Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Sound Menu

Ubuntu’s music player is called Banshee. It’s really great. It caught my attention because it feels like an integral part of Ubuntu, not just another music player like iTunes or Winamp. When I click on the volume button at the top right part of my screen, of course I can change the volume. However, I also see a picture of what music is playing in Banshee. I can pause, skip songs, or choose a new playlist. And I can do it without having to fully open Banshee. Banshee itself may get mentioned later in this series, but for today Ubuntu made me happy because my music player feels like it was built right into it.

Ubuntu Sound Menu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy Because…

During the development of Firefox 4, Mozilla added a button so that users testing it could easily share their thoughts about Firefox’s design. You could either click on “Firefox made me happy because…” or “Firefox made me sad because…” and share your feedback with Mozilla. This is a really user-friendly way to gather feedback about software. I liked its simplicity and the way it addressed an emotional response to using a computer. Humans are emotional beings, and let’s face it: computers can be frustrating. It taught me to pay attention when a computer makes me feel an emotion.

As you may be aware, Ubuntu 11.04 was released a few weeks ago.¬† It received a completely revamped user-interface. While using it, I’ve begun to notice the thoughtfulness that Ubuntu developers put into its design, and I would like to share some of the things that caught my attention. Not all of them are new in Ubuntu 11.04, but they all deserve acknowledging. This is an introduction to a new series of short, non-technical blog posts, usually accompanied by a screenshot. I hope you enjoy them!

Cellphone Economics Revisited: Two Years In

I have now saved myself a full cellphone contract. Two years ago, I devised a plan to save myself a ton of money by overhauling my cellphone service plan. Last year, I reflected on how much I had accomplished and discussed some potential tweaks to my system. To recap, two years ago, I was paying $576 per year for a no-frills, mediocre phone plan with no included text messages. Last year at this time, I had reduced that amount to less than $190. This year, I have continued to cut my usage, and I am happy to announce that I only paid about $130 for my cell service. This includes 1000 prepaid T-Mobile minutes (purchased last April for $100+tax) and $26.55 for a 1-year Skype subscription. Over the last two years, I have saved $832 compared to keeping my traditional cellphone plan. I’d just like to take an opportunity to pat myself on the back. It wasn’t always easy, and I did occasionally use Sadie’s phone on the weekends, but otherwise this plan was a fantastic idea. A lot has changed over the past year and more change is coming in the future, so all of this could potentially affect what will happen to my plan in the upcoming year.

I’ll be the first to admit that as I looked back through my records I was surprised to find that I had not bought any minutes for my prepaid T-Mobile plan since last April. I just ran low enough at the end of March 2011 to finally buy some more. As I mentioned above, a few things have changed for me this year. First, Sadie and I got an apartment together in Chicago. I no longer make hour-long nightly phone calls to her. Although I previously used Skype to make these calls, there were always occasions where we would have longer conversations on the phone when using a computer wasn’t practical, such as while I was driving.

Phonebooths

CC-BY-SA by echiner

A few things changed technologically as well. Not only is it now possible to use Google Voice with a free VOIP client, but Google has integrated free voice VOIP calls into GMail and the Google Voice Web app. Since I commented last year on the quality of Skype calls, I’ll comment on Google Voice VOIP calls today. They are not as clean as Skype, but they are improving. The call quality sometimes degrades, randomly cuts out, or even drops. This is especially true if I’m doing anything else using the network, including browsing the web while talking on the phone. I rarely experienced these problems with Skype VOIP calls. Overall, the call quality seems to have improved over the past few months, but it is still much more temperamental than with Skype calls. However, what it loses in quality, it makes up for in convenience. I almost always have a GMail tab open, which means that incoming calls now ring my computer and outgoing calls are just a click away. Plus, Google Contacts makes it easy to store and dial multiple numbers for all of my email contacts. This makes the Google Voice interface quite a bit more usable than Skype’s client. Google Voice also offers free text messaging, and messages are delivered to your GMail account just like a traditional email. Since my Skype subscription is lapsing in a few weeks, I find myself asking, “should I renew my Skype subscription or just stick with Google Voice?” I am leaning towards sticking with Google Voice because I can get incoming VOIP calls through GMail, Google Contacts’ phone number organization, and it’s free. Over the past 6 months I can probably count on my fingers how many calls I’ve made using Skype, so it seems silly to continue paying for it. On the other hand, it’s quite inexpensive, and it’s a good backup to have if my Google Voice call quality is poor.

