Why is Netflix’s Website SO Abominable?

I don’t have cable or broadcast television. I watch almost exclusively via the internet (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video).[1] I pay my $8/mo. to Netflix and am fairly happy – though not as happy as when DVDs were still included in the price.

So, I love Netflix – but I also want to note just how horrible their website is. I don’t think this is a developer/designer problem – their developers/designers have done some pretty neat stuff (for example the open source projects Chaos Monkey and Genie). It seems to me this is a intentional choice by Netflix’s higher ups – though I don’t understand why.

Netflix running on Laptop.
Netflix running on Laptop.

If you’ve been with Netflix for any span of time you’ve experienced the many different variations of the site that have come over time. These iterations rarely add significant new features, almost always drop useful old features – and generally are a wash as far as their advantage over previous iterations. What in the world is going on here?

Let me make a “shooting-in-the-dark” guess. Netflix is attempting to increase the perception that it has an almost unlimited selection by making actual analysis of the collection by consumers difficult. I really don’t think this is a wise business move – but it is the only reason I can think of that a company like Netflix with talented employees is continuing to provide a sub-par experience to their customers.

“Come on Dave, the site isn’t bad. What are you talking about?” I’m so glad you asked.

  1. Netflix refuses to hide watched titles – so they are always cluttering up the screen. Want to watch an Action or Adventure movie? Good luck wading through all the films you have seen to tease out one you haven’t seen.

  2. Netflix seems to hide some watched titles (the logic seems arbitrary) but if you have rated a title without watching it on Netflix, then they will show it forever and ever. Come on Netflix, did you think this was an exclusive relationship? Of course we are doing business with Amazon, Hulu, and company…some of us might even venture out once in a while to a movie theater!

  3. One cannot add movies to one’s queue that are not currently available on instant watch. Why not? I’d like to know when films I’m interested in seeing are added and in being able to create a “watchlist” of films I’d like to see (rather than forgetting all about them until I stumble upon them again at some future date).

  4. The lack of fine-tuned sorting and searching tools. I can see New Releases – that is great – but could I see new releases sorted by year and then by average rating?

  5. It seems that Netflix is also using some arcane or arbitrary method for what titles it displays under “New Releases” and “Recently Added.” Films which show up when you drill down to a specific genre as new releases don’t necessarily show up in either “New Releases” or “Recently Added” at the top (all genres) level.

Granted, none of these are huge issues – and yes, I am being hyperbolic when I describe Netflix’s website as “abominable” but I am genuinely confused how such a large company could continue over such a long period of time to propagate an inferior website.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised…Amazon’s Instant Video site is horrendous as well. Only Hulu’s site offers a modicum of power – and even it lacks flexibility in certain areas (e.g., why can’t I search my viewing history?!).

  1. [1]Though Redbox also gets occasional visits from me.

The Bluehost Update: Waving Goodbye.

I finished migrating my most important sites off Bluehost and decided the load would be light enough that the rest could run on Bluehost’s shared hosting. I was planning on staying around for Bluehost’s shared hosting and keeping side projects on this host. I was informed that there was no migration path from VPS to shared hosting. Maybe they told me this when I signed up – probably – but it was quite the shock.

I asked what I’d need to do to get down to a shared hosting plan. They said I’d need to cancel my account and then recreate it. Essentially, I’d have to offload absolutely everything onto my local computer, then reupload and reconfigure everything.

Not what I wanted to hear, but I gave it a try. I canceled the VPS expecting to be able to instantaneously reorder the shared hosting…but that didn’t happen.

Having experienced more than a few IT transitions that haven’t gone as smoothly or quickly as desired, I had done this during the night hours – so I’d have time to work out any kinks that might arise…

Unfortunately, apparently, I needed to remove my domain from my bluehost account and literally create an entirely new account. Now we were talking about not only moving hosting files and databases but also DNS records. Okay, I guess I can do that…nope.

I can’t disconnect a domain from my account after cancellation by myself – Bluehost has to do it for me – but the department that handles this is not open 24/7 – so I have no choice but to leave the site down and wait until normal business hours. Well, that kind of undermines the point of having 24/7 support, imho.

I did a search for “best shared hosting.” Lifehacker is a reliable source of information. They found their users recommended Dreamhost, Hostgator, Bluehost, Linode, and A Small Orange.

I didn’t want another VPS – I already have them with DigitalOcean – so Linode was out of the picture. My first choice was A Small Orange – but their hosting is expensive in comparison to the other providers (though I hear their customer service is great).

I also found Ryan Sullivan’s post on WP Site Care which reviewed seven top WordPress hosts (and I use WordPress extensively in my sites). The comparison included A Small Orange, Bluehost, GoDaddy, HostGator, Dreamhost, MediaTemple, and Site5.

