So far, my Chromecast is pretty awesome. Netflix and YouTube look amazing. We’ve cast from my computer and Mr. Geeky’s phone. Casting other tabs can be problematic. I’ve found HuluPlus to be the most problematic. There’s a significant audio delay which is quite annoying. Rumor has it that Hulu is joining the Chromecast gang, so hopefully, it will be as nice as Netflix and YouTube.
I’ve cast straight from the Comedy Central website to watch The Daily Show, and that has worked really well. Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime were a little tricky. To view those through Chromecast, I had to disable the Silverlight plugin and use Flash instead. I could shift renting videos from Amazon to Google Play to alleviate part of that problem, but having Prime, which I love for the shipping, means I’m losing a benefit if I can’t easily stream to Chromecast.
Mr. Geeky tried HGTV, though, and had some issues, mostly with the website itself, not Chromecast specifically. So, that brings me to a larger point. Mr. Geeky’s issues had to do with a) having difficulty finding the episodes he wanted to watch, b) having to watch the same ad over and over, and c) glitches with the video going back to the beginning. Chromecast (and Roku, and other streaming services) will change the way we watch tv. They already have. But TV networks and stations are going to have to change the way they put video on the web. They’re going to have to use a service that allows people to easily find the shows they want to watch, something people are using their DVRs and cable services for now and which Roku, as I understand it, has a nice searchable directory. Otherwise, a lot of shows won’t be found. And, they’re going to have to something about advertising. I noticed this issue when watching Hulu on Tivo. Often the same 1 or 2 ads permeates all the videos. I’m assuming that ads are keeping the price of these services affordable. I don’t mind sitting through a couple of ads during a show, but I’d like them to be different and hopefully, somewhat interesting.
I’d love to also see a way to watch some broadcast TV live via Chromecast or the web. There are some rumblings about this happening, but it’s still just rumblings.
It’s funny, ten or so years ago, I remember saying they would never get video to the web for a variety of technical reasons. Those reasons have been overcome. What’s in the way now, are old business models that don’t take into account an increasingly mobile audience who prefer time-shifting, and who don’t have cable. It’s coming, and frankly, Chromecast is a step in that direction.
About a month ago, I was offered the chance to try out a Palm phone for a while. Having been an iPhone user for a few years, I thought it would be a good idea to see what else is out there in the web-enabled, touch-screen phone world. In the last year or so, a lot of new touch-screen phones have come on the market. They all have similar features and their own quirks. I’ve personally used the iPhone and the Android. And I’d say the Palm Pre Plus compares favorably with either of those. So, let’s get to some of the details.
First, I really like the size of the phone. It’s compact and fits easily into my pocket and the handy cell phone pocket I have on my purse. My iPhone is just a little too large to fit comfortably. Weight-wise, it’s also comfortable. It’s not as light, of course, as a stand-alone cell phone, but it’s an easy-to-manage weight. It’s small size, however, does have some drawbacks. One, the keyboard, which pops out vertically from the phone, is pretty tiny. It seems to me that if it popped out horizontally, there’d be room to not only make the keys a tiny bit bigger, but also include some of the keys which currently have to be accessed by pressing the function key. Not a huge deal, but the tiny keyboard might be a deal breaker for someone with larger fingers than I. The screen is also smaller than some screens I’ve seen. I don’t find this to be a big problem as the quality of the image is really good so that the size isn’t really noticeable.
Now on the the features. I didn’t use the phone as a phone that much, but did make a few phone calls to test the quality and ease of use. Phone dialing is simple, and you can type in a number or a name and dial away. My service was provided by Verizon. Though I didn’t notice any loss in quality for phone calls, I did notice that I only had one or two bars in my house. Had I used it more regularly, this low signal might have caused dropped calls or problems hearing.
