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Life, Times, and Nonsensical Blathering

That's right. I used the word 'blathering'.

Seventeenth time's the charm
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Another week, another series of posts eaten by LJ. The hunt for an alternative blogging site is back on. I am open to suggestion. I'll see if I can pull from memory.

Labor Day weekend featured my first legitimate guest to my condo. Sure it was a parent, but I'm counting it. Most of the day was spent shopping, with housewarming gifts covering most of the essentials that were lacking prior to the weekend. The haul included new dishes, pots and pans, a toaster, can opener, and waffle maker, a sealable Pyrex set, some mats, a few bathroom accessories, some solar lights, and silverware, not counting things I have forgotten since then (like cutting boards, measuring cups, etc). I even found a patio furniture set that was just small enough to fit in Matt's car. Aside from mistaking a seatbelt for a handbrake (and Olive Garden being Olive Garden), it was a pretty good weekend. I got to show my mother some of downtown Bloomington with breakfast at the Village Deli. No Hartzell's dessert, but there should be future opportunities for that. It was nice having people over. All I need is a dining room table (the lady friend may be able to provide one while I scout); two stools at the counter limits my guest options.

More on the way (hopefully). Didn't want one post to span too long of a stretch.

These disappearing posts are starting to get annoying
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A post from earlier this week went missing. I'll dig around for it and put it up. In the meantime, here's a completely new post.

Things are progressing with a recent venture. Another large step to take today with quite a few more on the horizon. There's been a delay on my end which has me growing concerned. There was some amount of time pressure before, but the clock is about to start with rigid milestones. If I don't see a progress update by the end of the week, I'll have to make a few concerned phone calls to see what the hold up is. There are about two months of panicking and running around before things will hopefully settle down. Otherwise, I might go insane.

In other news, we have a meeting here next week during which I have a presentation to give. Getting my stuff together has been quite the adventure. The slides had to be submitted for review on Monday; I had completed mine before I left last week. Or so I thought. Several different people provided several different, often contradictory modifications. Some were reasonable while others weren't. The latter include things like forging a report to make our system look better, including a full copy of a database we use rather than a slide-friendly screenshot, and not including a "SAMPLE" banner across a slide that was not a "SAMPLE". The dry run went about as well as could be expected. We have 30 minutes to present so the dry run was targeted at the same time limit; ours took nearly two hours because of all of the additions we were told to throw in and addressing why some of the proposed changes weren't made (to which I tactfully replied "time constraints" rather than "reality"). This will be fun.

Speaking of which, one of the attached buildings to the one I work in does not have A/C that is operational. In response, they've propped open the doors that connect their building to ours. The result of this action is a continuous flow of heat into our area which proves too much for our A/C to combat. It didn't take long for the mugginess to make the workplace very uncomfortable. Every time we'd close their doors, some jackass would open them again. They're doing it again today.

Looks like Monday's got a case of the someones
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Notes from earlier: Survived the trip home from that already annoying travel assignment last month. Had a visit from the little brother; mostly just bummed around and drank beer, including a 2011 Sam Adams Utopias. Missed fireworks shows due to weather and questionable gate practices at the site. Did nothing of consequence.

I've got something going on as well, but it is in the early stages currently with no well-defined result or endpoint. For now, that's all that will be said on the subject and I'd appreciate it if those in the know would keep it to themselves.

The lady friend and I went out to see the new Transformers movie. The action was good. The plot and acting, notsomuch. There were some stylistic (or editing catastrophies claimed to be for effect) moves that didn't work, such as when the sound and video cut out for a couple of seconds in the middle of an action scene. No context or explanation there. Overall, it wasn't awful, however keeping any portion of your brain on while watching it will result in your face becoming intimately familiar with your palm.

In other news, my Nexus One has been taken off life support. The reset frenzy had become more and more frequent, to the point where even browsing the web would cause it to overheat. A last ditch effort, a full factory restore, did nothing to fix the issue. An order for a replacement device was placed with reliance on the backorder delay providing sufficient time to mull other options. In the meantime, my freshly rooted Dell Streak took over. That reign didn't last long, though, with the order shipping last week (only days into the 1-3 month wait) and arriving on Friday. The age of the Galaxy S II has begun. A review is in the works, but I will say that the GSII is fine replacement for the fallen handset.

