The One Where I Love Board Games

For those of you that know me personally, you’ve probably noticed my steadily growing collection of (and addiction to) board games.  I’m not talking about games like Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders, mind you.  There’s definitely a place for those, but those aren’t the type of games this article is about.  The games I love involve a rich layer of strategy spread over a game thick with replayability, with a side of geekery, if possible.

Instead, I’d like to introduce you to some of my favorite games, with a little explanation of each.  I’m publishing this article today, in celebration of (evil?) Wil Wheaton’s new online show called Tabletop.  (You can read all about it on the Geek & Sundry website.)  I have no idea which games they’re going to be covering in the show, but I’m looking forward to it.

Finally, if you’re attending the Stir Trek conference on May 4th, don’t forget that there is a Nerd Dinner the evening before, on May 3rd.  We’ll be camping out in a mall food court to meet the speakers and organizers, as well as play many of the games listed in this article.

OK, the wait is over.  Here’s my current list of favorite board games.

Settlers of Catan ($37)

Up to 4 players, expandable to 6.  My 8-year old daughter mastered the game mechanics at 6 years old, and is getting stronger on the strategy side of the game.  This is a great family game.

Settlers of Catan was probably the “gateway drug” for many of you that have ventured into board game land in the past 10 years.  The basic idea behind this game is that you are settling on a new island, and are trying to expand your civilization by collecting the five different resources that the island possesses: sheep, ore, brick, wood, and wheat.  Because the game encourages players to trade, and even create “alliances,” you’ll likely hear the phrase “I have wood for sheep” more than once.

In order to collect these resources, you build your settlements at the intersections of hexagonal tiles.  Each tile is assigned both a resource type, as well as a number between 2 and 12.  Each player’s turn begins with a roll of two dice, and the resulting roll awards the specific resources to the players that have settlements on the appropriately numbered tile.

Settlers of Catan, is, without question, one of the best combinations of strategy, game play, and ease of learning (which you will find becomes very important when teaching your friends how to play)  It’s easy enough to pick up and play that you can teach your friends very quickly.

Ticket To Ride ($38)

Up to 5 players.  Recommended age is 8 – 12.  Haven’t played this one with my daughter yet.

My wife and I love this game, and it has become a family event favorite when our parents come to visit.  The basic concept of this game is that you are an up and coming railroad tycoon looking to expand throughout the United States (there are also excellent variations on this game for Europe, Asia, India, and even the Nordic Countries.)

With a randomly selected set of route cards, you have to connect all of the cities those cards indicate.  You do this by collecting sets of rainbow colored train cards, and trading them in to capture routes across the map.  You’re competing with the other players, however, and before you have a chance, the route you were hoping for gets taken.  You’re constantly balancing between having enough trains and capturing routes quickly enough, and since you have new routes every single game, it’s a completely new experience every time.

Of all of the games on this list, this is probably the easiest one to learn.  There’s little to no math, and there’s almost no reading either.  In fact, the most challenging part of this game for newcomers might just be their personal strength in geography.  It is increasingly valuable to know where cities are on the map, without having to scour it for your city.

Dominion ($32)

2 – 4 players.  Once you explain the simple game mechanics, I’ve seen 6 year olds grasp the concept and strategy of this game pretty quickly.

Dominion is one of the most popular new games available right now.  The entire game is based on a large set of 300 cards, and really introduced the concept of a “deck building” game.  In short, you start with a small set of 10 cards that is identical to your opponents.  Dealing 5 cards on each turn, you use these cards to acquire even more cards, without ever actually discarding any of them permanently.  They end up in your personal discard pile, and when you run out of cards, you reshuffle your discard pile and keep on rolling.

Cards you can aquire might give you more money, more cards in your current hand, or even the ability to buy more than one card on this turn.  Ultimately, you’re trying to acquire as many of the “Victory” points you see in the photo below (they are the green ones with the numbers 1, 3, and 6.)

Your deck accumulates many more cards quickly, giving you a completely random hand of 5 powerful cards each turn.  What makes this game great, much like the rest of the games on this list, is that it is constructed to be a completely different game each time.

