Toshiba, Kingston, and the Case of Useless RAM.

I’m an IT geek. IT flows through my veins – I couldn’t get rid of it if I wanted. I’m too old to be a digital native, but I’d like to think I’m pretty close.

I’m used to replacing my laptop every two years or so but I’ve been using the same laptop now since 2010. A Toshiba Tecra A11-S3540. It is a good machine boasting a powerful Intel Core i7 CPU, a dedicated 512 MB NVIDIA graphics adapter, 4 GB DDR3 RAM, gigabit ethernet, and 802.11n wireless. A while back I replaced the standard 7200 SATA hard drive with a 128 GB SSD – which made an incredible difference in system speed…but now, things are starting to drag again.

I’ve looked at purchasing a new system, but to get something just equivalent with what I currently have is fairly pricey, so I’m holding off as long as I can. There is really only one other upgrade I can make to stretch the life of this laptop – adding more RAM.

I’ve held off on buying the RAM for over a year – but finally decided that the decrease in productivity was costing me more than upgrading the RAM would cost.

I went on Toshiba’s site and looked up their memory recommendations. For this specific laptop model they recommended Kingston’s 4 GB DDR3 1333Mhz memory modules at $50 each.

Screenshot of Toshiba Direct Search Result Page

I shopped around a bit – seeing if I could find anyone else who was selling the memory for cheaper and double and triple checking whether it would work with this system. I supposed since it was the recommendation on Toshiba’s site it would, but I wanted to be sure.

I stumbled across a Kingston page which indicated what I was looking for was actually the KTT1066D3/4G but that it had been “replaced by” the KTT-S3B/4G.

Screenshot of Kingston Memory Page

To their credit, if I went through the System-Specific Memory portion of Kingston’s site and attempted to find my system, it wouldn’t appear as an option.

You can probably guess where this is going. I ordered the RAM from a seller off eBay. Damage was a little less than $110.

I (im)patiently waited for the memory to arrive and when it did I eagerly pulled the old 2 GB RAM chips and replaced them with the new 4 GB RAM chips. I powered it on, BIOS post went fine, but then Windows started to load. A message about a fatal error flashed on the screen and the system shut off…a few seconds later it powered itself back on and repeated the same steps…and so on.

I did some troubleshooting to make sure it wasn’t a bad RAM chip and eventually called Kingston, who informed me that the RAM wouldn’t work with my system. I’m not sure what “replaced by” means, but apparently it doesn’t mean “can be used instead of.”

The eBay seller offers a thirty day return policy, so I could return the chips, but over $10 was for S&H, I’d have to pay $10 for S&H, and then take a 15% hit for the restocking fee. In the end I’d get back around $75 out of the almost $110 I’d shelled out.

Moral of the story? I suppose there are two: (1) don’t rely too heavily on what Toshiba suggests are replacement parts for your system and (2) “replaced by” don’t mean what you think it mean, at least when it comes to Kingston…I’m not entirely sure what it does mean.

Dear Spotify

Image of Various Spotify Apps

I’ve been using Spotify for 2+ years now, it deserves a longevity award. It also deserves some sort of honor for being one of the few subscription services I dole out for on a monthly basis[1] – placing it alongside Netflix – and everybody has Netflix.Spotify Client Apps

In spite of a number of other options, including from mega companies like Google and Amazon, I still prefer Spotify. It is entirely free if you don’t mind the ads and the premium account is $5/mo $10/mo.

That said, I do have a few things I’d love for Spotify to incorporate:

  1. Tagging – Playlists are cool, they are like categories, but everyone knows that you need categories and tags (ala WordPress). I like creating playlists – but what if I want to listen to a song on a specific subject? Or what if the song is on multiple subjects? Yes, I can create multiple playlists – but this quickly becomes cumbersome.
  2. Listens – It would be great if Spotify displayed how many times one has listened to a song. I am an explorer – always trying out new bands, new albums – and oftentimes forgetting who I’ve listened to previously and which songs. If I could see how many times I’ve listened to the song it would allow me to more efficiently explore.
  3. Searching Artists, Songs, Albums – I’ve listened to a lot of artists and this list of artists (or songs or albums) can become overwhelming. Sometimes I know I want to listen to an artist that begins with some letter or word, but I can’t remember its name in its entirety, it would be great if I could search only what is in “Your Music.”
  4. Language / Topic Filters – I know that Spotify includes “explicit content” warnings on songs, but I’ve listened to far too many songs that had “explicit content” and weren’t marked as such. This becomes important when (a) one is playing the music in the presence of others who might find the content offensive, (b) one finds it offensive, or (c) one is allowing Spotify to post to one’s Facebook timeline and has an audience that includes individuals of young(er) age for whom such content might be inappropriate.
  5. Shazam Functionality – If I am listening to the radio in the car I still have to use Shazam to find out and save what song I’m listening to. Adding this functionality into Spotify’s mobile app would be huge…especially since Shazam now makes me integrate with Rdio.

Which of these features? Or what other features would you like to see in Spotify?

  1. [1]I no longer pay fro a subscription. I am happy with the ad-supported version. Sure, its a little annoying, but I don’t listen to music enough these days to make a full account worthwhile.

When is Good: Taking the Stress Out of Scheduling

Once upon a long time ago[1] I thought about[2] writing a review of Doodle, an online scheduling tool for simplifying the process of creating meets in which all participants can actually participate.

Recently I had the need to schedule another meeting with a group of individuals who have incredibly conflicting and variable schedules, so I decided to utilize such a scheduling tool again…and, of course, I went to Doodle first…

But I love to explore and curate and find the best way to do x and so I went through my semi-regular routine when evaluating something new I want to utilize[3]:

  1. Google relevant terms like “Doodle competitor,” “Doodle alternative,” “online scheduling tool,” “online meeting app,” and so on.
  2. Go to AlternativeTo and see what alternatives they had to Doodle.
  3. Visit a bunch of these options and review them in a hasty manner.[4]

I visited a number of options like Dudle, DO’ZZ, SelectTheDate, ScheduleOnce, and so on. For various reasons I didn’t settle on any of these…but then I returned to one of the sites I’d written off for aesthetic reasons (it ain’t very pretty): WhenIsGood. After playing around with it a bit I was quite happy and have been using it since.

Let me walk you through its pages and you’ll see how simple and fairly intuitive it is. First we have our dashboard (“your account”).