The inactive Post button follows me when I travel
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Travel wasn't as pleasant as it could have been, but I got to my destination in the end. Both flights got delayed because neither flight had secured a flight crew prior to the scheduled departure time. Is this common? The second flight got a little bonus in that they didn't account for the weight of the half-full craft; the solution was to leave the co-pilot behind. I don't usually fly with that airline and I certainly don't look forward to doing it again (although I have no choice on the return). The rental car wasn't completely free of interestingness. They were completely out of compacts, so I got a free "upgrade". Sadly, that ended up being a Prius. The lot at the airport wasn't well labeled so they emphasized that I was looking for a white version of that hybrid. There wasn't one. I found a black and a gray one, but no white. A quick Panic button check showed that the rental company thinks dark gray and white are the same color. I called back to the desk to make sure, but they confirmed that the "white" car was the one to be rented. The hotel isn't bad, but the room wasn't very clean. There was trash on the tables and counters when I arrived.

As for the car itself, I don't like it. It defaults to "Eco Mode" which mean accelerating required a couple of miles to reach highway speeds. The gear lever looks like a toy and the layout is certainly non-standard. I hate the split in the rear window that cuts visibility and required a double-take when adjusting the mirrors. There are too many buttons that look and feel the same so it takes concentration to change the radio station versus lowering the temperature. Too many ports are hidden. The running lights are too dim when the headlights are on. But I did get good gas mileage. Even at ~65mpg, I still don't think it's worth the aggravation of having to actually drive that piece of crap.

Anyway, I skipped lunch during my layover so food is needed. It looks like I'm not too far from a small shopping center that should be helpful in this regard. (Since this didn't post yesterday, I can add that there was a Ruby Tuesday in that shopping center. There were a few of the usual problems such as unlisted tomato ingredients, soda lines crossed, and a lack of silverware, but they did have the Nadal-Del Potro game on, so it wasn't all bad.)

Six-month-iversary if I failed to Minchin it before
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Six months ago this past Saturday, the lady friend and I went out on our first date. Always open for things to do, she found out that our favorite Australian comedian, Tim Minchin, had a series of performances in Chicago, the last of which was, coincidentally, this past Saturday. We jumped on getting tickets and then started making plans to put them to use. We left early Saturday morning, stopping for breakfast with my mother on the way, checking into the hotel that afternoon, and spending the rest of the night near the theater. There was a parking spot right across from Lincoln Hall which worked out quite well. We killed some time walking around that area and grabbing a snack at a donut/cookie shop down the road. Dinner was at this place called Fiesta Mexicana which was an upscale-ish (square plates) Mexican restaurant. LF got a taco salad with pulled chicken (well-spiced) in a home-made, flaky tortilla bowl. I went with a pasta dish that featured bacon-wrapped shrimp and a chipotle garlic-parmesean sauce. Yummy.

Lincoln hall has a small bar/restaurant in the front with the small auditorium (with balcony) behind it. They had a decent beer selection so we hopped across the way to get there early for a pre-show drink. The line-cutters were out in force, so the seats near the front were full by the time we got inside. There were only about 8-10 rows of folding chairs on a flat floor, but there was also a row of padded (tall) bar chairs against the back wall, in front of the raised camera/control platform. Thanks to the higher chairs, we had a perfect view of the stage. Even sitting in the back wasn't a handicap; the venue was so small (~250 people and 8-10 rows of seats) that the back row was still close to the stage.

The show was amazing. He did the unofficial theme song for LF and I ("If I Didn't Have You") among other favorites, along with a few songs we had never heard before ("Cont" was pure brilliance: Comedy Central Link). It was one of the first times I got to hear his little stand-up bits which were also hilarious. Youtube does not do the man justice. If you get the chance to see him live, do it; it's worth every penny. His beat poem "Storm", recently added to youtube with an animated video, was the highlight of the night, possibly my favorite of his compositions to date.

After the show, thanks to us sitting in the back, we were among the first to leave the auditorium to find seating. The bar was full, but a table near the theater doors was vacant so we pounced on it. Tim Minchin emerged a few minutes later not far from that table to meet and greet the fans. He approached, but turned to face the other way before he reached us. LF was chatting to the folks sitting behind her and didn't notice. I tapped on her arm to get her attention and turned to see Tim Minchin with a beaming smile facing the two of us. We were both, I might add, wearing shirts purchased just before the show bearing the man's face. After some short banter and a photo op, he set his canvas bag and wine on our table and used that area as his base of operations. He was within an arm's length for the next couple of hours, taking the time to continue chatting with us once and again. It was awesome.

