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My week-long honeymoon in Vail ended up being a pretty good test of how much of a computer I really need to get by.  As it turns out, my year-old Toshiba T135-S1305 fits the bill admirably, and it cost me less than $500 new.

Besides my phone and Kindle, this laptop was all I brought to Vail to handle our infotainment needs, and as we ended up vegging in front of the TV a lot on this trip, we used it a lot.  I had loaded up several hours of television before we left as well as an assortment of cables to hook up to whatever TV would be in our condo, and with that minimal preparation, we ended up having all the entertainment we wanted.  This included locally-stored videos, videos we downloaded via bittorrent after we ran out of what I brought, episodes on Hulu, Netflix streams, Rhapsody music streams, and some Flash sermon video.  I also ended up blogging throughout the trip, which I hadn’t originally planned.

Although it’s got a low-power CPU (which lets it get around 8-hour battery life), it features two cores and proved capable of powering a 720p monitor just fine via its built-in HDMI port.  While streaming Sherlock in HD from Netflix it stuttered a bit at first, but eventually hit its stride and played smoothly.

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The Inside Job

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My wife and I just finished watching The Inside Job, a documentary about the subprime derivative industry and its cataclysmic impact on global markets beginning a few years ago and still rippling through the world’s economy today.  Although most of it I had already read about in “The Big Short” and “All the Devils are Here” (the latter of which is an especially brilliant account of the whole story), the film did a great job of distilling it down into less than 2 hours.  As with any documentary, editing and narration are used to further the thesis of the film, which sometimes feels a bit manipulative.  Still, given my prior reading on the subject, the film really did basically hit the nail on the head, and even touched on what I believe is the core of the problem: failure to disclose, recognize and respond to disincentives throughout the financial industry, including academia.

The subprime fiasco has definitely challenged my belief that free market capitalism is the best economic system man has yet found.  I still believe many of the problems came from the fact that we don’t have a truly free market economy (in which there would not have been an assumption that a bank, if big enough, would be bailed out no matter how mismanaged).  Yet it seems that regulation is warranted when it comes to keeping incentives reasonable.  After all, part of the problem was that bank executives, thanks to their cronies on their boards, got paid exorbitant paychecks for short-term profits, with no regard to where they were steering the company long-term.  In theory, a free market would punish this sort of management by a lack of investors, but unfortunately the financial world isn’t as efficient a market as theorists would like to believe.  There’s plenty of herd mentality at play, and plenty of examples where investors’ assumptions, enthusiasm, fear and hope overcome a truly honest assessment of the facts.

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I recently took the plunge and purchased my first ever Apple device. A long-time Windows user and general detractor of Apple and their expensive, controlled approach to computing, I couldn’t resist all those quality iOS apps any longer. I bought (well, technically, my wife bought as a wedding present…thanks honey!) an iPad 2 the day after it came out and I have had it now for a week.

History

When the first iPad originally came out, I was pretty skeptical. I was among those who scoffed at it being just a “big iPod Touch” and didn’t see a lot of value in it that my smartphone and laptop didn’t already provide. And initially, that was true, and for the first 6 months I didn’t really consider getting one.

It wasn’t long, though, before iPad-only and iPad-optimized apps came in droves and it became clear that the iPad really was a unique device with unique uses that went beyond what you could do with a smartphone-sized device. Although the games and iPad apps are definitely impressive, what converted me into actually deciding I wanted one was the music creation apps. And that’s what convinced me not to wait for a competing product to gain traction but instead take the Apple plunge. Tablet OSes from Google, HP and Blackberry are not only a year behind tablet iOS, but don’t show any promise of really competing in this particular music niche anytime soon. And since that’s the niche that most interested me in a tablet, the decision was really made for me. When Apple showed off Garageband for the iPad, any remaining reservations I may have had were completely removed.

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I’ve been a Netflix subscriber now for over a year and have been consistently impressed with them.  I remember when they began their limited “Watch Instantly” feature, and then when they made it unlimited without charging a cent more for the service.  Then I remember getting a message saying my monthly subscription rate was being lowered because they had repriced my plan.  In other words, in a matter of months I got the huge value add of their “Watch Instantly” feature (which now has an impressive library featuring lots of great movies and TV shows), and was paying less for it!  That alone bought them some serious points in my book.

Recently I ran across a movie that looked interesting (Bottle Shock) which was available on Netflix to view online.  However, unlike every other movie I’ve tried streaming through Netflix, this one had an error whenever I tried to play it.  I tried to find an answer through the website but it seemed the only way to tell them about the problem was via their customer service phone number.  Not excited to wait on hold to fix this problem, I finally gave in after being unable to find a fix otherwise.  The website gave a code that I could give once I called which tied that service call to my account, bypassing any need to give their representative any information.  After I typed this in, a friendly guy named Brian immediately answered.  I told him my problem, and he quickly confirmed that that movie was having issues playing in their “old player.”  I wasn’t aware there was a new one, but he had an email sent to me telling me how to upgrade.  After maybe 2 minutes on the phone, I had the email, clicked a link (www.netflix.com/silver), pushed a browser button, and viola, their new Silverlight-based player was activated and the movie played in the new player (and seemed to take less time to buffer at that).  For a company with so many subscribers to have such friendly and responsive customer service is extremely impressive, and yet another reason I plan to remain a loyal Netflix customer.

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I recently took a road trip with my family to California and spent the travel time catching up on some reading.  The first book I read was given to me by my grandmother for Christmas, a choice ostensibly inspired by my recent purchase of a motorcycle.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was written in 1974 by Robert M. Pirsig and received widespread acclaim for the novel way in which it presents fresh philosophical ideas.  Here’s my review.

Zen is a rather remarkable book in that it brings together many genres of literature into one fairly lengthy but enjoyable book.  Depending on what part of the book you’re referring you, it could be categorized as a travelogue, psychological drama, presentation of alternatives to traditional forms of higher education, or innovative philosophical theory.

The whole of Zen appears to be a semi-autobiographical account of a motorcycle trip the author takes with his son, Chris, and two friends.  Where they visit is hinted at, but not ultimately important.  The important details are the thoughts the narrator shares during the long stretches of road that separate the group’s various stops and personal interactions.  The heart of the book is contained in these passages, and it is here that the book is interesting, fresh, and at times strange.

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