A Small Orange was out of the picture due to price as mentioned above and I added MediaTemple to this grouping. I was on Bluehost, so that wasn’t an option and Sullivan’s research showed problems with HostGator’s response – so those two were out.

I’ve never been a big fan of GoDaddy – in part b/c of their juvenile marketing – which I know they have abandoned, but I decided to make them a last choice. I wasn’t really influenced by Sullivan’s observation that once he hit 25+ users performance degraded due to GoDaddy’s security software “Sentinel” which prevents traffic believed to be a DoS. While Sullivan thought this was too low, I didn’t think so. I can’t see many shared sites getting 25 simultaneous users coming across a single IP – unless one is being used as an example in a college classroom and an entire class loads the site at once…still this is unlikely, and even if it does happen, there may be enough variation in the identifying elements from the computers (e.g. OS, browser) for GoDaddy to determine it is not a DoS attack.

This left me with Dreamhost or Site5. I started with Dreamhost b/c Lifehacker had a “deal” where I could get Dreamhost for $20 for one year.

The home cooked control panel took some getting used to – I’ve been using cPanel for so long and webMin on most Linux boxes I’ve managed that this interface was foreign and somewhat confusing…but I got the hang of it.

Ooohh…They have a cPanel importer. Could I really import my cPanel backup from bluehost and save tons of time?!? Unfortunately, no. I tried several times and while the emails said the import had succeeded – it failed. Ohh well, I’ll try doing it manually – but then I see that in at least some cases I have to transfer my domains to use their DNS. What?! I ask if I can get around this – but the answer is no. I use CloudFlare for DNS and other acceleration features and don’t want to use Dreamhost’s DNS.

I decided to sign up for Site5. Maybe they would make me happy – and they did. There were still a few minor inconveniences – once again, their control panel doesn’t look like a regular cPanel. but, But they excelled on support – their techs. responded within seconds to each of my live chat requests, were knowledgeable, and seemed to have the power to accomplish the necessary tasks (as opposed to Bluehost, where segmentation of responsibilities so firmly meant technicians were unable to help me when I needed it, since the other departments weren’t open).

I now have my sites transferred over to Site5. I’ve canceled Dreamhost. My Bluehost is already canceled (though I’m still using them as my domain registrar – from habit and convenience, not b/c they offer such low prices [they don’t on domains]). We’ll see how things go from here.

 

P.S. I don’t think Bluehost is the devil. I’m not sure what is going on over there – I think they need to be a little more transparent about what is happening and why. It is obvious that they launched the VPS product before it was fully baked. This resulted in huge problems at the beginning – the most significant being that sometimes my support tickets would not be answered for days!

I think of myself as a pretty patient guy. If Bluehost had sought to proactively work with me, I probably would have stayed with them…but their product failed and they didn’t bend over backwards to make it work, so I left.

What do I mean by proactively work with me? Simply that they would have done whatever it took to get the site up and running and figuring out the issues. As long as I know someone is working on things, I can be pretty flexible (these aren’t sites that have to have 99.9% uptime, though I prefer that they do). I also enjoy helping companies work through issues like this – and as long as you “compensate” me (by giving my high quality tech support and perhaps some free credit for hosting) – I’ll work with you…but I got the feeling that Bluehost had taken off such a big bite that they couldn’t do this and weren’t interested in doing this.

All this to say, Bluehost may be a reasonable choice in a few months – if they are able to put out all the fires that have been haunting them. Keep an eye open for others reviewing and saying better things about Bluehost in upcoming days. Unfortunately, Bluehost has lost me as a hosting customer…and I don’t see myself returning, even if the situation improves, for the foreseeable future (there is no incentive to do so).

 

Did Hackers Gain Access to All Your Personal Information?!?

Introduction

“Out of sight, out of mind.” This is true of so many important aspects of life. We know we should do something about them, but we don’t – because we forget about them or the effort seems greater than the benefit.

Unfortunately, sometimes these important aspects of life decide to blow up in our faces. For example, most of us have learned the importance of keeping oil in our cars and performing regular oil changes. We know that while this is “out of sight” it cannot be “out of mind.” But, have you ever been in a that ran out of oil? I have and it is not a pleasant experience. The engine implodes on itself with many strange, loud, and scary sounds while smoke billows from the hood and nauseous odors waft through the vents. The car slows to a stop and never starts again. Cue tears, tow truck, and etc.

Burglar from OpenClipart.org. Thanks to tzunghaor for his generosity.
Burglar from OpenClipart.org. Thanks to tzunghaor for his generosity in making this image freely available.