When is Good Dashboard Screenshot
When is Good Dashboard Screenshot

Its very simply – essentially you see a list of events you have created and you can view, edit, or delete the events. I assume that detach allows one to remove the event from your account (you can use this service w/out creating an account).

Somewhat hidden at the top right you see a link to create a new event. The enter results code is for those who create events w/out accounts – its a unique string that identifies their event and allows them to access it.

I’ve blacked out a few small areas – mainly b/c they had my email address…which is floating around the internet, but I decided not to make any more available than it already is. There are a billion and one ways to get in contact w/me.

Under the events I blacked out the actual links to the events, they are clickable and allow you to view the event.

Now lets say we decide to create a new event, here is what we will see:

When Is Good New Event Screenshot.
When Is Good New Event Screenshot.

It isn’t the most intuitive interface, but if you mess around for five minutes you can figure it out. Note that you can set the length of the meeting, give the event a name like, “My Super Awesome Surprise Birthday Party For Myself.” There is that strange little slider bar above the calendar, use this to make the size of the calendar (not how many days, just its dimensions on the screen) larger or smaller.

But there are really a few more options we need if we are going to create a helpful scheduling event, so we click on Show Options which shows us this:

When Is Good Show Options Screenshot
When Is Good Show Options Screenshot

That is better. Now we can select the days we want to have displayed on our calendar. In my case I was scheduling a recurring event, which When Is Good doesn’t seem to inherently have any options for, so I just chose a week in the future and let people pick off those days, knowing that the event would then recur on a weekly basis.

Now click Create Event and you are all set….Right? Nope. You’ll get an error message, you need to “paint” some time slots. You are the first visitor to your event even before it is created and you get to determine what days/times will even be an option to folks when they view the event. Once you’ve selected your desired days/times you can successfully create the event. You’ll be given a unique URL you can share with anyone else via  any method you choose (email, Facebook, Twitter, hand-written note, whatever). When someone visits this unique URL they will see this:

When Is Good Visitors Screenshot
When Is Good Visitors Screenshot

We could have customized the directions, as to me “painting” times is not very intuitive, I’d suggest something like, “Please click on each day/time slot you are available to attend.”

The individual wouldn’t see all the options I have at the top right, since in this screenshot I’m logged into my account, but at the bottom right they’d have a spot to enter their name and email and send the response.

Now we get to our last screen, the results screen:

When Is Good Results Screenshot
When Is Good Results Screenshot

Now I see the calendar I created with info. filled out by the individuals I invited to the event. The green highlighted spaces are the slots where all respondents are available (I told you, crazy schedules).

Next to each of the remaining time slots are little dots, the dots indicate how many individuals cannot attend at that day/time. If I put my mouse over a time slot it will show me who can/can’t come and if I put my mouse over a name (under responses on the left-hand side) it will show me all the slots they selected as available highlighted in green.

As you can see, it is a functional although not aesthetically pleasing tool. It isn’t entirely intuitive, but its simplicity makes it easiest enough to figure out with a few minutes stumbling around.

Why Not Doodle?

I decided not to use Doodle b/c of the pricing essentially. If you are a business or an organization that will frequently utilize online scheduling – go with Doodle, it has more features, the pricing is reasonable, and it is more aesthetically pleasing…but if this is just an occasional thing, When Is Good will do just fine.

Feedback for When Is Good

Here are a few unsolicited suggestions to the folks over at When Is Good to take their application to the next level:

  • Include dates on your What’s New page so we can tell if you have been working on the app recently.
  • Redesign the aesthetic layout, center the main screen elements, make new event stand out from the rest of the menu options.

Premium with When Is Good

When is Good does offer a premium version at $20/yr. which is around half of Doodle’s lowest paid plan. It adds a few more options, but nearly as many as Doodle. If I was you and willing to pay, I’d go with Doodle.

  1. [1]Okay…more like a few months or years.
  2. [2]But did not actually.
  3. [3]This isn’t normal for items I’ll be using once-off, but I plan on using the scheduling tool more frequently, and imho, it is a lot easier to get people using the tool you want from the get-go than to change to something new half-way…since it oftentimes takes dragging kicking and screaming individuals long distances to get them to use any such tool in the first place.
  4. [4]If I spent a decent amount of time on each site I’d spend my entire life reviewing these sorts of sites…which I don’t have time for…this means, that on occasion, I don’t always, always get the best tool…b/c a tool that I write-off early ends up being the best…Still, I like to think I usually find the best and almost always find a tool that is more than sufficient for my needs.

Soylent: A Viable Meal Alternative?

The Journey to Soylent

On June 27th, 2013 I began anticipating Soylent, talking about Soylent, impatiently waiting for Soylent to become available. I signed up for a week’s supply of Soylent on June 10th and it arrived on July 22nd.

A picture of my box of soylent...and of course, my feet, b/c I'm talented with cameras like that.
A picture of my box of soylent…and of course, my feet, b/c I’m talented with cameras like that.

Inside was a long sheet with instructions…I’m not a fan of the big sheet…What am I supposed to do with this? Unless I hang it on my way there is no easy way to store it.

The awkwardly long Soylent instructions.
The awkwardly long Soylent instructions.

You can click on the above image to see how long the instructions really where, but it would have consumed too much space on the page for me to embed the image here.

Next we had the bags of Soylent and the bottles of oil. You can see a picture below.

What came in the first Soylent box I received - instructions, oils, and soylent.
What came in the first Soylent box I received – instructions, oils, and soylent.

Theoretically, I should have received a package before this one with my welcome pack – which was to include a stainless steel measuring cup and an airtight pitcher as pictured below:

Stainless steel measuring cup from Soylent.
Stainless steel measuring cup from Soylent.

 

The Soylent pitcher - yes, it is BPA free.
The Soylent pitcher – yes, it is BPA free. Ohh, and mine doesn’t look like this, the main body is clear, the handle and lid are green, and it is entirely unbranded by Soylent…I think there is a name of some other company on top…

But I hadn’t and I didn’t for quite some time. I attempted using some of my own implements to make Soylent but had mixed successes. If this was what Soylent tasted like, I wasn’t going to stick with it. After a few tries I decided I would just wait until my welcome package came.

Ohh, and yes, I sent an email reporting the missing welcome package on the 23rd and of course received the usual automated reply the same day. It would be August 9th before I would receive a reply from Soylent and then to be informed that “I have forwarded your concern to our shipping department…” Then silence. Finally, on August 18th I received an email informing me that my starter kit was on its way.

