Cutting the cord

Over the past few months, I realized that we were streaming more and more of our entertainment content. Like 80%. For a couple of reasons. But mostly: because the interface on my cable box takes shitty to a new, epic level of suck. 

Every other year or so, I've been looking to see if there was a better streaming service - Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu Plus. Then, just over a year ago, I got our first Amazon Fire TV.  The same one that Gary Busey advertises. 

'If you're like me, you like talking to stuff... Hello, Pants.'

That man is a genius. How did he know that I like to do that, too?? 

The interface on Amazon fire is so clean and simple and easy. If you can't find something, just talk at it. It'll show up. Plus, it integrated all of my other services into one, simple to navigate screen. 

I realized that I was defaulting to Amazon 'On Demand' over Time Warner just because it was so much easier.  Please, Bezos, let me give you my money, just because it doesn't HURT to do so. 

Don't believe me? Here. Look at the difference in the remote controls. 

Time Warner has like 1,000 buttons. I know what two of them do.

Fire has 7 buttons. I know what all of them do. And mostly, I use the mic. Which lets me tell it things like "Peter Falk", and have all of the Columbo movies magically appear in front of me. 

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And don't get me started on the screen interface. I actually had a long, reasonably patient conversation with someone fairly intelligent at Time Warner. Who determined that the cause of my frustration was that I was using an older hardware kit, and that my problems would be solved with a newer cable box. I thought my problem was that when I hit "CBS", it didn't take me to "CBS". It took me to a listing of all the major networks, and 'allowed' me to scroll over to "CBS" to select a program (which is what I wanted to do the first time I hit "CBS").  But I let him swap out my cable box anyway, which gave me a slightly faster version of the same crappy interface. Winner. 

I know. This is a first world problem. And for a long time I just shrugged my shoulders and decided I had better things to worry about. 

But then last month, I got my bill. And all the charges on it were doubled. Because I now had two cable boxes, right? One crappy old one. And one crappy new one. 

Except I didn't. Because why the heck would we have kept the crappy old one? I called my cable provider's customer service line to calmly explain this to them. And then I walked through the charges. $3.00/month for the programming guide? $100/month for the extended line up of channels that I generally ignore?  

Our normal cable bill is ~$150/month. That covers the extended package (because I like HGTV, and my Bride likes zombie shows), and a premium channel or two (which we only watch once a year or so). 

We already pay for Netflix ($20/month) and Hulu Plus ($8/month), because it's easier to find TV shows there than through the cable on demand service (It does nice things like show a listing for "New episodes of things you've watched before" right up at the top. Imagine that.) And we pay for Amazon Prime (mostly for the free shipping on Amazon), which comes with its own set of content now.  So we're already paying for more streaming content - that we use more regularly - than for our much more expensive cable service. 

In a casual conversation, a buddy of mine mentioned that he had cut the cord, and shut off his cable service. This got me thinking. 

I went home and talked to my Bride about the shows we watch, and figured out that we'd be missing maybe 3 things if we turned off Cable tomorrow. The Walking Dead (nothing in our lineup of services includes streaming AMC), Big Bang Theory (Hulu Plus covers CBS shows, but they don't stream this one, as it's their most popular comedy). And... wait. Maybe it was just two things. 

Cable costs us $1,800 a year. 

For two shows. 

Yeah. Not worth it. 

I called Time Warner the next day, and told them I wanted to cut our service off. Just internet, please. 

"Um.. why?" 

I laid out the reasoning. 

"But... doesn't someone else in the house watch cable?"

Nope. And if they did - they won't when I'm done with this phone call. 

"But... what if we cut $30 a month off your bill?"

Your interface would still suck, and I'd still be paying $1,400 a year for cable. 

"Well. Um. OK, then?"

Thank you. 

 

It's true: I lost a few bucks of 'advantage' in the bundling of internet service and cable from the same company. But still, we're saving more than $1,500 / year. And that's after tax earnings. It's equivalent to giving myself a $2,000 or more raise. And who wouldn't be happy with that? Plus, I'm not left confused and irritated every time I pick up the remote control. 

Still. I've got to figure out how to stream AMC now. Even if it costs me a few bucks. Because my cute +1 is a lot happier if she can scare herself silly with her favorite zombie shows...

 

Our government not working at internet speeds

Our first little iPhone app, VaxTrak was first published 4 years or so ago (remember this?) . An app to help parents and families keep track of immunizations received, recommendations, find their nearest flu clinic, and generally keep your kids (or self) safe from preventable diseases. 