We got back to the hotel around 3 or so (CT mind you) and went right to bed. We slept in the next morning to give our next stop a chance to open. Three Floyd's has been a favorite brewery of ours and their brew pub was just 15 miles or so down the road. We got there as it opened and stayed there to try some of their on-site-only beers (Shark Pants, Eben-Agaen(?), and Thick White Freeks). We picked up a growler of their "Evil Power" imperial Pilsner for this Tuesday's beer school at Yogi's. We made it back to town around 7 last night, having spent the entire weekend celebrating the 6-month-iversary, but it was so very worth it.

Samsung Series 5 with Chrome OS: Driving the future of netbooks
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I got to play around with my Samsung Series 5 Chromebook with 3G for the entire weekend. To test it out, it became my primary portal to the internet. The Chromebook is brilliant and you probably won't want one.

Chromebooks are netbooks, as a glance at a hardware spec sheet will reveal, but not like the cheap subnotebooks you are used to seeing at your local electronics store. Netbooks were born out of the idea of providing a low cost, highly portable window to the web and at the time they were fairly successful. Then Intel's Atom gave way to Windows-based netbooks which shifted them to little more than miniature, underpowered laptops. Hardware development stagnated, prices failed to decrease, and the perceived system speed dropped, especially relative to full-sized counterparts. Chromebooks focus on the cornerstone of the original netbook: quick, convenient internet access. To accomplish this, Google created Chrome OS.

Review of both Chrome OS and the Samsung Series 5 ChromebookCollapse )

Liked:
-Amazing battery life
-Build and display quality
-Speed of Chrome OS
-Security

Disliked:
-Limited functionality of Chrome OS, moreso when not connected to the internet
-Price seems a bit high considering netbook internals
-Too much listed as Coming Soon
-Poor HD video playback

Final Thoughts:
If you are in the market for a netbook, skip it and not just because more powerful full-sized laptops are available at the same price range. If you are already looking at a portable, less featured machine, the Chromebook is most certainly worth your consideration. The Series 5 in particular combines surprisingly good build quality, a much better screen than any netbook and even most laptops, fantastic battery life, nearly instant start up, optional 3G with the limited free data, and a not-too-unreasonable $429 starting price ($499 for 3G), not to mention the new OS and the peace of mind it brings with cloud storage should your machine ever need replacement.

The Samsung Series 5 with 3G launches in the US on 6/15 for $499. The WiFi only version will launch later for $429. Acer's Cromia 3G and WiFi Chromebooks have not been given firm release dates by the time of posting this review. Their retail prices are $449 and $379, respectively.

Go see Super 8
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I could probably talk about the recently arrived Samsung Series 5 Chromebook and Asus Transformer dock, but I wanted to post something on Super 8 which officially released in theaters today. The lady friend and I went to an almost-midnight showing at 12:05 this morning to check it out.

I loved it. Even the inevitably cheesy final act couldn't get me to walk away less than entertained. The older you are (to a point) the better it will be as the film's setting at the end of the 70's is done as perfectly as I imagine it could be. The main characters are interesting, three-dimensional (most of them), and immediately help draw you in. Despite the tense atmosphere of the plot, the generous portion of humor throughout spurred more than a few laughs from the audience and, more impressively, never felt forced or shoe-horned into the script. Special effects are top notch and I found that the action was done well enough to distract from the implausibility of certain events.

I won't say anything about the plot. The trailers have all been teasers and after seeing the movie myself, I can understand why. The less you know, the better. Do yourself a favor and give it a go. I can't imagine you'll be too disappointed.

Amazon's $3 million gamble
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A major news outlet learned that a recent Amazon stunt may have cost the online retailer upwards of $3 million. The ploy in question was a sale on the MP3 download of Lady Gaga's new album on its launch day, and again two days later, allowing customers to purchase it for just 99-cents. Over 440K sales were made with $8-9 in licensing fees per download owed to the record label. The news anchors had a good laugh and poked fun at Amazon for being unable to perform simple math. Coworkers also listening in also laughed. As did I, but I was laughing at the moron on TV. The sale was utterly brilliant.

You can say a lot of things about Lady Gaga and her music, but it sells. Amazon isn't stupid. They knew this and probably set aside several million dollars just for this stunt. The encore appearance of the sale supports this theory. They didn't come close to burning through that reserve and opened it again. If they were concerned about losing money, there is absolutely no way they would have offered the sale a second time.