Okay, that is a pretty ridiculous wait…the organizational side of Soylent has been extremely underwhelming…I’m not sure all of what happened behind the scenes, but, honestly, I don’t care that much if Soylent is good and works and if they learn from their mistakes – which, it seems (I hope), they are doing.

On a side note, the disorganization worked out to my advantage as I received a second shipment of Soylent by accident and when I asked what I should do with it they told me to keep it. I was pretty happy about that (though I feel bad for folks who ordered far before me and way more and still have not received their Soylent).

But How About It, Is It Good?

Now that you have heard about the nightmare of procuring my Soylent, lets talk about Soylent itself. It is a very fine mix and comes in bags that each contain three meals. I found trying to make Soylent in smaller portions to be a hassle – not only because of measurements and so on but because the powder is so fine that it puffs up into the air and lands everywhere while scooping.[1]

In any case, I moved to making a whole packet at a time and it was so much easier. Okay, I know for those of you who cook, you are rolling your eyes – and yes, in the distant past I did sometimes cook – but the whole point of Soylent is to save time and improve nutrition.

Making Soylent was now simple – pour in the powder, add a bottle of oil, and then fill the rest of the pitcher with water. Screw on the air-tight cap[2] and shake for around sixty seconds. Place in the refrigerator, remove when ready to consume, shake for five to ten seconds, then pour yourself a glass and enjoy.

Soylent tastes a bit like a milk shake. It has a pleasant flavor, though one I can’t place. Compared to any other powdered drink (Shakeology, RAW Meal), the “graininess” is almost non-existent.

It tastes good, the texture is good, and its easy to make – sweet! Another surprising and positive note is that it uses water not milk or a milk substitute and yet tastes better than Shakeology with (in my case) almond milk! Seriously, if you didn’t see the batch mixed, you’d swear it had to have a dairy base.

So, I like my Soylent and I intend on continuing to consume it. Right now I average two meals a day of Soylent and one meal elsewise. I allow myself to eat whatever I desire for that third meal – but my cravings for unhealthy foods seem to have lessened somewhat (not completely).

Should you get Soylent? Sure. Just be prepared to wait a bit. I think organizationally they are getting there, but with the delays initially as well as the huge demand, and then the ongoing demand for resupplies, it is going to be a while before Soylent is working smoothly.

A Few Importantish Notes

It Goes Bad

One of the great things about Soylent is that it lasts forever (hyperbole) in powder form. Something I didn’t realize until I received my Soylent is that once it has been mixed with water it needs to be consumed within two days. Apparently due to the nutrient richness of the drink, even while being refrigerated bacteria multiply quickly. I would like to know more about the health implications of this.

I oftentimes eat food far past its expiration date – especially dairy alternatives (almond milk, soy milk) and don’t have any problem…so I’d probably ignore this warning except after posting on the forums I learned that the bacteria make the taste go bad quickly – so its not just filled with bacteria, it tastes nasty too.

Still, I’ve been consuming Soylent over a two to may three day period and haven’t experienced issues thus far…and making it in this size batch saves me from measuring, etc.

Don’t Forget The Oils!

Each time you use a bag of Soylent you are supposed to add the oils as well – which provide some important aspects of Soylent’s nutrition. Being ADD, I have on occasion forgotten to put the bottles into the Soylent. This doesn’t bother me, but it is a dilemma – what am I supposed to do with these bottles of oil?

Flatulence

There was a lot of discussion of increased flatulence when using Soylent which, it is hypothesized, is caused by the bacteria in our stomachs not knowing how to handle nutritional food and the replacement of some of these bacteria with better bacteria that do consume this food.

I had no intention of mentioning flatulence, b/c I really don’t like talking about it. I was never a fart guy joker…but I must mention it, b/c it radically increases flatulence and it smells horrific.

This goes away after a few days – but my recommendation – start Soylent when you aren’t spending a lot of time with people…and please, give your spouse a break and sleep on the couch…or at least let them sleep on the couch.

What Now?

My plan at this juncture is to continue Soylent 2x daily long-term. We’ll see if I grow sick of the taste…which is very possible.

I haven’t noticed any huge changes in my health, but that may come with time. I also am hoping to get my blood drawn and analyzed every quarter by WellnessFX so I can monitor my health, especially vitamin levels, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Wrapping It Up

Soylent is great – I’m exceptionally pleased with the product itself. The company has some work to do – and seems to be doing it. I haven’t noticed any amazing positive health effects, but I’m hoping over time it works positively. I’ll provide future updates as I’ve been on it longer and can analyze how I respond to the taste with continued consumption and whether I see any health changes positive or negative.

  1. [1]The reason I wanted to do smaller servings was b/c Soylent goes bad after it is made and I wasn’t sure I could consume an entire package of Soylent quickly enough.
  2. [2]I discovered it isn’t really, really, really air-tight. I didn’t have room to put the pitcher standing up in my refrigerator (it is a mini) so I put it on its side – this worked a few times, but eventually it began to leak.

Disarming My Smartphone.

The Backstory

(Probably more than you need or want to know…but hey, I’m writing and you are reading – you can skip this section and I’ll never know)

I have a rough time sleeping (I go to see a sleep specialist on Monday and have been through a sleep study previously). I oftentimes can’t sleep through the night (waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning and unable to fall asleep till 5 or 6) and oftentimes struggle with excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS).

I’m in pretty good physical shape at this point – which is pretty amazing, especially considering all that I went through over the last few years with my health…sure there are still aches and pains and various nuisances…but I can live with them – the only one that really still frustrates me is this sleep issue – particularly the EDS.

I use my smartphone as my alarm clock – and I use Sleepbot to monitor my sleep – so I want to have my smartphone near me while I sleep…but this can sometimes be counterproductive. If someone sends me a SMS or FB message in the middle of the night I may hear it. If some stupid app I’ve recently installed and haven’t turned off notifications on (b/c I didn’t think they would have any!) decides the best time to notify me of something is at 2  or 3 am I may be woken.

The Recommendations

So I began searching for an application that would allow me to selectively mute my phone while still maintaining my availability. This would be simple enough if I didn’t need to be available for emergencies pretty much 24/7 (being in the pastorate and IT, where work oftentimes occurs off-schedule and with some urgency).