It is time that our technology security becomes one of these “out of sight” but better not be “out of mind” aspects. It has long been time…but if you are a casual technology (computer, smartphone, etc.) user you probably don’t think much about security – and if you do, I hate to say it, but a good bit of your knowledge is probably based on outdated or downright false information.

Today, LivingSocial, a company with over 50 million users, was hacked. This follows a few weeks after Evernote was compromised with its similarly millions of users. Whether you are or are not a customer of these services isn’t the point. What is the point is this: Your identity, personal information, and financials are not safe.

Don’t wait until your Facebook page is plastered with pornographic images to change your password. Or until you send all of your friends emails explaining how you are really lost in London and need them to send money orders to a bank near you. Or until your credit report shows debts you never accumulated. Or your personal emails and documents are flouted across the web for all to see.

Don’t Unplug

Resist the temptation to unplug the computer. I know what I’m saying is a lot of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) and in general I hate when people use FUD. It is usually uncalled for and unproductive. In this case I think it is both called for and productive – but it will only be productive if you take the right steps. The right steps are not to unplug your computer and abandon technology forever. The right answer is to take the time and energy it will take to learn how to live and act in a more secure way in a technological world.

Why not just unplug? Good question – this is the usual action folks who spread FUD about technology are hoping to provoke. That or they want to convince you to buy expensive technological solutions to resolve your issues. Let me give you a few good reasons not to unplug:

  1. Technology is not going away. To withdraw from it is to withdraw from reality. Yes, technology can be overwhelming, addictive, insecure, and bad – but you have to learn how to utilize technology and not be enslaved to it. This is necessary for your job, for communicating with friends and relatives, and for living a productive life.[1]
  2. This isn’t just about your connection to the internet. Look, part of this is simply an educational campaign, b/c the truth is that technology security is horribly weak everywhere. You can unplug from technology – but you can’t force your bank, your relatives, your credit card companies, or so on to withdraw – and so your information is still out there.
  3. We are on the edge of extinction. By this I mean, don’t allow fear to control your life. Take reasonable steps towards risk management – but don’t stop living. Look, this entire world, this entire universe is crazy. At any moment we could all be dead. Don’t believe me? Look at the earthquakes that hit Haiti and Japan or the tsunamai that wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives in moments just a few years ago. “But Dave, that wouldn’t happen here. We aren’t on tectonic plate faults, etc., etc.” Then look at the Spanish Flu which wiped out millions of lives – many of the young and strong – during the early 1900’s, the millions that died in World War I and World War II in combat, or even better – look at the Black Plague which wiped out perhaps 50% of the world’s population a few hundred years ago.
  4. Manage risk, don’t run from it. Let me reiterate on the above point – everything is a risk. We can’t avoid risk, we aren’t in control. We can manage stupid risks. Don’t run in front of someone with a loaded gun; don’t drive a car at excessive speeds in bad weather[2]; and don’t wait until your identity or finances have been compromised to get serious about security.

What Should I Do?

  1. Remember, we are talking about risk management – not risk elimination. These steps will reduce the likelihood of exposure, but they won’t eliminate it.
  2. Invest some time into learning about technology generally and security specifically. The better you understand what you are working with, the better you can utilize it safely. For learning about computers generally, check out GCF’s Free Computer Training courses. For information on security specifically consider reading materials available from US-CERT[3] They are a government organization focused on technology security and offer a number of documents aimed towards the general reader.
  3. Begin utilizing LastPass to manage your passwords, ensure you have secure passwords, eliminate weak passwords, and so on. It is a little bit of a learning curve – but once configured it’ll make life easier and it is free.
  4. Continue to learn about technology generally and technology security specifically on an ongoing basis. Think about how many hours you spend using technology (not just on a computer but also a phone, tablet, using an atm, credit card checkouts at local stores, and so on) and also about all the ways your information is used technologically (banks, schools, non-profits, government, and so on). Consider the total number of hours you spend each year and then choose a reasonable number (say five or ten…or maybe twenty five…depending on how quickly you pick up on technology subjects) to spend on learning about technology and security in the upcoming year. Note how small of an investment you are making relative to the amount of time and energy you spend with these technologies.
  5. Consider talking to someone who knows technology who can make more personalized suggestions for you and who can review your technology overall for safety. If this individual tells you not to spend any time on security – find someone else. Make sure what they are saying is lining up with what you are learning from US-CERT or similar authoritative sources of security information.
  6. On a similar note, most techs (in my experience), including myself don’t mind talking to people about security – but feel frustrated when asked about security and then ignored. Please make the conscious effort to listen and understand. Far too many technology conversations are started with someone asking me a technology question and immediately letting their eyes glaze over. This communicates two things, “What you are saying isn’t important” (and for many of this, this is our livelihood) and “I didn’t mean I wanted to learn, I meant can I use you to make me secure so I don’t have to learn?” (okay, okay, maybe you wouldn’t put it in those words, but when we regularly get these questions with a regular lack of interested in the answers…it is hurtful).[4]
  7. Consider the practices your employer utilizes for maintaining security. Do they exist? Are they realistic? Many companies are horribly insecure…and it might be time to sit down with your boss (if they are open to that sort of conversation) and talk to them about the need for technology security in the workplace.
  8. Share this article or similar articles and the documents from the US-CERT with friends, family, and co-workers. Help raise awareness about the significant issue that is before us in a way that encourages others to do something about it rather than being overwhelmed by fear and running away.