The question then is why Amazon would take such a loss. It's all about the cloud. Amazon has been a major player competitor to iTunes for some time and has been struggling to tear market share away from the media giant. They went DRM-free first, offer a free MP3 each day, and recently started offering certain tracks for 69-cents. The discounted music wasn't like the obscure, lesser-liked budget songs on iTunes, but bestsellers and chart-toppers. Still, Amazon MP3 plays second fiddle. The newest and perhaps most important addition to Amazon's strategies is Cloud Player.

Cloud Drive is the name Amazon gave their online storage service. Any music stored in that space can be streamed over WiFi or cellular data via Cloud Player, included in an update to Amazon MP3 apps on Android and, more recently, iOS. Every member get 5GB of space for free with additional available for purchase on a yearly basis. At least for the time being, Amazon is including a free upgrade to 20GB with the purchase of any digital album from their store. On top of that, any MP3 purchases are automatically added to your Cloud Drive and don't count against your usage.

"Born This Way" qualified and Amazon made it quite clear that the discounted purchase included both perks. Amazon spent $3 million on a two-day advertising campaign for their cloud services. With such a high saturation of smartphone users (with Android and iPhones being the top sellers) and no additional investment needed to take advantage of Cloud Player, every sale provided one more person likely to try it out. With music being roughly the same price as other e-tailers, the free streaming included with each purchase presents a great value, one that Apple currently cannot match.

Apple is almost certainly ready to launch or at least announce their competing service, iCloud, next week. Rumors are all we have, but it will most certainly have a few disadvantages compared to Cloud Drive. First is the cost. Rumors seem to agree that iCloud won't be free, at least not for long. It is also suggested (believably) that the only music eligible for streaming is that bought on iTunes; you won't be able to upload rips from CDs or MP3s purchased elsewhere, although there may be some workaround for subscribers to their $99/year MobileMe. Lastly, Apple doesn't like cross-platform support and there is virtually no chance that Android users will be able to utilize their streaming service. Google, too, is entering the streaming game, but their approach is a bit different. They, like Amazon, allow uploads of personal music (up to 20,000 songs) and stream to Android devices and web browsers. Like iCloud, the service will eventually require a paid subscription (the beta is currently free). It stands alone in that it doesn't have a music store attached to it.

Compared to the competition, Amazon's lone failing is the lack of record label support, but that hasn't stopped it so far. Other than that, Cloud Player and Cloud Drive are certainly worth advertising. For those who do end up using them, the free streaming, both in cost and storage, may be enough to warrant additional Amazon MP3 purchases over iTunes and physical media. Time will tell whether or not the promotion worked in this regard, but, if nothing else, it gave over 440,000 a very good reason to try it out.

More tech news and notes
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The Playstation Network (PSN) and Store are both back online, but curiously missing is the free content that was supposed to be made available to customers as a form of apology. There is no indication of any free period of PSN+, their pay service that includes Store discounts and cloud saving, instead my brief session was bombarded with advertisements trying to sell service. I chalk down the revival of their infrastructure as a "meh". And if you hadn't heard, there was yet another attack and breach on a Sony site. This time, the hackers made off with personal info including names, DOBs, passwords (stored in plaintext), and addresses. The fact that Sony isn't doing a company-wide security overhaul is cause for concern. Worse, is that despite the recent wave of attacks on their sites/databases, they still have some of their passwords stored without any encryption and all of this data was supposedly obtained from a basic SQL injection. Color me just a bit worried about Sony's dedication to security.

After work, I finally got some time to sit down and play around with Honeycomb 3.1 on my Asus Transformer. The animations and transitions are noticeably smoother. The lock screen is responsive, the app drawer renders quickly, and there is now little to no slowdown when moving between homescreens. Scrolling quickly through webpages (assisted by a new scroll slider) flickers quite a bit, though. A curious omission was the movie rental service that was supposedly included in 3.1, accessible from the Market. After poking around for a while, I can safely say that it's not there. Also missing is my GMail widget; admittedly, I have an adversion to my emails on display from the homescreen, so I never really used it. I can resize certain widgets, limited to Google's own for the moment, and the feature works. Moving on. There is additional support for USB devices, but without the USB-equipped keyboard dock, I can't test it.