I was given plenty of documentation to use the phone, but I opted to muddle through at first because I wanted to see how intuitive it was to use. When setting up the phone, I was given a quick tutorial in using gestures, which is how one navigates through many of the phone’s screens and apps. Gestures are done on an area on the phone just below the screen, which is a little awkward, but very easy to get used to. I didn’t have any problem launching the app menu and figuring out how to move through many of the screens. I got stuck, however, when too many cards had piled up (see image, left). I couldn’t figure out how to delete them. After digging around in the help on the phone itself, I figured out that you throw the cards off the screen. After that, I had no difficulties figuring anything else out. I like the card view and concept. On the iPhone, things are opened and closed. When you have mail open, you can’t have another app open. Here, you can have easy access to open applications. You can open mail, calendar, and photos and easily switch back and forth between them.
Even while you’re fully in an application, you can see what else is active. At the bottom of a screen there are little icons that indicate what else you have access to or notifications (see above). Tapping that area shows more information, i.e. your latest mail message or a task that’s due (see below). That was a really nice feature. I can imagine working on something on my phone, clicking this area and seeing that a new mail message has come in. I don’t have to go back to the home screen, launch mail, and then read the message. I can access it with one click.
Mail, contacts and calendar are the main applications that people use on their phones, and the palm pre plus does a nice job of integrating these. I’m a Google woman myself, so I entered my Google log in under the contacts area and all my Google contacts appear by magic. I can also connect to Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo, so that I have ready access to almost anyone. You can, of course, add your own contacts. Because I’d entered a Google account, it automatically used that information for calendaring and mail, which was really nice. The Calendar looks nice on the phone. I especially like the feature of showing free time, squished up accordion-like (see picture below). Mail is also easy to read. You can scroll through the inbox or read one message at a time, with arrows that take you back and forth. In addition, I was able to use Google talk from my phone, which worked really nicely and was fun to use as opposed to SMS.
The web browser on this phone is very nice. It’s much faster than any mobile browser I’ve used so far. My site here loaded quite quickly and came through very clearly. Mobile sites look especially nice. The text is large enough to read (it can be made bigger by zooming in). Images load quickly. It’s a nice experience overall.
Like other touch-screen phones, there are apps for the Palm Pre Plus. A few are included, but there are many more to choose from in the catalog. Many of the same applications that are available for the iPhone are available for the Palm Pre. There are productivity apps, games, books, newspaper apps and radio apps. And of course, there’s YouTube. There are definitely plenty to choose from. You won’t feel deprived.
In the way that the Palm Pre Plus connects to a computer, it works more like an old standalone cell phone than the newer web-enabled phone. Partly I experienced this because my iTunes application, through which the phone connects was one version higher than was compatible with the phone. So, although the application launched when I plugged in the phone, nothing happened. However, it is easy enough to connect the phone as a USB drive and drag and drop files over. A little cumbersome for music, but not too bad for documents. I did get some music onto the phone and was able to listen to it. This is a plus for me as when I go for walks, I don’t want to carry two devices. I hope they come up with a better way to sync music with the phone that makes it easy to transfer things back and forth. For now, getting music onto the device takes some planning. Also worth noting here is that it won’t play songs with DRM, which could be a problem if you filled your library from the iTunes store. That’s more iTunes’s problem than Palm’s, but one should take that into consideration.
A feature I didn’t get to try out because I didn’t see it on my phone, nor could I find the app in the catalog, is the mobile hotspot feature. In theory, you can set your phone up to be a hotspot, which would be useful in airports, at soccer fields, and at those conferences in hotels with terrible Internet service. It sounds like a really great idea.
Overall, my experience with the phone was positive. Like almost all technology these days, there were some bumps in the road. They weren’t deal breakers, though, and it’s definitely a phone I might consider buying. It has a lot of nice features, some of which I didn’t even cover here. It works well as a phone and overall communication device with a lot of added features that make it useful beyond that.
Full disclosure: I was not paid for this review, though I was given a phone to use for about a month.