In the photo above, you can see that there are 10 “types” of cards you can buy (the two rows of five cards).  The game actually comes with 25 different types, which means you’re highly unlikely to play the same game twice.

This is another game that is very simple to learn, but I think that the true strategy of this game comes only after you’ve played it a few times.  There are many beginner pitfalls that you will discover, and after a few games under your belt, I think you’ll find your approach completely changes.

This game has exploded with expansions lately, and there are currently 7 stand-alone editions of this game available.  While similar, each game has its own theme, but can be combined with the original for even more variety.

Product Details Product Details Product Details Product Details

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Quarriors ($40)

2-4 players.  My 8 year old daughter LOVES this one.

Quarriors is, in many respects, much like Dominion (above).  Instead of collecting cards, however, you’re collecting dice.  And instead of buying Victory points, you get to summon spells and monsters to destroy your opponents’ monsters, which ultimately also scores you some points.

Ah, the dice.  These richly colored little cubes make the game exciting.  Instead of randomizing a deck of cards, you keep your dice in a small bag, and you randomly pull six of them from the bag on each turn.  By rolling these dice, you can gain money (referred to in the game as Quarry), monsters, spells, portals, and any number of other fun things.

It has the same concept of a “store” where you can purchase a new die on each turn, which gets added to your bag, and eventually makes its way to the table for rolling.

This is another simple game for you and your friends to pick up, but I will issue a warning on this one: your non-geek friends are not going to respond in a positive way to creating dragons that have a defense of 6 and an attack of 8.  It definitely happens, and it’s core to the game.  There’s goblins, primordial oozes, wizards, you name it.  The moment my wife heard the words “how many defense points does your monster have?,” she was uninterested in playing.

I persevered, and showed her that it’s actually a fun game, and I’m not going to be dragging her down into the graph-paper laden Dungeons & Dragons.  She’s definitely a fan now (as she already liked Dominion).

I think there’s a similar level of strategy to Dominion in Quarriors, but I can’t help feeling like the game was designed to be WAY too short.  Most games last 30 minutes or so, but it often feels like you’ve FINALLY gotten the dice you need to be successful when the game ends.  I can’t recommend playing to 20 every time, no matter how many players you have.

Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot ($22)

2 – ? players.  My daughter had no problem playing this game at 7 years old, but there are many pop culture references that are either WAY over her head, or slightly inappropriate.

This is probably my favorite game in the list.  Not because of the strategy, though there is some.  Not because of the gameplay, because it’s ridiculous.  I love this game because the “playing” of the game is far more rewarding than the actual “outcome” of the game.  I will tell you up front, that winning this game is the result of shuffling a deck of cards, and hoping one of your cards matches the one on the bottom of this shuffled deck.

The basic concept of this game is simple.  You have a gigantic deck of cards, and everyone draws cards from it.  You have a queue of two cards that lie face down in front of you, and 5 additional cards in your hand.  The two queue cards are referred to as your “top run” and
bottom run” cards.  Perhaps a photo illustration will help.

Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot

On your turn, you turn over your “top run” card, and do what it says.  That’s the incredibly refreshing part of this game that, with expansions, can have over 800 cards in the deck: all of the rules are written on the cards.

By following the instructions on the cards, you slowly try to acquire bunnies, which then unlock your ability to use more and more aggressive cards against your opponents.  Not having a bunny makes you a very docile player, because it really limits what you can do in the game.  Thankfully, the deck is stocked full of all sorts of bunny cards.  On the downside, it’s also full of devestating weapons and devices designed to kill them as well.

Killer Bunnies

You use your cards to acquire as many of the Magic Carrot cards as you can, and once all of the carrot cards have been “gotten,” the game is over, and results in a random draw for the winner.

Along the way, you’ll see every kind of interaction you can imagine, with an inside joke or pop culture reference behind every one of them.  You’ll build alliances, only to turn on your friend the moment it benefits you in the slightest.