I did a little search around but didn’t come up with anything great. I find Google’s app store abysmal in its search functionality…even more inferior than its web search (which I use but loathe).[1] So, where does one turn when a google doesn’t turn up the answer? No, not Bing (sorry Microsoft!), Quora. You can see the question and answers here.

The main options offered where (a) CynagoenMOD’s ROM (but this would require placing the stock ROM – essentially the OS of the phone), (b) IFTTT (the programmability is nice, but it lacks, at least easily, all the features I need), (c) Locale (but it is fairly expensive for an app), (d) Tasker (but involves more programming than I was interested in), (e) Agent, (f) Do Not Disturb, and (g) Dindy (this is the app I’ve settled on).

My Choice: Dindy

An Android, open source application that can block phone calls and text messages at night.
An Android, open source application that can block phone calls and text messages at night.

I chose Dindy first because I’m a sucker for open source. If I have to choose between two products with the same featureset and one is open source and the other closed – I’ll go with the open source app almost every time.[2]

The killer feature I was looking for is the ability to let calls through if it is an emergency. In essence, if a phone call is made repeatedly (over a short period of time), it will be allowed through even if the app is set to reject calls. This way if someone really needs to get a hold of me, they can.

A secondary crucial feature is its ability to send text message responses to calls and texts I receive informing the person that I am unavailable and what they should do if it is an absolute emergency (e.g. call several times in a short span of time).

The one bummer is if the phone call comes from a land line you can’t send back a text message – so the person doesn’t know they need to keep calling…but honestly, whenever folks have an emergency (and oftentimes when they don’t :P) they blow up my phone with repeated calls…so I don’t think this will be a huge issue.

There are other features like the ability to whitelist and the ability to create different contexts with different messages – like if I am “away” from the phone, in a meeting, driving, or so on.

But there were two other apps that were close contenders with Dindy, lets talk about what I liked about them (that Dindy doesn’t have ::cough:: hint to developer 😉 ::cough::) and what they lacked that led me to utilize Dindy instead.

Do Not Disturb

An Android app which can selectively block calls, available in free and premium editions.
An Android app which can selectively block calls, available in free and premium editions.

This application comes at a free level, but really you’ll want the premium level. The cost is reasonable for an app. – $2.50. You can try the premium features in the free edition for two weeks for free.

Do Not Disturb lost a few points for not being open source (I don’t hold this against closed source projects, I have no beef with folks making closed source apps…but I trust that open source apps will be around longer, b/c someone else can pick up development if the original developer drops out…whereas closed source projects oftentimes are acquihired or simply shuttered)…

where DND really took a hit was in its lack of multiple modes besides day and night. Dindy provides me with the ability to create an infinite number of contexts – each with their own settings – with DND I’m restricted to two.

That said, DND does offer the ability to disable WiFi and data at night (saves battery) and to automatically (if desired) go mute during meetings (based on my calendar). Pretty sweet features.

Agent

Agent offers several automated "agents" that perform different functions - one being selective call blocking. It is closed source but free.
Agent offers several automated “agents” that perform different functions – one being selective call blocking. It is closed source but free.

The other application – which is quite the slick operator – is called Agent. It does quite a bit more than muting – it also takes action when your battery gets low, automatically remembers where you parked, and automatically goes into mute mode when you are driving (and, of course, all of these are configurable).

It also provides reporting capabilities which tell you what agent has been up to – when it has turned on and off certain functionality. Pretty sweet.

In addition it allows (unlike either DND or Dindy) disabling of auto-sync and of bluetooth (to save battery life).

Where it lost out to Dindy was in its lack of full customizability. It is limited to three contexts (meeting, driving, sleeping) and doesn’t allow for customizing how many calls the individual has to make before they are let through (I have it setup to allow through on the second call – which is what Agent has as the default, but Dindy’s customizability is really nice…and I like having options).

Dear Dindy

So, to recap, here is what I’m hoping Dindy might add in the near future:

  • Integrate with my calendar to allow automatic muting for meetings (bonus points for allowing keyword based filtering of which meetings like DND offers).
  • Include the ability to turn off wifi, data, bluetooth, and data sync as part of “going silent.”
  • Auto detect when I am driving and go silent.
  • Allow me to schedule the days/times I want Dindy to go silent at night (I forgot to mention that Dindy lacks and both DND and Agent offer this feature), so I don’t need to remember to start Dindy’s mute mode manually each night.

Dear DND and Agent

You both have great projects. Should you implement the features I mention that Dindy is currently missing, let me know. 😉

PS Google, Microsoft & WordPress

  • Google: I know you want to move to the new WebP project, but it makes my life difficult when you have your images in WebP format.
  • Microsoft: I am pretty unhappy you aren’t integrating WebP into IE.
  • WordPress: Please add WebP as a default allowed file format for uploading.
  1. [1]I’ve written several times on the past on alternative search engines as well as on my belief that social search engines could provide a way to give much better results.
  2. [2]Though if it is not under active development and the closed source app is, I’ll go with closed source…I’m interested not only in what the app can offer today but also what it will offer in the future.

HydraCoach Intelligent Water Bottle Review

The Sportline Hydracoach Intelligent Water Bottle is for quantified self nerds like me who like to measure everything going on in their bodies and analyze it – which then allows for biohacking to optimize oneself for health, cognition, energy, etc. It runs around $30 on Amazon. As far as I am aware, it is the only product of its type. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the product is under current development (at least the official website is horribly outdated).

A photo of the slimline Hydracoach.
A photo of the slimline Hydracoach.

The included user manual (which is well-done, better than most product manuals these days) states, “The HydraCoach will provide immediate benefits by monitoring your personal consumption rate and motivating you to drink steadily through the day. Serious athletes to everyday health conscious individuals can now interactively manage their own fluid consumption to maximize the benefits of hydration while proactively preventing the ill-effects of both dehydration and over-hydration (Hyponatremia).”

First is a matter of laziness on my part – but one I suspect many will identify with. I don’t like to wash a water bottle until it needs to be. Unfortunately, this water bottle after a few days begins to taste swampy. I don’t usually drink out of water bottles – so I can’t verify whether this is always the case with water bottles…but I know it doesn’t seem to be the case with regular cups.