Normally, we create our own Christmas cards. I will often buy something that looks nice, sign them, and ship them off to friends and relatives. We’ve done a newsletter or two, usually after big changes in our lives, like getting new jobs or moving. This year I decided to go high tech (as I should, with a name like Geeky Mom!). Everyone’s always clamoring for pictures of the kids, so I thought a nice card that had a few pictures would be a nice treat. We don’t take many pictures. We certainly don’t do formal pictures (though now I kind of wish we did). But I gathered a few photos together that I liked and ventured off looking for a place to produce a good card out of them.
I originally started making a newsletter out of them with Pages, which, from a technical standpoint, was working well. From a personal standpoint, I felt “ick” about it, so I dropped that idea pretty quickly.
After a Google search, I started at Tiny Prints. (Confession: when I am searching for products or companies, I really do click on the sponsored links or the ads. I figure if they’re smart enough to advertise on Google, they’re worth my checking out.) Tiny Prints had some truly lovely designs and plenty that allowed several photos and so I selected one I liked and began designing. It was easy to upload photos and I could even connect to Flickr and import photos from there, so I was cruising along. I dragged and dropped my photos on the front and even had the option of putting more on the inside (which I did). The whole process was very intuitive. I wanted to have them mail the cards, so after reviewing my results, I checked the option to have them mail them. All I needed to do then was upload a CSV file with all my recipients names and addresses. I readied the file and went through the upload process. It didn’t say much about what to do except that I needed to tell it what column was what. I had combined first and last names in the first column, so I just told it that was a first name. I had combined city and state, which it balked at, so I put them in separate columns. But it wouldn’t overwrite my old data. So, one by one, I deleted my old contacts and imported the newly corrected file. It finally recognized all my contacts. I added them to the order and then clicked the “go to cart” button. Cart was empty! I did this a few times and never got the cart to fill up, so I went to another site.
Next up was Shutterfly, a site I’ve used before and from which I’ve received many a card. They do nice work. They had nice options, though they didn’t have one with more than 4 photos. I had 6-8 that I wanted to include. At this point, I didn’t really care. I just wanted to be done. I created the card quickly and then when I got to the point of mailing out the cards, I was going to have to enter each name and address by hand. No thank you. I moved on.
So then I hit Kodak Gallery. The designs there were fabulous–lots of options and plenty with more than 4 photos. Like Tiny Prints, I could put photos on the inside and even on the back! Very cute! Like the other two sites, Kodak offers a “mail it for you” option. But it, too, required hand-entering each address. Again, I moved on.
I landed at the one of the most venerable card companies in the US, Hallmark. They had photo cards and plenty of designs, including the one I chose, which had many photos, inside and out. Since I’d been through the selection process and had a good idea of what kind of card I wanted, I settled on this one quite quickly. I imagine that if you don’t know what you want, you could spend quite a while searching through the selections. Tiny Prints offers the option of narrowing by number of photos, type of card, and even color. Kodak did as well. Hallmark didn’t. You had to look through the 5 pages of designs, so that was one drawback. But, when it came time to put address in, I easily uploaded my csv file and bingo, all my addresses were there. And they’re there for the future, too! I can enter birthdays and anniversaries and mail cards right from Hallmark. I like that. So, I ended up ordering from them, even having a few extra cards shipped to me in case there’s someone I forgot.
So here’s the summary. None of the sites really sucked. They all had good designs and were easy to use. Where some of them failed was in the addressing to recipients section. I’ll give Tiny Prints a pretty big break since this portion of their site was in beta. I’ll definitely be returning to check them out. Generally speaking, when someone is ordering en masse, they need to send to a lot of people. Uploading a file, or importing from any number of contact programs (as several sites offered) is an absolute necessity. I used to be in the greeting card business, and I’m quite impressed with the offerings now available online. Most of these sites offer all types of products besides cards–books, calendars, mugs, and more. Some sites might be better at those things than others.