This game, while good as the base game of Blue and Yellow decks, gets increasingly more fun, interactive, and outrageous as you add in the expansion decks.  I can’t recommend getting all of them enough, but start with the original Blue & Yellow first.  Make sure you like the game before investing in the rest, because this game will definitely run you up over $100 when all is said and done.

Killer Bunnies: Red Booster DeckKiller Bunnies: Violet Booster DeckKiller Bunnies: Orange Booster DeckKiller Bunnies: Green Booster DeckKiller Bunnies: Twilight White Booster DeckKiller Bunnies: Stainless Steel Booster DeckKiller Bunnies: Perfectly Pink Booster DeckKiller Bunnies: Wacky Khaki Booster DeckKiller Bunnies Chocolate Booster

Killer Bunnies: Ominous Onyx Booster Deck

Summary

So there you have it.  A quick summary of some of the games from my ever-growing collection.  If you already own all of these, I might also recommend a few more here, without the exhaustive writeups.  In addition, if there are games that you are playing, and you absolutely love, leave them in the comments.  I’m always looking for a new challenge.

  

 

  

Be A Creator, Not a Consumer

Things you’re not allowed to think as you read this article:

  1. I don’t have enough time.
  2. I’m not smart enough.
  3. I don’t solve problems every day.

Many years ago, I created a talk called “7 Steps to Shameless Self-Promotion.”  The idea was to explain how to get famous (or at least well-known) in your career field.  As I’ve grown, both personally and professionally, I’ve realized that it really comes down to one simple idea:

Be A Creator.

Write a book.  Start a blog.  Build a website.  Publish some software. Contribute to an open-source project. Participate in forums.  Leave an indelible mark on your community.  These are creation.

As I look around our societal landscape, I’m noticing a trend where more and more people are specifically focused on consuming content.  Mobile phones, tablets, laptops, television, books, and magazines are all great things, and I even contend that without some consumption, creation would be incredibly difficult.  Everything you consume, whether it’s an interesting blog article or even an episode of Jersey Shore (please don’t), it shapes you as a person.

That being said, you’re currently looking for some ways to change or improve your life.  It’s the New Year, after all…why not make some impactful changes in what and how you live it?

I have spoken with thousands of developers, and I pose the same question to each of them:

When you solve a coding problem, where do you publicly share that information with others?  A blog?  A wiki?  StackOverflow?

The answer, almost always, is this:  Why would anyone read what I write?  I pose a similar question to you, my dear defeatist: Why do you read anyone else’s blog?  Is it their incredible use of iambic pentameter?  Maybe they rhyme the last word of every line.  Or maybe, it’s because you find solutions to your problems in their ramblings.

So in this year 2012, I want all of you to create something.  Maybe it’s a piece of art.  Maybe it’s a new presentation. Maybe it’s a Windows Phone application. Perhaps you’ve found the motivation to write a short story.  Whatever it is, DO IT.  The easiest way to get started?  Start a blog and write about your hobbies.  Go to WordPress and set it up.  Once a week, write down the new thing that you learned.  Maybe it’s that you finally solved a cool coding problem, or realized that bacon really makes your Cinnamon Toast Crunch taste better.  Write it down!  Someone will enjoy what you have to say, and at a bare minimum, you’ve now documented your solution, so you’ll remember how you did it the next time.

Let me know when you’ve done it.  I need some stuff to consume. Smile

An Open Letter to Netflix

Dear Netflix,

You’ve gotten some bad press over the past few days.  First, everyone hated your new plan structure and pricing, and then Starz confirmed that you weren’t going to be able to stream their library of movies anymore.  That’s a tough couple of days.

I’m writing you, however, because I’m optimistic.  I truly want you to succeed, but probably not for the reasons you think.  I want you to succeed because of your technology.  You have constructed a streaming video service that is ubiquitous.  It’s everywhere.  My Xbox 360, my Wii, my Roku boxes, my mobile phone, my laptop.  And the list is certainly growing.  You’re not really a “brand” to me so much as you are the portal to the content I want to watch.*

*That is, the stuff I want to watch that you also have a contract to stream.