This in and of itself isn’t too big of a deal – but the difficulty of cleaning the water bottle is. The bottle itself is fairly easy (though it can’t be washed via dish washer!) but the mouthpiece, tubing, and so on are a bit of a pain and ideally require soaking. When I haven’t taken the time to soak these components I’ve been greeted by the unpleasant swampy taste even after washing (with soap) the bottle and other components. I suspect this is because the mouthpiece and so on contains various components in order to track water flow that unfortunately tend to gather various little invisible critters/fauna that begin to grow and reproduce therein…and that these aren’t easily removed via a regular washing.

If you can live with this (I am) the next big issue is the upper cap which fits onto the bottle. Other than those special components it seems just like any other water bottle cap – but it refuses to act like one. When I attempt to screw it on it usually resists. I try over and over and eventually, magically, it decides that this time it will twist on. I am sure there is some trick to this – but I don’t know what it is and I don’t see any marking that say, “hey, start twisting the cap onto the bottle at this position.” So, this is very annoying. One may be tempted (as I was) to push the lid down, thinking maybe it just needs a little extra force to lock into place – nope…all one will accomplish is dousing oneself in water when attempting to drink.

All this said, none of these issues are ‘deal-breakers’ in my opinion. The device has shown me that I consume a lot less water than I thought I did (and I think I consume more than most). It also does help one monitor how much one is drinking throughout the day – thus allowing for better pacing. Still, there is much to be desired in the device – as it lags far behind currently available technologies. The website mentions 2007 at one point – and I’m guessing that is when this product was released and I don’t think it has been updated since then.

Here is what I’m hoping to see in the next generation device or from a competitor’s product:

  1. The device should use wireless technology (or at the least some form of tethering [USB]) to communicate with smart devices (phones, computers) data and to allow for configuration.
  2. The device should integrate with third-party fitness products such as FitBit so that I don’t have to manually enter my data each day into my third-party fitness product (in my case this is FitBit), it should happen automagically.
  3. Since the programming can be done via smart devices in a future rendition it would be possible to decrease the size of the display on the unit and to rid it off all buttons.
  4. It should be able to automatically calculate when a day begins and ends and automatically move on to the next day – instead of needing me to tell it each time I want a new day to begin.
  5. It should be dishwasher safe.
  6. Ideally, there should be an easier way to maintain its cleanliness so that the water doesn’t become swampy.

My Experience with Healthcare.gov

I’m a geek – so of course I wanted to test out the healthcare.gov site immediately after it launched – and failed. First I wasn’t able to connect to the site and eventually when I did connect to the site it would let me go through the profile process but once it attempted to verify my identity it would drop me into purgatory and leave me there – forever and ever and ever (literally, I could leave the site and come back days later and I’d still be stuck there).

Screenshot of Healthcare.gov upper front page.
Screenshot of Healthcare.gov upper front page.

I tried a couple times creating, deleting, recreating, on various days and over various months – no luck. Finally I decided to call the phone number and admit that I, an IT guy, couldn’t get the site to work for me. The phone was picked up fairly rapidly and I was led somewhat painfully through providing all the information I had already provided numerous times via the site. At the end I was given an application ID number which the representative informed me I should “enter on the site” and it would show my enrollment – but that sometimes it took up to 24 hours for the change to happen on the site.

I grimaced at the 24 hour statement. While I was on the phone I attempted to pull up the application and of course it didn’t work. I had a pretty good feeling that if it didn’t work then it wasn’t going to work in 24 hours – and I was correct. The next day it still couldn’t find my application ID and weeks and even a month or two later it still could not find the application ID.

People have been noting how few younger people have been signing up through healthcare.gov and I wonder – does the system, for whatever reason, have problems with younger individuals? I don’t mean that it is intentionally discriminatory, but that the data about older individuals is more readily available, organized differently, etc. For example, it may be that older individuals already are “known entities” to the system b/c they have utilized services like Medicare. Just a thought.

Today I tried again…I successfully walked through the process from start to finish. I still don’t like the site design (it is using funky and complex functionality to display the forms, which I found to be jerky in transitioning…) and the site still managed to leave me with a few “what do I do now?” moments…

But it is all done, I’ve signed up for the Keystone Health Plan East HMO Silver Proactive. Cost is less than $230/mo. (unless the premium changes, which I have heard happens…). This may be a decent jump for young folks in good health compared to pre-Obamacare, but for me it is a huge drop. Since I have pre-existing conditions Keystone would have charged me around $600-$700/mo. for health insurance…which was just impossible for me (and thus I have been without health insurance for over a year now).

Ohh, but the real reason I wanted to tell you about this is b/c something bad happens if you don’t have health insurance by the end of March…which I think most people know (I know a fine…and I think “open enrollment” closes which means you can’t get healthcare until the next “open enrollment” occurs – which might not be for a few months), but perhaps more important – if you want to have coverage as of April 1st you need to be enrolled in a plan by March 15th. If you are registered after March 15th, your insurance policy won’t “start” until May 1st!

Dynex Wireless Keyboard and Mouse: Boo.

I don’t usually shop at Best Buy, but I had a $25 gift card that had been floating around with me for a year or two and I finally decided to use it on January 15th 2014. I stepped into the store and surveyed my options. Ahh, here was a Dynex Wireless Keyboard and Wireless Optical Mouse (Model: DX-WLC1401) for around the right price.

Dynex Wireless Keyboard and Mouse DX-WLC1401.
Dynex Wireless Keyboard and Mouse DX-WLC1401.

My standing desk at home is a bit cluttered with cables and all – eliminating two of them seemed like  a reasonably good use of a gift card. I took the unit home and set it up. It worked grand for the first few days, maybe two or three weeks – I don’t recall exactly…but then the v key got stuck – and it hasn’t worked correctly since.

I’ll just return it to Best Buy…except for I didn’t keep the receipt and Best Buy returns require a receipt. Bahh, humbug. For larger IT purchases I’d usually keep a receipt – but come on, keyboards/mice are so simple and should be so reliable – I figured there was no need…I was wrong.

I’ve pried the key off and checked for debris, I’ve reset the key and so on, all to no avail. So, here I am, typing away and pounding repeatedly the v key every time I need it – not a lot of fun…so soon I’ll be buying another wireless keyboard and mouse…but it won’t be a Dynex.

