January 20, 2018

My favorite tech purchases of 2017

A few years back the Accidental Tech Podcast did a "tech Thanksgiving" episode in which each of the hosts talked about the tech that they were most grateful for.

For the past two years, I've kept an OmniOutliner document with a list of my favorite tech things of the year. Here's my list of the favorite things for 2017, starting with my favorite for the year.

10.5" iPad Pro with LTE

I bought a 12.9" iPad Pro in December 2015 shortly after it came out. At the time, I had an 2013 9.7" iPad Air which was starting to feel slow. The 12.9" iPad Pro was great, and it immediately replaced the Air, even at times when the smaller one would have made more sense. (Bringing a laptop-sized screen to bed only seems ridiculous at first.)

As time went on, I found myself picking up 9.7" Air more and more. The Air was a good size to take to lunch. The 12.9--well, one day I was out for lunch and I had the 12.9" on the table. A waitress rushed by and sent my iPad crashing to the floor. (Surprisingly, it still worked.)

But even though the smaller size of the Air made more sense, it was still slower than I wanted. By the beginning of 2017, the Air was over three years old. When the 10.5" iPad Pro was announced, I ordered it immediately.

I've loved it since the moment I got it. It's fast, the screen is great, and the four speakers in the corners make it so much better for watching video.

This is my 5th iPad, and every one I've bought has had a cell connection. Getting the cell over the WiFi model adds $130, but it makes using the iPad much more convenient. I love being able to grab it and use it with no delay no matter where I am. When I got the 12.9 I tried tethering it to my iPhone, but within a few weeks I added it to my cell plan.

Bose Soundlink Mini

We've had the largerBose Bluetooth SoundLink speaker about 5 years, and we love it. It's got great sound for a portable speaker. It usually lives in the kitchen, but in the morning I like to listen to podcasts while I'm in the shower., and it's a bit of a pain to go get the speaker from the kitchen. I've had my eye on the Bose Soundlink Mini ever since we got one for one of my kids a few years back. So when Bose gear went on sale for Amazon Prime Day last summer, so I grabbed one.

The larger Soundlink is still better for music, but the Mini is great for podcasts, and it's much more portable. We threw it in the suitcase when we went to Asheville in November and loved having with us. The battery also lasts for a couple of weeks at a time, which is much better than the larger Soundlink.

Apple Watch Series 3

I bought the original Apple Watch in 2015 a few months after it was released. Although I liked the Watch and wore it every day, by the of that year I was underwhelmed with what it did given the over $400 price tag.

But WatchOS updates kept coming, and by WatchOS 3 in September of 2016 my Watch was reasonably usable. Apple updated the hardware with the the Series 1 and 2 at the same time, but I was reluctant to spend another $400 on the watch only a year after it came out, so I decided to hold out another year for the next version. So when the Series 3 was announced in September 2017, I was chomping at the bit to get one.

The Series 3 is much faster than my Series 0. There were a number of apps that I'd given up on for being buggy, but what I discovered was that they were actually just too slow on that original hardware. On the old watch, activating Siri took a few seconds, but on the new one, Siri is right there.

Though I bought the LTE model, I haven't activated the cell service, and at this point I don't think I will. I could have saved myself some money by getting the non-cell version, but I wanted to keep my options open.

iPhone X

I'm in the Apple Upgrade program, which basically forces you to buy a new phone every year. (If you don't, you get a very friendly phone call from an Apple employee around November asking if you're feeling ok.)

I moved from the iPhone 7 Plus to the X. It's nice to be back to a phone that's a somewhat more reasonable size. (But if there's an iPhone X style larger phone this year, I will be tempted.)

Everyone talks about the OLED screen and Face ID, and I like those features, but it's the little things I like about the X. It's essentially waterproof, and the speaker is loud enough that I can use it instead of an external speaker. I've taken it into the shower with me in a pinch when I didn't have an external speaker available and not worried that I would drown the poor thing.

Amazon Echo Dot

The Dot was an impulse purchase back at the beginning of 2017. I bought a couple of Wemo Smart Plugs with it. By the end of the year we were happily saying "Alexa, turn on the Christmas tree" and "Alexa, turn out the lights" at bedtime. Having a human hanging around all day and all night to switch your lights on and off would be unseemly, but robot servants are cool. And way cheaper. Relatively. (This Smart Home stuff can start to add up. Fortunately, there are limits to our spending because we live in an apartment. No splurging on a smart thermostat or smart switches.)

Philips Hue Lights

The Wemo switches went into hiding once we got the Philips Hue bulbs.

The good: changing colors on your lightbulbs is cool. Another an unexpected benefit: we had dimmer cords that we'd bought back when we used incandescent bulb. Annoyingly, the dimmers didn't work well with LED bulbs: they had a nasty flicker when you turned them down. But the Hue bulbs dim smoothly with no flicker at all.