 

I will also be starting my residency training at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in a few weeks. Sadie and I will be moving in June. This throws a number of new variables into my (currently very efficient and cheap) plan. I don’t think my current minute usage will change much. I make calls to my family and Sadie using a mixture of Google Voice when it’s convenient and my cell when it’s not. I am unsure how much residency will eat into my minutes though. While I’m at the hospital for longer hours without frequent access to GMail for checking text messages or listening to voice mails, this will undoubtedly result in more calls on my cell and thus more minutes used. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a fact.

There’s another interesting twist in all of this. According to our Program Director, anesthesiology residents at MCW get a free iPod Touch. The department started posting podcasts through iTunes U to facilitate quick reviews of common anesthesia topics between surgical cases, and the iPod Touch is their nice gift to allow everyone to access the podcasts. No one mentioned if we will be receiving these this summer or if we will have to wait to get them until next summer when we start our official anesthesiology training. Since the new iPod Touch can be paired with a Bluetooth headset and its Google Voice and Skype apps work over WiFi, this could work as a convenient make-shift phone at the hospital and at home.

Cellphone

CC-BY-ND by samantha celera

And then there’s the elephant in the room. Starting in July, I’m no longer going to be a poor medical student. Technically, I’ll be a poor Resident Physician, but at least I’ll have this thing called income. I keep wondering whether it’s time I break down and get an Android smartphone. (At the time of writing, it would most likely be a Nexus S.) Part of me says I should, but I still have some reservations. My biggest concerns are monthly price and value. Currently, I’m spending about $10 per month on cellphone service. Can I really increase that 7-fold? More importantly, will I derive enough value from a smart phone to justify the increased expense? At this point, it’s not really about the money. It’s about feeling that I’m not getting ripped off by my wireless provider. I’m not going to use many minutes, and I’m not going to use much web data since I’ll almost always have Wifi around. Ever since T-Mobile dropped their Even More Plus plan, I feel like wireless companies no longer care about what their customers want. I want to buy an unlocked, full-price phone and get a cheaper monthly bill with no contract. I want plans that have less than than 450 minutes and are priced accordingly. I really want a data-only plan with the option of adding on talk time. Instead, wireless providers are generally trying to keep you locked into an over-priced smartphone contract with a required, bundled data plan (usually $25-30/month). This results in people paying for a lot of stuff that they don’t use.

Then, I see people like Dave Pell and David Siegel who point out that too much Internet connectivity can disconnect you from real life. I have enough trouble with controlling my Internet time on a laptop, so what’s going to happen when my Internet is with me 24/7? So here I sit with my old cellphone. I’ve had my Sony Ericsson W810i for 4.5 years. The battery still lasts 4 days on a charge. After paying my dues to Cingular and AT&T for 2 years, my subsidized phone is unlocked and transferable to any GSM carrier by switching out a $5 SIM card. I can place calls, text, listen to music, and connect to my laptop via Bluetooth.

I guess I have some decisions to make. After reading I Will Teach You To Be Rich, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about conscious spending. In the book and on his website, the author discourages people from passing judgement on others for their spending habits. When budgeting, after “paying yourself” by contributing to savings, he encourages consciously spending money on things that you value and mercilessly cutting spending on things you don’t. The goal is attainable because it doesn’t require people to consistently tell themselves “no” and it encourages them to understand what makes them happy and to do it as much as their budget allows. Now, I just have to decide whether a smart phone brings enough value for me to consciously spend my soon-to-be, hard-earned money on it.

Learning Ubuntu with Unity

Ubuntu 11.04 will be released on April 28th, 2011. It contains a significant visual redesign called Unity, which is a shell over the more traditional desktop environment found in previous Ubuntu releases (called GNOME). There will likely be a lot of critique of Unity over the next few days and weeks, but by most testing and user reviews, Unity is a significant step forward in usability for both computer novices and experts alike. I have compiled a set of links demonstrating some of Ubuntu’s new features in 11.04.

I am excited to make the switch. I’ve been trying Unity out at various points of development via “live cd,” and it’s really nice to work with. I’m looking forward to doing a complete reinstall this week to check out the new installation procedure as well. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Review: I Will Teach You To Be Rich

A few years ago, I saw Ramit Sethi on The Daily Show promoting his book I Will Teach You To Be Rich. It sounded very helpful and like a book I should probably read. I filed it away on my Amazon Wishlist and forgot about it for a while. Since I recently got a job with actual income, I decided to buy the book and see what it was all about.