Conclusion

Technology security is everyone’s concern. This is not a hopeless awareness issue. We’ve brought awareness about drinking and driving, drug addiction, mental illness, and healthy eating to varying levels of public awareness – the same is necessary for security.

You will be safer and more productive using technology securely. You will be a better employee but helping encourage safe technology at work. You will be a helpful citizen by encouraging proper security implementations at local, state, and national governmental levels.

I’m available to answer questions, comments, and criticisms via

the comments on this post. Please feel free to write me with your technology security concerns, if any of this is confusing, or if you find the materials I provided for training in technology or technology security too difficult and I will do my best to assist you in finding materials which will work with your current knowledge level regarding technology.

  1. [1]Those who aren’t convinced might consider reading Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age.
  2. [2]Or at all, but I’m just trying to emphasize the outrageous.
  3. [3]United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team.
  4. [4]Yes, geeks/techs do have feelings, even if they may not express them.

Open-Mesh: I’m Happy.

In 2011 I purchased several MR500 wireless mesh units from Open-Mesh and documented the installation, configuration, and troubleshooting experience. At the time I had some significant issues – specifically units that wouldn’t communicate with each other (due to distance limitations inherent in 802.11n). As time progressed I experienced fairly regular speed interruptions and a variety of issues. Granted, I was using beta units, meant for testing and not production – and overall I didn’t feel that upset about the issues I encountered – and still liked Open-Mesh overall – just hoped that their implementation and support would improve.

Mesh topology
Mesh topology (Photo credit: Wikipedia

It has been nearly two years since I wrote that initial article and I’m happy to be able to update my report and say that I am now satisfied with Open-Mesh’s product and would recommend it to others.

A chain of unfortunate events resulted in this change in my attitude – namely a hot water baseboard pipe burst flooding portions of the church and destroying a significant amount of equipment. All of the AP units were taken down during the remediation process. I then reinstalled them following the remediation process and now have one MR500 in the “source” room (where our Verizon FiOS router is), one in a large room, and one in the church office. I found it was necessary to have the unit in-between in the large room as the Mr500 units were unable to communicate directly with sufficient quality to allow for VoIP communications.

Now I have two computers – a Dell desktop and a Toshiba laptop running wirelessly on the network. I also have a Cisco SPA504G phone (hard wired) which has crystal clear audio quality, and two Dell printers (a color laser and a MFP) that are hard wired into the office MR500. The MR500 units have been running for several days without any downtime or connectivity issues.

I posit that the change in performance may be due to two factors. First, the firmware has been updated on the MR500 units and some bugs may have been ironed out. Secondly, we knocked down a wall in the downstairs of the church which would make it easier for the middle MR500 unit to broadcast its signal both to the source MR500 and to the office MR500.

Interestingly enough, you can’t buy the MR500 units from Open-Mesh anymore and there is very little mention of them on the site. I was under the impression (perhaps wrong?) that the MR500 was the successor to the OM2P series, but it appears that the MR500 series has ceased and Open-Mesh has invested in further developing the OM2P series.

I purchased two of these OM2P units but have not installed them yet. They are tiny compared to the MR-500! They are nice units, though I wish Open-Mesh still had a MR-500-like unit, b/c they have four ports for hard wired LAN connectivity and one for WAN, whereas the OM2P has two total.

If I had all OM2P units instead of the MR500 units, I would have to have a switch in addition to the OM2P unit in the church office to connect the two printers and the phone into. It is nice to have everything in one small unit.

But, having to buy a switch isn’t a big deal for those who are purchasing OM2P units and, in general, OM2P units are used to provide wireless access, not wired access.

I’ve also needed tech support (in fact, I’m getting tech support for configuring the OM2P units as I write this) several times and have been happy with the response times and the quality of the answers. That said, none of the problems near the severity I was having initially (in 2011), so I am unsure whether the ability to handle more advanced problems has improved.