The bad: the Hue bulbs are only the equivalent of a 60w incandescent. Hue Bulbs are aimed at 20-somethings, not 50-somethings. Oh, well. I guess we just need to buy more of them.

Bose QC-35 Bluetooth noise-canceling (Series II) headphones

I bought a pair of wired Bose QC-15 headphones a few years back. I used them all the time at the office to cope with the noise of our open plan office. (Can't I just have a cube again? Please?)

Towards the end of the year we had to move desks around, and the result was even more noise. A co-worker had a pair of the newer QC-35 Series I headphones. I did an A-B test with my pair to see I could tell any difference, and .. yes, darn it, his were noticeably quieter. At lunchtime I went straight out to the local Best Buy and bought the QC-35 Series II headphones. And yes, Bluetooth is better: no cables to snag on everything.

BeatsX Bluetooth earbuds

I bought a pair of Apple AirPods for my sweetie for her birthday last year. She loved them, so I was excited to buy a pair for myself and see what everyone was raving about.

I was disappointed. In a noisy location, the AirPods are next to useless--they don't block out any sound. More critically, after about 3 hours of use they hurt my ears, so I returned them. (I bought them on-line from AT&T. Returning them to an AT&T retail store was surprisingly painful.)

I did like the AirPod's W1 chip that made it easier to switch between Apple devices. So instead I bought the BeatsX in-ear headphones that also included the W1 chip. The Beats X didn't hurt my ears, and I much preferred their noise-blocking in-ear style.

They're pretty tough. Right before vacation I accidentally put them through the washer. I figured they were ruined, but I went ahead and packed them in rice, and then immediately went to the Apple Store and bought another pair. I took both pair on vacation, and four days later I took my drowned pair out of the rice, and to my great surprise they still worked. Moreover, I could not tell the difference between the pair I'd washed and the new pair, so I got a refund on the new ones. Against all odds they're still working fine 8 months later. I still recommend against washing them.

Apple Smart Keyboard for 10.5" iPad

I've had an reluctant relationship with the Smart Keyboard. When I got my 12.9" iPad, I held off buying one. It was expensive, and I had a Bluetooth keyboard I could use with the iPad. I broke down and decided to give the Smart Keyboard a try, and I liked it. It made the 12.9" iPad much closer to a laptop replacement. That proved useful for about 6 months when my sweetie started grad school and needed to borrow my laptop. I was able to get by pretty well for about 6 months until she got a new laptop of her own.

Nonetheless, when I got the 10.5" iPad, I was reluctant to buy another expensive keyboard cover. One iPad with a always-attached keyboard is enough, right? But if there's one thing I'm good at, it's justifying spending money on gadgets, so ..

I'm using it right now to write this post. The 12.9" keyboard is better, but the 10.5" keyboard is damn good, and lets me use my smaller iPad when I would otherwise just leave my laptop-sized 12.9" iPad behind. An iPad with a keyboard that's always available is more useful.

Apple Pencil

I bought an Apple Pencil with my 12.9" iPad Pro back in 2015, but ended up not using it very much. I bought my sweetie a 9.7" iPad Pro for her birthday in 2016. Not long thereafter she started on a Master's Program, and discovered she loved using the Pencil for taking notes, so I ended up ceding it to her.

When I bought the 10.5" iPad, I now had two iPads that could use the Pencil, so I decided to buy one again. I actually did find a use for it: though I can't draw and my handwriting is atrocious, I found that when I'm trying to work something out I prefer handwriting to typing. I use the Notability app, and I love the ability to select a word or paragraph and move it around. I've been using it to keep notes for our daily 9am standup meeting.

Looking ahead to 2018

Unlike 2017 when I was already looking for a new iPad and a new Watch, there isn't a lot I'm looking forward to in 2018. My iPads are great and my Watch is good for another couple of years. I bought a new MacBook Pro in 2015, and that's still good for a number of years. (Apple needs to fix the faulty keyboard design introduced with the 2016 Macbook Pro before I'll be ready to buy another laptop.) 

I am interested in the Apple HomePod. I'm skeptical going in, but given my track record with buying Apple products, there's a good chance I'll decide I need that.

My 2011 iMac is getting long of tooth, but I had an SSD put in it a couple of years ago, so it's still going strong. I'll probably keep it until Apple stops supporting that model with new OS updates, and at that point I'll probably buy a 27" 5k iMac.

I've been staring to think about 4k TVs, but I don't think this is the year yet. That would be a major upgrade; I'd not only need to replace my TV, but my receiver, Blu-Ray player, and Apple TV as well. I also wonder how long it will before my cable service offers 4K. Plus, I think I'd want an OLED TV, and those are still pretty expensive for the larger sizes. So I think 2018 is not the year for that.

