Personal Thursday Oops It’s Friday Edition: Things I Recommend

Oct 24

Okay, okay, so I missed a Personal Thursday. But it’s always Thursday somewhere, right?

Instead of some kind of long, well-composed entry on something personal today, you’re getting a bullet-pointed list of things that I’m really digging right now. If any of them seem like they’re up your alley, give em a try!

Book: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I read this book after a recommendation I read on a blog and man it was good. You can read the blurb on the cover or on the book-purchasing website of your choice, so I’ll skip that and instead tell you that it has some excellent SF world-building, well-executed use of flashbacks, linguistic details that warmed the cockles of my ex-ling-grad-student heart, and an interesting use of Ursula K. LeGuin-style gender ambiguity. The sequel, Ancillary Sword, just came out and I can’t wait till I have time to read it.

Music: Guardians of the Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 1. Okay look, I haven’t seen this movie because I don’t go out to movies but I know the basic details behind this mix. It’s a fun listen, and great upbeat music to work to. Also, it has the Baby Seal of Approval (seriously, my fourteen-month-old loves it).

Video Game: Elder Scrolls Online. This is an MMORPG entry in the Elder Scrolls series (of which Skyrim of “arrow in the knee” fame was the previous installment) and it’s my current game obsession. On my therapist’s advice I’m making sure to include some video game time in my schedule almost every day, and this is what I’m spending it on. The graphics are fittingly pretty for a Skyrim followup, the voice acting is great, you don’t have to interact with other players if you don’t need to, and best of all it’s better than any other MMO I’ve played at actually, you know, telling a story. With other games I’ve stayed up late to finish a quest because I wanted the reward for finishing it or whatever — with ESO I’ve stayed up late to finish a quest because dammit I want to find out what happens! Also notable is the inclusion of LGBT characters in the game. Not just in the “you can marry characters regardless of gender” sense but in the “my female character got asked if she was trying to marry the countess”, “lizard lady asked me to look for her injured girlfriend,” “helped a man rescue his husband” sense. There are actual, canonical gay/bi NPCs in this game and it makes me happy. See game companies? Diversity is not fucking hard. Also, John Cleese is in it. This game could be an blog entry of its own but as you might imagine I don’t want to write too much about games right now.

Coffee: Sun-Dried Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (Starbucks). That’s what I’m drinking right now as I write this — brewed on the Clover machine, two pumps of classic syrup, and some half-and-half. It’s got a very interesting and complex flavor. It’ll set you back some extra cashmonies, being a Reserve coffee, but it’s very tasty.

Hobby: Learning to Sew. I’m still doing this and guys, it’s fun. Even IKEA sells an inexpensive sewing machine and fabric by the yard! Even if all you end up sewing is rectangly things (that’s pretty much all I do with crochet), who doesn’t need more pillowcases and napkins? I even have a pretty good pattern for a reusable grocery bag, and since I live in a plastic-bag-ban area that’s always a bonus. It’s a lot easier for me to fit in some sewing here and there than knitting, which is more time-consuming.

TV show: Sleepy Hollow. I haven’t gotten a chance to watch this season but I watched last season (mostly late at night while sitting up with the baby) and it’s fun. It has the kind of story you come up with late at night when you’re hanging out with your buddies and hyper as hell. Every time you think it’s getting a little over the top, it gets even crazier. The leads have a nice Scully/Mulder vibe (and one of the leads is a black woman — ridiculously rare on US TV!) and it balances well between humor and drama. When I first started watching, I felt like they spilled too many beans in the pilot. Beans that should have been trickled out over the course of the first season. But as time went on I discovered that they spilled all those beans right away because they had a HUGE stock of beans still left to go! Good lord. It does suffer from lazy writing here and there (Lt. Mills: “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” VERY NEXT SCENE: Lt. Mills: [talks about it in great detail, with flashbacks]) so if failures in writing quality make you itch it might not be the show for you. Elsewise, give it a try — and start from the beginning.

 

So there you go. My unsolicited and possibly dubious opinions on things that I like, right at this moment. They’re not my favorites of all time … who can really pick a single favorite book ever? … but if you wanna try something new and you think like me, give ’em a shot.

 

What about you guys? What’s your favorite things right now?