I do think Open-Mesh could improve their CloudTrax cloud-based network controller which manages the mesh network and each of the individual nodes. A little time ironing out the bugs in the interface and tightening up the UI‘s snazziness could go a long way. That said, I’ve used Meru’s network controller and it is a nightmare compared to CloudTrax.

I also think that from a business perspective Open-Mesh needs to work on their publicity and communication. I’ve been a customer for over two years now and don’t think I’ve ever received a communication from them. What is going on? They are obviously still in business and progressing forward, but communication with existing customers, potential customers, and the press could be improved. I’d love to know more about where Open-Mesh is heading, how sales are going, who the team behind Open-Mesh and the other standard corporate site information that Open-Mesh lacks.

At the end of the day, Open-Mesh offers for a tenth of the price devices which (in my experience) operate with similar effectiveness to Meru or Meraki’s much more expensive units. Getting yourself setup with a mesh network is fairly easy and the price is right. I wish Open-Mesh all the best luck and look forward to continuing to utilize their products in the future.

SMS-to-Computer Android App Review.

Overview

I hate typing on my smartphone. It isn’t that I’m miserably slow at it, it is just that I know how much faster I can accomplish the same task from a PC – and I almost always am within arms reach of my laptop.

Image representing Android
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve been using MightyText for forever (that being, since they were founded) and it has served me greatly, but recently I’ve felt some yearnings to explore greener pastures. So I did a search and looked at a number of different options besides MightyText: DeskSMS (which has been proclaimed better than MightyText by some, but I disagree), mysms (which appears to be an excellent competitor), CrossTxt (which isn’t impressive, but may be succeeded by CloudText which looks interesting), web SMS Sync (which I couldn’t get working), Talk2Phone (which thinks it is better than MightyText, I disagree), MobiTexter (lacks distinguishing features from competition), Keyapt SMS, FastText, and txty.mobi.

In the end, I’ve decided to stick with MightyText for the time being, though I’d like to try CloudText when it becomes available and might retry web SMS Sync if I can get it working. All that research for nothing! Well, hopefully not. Hopefully this post helps you choose the best SMS-to-PC application for your needs and also helps MightyText add a few greatly needed features the competition is ahead of them on. Namely:

  • Ability to backup/archive SMS messages permanently (e.g. to Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync) – DeskSMS, mysms, web SMS Sync
  • Mark messages read in browser as read on phone – web SMS Sync
  • Delete messages deleted in browser on phone – web SMS Sync

Did I miss any features MightyText needs? Are there any other competitors out there I should be considering?

MightyText

Developer: mightytext
Price: Free
Website: http://www.mightytext.net/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.texty.sms

I’ve been using this product since its early, early beta days and it has developed leaps and bounds to the present – and I hope will continue to do so. The reason for this post was that I am looking for better alternatives – if they exist.

Here are some of the great features of MightyText:

  • Shows SMS messages and incoming calls on computer.
  • Shows phone’s battery level.
  • Uses phone’s contacts.
  • Incoming SMS can be answered immediately via pop-up window.

The feature that is missing that I really desire is the ability to backup my SMS conversations. Preferably, I’d like this to be through Google Drive – though it would probably make sense with other services such as Dropbox and SugarSync as well.

DeskSMS

Developer: Clockworkmod
Price: Free
Website: https://desksms.appspot.com/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.koushikdutta.desktopsms

This product has received accolades, but I was under-impressed:

  • The MightyText extension provides pop-up notifications when a new text message comes in.
  • One has to scroll around to answer text messages.
  • It archives to email text messages – but only those received, not those sent.
  • There is no help documentation for the application.

mysms

Developer: Up to Eleven
Price: Free
Website: http://www.mysms.com/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mysms.android.sms

I liked this product, it supports Android, iPhone, and Windows Phones as well as Windows, and Mac OS X native applications. It also has a browser-based interface. The one problem with the app is that it allows for saving SMS messages (incoming and outgoing) but only to Evernote, and I’m not a big fan of Evernote. I hope they will soon add Google Drive integration.

CrossTxtT

Developer: CloudTextPrice: Free
Website: http://www.crosstxt.com/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.lozingo.crosstxt

Looks to be somewhat outdated, but they appear to be launching a new product CloudText which looks very appealing.

web SMS Sync

Developer: Rivet Solutions
Price: Free (for up to 500 “connects”)
Website: https://websmssync.com/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.bechard.cloudsms

This solution looks pretty slick, and the pricing on additional connects isn’t horrible. Unfortunately, I was unable to test the application as each time I attempted to register via their Android app it failed.

Still, if they can resolve this issue features like the following are very appealing:

  • Backup of all messages.
  • Messages read in browser marked as read on phone.
  • Messages are deleted off phone when deleted via browser.
  • Supports reply-all.
  • Messages can self-destruct after being sent.