I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit SethiI’ll start by saying that this book blew me away. Since I’m busy studying medicine, I had not put much effort into learning about finance. I am still pretty young (ahem!), and I thought the topic was too complicated and something I could put off worrying about until later. In essence, Sethi wrote this book for people like me. It’s meant for people in their 20′s, and he points out a number of ways that you’re an idiot if you put off starting to save until it’s too late. While I assumed that “starting early helps,” I had no idea how much. He demonstrates with a nice chart that a person who invests $100/month for only 10 years starting at age 25 will have a lot more money at retirement than a person who invests $100/month for 30 years starting at age 35. That’s right. You have to save for 3 times as long if you delay starting for 10 years, and you still end up with less money!

The book is broken down into a 6-week program. You’re given tasks to complete each week. Tasks cover budgeting; tackling credit card debt and improving your credit history; setting up a no-fee, high-interest savings account; opening a 401(k) and an IRA; and learning to invest appropriately.

Besides just giving plain, old “good advice,” there are a lot of reasons that this book succeeds. First, he addresses perfection. Most people know they should do this stuff but don’t want to get started because the topic is overwhelming and they’re afraid they’ll do something wrong. They say, “I don’t want to make a mistake. I’ll just worry about it later.” Sethi advocates the 85% approach, wherein doing something 85% right is still a lot better than doing nothing, which equates to 0%. When addressing your budget, he doesn’t advocate being an all-around cheap penny-pincher. He proposes “conscious spending.” After socking away an appropriate percentage of your paycheck to savings and paying your bills, he tells you to consciously spend what’s left on things you love and avoid spending on things you don’t. He provides an example of a friend who spends $21,000/year on going out to bars. Granted this friend has a 6-figure salary, but Sethi makes his point. As long as you’re putting enough into long-term and short-term savings, it doesn’t really matter what you spend the rest on. He also breaks down overwhelming topics into digestible chunks and gives you timed, task-oriented directions. Importantly, he tackles a lot of common misconceptions around finances. For example, investing is not about picking stocks! He demonstrates thorough evidence that, aside from a very elite few, no person is able to consistently predict the stock market. Instead of losing thousands of dollars per year on fees to investment companies, he shows you how to create a portfolio that will return 8% on your investments long-term. This has been the average return for the last 80 years on the stock market, and you won’t do any better unless your name is Warren Buffett.

The best part about Sethi’s program is that he advocates for minimal effort. The last thing I wanted to read was a book telling me how I need to spend hours a week pouring over my finances, checking stocks, and doing financial research. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He teaches you how to make things happen automatically, so that after working through his 6 week schedule, everything is done. You’re making money without even thinking about it, doing things that you actually like, such as being with friends and family. He teaches you how to automatically direct money from every paycheck into savings so that you don’t even miss it. He teaches you how to automate investing so that you only have to think about your investments for about an hour per year (if that!).

I can’t speak highly enough of this book, and I can’t wait to put the rest of it into action. I need actual income for parts of it :) . I know I’m being weird, but I want to convince almost everyone I know to read it: Sadie, my sister, my cousins, my friends. While it’s geared towards young people, I think middle-aged people could get a lot of benefit from reading this book too, especially on understanding investing and changing investments as you get closer to retirement. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Go out and buy a copy right now. Once you’re financially secure, you can start making decisions about life and your career based on what is in your best interest, not what will make you the most money to pay the bills. Define what “rich” means to you and make it happen!

5/5

January Books Read

In honor of my finishing a personal record 6 books in the month of January and in homage to Sadie-Jean:

January Books Read

Total Books Read: 6

Favorite Book: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Least Favorite Book: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Hunger Games was a close second. Also, I feel like I should point out that two of the books that I “read” were audio books. I downloaded them (for free!) from Librivox and listened to them while I drove. Sadie says this still counts, but I’m tempted to be less generous about it. Still, hooray for reading!

Facebook and the Email Apocalypse

So in case you haven’t heard the rumors, supposedly Facebook will release “Project Titan” on Monday. As rumor has it, they will be introducing a web-based email system that’s built into Facebook. It will replace traditional “messaging” on Facebook with a full-fledged email system. It will likely include your own @facebook.com email address. Some are calling this a Gmail killer. I tend to agree with the other side, who find that assessment laughable. Of course, by “laughable” I don’t mean that it will be unsuccessful. On the contrary, I’m sure it will be quite popular as far as numbers go. It’s just that I remember email before Gmail and how much they changed the game. I am highly skeptical that Facebook would even be able match Gmail in terms of utility and ease-of-use, and I find it laughable that they would be able to innovate enough to draw me away from Gmail’s clutches.