 

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Personal Thursday: Chromebook Blather

Oct 16

Since it’s come up a few times on Twitter and people ask: Yep, I have a Chromebook. A bright teal HP Chromebook with a 16GB SSD and a Rapunzel sticker covering up the HP logo. In fact, my first non-rectangular sewing project was to make a nice slim bag to put it in.

It’s not my primary machine. As a lifelong computer addict who lives with a professional programmer/sysadmin, I have a tendency to collect and hoard electronics. My main machine is still my trusty Macbook Pro, followed by my homebuilt Windows 7 gaming box and my Windows 7 work laptop.

So with all that stuff lying around, why did I get the Chromebook? Well, my other machines were bought for power. But sometimes, you don’t want power. Sometimes you just want something to eff around on the internet with and maybe get some simple writing done. Sometimes you want a laptop where, if you break it or lose it or it gets stolen, you just go “damn” and deactivate it from accessing your Google account, instead of having a Very Bad Day. I snagged it for about two hundred on a Woot deal, and (like all HP Chromebooks) it comes with a moderate amount of free T-Mobile internets for life. I spend most of my laptop time in places with wifi, but knowing I have backup internets in case that doesn’t work out is nice.

What the hell is a Chromebook, you may be asking. Well, think of it like this — it’s a laptop that runs a web browser, and that’s all. Oh, there’s some apps and such, and they’re working on getting Android apps to run on it, but everything is based around the Chrome browser. The thing is, you can do a lot with just a web browser these days. Games, streaming video, writing, spreadsheets, etc etc etc blah blah blah. I have a ton of stuff open on my Macbook but what gets 75% of my time? Chrome. What gets the rest? Mostly my IM client and iTunes. And if I’m sitting at Starbucks, with an iPod for my music and Trillian for Web handling my IMs … yeah, I pretty much just need the browser. So the Chromebook works great for that.

If you’re wondering whether to get one, my advice is this — think very carefully about what you need it for and how you would use it. Try running your regular computer with nothing open but Chrome, and get everything done that you need to. Think about how often you are around wifi, and how much mobile data you might need. Figure out how much you would want to actually keep locally on the machine, instead of grabbing it from the internet. These things have very limited storage; you can get some extra with an SD card, but if you need to keep a ton of stuff handy for instant access it may not be enough.

Chromebooks are inexpensive, but a two hundred dollar laptop is only worth two hundred dollars if it does what you need it to. I could never use this as my main computer — no Skype, limited multi-client IM options, limited desktop-like apps, no Scrivener (what I wouldn’t give for cloud-based Scrivener!), none of the big video games I like to play, cheap-feeling keyboard, no place to put the tons of TV shows I’ve gotten from iTunes or the digital copies that came with some of my Blu-rays.

But when I just want to, oh let’s just say, sit at Starbucks typing up a quick Personal Thursday blog post with minimal distractions … it fits the bill pretty well.

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Mini-Review: Verismo espresso machine (Starbucks)

May 31

First off, the important info: I’m calling this a “mini” review because I don’t actually own a Verismo, nor am I high enough in Google rankings that I can get free stuff or loaners for reviews. This is based on my research and on a demo I got at my local Starbucks.

So, if you’ve been in a Starbucks this year you might have noticed the prominent advertising and display of the Verismo espresso machine. The ad copy says it’s Starbucks quality beverages in the comfort of your own home, super quick and easy. But what is it and how does it work?

The basics: This is a home espresso machine similar to a Keurig “K-Cup” machine — meaning, it takes handy little “pods” and makes drinks out of them, one at a time. What makes it different from a Keurig is that it makes espresso (I’ll admit, I’m not 100% sure whether it really fits the definition of espresso or whether it just brews super-strong coffee from the pods) as well as milk-based drinks like lattes. To make a latte, you put a coffee pod and a milk pod in the machine, push a button, and very soon after you’re sipping a small latte.

The coffee pods are available in several popular Starbucks coffee varieties, and the milk pods are, as far as I can tell, plain 2% powdered milk. There’s some packages that contain both coffee pods and milk pods, so you don’t have to buy them separately.

How does it taste? Not bad at all. My expectations were low — I mean come on, reconstituted milk in a latte? — but the latte itself was fairly tasty. I’ve been served worse by coffee shops with actual espresso machines. This is not a vending machine latte but a decently brewed drink.