Talk2Phone

Developer: Mobile Notifications
Price: Free
Website: https://code.google.com/p/websmsdroid/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.notifier.talk2phone

This app boldly proclaims, “We think this is a pretty awesome app — even mightier than MightyText.” I did not find it as impressive. The free version includes the ability to locate one’s phone and a premium version for $1 offers some interesting extra features including ringing the phone, initiate a call, and perform other system settings config. Web user interface is definitely inferior to MightyText.

MobiTexter

Developer: MobiTexter
Price: Free
Website: http://www.mobitexter.net/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.mobitexter

Not a bad product. UI seems decent. But lacks anything to distinguish it from competition.

Keyapt SMS

Developer: Keyapt
Price: Free
Website: https://keyapt.com/
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.keyapt.keyaptsms

The user interface scared me off from the start, as did the statement “free for now.”

Other Options

  • Noorzaini Ilhami’s FastText.
  • txty.mobi.
  • BrowserTexting – There is a free app, but there is also a premium version – this costs a one-time fee of $9.99.
  • SMSnetwork for Chrome – Website was down when I attempted to access (3/20/13).
  • SMS2PC – Requires a desktop app – Windows, Mac, and Linux clients are available. Costs $3.

Online Shopping – Amazon, Target, Alice, FreshDirect All Disappoint.

Female grey tabby and white cat resting
Female grey tabby and white cat resting on a box of cat litter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just finished one of the household tasks I loathe the most – emptying the cat litter boxes. I refilled each box and in the process used up the last of the cat litter. Charity (my wonderful wife) doesn’t mind going to the store and buying these things, but I find this almost as frustrating as scooping out litter boxes. It is the 21st century and I get just about everything else from online – why not my pet supplies (and food)?

The first site I check is Amazon. I pay $79/yr. or whatever the fee is now for no-cost 2 day shipping. Charity and I like Purina‘s Tidy Cat litter – but Amazon doesn’t carry most varieties of it. What?!? This isn’t like some no-name brand, its Purina for goodness sake!

Next, just b/c I feel warm fuzzies towards that aging startup Alice, with whom I’ve had an account from the beginning, I check their pricing. Again, Alice doesn’t carry the Purina brand litter, though they do carry some Fresh Step which is another acceptable litter brand and the prices seem reasonable ($3.89-$5.99 for 7 lbs.). But even if I wanted to buy from Alice, I’d need to spend $50 before I’d get free Shipping & Handling…and I just want to buy cat litter, not do a full groceries/household trip!

Both Amazon and Alice have let me down – so where do I go next? Target. Why? Because in “real life” that is where Charity and I buy most of our household goods and groceries. I quickly find the litter I’m looking for but in small font I see “prices vary by store.” Still, I’m optimistic and click through to the product page because it also says in small font, “Spend $75, get free shipping.” If I can get it shipped – I must be able to order it online? Nope.

That is an interface error on Target’s part. You shouldn’t be offered free shipping on products you can’t order…but things get worse.  I see the item isn’t sold online but it is sold in stores – well, maybe I can see the price at my store? I click on find in store but in the end have only a location and contact info. – no pricing for the product. Its too bad, b/c if Target had the product I’d buy it from them – I know from in-store what product I like (an advantage usually over Amazon) and since I have a Target credit card I get free shipping and handling on my order.

I’m puzzled why Target doesn’t make their local stores into shipping distribution centers. Why not allow me to find my local store, order the car litter, and someone throws it in a box and ships it off to me?

I’m not ready to give up just yet. I seem to remember there being some pet supply stores with a significant online presence – lets try those. Petco offers free shipping only on orders over $49, Petsmart on orders over $59, and PetSupplies on orders over $49.

It is time to give up. But wait! I just received a letter from FreshDirect (whom I’ve been waiting to move into the area FOREVER) informing me that I could use them and get delivery for $.02 for two months – though after that it would cost $69/6 mo. I figure I’ll give it a try – even though I can’t see paying for Amazon Prime and FreshDirect. I grab the litter, throw it in my cart, it is reasonably priced and attempt to check out – oooh, my bad, the minimum order must be $30.

I know, I know, I’m being a bit demanding of all these services. In general I really like each of them (well, haven’t really used the pet supply ones), but in this particular case each demonstrates the small yet significant gap between consumer desire and product delivered.

In my humble opinion, Target is really in the perfect space to take over this market. With their hybrid online/local presence they have distribution centers everywhere and I’ll certainly keep going to Target for larger shopping trips – but I’d love to get my cat litter, toilet paper, paper towels, condiments, and so on shot out automatically each month (though I also don’t want to sign away my life with a contract on them…You’ll just have to trust me that if you give good prices and free shipping, I’ll keep buying).