What I was able to do is leverage the fact that I have a working Tegra 2 tablet to experiment on my other Tegra 2 tablet, the Viewsonic gTablet. Official support has been...less than stellar, and I was unfortunate enough to unbox mine the day they released their 1.2-4349 firmware update. That update, in addition to introducing some new bugs, included a locked bootloader which made hacking efforts significantly more difficult. Even simple hacks such as adding Google apps had inconsistent results forcing some invovled software surgery to revive. The update was quickly pulled by Viewsonic (as they did with their previous 1.2-xxxx update), but many had already applied the package. A downgrade installer was eventually released by some folks at xda that brought it back to an earlier release that had plenty of support from custom ROM devs. Last night, I downgraded my gTablet which brought my tab to the same software version as the one I gave to my lady friend back in April. That version was the target of much custom work. Keeping it simple (and LF-friendly), I used my tablet as the guinea pig for the "enhancement" pack. It includes some minor fixes ported over from some custom ROMs as well as the official Android Market. The steps took a bit of time, but none of them were actually difficult. At the end of the day, I had the Market up and running. To my surprise, not only were my purchased apps listed, but even the THD (Tegra 2 specific) ones were there. On top of that, they installed without issue and ran beautifully. I'm only disappointed I waited so long to test this.

From yesterday (should stop assuming Post button works)
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The lady friend and I took a trip over to the Peoria, IL area to hang out with a bro and his wife. The weather didn't like cooperating and the nearby hippie music festival essentially blocked off part of town, but we made the most of it. We got to do a little bit of drinking (tried Left Hand's "Good JuJu", a sibling of their awesome "Bad Mojo", which came with a free pint glass), some Kinect, and both at the same time. We all went to the Zoo on Sunday and managed to see just about everything by the time the storms came back. Mostly, though, there was just sitting around and relaxing.

I had mentioned that a recent car service revealed that my tires were in needed of replacement before too long. Tuesday morning, I was refueling at the nearby gas station when I espied a rather large bulge in one of the tires. Rather than chance another 60 miles for the daily commute, I opted to take the day off to get new tires. Sams Club's tire center wasn't manned when I passed through and Walmart didn't have any of that size. Pep Boys, though, did have a set along with a buy three get one free promo. I found out later that it was free after mail-in-rebate, but the folks there were pretty damned awesome and just gave me the discount right there and then. Other than taking a bit longer than they quoted, it worked out well.

Last month, Google announced the next Android tablet update, Honeycomb 3.1. It was immediately pushed to Verizon Xoom tablets with the WiFi-only Xoom getting it shortly after. About a week later, both Acer and Asus stated they were already working on porting the update for their respective slates for release in June. At least Asus wasn't fooling around. The update went live starting on the 31st of May, reaching my Eee Pad Transformer sometime last night. I haven't gotten much time at all to test it, but I can say that my GMail widget is missing. But there is added smoothness for much of it along with the ability to save web pages in the browser. My favorite change so far, though, is the multitask stack. It used to display the five most recently used apps as thumbnails which you could tap easily switch to it. It worked well, but even stock Android 2.x tracked the last eight. The new stack in 3.1 looks the same, but is now scrollable for much more than five apps. I'll play around with it more this afternoon/evening to see what else is different, if anything.

Although the update took a while to show up, even longer has been the Chromebook. I signed up for the Cr-48 test program back in the day, but was not selected. Sadness. The first retail Chromebooks hit shelves on 6/15. I got a couple of emails concerning the upcoming launch and my prior interest in the program. As a thank you for earlier support, a small allotment of Chromebooks (white Samsung Series 5's with 3G) were made available via invitation for an early shipment. There was no discount or bonus other than a limited edition sleeve and receiving them up to a full week before retail availability. They "sold out" quickly but many got recycled in the system since the order had to be completed within ten minutes of adding an item to a cart. I managed to snag one even though it was listed as a waitlist item by the time I got to the site. The other email has been the topic of some discussion, but my verdict is that it was not well written. It made it seem like I could get one under the original terms of the test program (read: free), but after several readings and order details, it looks like I have merely a chance of receiving a partial or full refund after some amount of time based on timely transmission of certain (anonymous) usage data and feedback reports. I'm not especially annoyed by it, though. I've been very interested in Chromebooks so far and the two years of free/bundled data (just up to 100MB) isn't a horrible perk. Worse comes to worse, I get a pretty sweet looking cloud netbook.

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