And there’s the rub.  Being a Netflix subscriber means that I’m glaringly aware of the fact that content will constantly come and go.  It means attempting to stay aware of the relationships you’ve built with specific studios, as well as the expiration dates of those relationships.  I don’t want to do that.  I want to pay you a reasonable fee (we’ll get to that), and I want to know that I have access to new content when it’s available.

I really don’t want to subscribe to HuluPlus also.  But that’s where the new TV shows are.  Well, SOME of the new TV shows.  And HBO?  Oh, that’s a third place.  What about channels like HGTV, Discovery, or Nickelodeon?  Yep, can’t get those anywhere except with a cable subscription.

Now, at $7.99 a month for streaming what you have, I’ve got nearly no reason to complain.  You offer a sufficient amount of content for that price.  My question to you is this:

What if I were willing to pay more?  Significantly more?  What could you do then?

I have some ideas I’d like to share, and I’m sure that my readers could offer some creative solutions as well.  Ultimately, I want you to be the clearinghouse for all of the video content that I watch on my television.  TV, movies, heck, let’s throw YouTube in there as well.

Plan #1

Much like I had with your DVD offering, why not offer a plan that includes unlimited streaming of all content that is over 12 months old (like you basically do today), but add the ability to stream up to 4 brand-spankin’ new movies a month.  What would it cost me to make this happen?  $20 a month?  Done.  $25 a month?  Probably still a yes.

I understand that movie and television studios are your challenge.  They deserve their own open letter.  Without them, however, you’re nothing.  You need to create an appealing enough situation that they’re willing to partner with someone else other than the cable companies.  The world is slowly moving away from cable, and you could be the reason it happens.  Embrace that.

Licensing fees aren’t the only way to compensate the studios.  Instead of millions of dollars for a license, what if you just threw them $2 every time one of their movies was watched?  I think you’d see a change in their tune, and that would still leave you

Plan #2

Offer EVERYTHING.  Television shows.  Entire series, not the last 5.  New releases.  Every movie ever made.  What kinds of costs would you have to pass on to me to make that happen?  Fifty dollars?  I’d pay it.  Licensing costs are outrageous.  I get that.  But the music industry has been able to figure this out with Spotify, Pandora, even Zune Pass, and there’s WAY more record labels than there are movie and TV studios.

Summary

In short, you’ve got a grand opportunity here, and I understand that the studios have you in a tough financial situation.  How do you make money from your service when more than all of your profit goes to licensing?  You need to make this work.  Because if each studio comes out with their own streaming service, you’re just another place to get the same old videos.  Don’t do it.  Change your approach, or someone else is going to Blockbuster you.

What’s in your laptop bag?

In my reading today, I stumbled upon a short article by Cali Lewis titled “My Must Have Travel Gadgets.”  It got me thinking about all of the cool stuff I keep in my laptop bag.  There’s adapters, cords, devices, and other stuff I need everywhere I go.  I’m sure many of you have an awesome array of coolness in your laptop bag, so I thought I’d pose the question, and then show you what I’m currently carrying.

So, what do you have in your laptop bag?

The Laptop

The size of a developer’s bag is always directly proportional to their laptop, so I’ll start there.  I’m currently carrying the Samsung Series 9.  It’s .62” thick, and weighs less than 3 pounds.  It’s a 13” laptop, and I’m sure most people carry a 15” or 17”, but for a machine that I’m carrying all over the country/world, this thing is perfection.  I’ve got 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD inside, so it’s zippy, as well as GORGEOUS.

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The Bag

Because I’m carrying such a small laptop, I decided to go with a smaller bag too.  In the past, I’ve been carrying a huge (but awesome) bag from BBP Bags (thanks to Kevin Kuebler for the introduction).  In this case, however, I was looking for something smaller, almost satchel-like.  I found a great bag at eBags.com (made by Ducti) that fits my needs perfectly.  I’m not a huge fan of the “HIGH VOLTAGE” shoulder strap, but it’s growing on me, and gets plenty of compliments.  And though you’ll doubt it by the end of this article, yes, it holds all of this stuff.