No doubt there is a market for integrating email into Facebook. As a user of both Gmail and Facebook, I got to thinking about what might happen in the coming months given what I know about the past.

First, Facebook email will almost certainly create a rift among emailers. To me, the division will be between those who use email as a tool and those who use it as a toy. I could easily see some of my friends and family, young and old, who spend the majority of their time behind Facebook’s walled garden anyway, integrate Facebook’s inbox into their life and slowly forget about their prior email addresses. “Email that’s separate from my Facebook account? That’s so 2010.”

In fact, that’s kind of Facebook’s plan, right? The whole goal is to take over the Internet by making their own Internet inside of Facebook. Do you want to play a game? Why go to another site when you can play lots of them on Facebook? Do you want to share photos with your friends? Why go to another site when you can do it on Facebook? Their whole goal is that you never have to leave, and adding a way to communicate with the “outsiders” will take away another major reason to leave their site.

But as I alluded to earlier, those of us who actually use email to communicate with 10, 20, 50, or even 500 people a day, we want a system that is made specifically to make that process more pleasurable. That’s what Gmail is, and I find it nearly impossible that Facebook will be able to rival Gmail’s feature-set. Remember, that’s not even their goal. Their goal is to make it functional enough to keep you from leaving their site. Ever.

It’s one thing when Facebook adds a feature I won’t use, but I’m not sure their integrated email system won’t actually be detrimental to their platform as a whole. I mean, do you remember email in 2001? (or even 2007?) In addition to loads of emails offering me all sorts of adult content and attachments that would infect my computer with viruses, there were links to sites that would steal my banking credentials and hijack my Paypal account. Oh, and that’s not to mention the deluge of weekly email forwards pleading with any and every excuse to have me forward this chain letter to my entire address book. Gmail has largely hidden spam from me.

Does Facebook have a plan in place for when the spamming masses come down on their email system with phishing links and social engineered trojan horses? Because I hear about enough people now whose Facebook account and email accounts get hacked. Wait until their email is their Facebook. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. I shudder thinking about this, but imagine the eventual hacks that start messaging all 600 of your “friends” and writing spam ads on their walls. Won’t that be fun for your girlfriend from 6th grade who you haven’t talked to since junior high and your boss at work, both of whom are your “friends” on Facebook.

My solace lies in my apocalyptic hope that this venture shows Facebook for the house of cards that it is. Facebook has been largely preserved because of their ability to keep spam out, aside from user-selected spam. By opening up their floodgates to the world of spammers, the site will become much less navigable by average folks, which could cause a sizable exodus. I wonder how people will react when they realize that so much of their lives that they have poured into Facebook over the past months and years is lost in that walled garden? And where will these users go when they are left alone in this largely unexplored Internet.

So what do you think? What have I missed? What good or bad will come from Facebook’s integration of an email system?

Everyone should program

Here’s a quote I enjoyed from the book I’m currently reading:

“If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine — any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas-hinge for a door — using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.

A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of micro-miniaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.

Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city.

Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off-limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give non-programmers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work — if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.”

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

La Roux

As I browsed through The Hype Machine Zeitgeist 2009, I came across La Roux. As soon as I heard the first song on her self-titled album coupled with the good reviews on The Hype Machine, I knew I should probably just go ahead and buy it. The Hype Machine helped me discover an artist I otherwise would have probably ignored.

La Roux’s “A Flock of Seagullshairdo matches her musical style quite well. It really has that “straight from the 80′s feel” of futuristic synth-pop. The song variety leaves a little to be desired, but the entire album has a fun feel to it. Normally the occasional falsetto strain in her voice would turn me off, but her voice is quite unique and likable. Maybe it’s her accent. I bet that’s it. Of course, the lyrics are nothing to write home about, but I didn’t expect them to be.

Notable songs include “In For The Kill,” “Tigerlily,” “Cover My Eyes” and “As If By Magic.” This album is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a fun twist on an old style and probably worth a purchase (or at least a listen).

3/5

(As a side note, I purchased this album from 7digital soon after Ubuntu announced that 7digital would be providing the music for the Ubuntu One Music Store. Not that it matters much.)