Besides this failure there is one feature lacking that really: A cap lock notification LED. This is pretty much standard on every keyboard I’ve ever used – but not on this one. Sure it has nice music controls at the top, and a notification LED regarding whether the unit has successfully paired and how low the battery is – but no LED for the caps lock button. The only way to tell if caps lock is on is to type – and if it is, delete and hit caps lock.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I occasionally hit the caps lock key by accident…so this becomes a real nuisance spread out over hundreds of occasions over a period of weeks/months.

So, there you have it…my not so great experience with the Dynex wireless keyboard and mouse.

One other note is that the battery light has been glaring at me for a few days now, complaining that it is running low (the keyboard uses 2 AAA batteries), and its been less than two months since I purchased and began using the unit. This isn’t a huge deal – but the lifespan for the batteries seems  a bit on the low side – especially for not having LED features like caps lock on it.

How Good is Dr. Amen’s BrainFitLife?

Introduction

I’m a fan of Dr. Daniel Amen. I’ve read several of his books and think his ideas about SPECT scans fascinating – if controversial. I appreciate the way he tries to determine exactly what is causing specific mental conditions to refine treatment methods and also his use of non-medicinal and alternative medicine options for treatment.

In a recent email newsletter there was something about his Brain Life Fit program – I wish I had kept the email. It sounded like a new and revolutionary program for brain health – and I wanted to try it (of course).

I’m already a paying Lumosity customer – but I respect Dr. Amen’s work and it sounded like a much more comprehensive program than what Dr. Amen offered. Here are my observations on Brain Fit Life, especially in comparison to Lumosity.

BrainFitLife compares itself to Lumosity, CogniFit, and FitBrains - thinks it is the best. Is it?
BrainFitLife compares itself to Lumosity, CogniFit, and FitBrains – thinks it is the best. Is it?

Complicated Sign Up

The process started off easily enjoy, I clicked Join Now on the BrainFitLife site, but was soon transferred over to the MindWorks store on the Amen Clinics site. If I didn’t already have an account with MindWorks (I did) I would have had to create one. I had to order BrainFitLife through the MindWorks store.

Once I completed the purchase I received an email with a link to setup my BrainFitLife account. This account uses a separate username and password from the MindWorks account – so for anyone who is totally new to Amen Clinics, you have to setup two accounts just to get started.

Inferior Design

I really wanted to like BrainFitLife, but I’m afraid there is more bad news. During the signup process there are several places where one is invited to click on a link but no link exists. Further there are a number of grammatical and spelling errors – this does not represent the level of professionalism I expect from an organization as prestigious as the Amen Clinics.

The Dashboard

BrainFitLife’s Dashboard is called (confusingly) “My Homepage Journal.” It is somewhat aesthetically pleasing (the My Anchor Images ruins it for me) but is overwhelming with the number of icons. On the left-hand side one can choose from different sections of the site – and to the right are icons for tracking various aspects of your health. All of these icons are designed using the same basic pattern and colors – this makes it confusing whether the icons on the left are for different functions than the icons on the right (they are).

Assess My Brain

That is okay though – if the content is really good I can plod through a complicated sign up process, inferior design, and a confusing dashboard. Let’s try Assessing My Brain. This is where the site stands out a little – it allows you to take an assessment which then tells you what sort of brain it thinks you have – based on Dr. Amen’s methodology (see his books to understand more about this methodology). I have a “Impulsive, Compulsive, Sad, Anxious” brain – boy, doesn’t that sound cheerful and optimistic?

The Assessment also looks at brain health (e.g. memory, focus, impulse control) and then generates a customized plan based on your specific brain type, strengths, and weaknesses.

It gives you a list of recommended brain training games, recommended exercises, and recommended supplements. That is pretty nifty. In comparison, Lumosity doesn’t offer an analysis of your brain type – they are focused solely on strengths/weaknesses of your brain – not mental illness. Lumosity also doesn’t offer recommendations of exercises or supplements.

Design Issue:

  • If you click on a recommended game it takes you to the games page – a list of games – but not to the specific game you clicked on.

Know My Motivation

In the Know My Motivation section I can add “anchor images” – visual reminders of what matters to me. These are the images that show up on the dashboard I mentioned previously. Its a nifty idea – though the implementation on the dashboard is sub-optimal. Images can be much more powerful than words.

Then there are a number of forms to fill out, “5 Results from Being Healthy,” “5 Results from Being Unhealthy,” “5 People or Places that Support Being Healthy,” “5 People or Places that Support an Unhealthy Life,” and “Future of My Life.” This is a good process to work through – what matters, why it matters, what helps/hurts, and what we want out of life – but the presentation is quite simplistic and not much of a value-add. You can find pen and paper worksheets that provide similar processes and Simpleology offers a better implementation of the goals concept.

There is another “tab” called “One Page Miracle” – sounds pretty awesome…but it is basically another pen and paper form that talks about different life areas – children, grandchildren, significant other, other family members, brain, physical, spirituality, interest, work, finances, and friends. Hope you read the instructions at some earlier point – b/c there aren’t any now! Gahh! Once again, very simple functionality. I’d like to see Simpleology implement something similar.

Know My Numbers

In this section Dr. Amen suggests that you should know a number of values regarding your body and have them regularly updated – this is something he talks about in his books as well. I think it is a great idea – but he doesn’t say how to accomplish this. I would recommend WellnessFX and think a partnership with them would make great sense for Dr. Amen.

They make it simple and affordable to get your blood drawn and tested almost anywhere in the United States. They provide results and analysis via a web-based interface and also can provide personalized, live coaching regarding your results and recommended changes in your regimen.

They also track almost all of these “numbers” automatically – so why waste time reentering them?

I’d love to see Lumosity integrate with WellnessFX as well and provide charting of how these numbers correlate with brain performance.

Train My Brain

Ack! This page hurts my eyes! I recommend the designers go take a look at Lumosity’s site, it is so much more aesthetically pleasing…but I can overcome aesthetic issues if the product is good enough, how are the train my brain games?

Hmmm…Inferior. Well, at least they feel inferior. They are not as refined as Lumosity’s games, there isn’t as much explanation as to how the game helps your brain, and honestly, I have high doubts about the effectiveness of some of the games. With Lumosity you can feel your brain stretching – with some of these games (e.g. shooting a target with an arrow and adjusting for wind issues) I have a hard time believing it is doing anything for my brain health.

Another example is one of the thoughts for training your mind to think more positively. It shows up bubbles with words in them – some words are positive, others are negative – you are supposed to click on the positive ones and let the negative ones fall…I really can’t see this beign a big help.