P.S. I know I’m not using FreshDirect as intended, but when you have a minimum order price I usually give up. I want to try something and then come back and try a few things more…blahh, blahh. As my wife would say, “You are having a first world problem.”

WellnessFX – First Thoughts.

I love anything that helps me quantify myself. I have a Zeo, use Noom and its pedometer, subscribe to 23andMe, bought a new weight scale, and so on. Recently I signed up for WellnessFX – a service I’ve been drooling over for a couple years now and finally decided to jump in and bite.

Total iron-binding capacity
Total iron-binding capacity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why now? Well, they sent me this email with a 20% off coupon (MARCHWELLNESS) – I think you can use it as well. That means the price dropped from $199 to $159 or thereabouts. While I didn’t use an HSA or FSA account, apparently this is an entirely justifiable use (for those who have such things). I also left Cairn, where I had good health insurance and am now technically self-employed. I’m shopping around for health insurance, but so far the options have been crazy expensive (due to preexisting health conditions), so I’ve been paying out-of-pocket, and I figured since I’m saving money by not having health insurance I could splurge a bit and do something for my health by using WellnessFX.

What is WellnessFX? Great question! Essentially, WellnessFX offers health analysis through blood testing and a consult with a medical professional. Lets walk through the process I went through and that will probably give everyone a better idea…

First off, I signed up for WellnessFX on their website and purchased their Baseline package which normally clocks in at $199. Using the discount code above I was able to get it for around $159.

Next, I chose a lab location I wanted to schedule a visit at. WellnessFX has partnered with some of the largest labs in the country – so finding a nearby lab was easy. I chose a day and time from those available – and presto, I was good to go.

The next day I went to the lab, submitted my paperwork, and within fifteen minutes had three vials of blood drawn and was able to leave, no worse for the experience.

Now came the waiting – and somewhere in there the questions. I filled out a bunch of questions about my health and habits. Nothing too overwhelming. An email said it might take three to five days for my results to be analyzed. I had gone in for the blood draw on Tuesday and had the results by Friday.

I logged into the WellnessFX site and took a look at my health stats. Everything is broken up into nice little panels of similar analyses. The first was a basic lipid panel which calculated total cholesterol, LDL-C Direct (bad cholesterol), HDL-C Direct (good cholesterol), and Triglycerides. Uhhohhh, my triglycerides are high. Well, I knew this from the last time I was at my general practitioner…and I’m looking forward to my consult with WellnessFX, as I already take Omega-3 supplements and still have the high triglycerides.

Next is the LDL Particles showing vLDL-C, LP(a), and Apo B – again, I’m not doing well on the Apo B side (protein in LDL (bad) cholesterol). Somewhat surprisingly the next segment “Inflammation” shows me as being fine – interesting since I’ve been undergoing a lot of testing related to auto-immune issues and have had an escalating ANA result (bad). But at least by WellnessFX’s measurement I’m okay – but they only measure hs-CRP – and I’m guessing that ANA is different?

The next major section covers Metabolic health. I’m doing fine as far as diabetes and insulin resistance go – both my glucose and Hemoglobin A1c are within normal parameters. This is somewhat surprising to me as I sometimes have symptoms which seem diabetic and I’ve eaten enough sugar to put some folks into a comatose state – no, I’m not proud of that, its just a fact.

My thyroid levels (TSH) also come up okay – but I’m a little saddened by the lack of tests performed on the thyroid. One can get more extensive testing done with their Thyroid test but that doesn’t include most of what is in the Baseline and costs a $399. I understand the price difference is probably in the testing, its just unfortunate. If one where to get the Thyroid test one would receive not only TSH but also T4, T3, T3 Uptake, Free Thyroxine Index, Free T3, Reverse T3, and Free T4 analysis. I’ve had most of these during my entire health episode over the past year or so.

Still under metabolism they’ll check on my liver function – which appears to be happy as can be. This includes testing of ALT / SGPT, ALP, AST / SGOT, Bilirubin, Albumin, Total Protein, Globulin, and the Albumin / Globulin ration.

Just down to kidneys and there are some interesting results which I’m looking forward to talking about during the consult. My creatinine (serum) is within bounds, but right at the upper end and at the end of this section I see that my BUN / Creatinine Ratio  is within bounds, but right at the lower end. There are also tests for eGFR, BUN, and Albumin – all of which look fine.

Next major section is electrolytes – I’m looking good across the board. They measured my sodium, potassium, chloride, CO2, and calcium levels – all are within bounds.