One thing I noted on all the sites was that it was geared toward people without hyphenated names or multiple names in the family (true of both the creator and the recipient). For example, I wanted to put Blank/Blankenship in the return address, but it balked at that. And there was not enough room on most designs to put something like this, even if hyphenated. Note to card companies: give more space for the family name. Maybe people who hyphenate or keep maiden names don’t send cards!
I just finished reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It is, as Kevin Drum notes, an odd book to read. The tone makes you want to not trust Taleb, and he almost tells you not to trust him, but then his ideas make some sense. He seems prescient about the current financial crisis, as his whole book suggests that financial institutions are generally blind to outlier events such as the mortgage bubble and ensuing stock market crash because they use models based on the bell curve rather than a power law. His argument is basically that black swan events, those that no one predicted, happen more often than we think, and that our models of prediction are terrible at predicting even smaller versions of these events, much less the seriously catastrophic (or conversely, seriously beneficial) ones.
Taleb has equal scorn for academics and bankers. Academics are too insular, having never been in “real” decision-making situations. Bankers are in real decision-making situations but don’t think critically about those decisions. They check their brains at the door. Worse for him are bankers who use tight mathematical models from academics to predict risk.
Interestingly, when searching the blogosphere to find what others have said about the book, I mostly found commentary on Taleb’s hedge fund that is based on his ideas. Some have claimed it’s not doing well–because his strategy is to lose small amounts of money 90% of the time and win big 10% of the time–while others have touted its brilliance. I don’t care much about applying his ideas to finance, even though that’s his field. I think it’s more interesting to consider the idea of the black swan, both positive and negative in more general terms. He says to be open to opportunity, to be generally open-minded about what might happen. Try as much as possible to think outside the box. People are not predictable; society as a whole is even less predictable.
I remember being a kid trying to imagine how my life would turn out–what kind of job would have, who would I marry, would I have kids, where would I live–and it always felt like this black hole. I was not, back then, one of those people who planned much past the next few days. I had friends who were already planning to be doctors or lawyers and were planning their classes and colleges based on those plans. I just figured some unexpected event might occur that could change any plan I made. I was right. Just thinking that something unexpected might occur helps you deal with it. It doesn’t mean that when a good thing or a bad thing happens that it doesn’t impact you. It just means that you can take it in stride. You can just start doing what you need to do to minimize the pain or take advantage of the opportunity. Rather than, as I sometimes do now, worrry about what might happen, and conjure up all the most horrible images, it makes more sense to live from day to day. It’s harder than you think.
One of my areas of interest is network theory, especially as it applies to the Internet and while this book may not be about network theory specifically, it’s certainly a good demonstration of some of its principles. Bill Tancer works for Hitwise, a competitive intelligence company, meaning they look at available data and try to help companies take advantage of that data to grow or become more competitive. In this book he takes search data and clickstream data and analyzes what that data tells us about ourselves in ways that just weren’t possible using survey or interview methods. One stark example of the different results one gets through this method is in looking at what people are afraid of. Surveys tell us that people’s top fear is of creatures–bugs, mice, snakes, etc. Looking at search data, however, using terms attached to “fear of,” the top fear is flying. Flying doesn’t even rank on the survey list. Often Tancer sees a phenomenon in his data and then digs further to figure out why. Or who, as in the case of who watches porn or gambles online.
The second half of the book is about what you can do with the data, how to be proactive–like being able to predict the winners of American Idol based on the popularity of contestant names in search results. I wonder if he could have predicted our current financial situation by seeing an increase in terms such as “how to get out of debt” or “default on mortgage.” He also looks at finding the tipping point for new music groups, comparing traffic to the band’s MySpace site to their official website. Someone could watch the data and know when a band is going to hit it big.
At one point, Bill tells us that he loves data. I, too, love data and this book was a fun ride through various bits of data that told an interesting story about different aspects of life and business.