They do have “games” in several areas that Lumosity does not – and these are interesting, though their functionality can be reproduced by other web applications and processes – many freely available. For example they have games whereby one can engage in relaxation techniques, but you could also use the free Calm.com service.

Grammatical Issues:

  • “the more the use it”
  • “selected for just for you and play one now”

Design Issues:

  • Once a game has completed your only option is to play again – there should be an exit option.

  • The names of the games are extremely uncreative, “e-Think Focus” or “e-Motion Faces.” Yes, everything is electronic – I am running this on a computer – which is electronic. I mean, e-Motion faces is a little cute, but all the games I looked at are practically name in this same exact manner – and most don’t have the cute factor – e.g. e-Think Focus – nothing cute or really informative there.

  • There are images associated with each game – they are clickable, but clicking on them does nothing. You have to click a separate button underneath the game to play it or learn more about it.

Train My Body

But there is more! Maybe the Train My Body section will set Lumosity in it’s place? I mean, Lumosity doesn’t have anything for physical training. Unfortunately, no.

This section has a few links to PDF articles with basic exercise instructions and a few blog articles. I wasn’t impressed.

Then there is the “Workout Log/Plan” – which really seems to be a workout log, not a workout plan. As far as I can tell you can set up a “plan” for a single day – but have to recreate the plan every following day – and can’t set up future days in advance.

The workout log is fairly basic. I’d recommend Noom as a free alternative that runs on your smartphone or, if you want to invest a few bucks, get a Fitbit – its workout tracking is pretty sweet.

Change My Thoughts

A basic method of reprogramming one’s brain to be more optimistic/positive is recognizing and countering Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). This portion of the site provides a very basic, simple workflow that takes you through the process of identifying your ANT, choosing a response to the ANT, etc. Again, can be replicated very easily with pen and paper. If I’m trying to help someone get the most bang for their buck, I’d much rather that they bought David Burn’s Feeling Good which provides a self-help manual of sorts based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with lots of helpful worksheets.

Design Issue:

  • The tool returns results like, “Guilt is generally not a helpful emotion. It often backfires and can be counterproductive to your goals. The problem is that when we feel pushed or guilted into doing things our natural tendency is to push back. It?s better to replace ?guilt beating? with phrases like ?I want to do this,? or, ?It fits with my goals to do that. ?” This occurs when one uses an unsupported font and is a rookie design mistake. If the correct font is used these question marks should appear as single or double quotation marks.

Take My Supplements

I like that Dr. Amen recommends supplements for me. I can figure out what supplements I should be taking using his book – but that is a bit complex and time consuming. The web application does it all for me.

Let’s see what Dr. Amen recommends for me:

Supplement

Price for One Month Supply

Components

Everyday Stress Relief

$50.95

Magnesium 30 mg, Relora 750 mg, L-Theanine 200 mg, Holy Basil Extract 600 mg[1]

Focus and Energy Optimizer

$39.95

Green Tea 600 mg, Ashwagandha 250 mg, Rhodiola Rosea Extract 200 mg, Panax Ginseng Extract 200 mg, Choline 55 mg[2]

Omega 3 Power

$24.95

Total Omega-3 Fatty Acids 1600 mg, EPA 850 mg, DHA 575 mg, Other 175 mg

NeuroVite Plus

$49.95

Vitamin A 5000 IU, C 200 mg, D-3 2000 IU, E 70 IU, K-2 45 mcg, B1 15 mg, B2 17 mg, B3 50 mg, B5 50 mg, B6 20 mg, Folic Acid 400 mcg, B12 500 mcg, Calcium 50 mg, Iodine 75 mcg, Magnesium 50 mg, Zinc 7.5 mg, Selenium 200 mcg, Copper 1 mg, Manganese 5 mg, Chromium 200 mcg, Molybdenum 50 mcg, Biotin 300 mcg, Choline 55 mg, Vanadium 25 mcg, Lycopene 3 mg, Lutein 3 mg, Quercetin 30 mg, Choline Bitartrate 55 mg, Broccoli Sprout Powder 50 mg, Hesperidin Complex 20 mg, Trans-Resveratrol 10 mg, Pterostilbene 20 mcg, Proprietary Fruit and Vegetable Blend 140 mg, Proprietary Brain Boosting Blend 575 mg, Full Spectrum Digestive Enzyme Blend 30 mg.

Vitamin D

$9.95[3]

Vitamin D-3 1000 IU.

SAMe Mood & Movement

$34.95

S-Adenosylmethionine 200 mg.

Serotonin Mood Support

$44.95

Vitamin B6 20 mg, Inositol 1000 mg, Saffron Extract 176.5 mg, 5-Hydroxytryptophan 100 mg.

Total Cost:

$255.65

$217.03 (after 15% BrainFitLife member discount)

 

Ouch! That is a lot of money! Over $200/mo. on vitamins? Well, you can’t put a price on health – right? What if the health you get is way more expensive than similar health someone else gets? Hmmm…I don’t like that. It seems to me there is a pretty huge markup on these vitamins.

Lets take a look at just one example – the Omega-3 supplement. It costs $24.95/mo. through MindWorks. I use Coromega, which is a tasty, yogurt-like ketchup-sized packet and pay $25.09 for a three month supply (wow, three months for the same price as one of Dr. Amen’s Omega-3?!).

But what about the ingredients? Here is a comparison:

Ingredient:

Total Omega-3 Fatty Acids

EPA

DHA

Other

Dr. Amen:

1600 mg

850 mg

575 mg

175 mg

Coromega:

2000 mg

350 mg

230 mg

650 mg

So, Dr. Amen’s are more potent – but if I take two Coromega per day, I still end up getting 1.5 months supply to every 1 months supply of Dr. Amen’s – and personally, I think Coromega’s form has better absorption than pills and doesn’t cause fish burps (and actually tastes good!).

I appreciate the breakdown of recommended supplements – but I can’t see myself buying them through MindWorks.

Eat Right to Think Right

Once again, not very impressed. Some blog articles and videos. All the blog articles and videos appear to be freely available via the BrainFitLife – so a subscription isn’t needed.

But there is a Meal Planner – errr, make that a meal logger? I don’t really see how it helps me plan meals (at least not more than a day in advance). It also has an incredibly small “library” or foods. I’d recommend Noom or Fitbit over this Meal Logger any day.