The pros:

  • Very easy to use
  • Very easy to clean up (just throw the pods away)
  • Makes pretty good drinks
  • Pods are available in different Starbucks roasts
  • Makes a single serving with no wasted coffee or milk
  • Looks nice on your countertop
  • Not too loud
  • Cheaper than buying the same drinks at Starbucks

The cons:

  • Throwing away used pods creates extra waste
  • You have to buy the pods from Starbucks, and you only get so many per package (compare this to buying a pound of coffee for a regular espresso machine)
  • If the pods become scarce or are discontinued, your machine is a paperweight
  • Not much variety in milk choices and little control over how the milk turns out (no extra-dry soy cappuccinos!)
  • Not the cheapest machine on the market

Should I buy one? It depends on your needs. This could be a very useful machine for situations in which you’d use a Keurig K-cup machine — in an office, for example, where having a full espresso machine with steaming pitcher and pounds of coffee is not very practical. It might also be useful for people with limited hand strength or mobility, who would like to make espresso drinks at home but can’t always wrangle the equipment necessary. Or if you just want a super-simple, fast, no-fuss way to get a nice drink.

Personally, I passed on it. The idea of having to buy the pods, and then throw the used pods away, wasn’t very appealing — especially at that price point. For all the hype I was expecting something a little more akin to the machines Starbucks itself uses, which automatically grind beans and pull shots. I’m sticking with my simple, inexpensive Delonghi espresso machine and the occasional … okay, more than occasional trip to Starbucks.

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Misadventures in phone purchasing

May 26

I have unusual cell phone buying habits for an American. I prefer to buy phones up front, unbranded, from third-party retailers for minimal pre-installed crap. No contract obligations, no “pay it off over your next several bills”, I just get a phone, slap a SIM card in it, and I’m good.

This is partly because my last few phones have been what I call “obscure hipster phones” — little-known models you can’t generally get at your local carrier store. If you go to the Nokia Live theater, they have a display of Nokia phones throughout the years … and not a single one of the Nokias I’ve owned are in the list*.

But as much as I love Nokias, it gets a little tiresome having obscure phones. And since Nokia threw the N9 under the bus in favor of the Windows Lumias, I was faced with a choice between sticking with Nokia and submitting to their hasty change to Windows, or getting an even more obscure hipster phone called Jolla. After much research, I decided to go for option C: get a phone with a widely-supported OS that hasn’t been abandoned by the manufacturer. Namely, the Nexus 4.

I knew T-mobile was selling the Nexus 4, so I called my local store to see if they had some in stock — they did. As soon as I walked in, the customer service guy asked me if I was the person who’d called, and went to grab a 16GB phone from the back. I asked if it was branded and filled with pre-loaded crap. “Nope, this is straight from Google.” Awesome. Then I asked the price. “It’s $49 up front, plus $17 off your next –” No no, how much if I pay for the whole thing right now? “$457”. Does that include tax and fees and whatnot? “Nope.”

… wat. $457? When pretty much everyone who wants a Nexus knows you can get it from Google for a hundred bucks less??

Now, I was willing to pay a markup for the convenience of having the phone right now, instead of having it shipped. And I like giving my money to local shops so at least a little of the money might stay in my community. But I am not paying a whole extra hundred bucks on a $350 phone for no reason.

And just like that, T-mobile lost the easiest sale they would’ve had all month. I knew what I wanted, I was ready to pay for the whole thing right there, they didn’t have to sell me on it or anything. But instead of getting their markup, they got $0**. Good job, beancounters.

Happened to be at Fry’s a little later, and checked their phone racks. If I read their crappy signage right (and let’s face it, at Fry’s that’s a big if) they were selling it for $550. Two hundred dollars over Google’s widely-advertised price. Even Newegg has a $100 markup on it. The cheapest price I found was some random retailer on Amazon — and if I’m looking at Amazon, I might as well buy from Google anyway since I’m not gonna save shipping time.

So in the end, Google got my money. I know situations like mine are rare, and most Americans have no idea of the real cost of their smartphones. But really? Nobody’s even gonna come close to Google’s price? There’s gotta be some weird kind of reseller agreement or something going on, because that’s just straight up weird.

And just for a little icing on the nerd cake, when trying to purchase the phone I found a bug in the Google Play store’s Wallet integration. Because when you do QA for a living, bugs come out of the woodwork at a moment’s notice. I’m like the pied piper of crappy code.

* The E71, N900, and N9.
** Well, besides the money they get from me every month anyway.

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