Then it is on to Bone. Here my ALP and Calcium are fine but my 25-Hydroxy Vitamin D is quite low. A note has been attached to my results informing me that while I should discuss this during my consult they recommend I begin taking 10,000 IU of D3 immediately.

The section closes with Vitamins – but the only one measured is 25-Hydroxy Vitamin D, where the results are again low. This is another section where I would like to see a little more testing – and, again, they do offer testing with a more expensive package. Their Performance package which clocks in at a frightening $699 also checks Ferritin, Folate, Vitamin B12, RBC Magnesium.

In addition, having been spoiled by my recent blood tests while under health insurance, I’m saddened to see that complete blood count, total iron binding capacity, DHEA, free testosterone, testosterone, estradiol, SHBG, Cortisol, IGF-1, and insulin are all only available with the Performance package.

I don’t even know what all those are for, but I do know I’d love to have my testosterone, cortisol, and insulin levels analyzed as well. I suspect my cortisol levels would be low.

But that isn’t quite the end of WellnessFX for me. Next I get a 20-minute consult. There are a number of different medical professionals available, I chose Dr. Andrea Gorman b/c one of her areas of expertise is mental health – and goodness knows I have my bouts with OCD and Depression. The consult isn’t for another week or so, but I’ll update the post once I’ve spoken with Dr. Gorman.

Finally, WellnessFX isn’t a once-and-done process, it is meant to be repeated every 4-6 months. I’d like to do it every four months to start, and as my health stabilizes and stats stabilize to move to once every 6 mo. or even once every 12 mo. It doesn’t appear that there is a price break for returning customers – which is unfortunate, but they do offer over-time analysis through the web interface, helping you track and quantify your health as time passes and one makes adjustments to one’s lifestyle, or life makes adjustments to you.

In my opinion, this is the future of medicine. “But Dave, how can you spend $199 when there isn’t anything wrong with you?” Well, first off, I have plenty of health problems, so there is plenty wrong with me. 🙂 But, lets say I was healthy, I still think this would be a good investment. It takes very little time and empowers the individual to take care of their own health. It could help reduce not only their long-term health costs but also the overall healthcare burden on our nation’s GDP as it is very likely that health issues will be detected and treatment begun much earlier in the process than the way most of us are going now…

I don’t want to get rid of doctors – by no means! But I would love to see doctors doing less busywork checking if folks are healthy and able to focus more on when we are actually in trouble, and WellnessFX seems to enable just such a system. I’d suggest to doctors that this might even be something they’d want to recommend to patients in their practice. “Hey, go get this done twice a year and we’ll look over the results together at your annual physical, or before if you feel sick.” $400/yr. really isn’t much – especially if it helps us head off diabetes, thyroid issues, heart disease, or etc.!

Creating Custom Maps.

OpenStreetMap image of Cambridge
English: OpenStreetMap image of Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to create a custom map for our church. I want to highlight various places – such as other churches, apartment complexes, and non-profit organizations. How do I go about doing this? This is the question I set out with and here are the results of my research…

If you have additions, revisions, etc. please feel free to leave them in the comments or shoot me an email using the contact form. This resource will be evolving with time.

Major Map Players

Other Map Players

Google Maps Mashups

  • This section will include services that build on top of Google Maps and lack enough significant functionality to be considered a separate option from Google Maps itself.

 

Bibliography:

23andMe Drops Prices, Makes Genetic Testings Affordable.

Unlock Secrets in Your Own DNA with 23andMe.com

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently blogged about WellnessFX, which offers blood testing and analytics for optimal health…but there is another service I’ve been using for several years now (and been very happy with) called 23andMe – and there is some great news on this front. They’ve dropped their genetic analysis price from $299 to $99! If you haven’t used 23andMe in the past, now may be a good time to start! If you are looking for that perfect and unique Christmas present for that special someone – this is a great option as well. (If you haven’t guessed already, I do get compensated by 23andMe for each sale that goes through my site…but I don’t talk up products unless I believe in them!)

I’m not going to go into a ton of detail about 23andMe, you can go to their website to learn all about their services – but I do want to just highlight a few of the things that make me really love 23andMe:

  1. The service provides insight into what genetic predispositions towards various illnesses (or away from them) one has, allowing one to focus on taking steps to be healthier in ways that particularly counter those illnesses.
  2. The service provides insight regarding medications – which will be effective and which will have limited effectiveness for one’s genetic makeup.
  3. By participating in the service one also has the constant opportunity to contribute to scientific advances by (choosing explicitly to) sharing genetic data and information about oneself through surveys. This has already resulted in some interesting and significant advances.
  4. You are provided with many insights about your ancestry based on genomic information – for instance, I’m distantly related to Stephen Colbert on my mother’s side!