Since I'm paying for my iPhone monthly on the Apple Upgrade program, I'll almost certainly get a new iPhone later this year.

January 6, 2018

More private words

Back in 2014 I noted that even though I'd barely published anything on this blog, I was still writing a lot - just privately.

Even though I haven't been writing in public, I've still written 58,000 words this year [0]. But those words haven't been public; they've been in Day One, a journaling app I use on my iPad and Mac.

I noted back then that I'd written 124k words in total in Day One in the previous four years.

Looks like I'm pretty consistent. Looks like I wrote just over 60,000 words in Day One in 2017. My total is up to 324,000 words with journal entries going back to 2010.

I'm still alive

A former co-worker recently discovered this blog. I was reminded once again I once wrote a lot here, but barely anything in the last 10 (!!) years. (I was suprised the blog was still running. I guess I did revive when I moved over to Digital Ocean a few years back.)

The idea of New Year's resolutions is an anathma to me, but perhaps I'll try to write a few things here.

July 25, 2015

Federated Wiki is new and confusing to me

I've been playing with Wikis now for 14 years. I bought Ward Cunningham's 2001 book on Wikis. I can't remember now if I set up a Wiki while I was still at CNN in 2001 or whether it was 2002, but I know when I went to EarthLink I set up one of the the first Wikis there.

The canonical Wiki site was Cunningham's C2 Wiki, which I've poked around in occasionally. The last time I visited, I noticed that the site had stop allowing edits in Feburary 2015 because Cunningham was had rewritten the original Wiki software. Cunningham announced "a complete rewrite of wiki as a single page application with a distributed database which will last us for at least 20 years, maybe 200. " The result is known as the Federated Wiki.

The original Wiki was brilliant in it's simplicity and power. Anyone can edit and improve anything, and the result is there for all to see and benefit from.

Federated Wiki (also known as Smallest Federated Wiki, or SFW) is much harder for me to wrap my head around. Part of the inspiration seems to come from Git and the ability to fork anything: it's easy to fork any page on someone else's Federated Wiki and put that page on your own SFW. In theory it's easy for the owner of the original page to see who forked the page and to incorporate changes if they want to, but in practice, I don't see how you get the same collaborative synergy that resulted in the original C2 wiki.

Anyway. I'm playing with my own copy of SFW. I don't expect to do a lot with it, but we'll see.

December 13, 2014

All those (private) words

Even though I haven’t been writing in public, I’ve still written 58,000 words this year [0]. But those words haven’t been public; they’ve been in Day One, a journaling app I use on my iPad and Mac.

All this writing, only for me. A hundred words here, a few hundred there. What is it doing for me? Am I any better as a writer? I judge I’m a little worse than I was a few years ago. I think that’s because I’ve been writing for myself, and all those words are first drafts, never subject to revision or critical thinking.

On the other hand, they’ve kept me in the habit of writing. Any writing is better than no writing. And I will probably mine some of those words and revisit them here.

[0] I’ve been very prolific in my journal in the last year. I have entries in Day One going back four years; 124,000 words in all. So 58,000+ words in 2014 is 46% of the total.

December 9, 2014

Moving from RapidVPS to Digital Ocean

One Saturday morning a month ago my VPS stopped accepting mail. It looked like my server had run out of disk space, but deleting files didn’t seem to make any difference. (Delete some stuff, run df, find myself still at 100%. Grrr.) I opened a ticket with RapidVPS, and it took them a few hours to figure out that the physical server hosting my VPS had run out of disk. Not good!

I liked RapidVPS [1]. For years I’ve been paying $14.34 a month for a VPS with 7 gig of disk space, but nowadays you can find better deals with providers that give you more features. RapidVPS made the classic mistake of any company that hasn’t kept up with competitors: reminding a customer that they have other choices.

Digital Ocean is one of those competitors. Last spring they had a promotion where they gave $50 credit for signing up. They make it trivially easy to create and destroy VPSs, and you only pay for the time the server is up.[2] Digital Ocean’s cheapest server is $5 month, so bringing up a server or two for a few hours costs a few pennies.

Back when I signed up with RapidVPS in 2007, I had to pick a Linux distribution. CentOS had a good reputation, and CentOS 5 had recently been released, so that’s what I went with. The nice thing about CentOS is they support releases forever, which is good because upgrading CentOS is a pain; you basically have to reinstall the OS from scratch. Seven years later I’m on CentOS 5.11.

