirky enough to be worth the admission (the gift shop is reasonably priced too). Most of the other museums and galleries I could take or leave.
  16. Check out the flea market downtown for decently priced souvenirs, random interesting stuff and people watching. Everything is pretty expensive in Iceland (if I haven’t made the clear yet) and souvenirs are no different. If you really, really, really need some Iceland wool, the best price I found was at the Reykjavik Market.
  17. I recommend making your highest priority: Get a car and get out on the outer ring highways exploring Iceland. Stop frequently. We enjoyed that most, by far. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

I should also note, I consider this one the best purchases of 2014 because it was an amazing experience, not only traveling to Iceland, but to travel with my brother, whom I haven’t travelled with in a while. It was fantastic to reconnect and spend time together tooling around the island, like we used to do in out teens taking road trips with friends all over the Midwest and even across the country once. Traveling solo is great, but traveling with someone you care about and connect with is even better.


Pro tip: How to turn on your TV through Chromecast (and some other connected devices)

chromecast

I’m a Chromecast fanatic. Even just for background noise or playing music through my TV, I use it for several hours on most days. One feature that I discovered this winter while looking into HDMI technologies was HDMI-CEC (or HDMI Consumer Electronics Control). This allows an external device plugged into the TV to turn on the TV when the device is activated, saving you a step and warm-up time when you’re using something like Chromecast.

The awesome thing is this isn’t some revolutionary new thing that will take many years to adopt — it’s available on most modern TVs with HDMI — it just sometimes needs to be turned on in the TV options menu and most manufacturers unfortunately try and rebrand it as some fancy new proprietary feature, rather that just calling it the industry standard name. Here’s what to look for in your TV settings (depending on your manufacturer) from Wikipedia:

Trade names for CEC are Anynet+ (Samsung), Aquos Link (Sharp), BRAVIA Link and BRAVIA Sync (Sony), HDMI-CEC (Hitachi), E-link (AOC), Kuro Link (Pioneer), INlink (Insignia), CE-Link and Regza Link (Toshiba), RIHD (Remote Interactive over HDMI) (Onkyo), RuncoLink (Runco International), SimpLink (LG), T-Link (ITT), HDAVI Control, EZ-Sync, VIERA Link (Panasonic), EasyLink (Philips), and NetCommand for HDMI (Mitsubishi)

Not all external devices support this, but Chromecast certainly does, so I hope this saves you a few seconds, searching for the remote and some button pushing in your daily to make living more seamlessly and enjoyable. :)


Go with the cheap wine — experts, normal people agree you can’t tell the difference based on price

Vox did a great piece comparing statistical research, blind tastings and analysis of wines at different price points and qualities and turned up something I suspected: Basically no one could tell a difference.

What’s even more interesting, in some of their results, the most expensive bottles were often *least* liked. I’ve debated this with some friends who are certified wine sommeliers and even syndicated wine columnists but never had the statistics to back it up since flavor is often a matter of personal preference. So treat your self to some fine boxed wine.

Don’t follow my methods though; I tend to buy based on the artwork and description, which is probably even less of a test for the quality of the wine. :)


Samsung 1 TB SSD hard drive one of the — One of My Best Purchases of 2014

Samsung SSD

In 2014, after many years of delaying, I took the plunge and switched out my mechanical hard drive for an SSD and will never buy another mechanical hard drive in my life. I went for one of the big ones too — a 1 TB Samsung SSD — so that I could travel with all my files on one computer (I still do external backups occasionally). There’s even a new “Pro” version with a 10 year warranty for those of you out there concerned about the longevity of this ‘new’ (not really anymore) technology.

This is definitely one of the greatest purchases of 2014 and has extended the live of my laptop at least another two-three years before I will probably have to upgrade. By that point, I suspect all most all computers will be running SSD drives. (After doing a bunch of computer shopping this past week for an upgrade for my mom, I found many companies are already switching over and the choice seems to be have an optical drive and traditional hard drive or an SSD-driven computer.

The major benefits:

  • Speed, by far, is the biggest benefit for everything involving memory or hard drive space
  • Productivity/efficiency (because of the speed)
  • Heat/weight/cooling are all supposed to be better, but I don’t notice
  • Cost is going down (still SSDs are much more than mechanical) but price has improved hugely over the past two years

Even if your budget only allows for a small hard drive or even one of the hybrid models, I highly, highly recommend getting in on this SSD party.


LastPass password manager & security tools — One of My Best Purchases of 2011

Lastpass

One of my best purchases of 2011 was buying a premium subscription to LastPass, a digital password management tool, and it has made my life much, much more secure, efficient and saved my sanity — especially with all the passwords I have to remember/save for personal life, work and all my side projects. I know there’s a lot of other options out there like the wildly popular 1Password, but I just dig the LastPass integration much better and haven’t looked back.

Here’s 5 reasons why LastPass rules:

  1. Their syncing across desktop and mobile devices is fantastic.
  2. The integration, granular control and auto-fillers for the desktop and Android are top notch and stay out of my way but enrich and speed up my experience.
  3. The thumb-print unlock feature on Apple is really excellent too — no more passwords ever! (Not really, but close.)
  4. Their security challenge is bad ass and incredibly helpful to assess if you have duplicates or unsecure passwords. And as we previously discussed, having rock solid passwords is one of the biggest ways to protect yourself from getting hacked.
  5. It’s a good deal — only $12 a year. ($1 a month!) I’m actually planning on buying and installing this for my mom as a gift to help protect her and make things more secure on her devices, and for only $12 a month it provides great piece of mind.

I almost want to call this a ‘Buy it for Life’ item, but the Internet decays so quickly who knows. :)


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