The VaxTrak video - acted by my friend & colleague Anna

The VaxTrak video - acted by my friend & colleague Anna

This was probably one of the professional contributions I'm most proud of, even now, as it came from a very personal place in our family of having moved around enough to have lost that little yellow paper booklet the pediatrician entrusts you with when your child is first born. 

If I had realized that importance placed on that little yellow booklet, and that it would almost certainly be the deciding factor in whether or not your child would be admitted to the graduate school of their choice or spend the entirety of their lives asking if you'd like the egg white only breakfast McMuffinator. we'd have probably taken better care of where we put the Suddenly Important Yellow Booklet.

Look doc, we were new parents, still trying to figure out which end of this baby you just plopped on our laps is doing the squalling, and which the pooping. Seriously. Your medical judgement in putting another helpless human into our completely unprepared care is questionable at best. I'm not sure if I managed to dress & bathe myself the first year of parenthood, let alone keep Little Precious clean. 

So coming up with a way that my company at the time - squarely in the vaccines-supplying business - could help parents out with their job of vaccines-keeping-up-with efforts, was pretty cool. 

Cool enough that Novartis filed a patent on our behalf. 

Never mind that the filing is several years old, or that the app was discontinued last year, a little ways before Novartis sold off their vaccines business to GSK.  The patent continues along its merry way through the halls of the US patent office, and may, someday, actually be approved. No doubt just before we all ditch our smart phones in favor of a embedded chip that shoots lasers into our retinas and tells us where we need to go. 

Whatever. This week we got some paperwork from Novartis basically to sign away the rights to any money made from the (always-published-for-free-on-the-App-store) app (that-is-no-longer-available). 

It's just nice to see "Inventors" there in black and white, with our names listed. 

 

Pumpkin Chunkin' - the @Work addition.

Every year, we hold a company Halloween party. Mostly for the kids for the employees, who get to come to the offices in costume, walk through a not-very-scary raw-materials-warehouse-turned-haunted-house, and we all gather in the cafeteria to eat and take an hour or two away from our desks or lab benches to enjoy one another's company and families.  

From time immemorial (and certainly before my time with the team), IT has sponsored a pumpkin carving contest. It always gets 4 or 5 fun entries, and adds to the Halloween spirit. 

I'm not sure how, but at some point a few months ago, we were having a sort of idle conversation around the team space and I threw out the idea, "You know what would be fun, and in the spirit of Make? Let's take the leftover pumpkins and hurl them across the field. It could be a contest." 

The team leapt on the idea. NEB Pumpkin Chunking was in the works.  

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I work with a bunch of Makers. It's one of my absolute favorite parts of what I do and where I work. Scientists and engineers are by nature tinkerers. And modern IT embodies this spirit. It's who we are. 

And I'm a big believer in encouraging the Make. It's a huge part of how innovation happens. Plus, it was an excuse to throw pumpkins at work. What more could you ask for? 

I thought about finding some way to make this an 'official' event. But we were all busy, and when we talked about having departmental teams, it just wasn't coming together. So a few weeks ago, I sent out an email to the team and a few select others that said:  

"Dear all. I have a trebuchet in my barn. I am bringing it to work on Halloween to throw pumpkins across the field. You are invited to bring your own, and see if you can beat mine. Or not. It's totally up to you.  

P.S. Someone should bring beer."

 

 

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My trebuchet was leftover from teaching my daughter's 5th grade class a lesson in basic applied physics.  

It works. But to be honest, not very well - it throws upwards very well. But forward release had always been a bit of a problem. I had plans to tweak and refine it, but I never got around to it. But I figured, what the hell. That kind of wasn't the point. 

We had entries like the above onager. Which was a scaled up version of something like I built for the 5th graders. It had wooden wheels and a winch to cock the arm. And bolts to assemble it all on site.  

 

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Then there was the other end of the engineering extreme.

A stick with some cinderblocks tied on to one end with some rope.  

"Do you remember that episode of 'Northern Exposure' where the DJ wanted to throw a cow, but they ended up convincing him to throw a piano instead? I was thinking about that, and just figured I could sort of scale it back."  

That's the builder there with a beer in his hand. The one who was inspired by a 25 year old sitcom to tie cinderblocks to a stick.  

The beautiful thing was: it worked at least as well as the other one.  

My trebuchet, on the other hand, threw pumpkins 40-50 feet vertically into the air. which mostly then fell down around my feet.  

 

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The final entry was a potato gun. To make it qualify, we shoved summer squash and decorative gourds down the pipe.  

They didn't hold up as well as potatoes - they sort of disintegrated in mid-air. But boy, would those sticky bits really fly. 

 

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Let the spirit of Make live on.  

Best team building event ever.