I’ve been thinking about upgrading for the past couple of years. The big thing that has been holding me back is setting up email again. Running your own email server is quite doable if you’re willing to do the sysadmin work, but it’s still a lot of things to set up: spam filtering, IMAP, webmail if you want it .. and if your server goes out for any reason, as mine did a month back, you’re really in trouble [3]. Making it worse, I’d done all my setup in EXIM, but EXIM packages were not available in the EPEL repo last time I looked[4]. I was looking at moving to PostFix .. but that made the barrier even higher. I actually got as far as setting up Postfix and IMAP on a Digital Ocean VPS, but the prospect of setting up and training spam filters again didn’t look like much fun.

In the end, I decided to pay FastMail to handle that problem for me. $40 dollars takes care of email for an entire year; that’s $3.33 a month, and it’s run by sysadmins who are paid to make sure it stays up[5].

Even without email, I still have a few services on my server - including this blog, so I went ahead and set up a new server on Digital Ocean. I was planning to upgrade to CentOS 6, but I delayed long enough that CentOS 7 was released, so I went with that.

The last thing I brought up was this blog. I’ve let the poor thing sit there for too long. Time to start using it again.

Welcome back to me.

  1. I even wrote a post 6 years ago about how much I liked them, but the world has moved on.  ↩

  2. This is in sharp contract to RapidVPS. I was hoping to be off their service before the monthly bill on the 3rd. On the 7th I told them to shut the server down, and asked if they prorated the bill. Not on cancellations, they said.  ↩

  3. For example, I was trying to make a change in my DNS, but I forgot the password to my DNS service. No problem - reset the password, which sends the reset message to … my email. Which was down.  ↩

  4. There are repos that have builds of EXIM, but it’s not part of EPEL, and I’ve had problems in that past enabling non-standard repos. Particular with dependencies. You ever go to upgrade your packages only to find a bunch of dependency conflicts. I have. You don’t want to.  ↩

  5. I’m a sysadmin, too. But $40 doesn’t buy that much of my time. It’s worth it.  ↩

December 7, 2014

It's been such a long time

It's been six and half years since I published anything on this blog. 2377 days, to be precise, and you know I like to be precise.

There are many reasons for that, both technical and non-technical. I may or may not get into those. (Probably not.)

I'd like to say I'm back to blogging, but only time will tell.

June 4, 2008

Now on centos 5.1

My VPS server is now on CentOS 5.1, moved up from CentOS 4.6.  

My server is hosted on RapidVPS.com, a virtual hosting provider.  Since going to CentOS 5 is a major upgrade, the safest way to do it was to create a new virtual server, install it clean with CentOS 5.1, and migrate services over one by one.   

I love virtual servers.  Doing the migration by creating a new server was much less stressful and less hassle than upgrading a physical server in place. 

The cost was creating another virtual server, but I could do that for extra $12 a month on RapidVPS.  And once the migration is done, I kill the older server and go back to paying for a single server.

February 4, 2008

RapidVPS has been good to me

I moved this weblog and my personal email out of the closet and onto a virtual private server last summer.  After looking around, I picked RapidVPS as a hosting provider.  They had good reviews and reasonably priced service.

After I moved, I was quite happy with the performance of my server, but increasingly unhappy with its reliability.  My server was sometimes down or hard to reach, and indeed it was in fact less reliable than it had been living on a Dell P3/550 in my closet.  When I contacted RapidVPS about the problems, they generally responded quickly, but the problems kept occurring.

In November I vented my frustration and sent a message to them.  I was "reluctantly unhappy," I told them. I got a response from Rick Blundell, the owner and chief tech person: what can I do to make you happier?  Make my service more reliable, please, I replied.

Today I just sent Rick another message thanking him.  For the last three months, my service has been everything I could want.  It just works.  No more slowdowns, no issues reaching it. It's been boring again, and that's just what you want out of infrastructure.

Doing server Infrastructure is hard work.  People only notice when it stops working.  When it works, they don't care.  I know; I've run server farms at CNN and EarthLink.  Problems happen. And sometimes fixing it can be difficult, frustrating, and expensive.

Rick and RapidVPS have made me a happy customer.  Thank you, guys. 

January 24, 2008

Take your Kindle to the beach

Just after Christmas I got away for a few days to Jamaica.  All I did for 5 days was read.  I read by the beach, by the pool, in bed.  It was lovely.

But unlike every other vacation I've ever taken, I didn't take a large pile of books.  Instead, I took my Kindle.  And a small pile of books.  (I wouldn't want to end up in another country with nothing to read.  Heaven forbid!)

Understand, even if I don't have time to read more than a few books, I like having choices.  And I like to be able to leave off a book for a while and try something else.

The lure of the Kindle is instant gratification: you get bored with a book, you can download another one in less than a minute.  But that doesn't apply if you're outside the US.  So the night before I left, I bought five more books.  Ah, choices.

I did end up finish four books over my little vacation:

I read more than I have in years.  And I think I know why: no internet!

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