They do have a number of healthy recipes – and that is cool – and they include nutritional values – which is even cooler – but they are also freely available via the blog. The formatting of the recipes is nice – includes instructions, nutritional values, ingredients, and an appetizing photo of said food.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to hide steps you’ve completed – for example, there is a “Meet Tana Your Nutrition Coach” which once clicked leads you to a blog article. Great – now I know Tana – but I really don’t need to see a link to getting to know her every time I visit Eat to Think Right.

One other annoyance is that the blog posts reference all sorts of studies but then don’t provide any citation information. I don’t doubt that what Dr. Amen and Tana Amen are saying is true – but I’d like to know what the original studies/sources are so I can read up on the topic further!

Grammatical and Spelling Issues:

Design Issues:

Soothe My Stress

The Soothe My Stress section includes a few games – for example ones that help you practice relaxation techniques. This is one of the more unique and impressive areas of BrainFitLife – but not nearly enough to convince me to pay up. It also contains a number of meditative/hypnotic audio videos – but you can find similar videos across the web for free (see, e.g. Calm.com).

Break My Barriers, Cravings and Addictions

Ooh, I want to see what this section contains! I have an addictive personality – I’ve struggled all my life with sugar consumption, sometimes binge on TV, etc. There are three short videos – less than 20 minutes combined – and that is it. Bummer.

Get Better Together

There is a community aspect to the site – but I’m not sure what software they are using to power it, but it seems pretty basic. It allows for status updates, forums, live chats, and calendaring – but I don’t see notification options or other essential features.

On the positive side, there are live coaches who monitor the site and perform regular live coaching sessions…I’ve never been too big on them though.

Trackers

Trackers are cool. They let you track all sorts of things – mood, sleep, focus, energy, anxiety, cravings, memory, motivation, and so on. The implementation on BrainFitLife is fairly basic. If you have a Fitbit, it includes much more robust tracking…or you can try a free service like Trackthisfor.me. MedHelp also had fairly robust tracking tools for free. I do like the idea behind the “gratitude” tracker – which is a little different in that one doesn’t just keep track of numeric values but actual items one is thankful for.

Other Observations

  • There are a number of videos featuring Dr. Amen throughout, these are neat and informative and short (which I like) but the videos are poor quality (the way they were resized causes rough edges on whatever is on the screen – e.g. Dr. Amen). Dr. Amen is very expressive in the videos (lots of hand motions) – a little more expressive than I’d suggest, but to each his own.

  • There is a very simple but helpful help overlay when you first login…unfortunately if you click on Get Help later you get that same basic overlay – at least if you click on it on the Dashboard page. On some other pages (e.g. Change My Thoughts), clicking on it does nothing but reload the page.

  • It is neat that they have an option to receive SMS (text message) reminders at specific times to remind you to do certain tasks (e.g. update trackers, take supplements).

  • The “Manage My Account” link takes you out of BrainFitLife and back to MindWorks which is annoying.

  • In some places under Quick Links there are two “My Brain Type” links – they lead to separate places but share the same name – quite confusing.

Pricing

BrainFitLife is too expensive ($8.25/mo.) for what it offers. It claims this is a reduced rate from the normal $29.95/mo. – which is either a price they never plan to charge (but makes it look like a must-get-now value) or it is an outrageous charge.

Conclusion

BrainFitLife is a great idea, but a poor implementation. Lumosity is a definite keeper.

I don’t know why this happens but I notice that oftentimes as an organization/personality grows bigger the quality of the product decreases. I’ve felt similarly about some of John Maxwell’s materials. I’m not sure if it is the need to turn out a constant line of new products/services to keep income flowing, too little time, too wide spread of a focus, or what – but I hate to see it. One ends up with a lot of half-baked products/services from someone folks trust to provide them only with the best. This is a real bummer – I’d encourage folks to do less better.

I hope Dr. Amen will take this as constructive criticism and ramp up his endeavors with BrainFitLife. It has real potential – but it isn’t there yet. I’d suggest expanding the development and design teams and acquiring some other businesses or at least partnering with them to integrate their functionality. I mentioned some great places to start – e.g. WellnessFX, Noom, Fitbit, Simpleology, Trackthisfor.me, and even Lumosity!

  1. [1]Now Foods True Calm Amino Relaxer has Niacin 45 mg, Vitamin B-6 8 mg, Magnesium 13 mg, GABA 200 mg, Glycine 200 mg, Taurine 200 mg, Inositol 100 mg, Valerian 25 mg. It includes three months supply and costs $8.04 on Amazon. Now Foods offers a Holy Basil Extract product with three months supply at 500 mg for $12.07 on Amazon. A four month supply of Relora from Now Foods on Amazon is $18.90 with each capsule containing 300 mg. Finally, a two month supply of L-Theanine from the same on Amazon is $16.46 and has 200 mg per capsule. I’m not going to spend the time doing the math – but it should be pretty evident that this supplement seems exorbitantly more expensive than a similar mix from retail.
  2. [2]NOW Foods has Green Tea Extract, 250 pills, for $12.99; Ashwagandha, 90 pills, with 450 mg, for $11.46; Rhodiola, 60 pills, 500 mg, for $9.99; Panax Ginseng, 250 pills, 500 mg, for $18.02. You get the idea.
  3. [3]This is for 100 tablets.

Free Caller ID for Your Android Smartphone

I hate the phone. I hate phone calls. I hate when I don’t know who is calling me – especially b/c that usually means it is a REALLY important call or that it is a telemarketing call. I’ve been using Contactive for a while now and it is pretty amazing – and the price is nice too (FREE).

Contactive Free Caller ID App for Android Image
The Contactive Android smartphone app provides effective crowdsourced caller ID for free.

Contactive pops up when an incoming call is occurring and shows the name of the person or organization calling, the phone number, and associated social network profiles. It integrates with a number of social networks to ensure that it has the fullest amount of contact info. available about your contacts – so even if someone isn’t in your phone’s address book, if they are your friend on a social network, Contactive can use social network info. to identify them.

Contactive uses a crowdsourced model for building its database of caller IDs. When a call is completed it allows you to choose if the caller ID was correct and if it wasn’t to recommend the correct name. Personally, I love this. There is something so satisfying about typing in the name of an annoying telemarketing company after they call…knowing that now every user of Contactive will never again have to be bothered.

To learn more about Contactive you can visit their website or go to the Google Play page to download the app right now.