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The Headphones

Depending on the type of trip I’m taking, I have two different sets of headphones.  For short trips, where I’ll likely only be using headphones in conference hallways or coffee shops, I’ve got the Skullcandy Chops over-earbuds.  Audiophiles generally hate Skullcandy’s sound, but I think they’re as good as any earbuds I’ve ever used, and they’re $15.  Can’t beat that.chop-09-black-chrome-headphones-glamor

For trips involving flights, I generally want to block out the noise of the flight, the crying baby, and the chatty couple from Boston that I’m sitting next to.  These are also my everyday headphones when I work at my desk, so I was shooting for extremely comfortable, amazing sound, but portable.  For this purpose, I have Sony’s Studio Monitor Series DJ Headphones.  Without question the best set of headphones I’ve ever owned, and Amazon has them for almost 50% off.

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The Notebook

You never know when you’re going to have a great idea for an app, or just need to jot some notes down during a presentation.  For this, there’s still nothing better than pen and paper.  I’ve been a big fan of Moleskine notebooks for years, and having spoken at the Kalamazoo X Conference the past three years, I’ve gotten one as a gift each time.  They’re durable, small in size, and easy to tuck into your existing bag, and they’re less than $15.

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Also, because I use these notebooks for app ideas, UI sketching, etc., I’ve found a great set of templates that I keep in the back pocket of my Moleskine.  They’re from a company called UI Stencils, and they make templates for sketching iPhone, Windows Phone, and Android apps. The stencil comes with a cool mechanical pencil to fit neatly into the small spaces of the template (and your bag).

windows-phone-stencil

The Internet

Yes, I keep the entire internet right in my laptop bag.  Actually, I have the Verizon Mifi 4G LTE device.  The 4G is surprisingly fast, relatively affordable, and about the size of 10 credit cards stacked on top of each other.  It allows me to connect up to 5 separate devices to the internet at once.  This is not something I would use as my primary source of internet access (you only get 5GB of data per month), but if you use it whenever you can’t get free wi-fi, it’s great to have.  You can probably get the device for free with a 2 year contract (@$50/mo), but even folks that don’t want to negotiate can get it for less than $30.  For presentations that require internet access, this is an invaluable part of your bag.

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The Phones

I always keep my development phones with me…just in case I need to try something out.  Currently, I am using the Asus Prototype Windows Phone running the Mango update, as well as my trusty HTC Arrive.  They can both connect easily via wi-fi to my Verizon Mifi device, so I don’t need a plan just to have extra phones to work with.

Asus-E600-Windows-Phone-7-MWC-2011htc-arrive-sprint_xl

The E-Reader

I’ve never been someone who people would consider a “reader” until I got this device.  I’m reading 2-3 books a month now, thanks to my nook touch.  This is not a tablet, it’s not even in color, but the touch screen works remarkably well, and is ideal for reading.  I can get books out of the library for free, and I can put all of the e-books that I’ve received from O’Reilly and other technical publishers on this device.  That means that I can keep all of my reference material with me, on a great device for reading, with a battery life around 2 months!  This is a must have in my bag anymore.

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The Chargers

It used to be that for every device, you needed another cable to charge it.  As you know, I’m dabbling heavily in the mobile app development space. This means that I’ve got several phones with me at all times, and I need a way to charge them. I’ve found that the Barnes & Noble nook charger absolutely meets all of my needs.  Some micro-USB cables only seem to work with certain devices (I’m looking at you, LG).  The nook charger provides not only a 3 foot cable, but also a USB power adapter.  This means that I can charge up my phone without having to use up one of the precious USB ports on my laptop.  And together, they only cost $15.

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The Backup Power

As you may notice in this post, I like to plan for every possible contingency.  Sometimes, you’re not in a place where you can sit near a power outlet, or perhaps you’re on the move, but your phone died.  This is where carrying backup power comes in very handy.  In my case, I’m using the Energizer “energi to go” battery pack.  I have the smaller model, the Energizer XP8000, but for most purposes, it’s probably plenty for your needs.  I actually got it from Woot.com for around $40, but it generally goes for about $85 on Amazon.  It will give you about 4 extra hours of charge on your laptop, and about 16 hours of power for your mobile phone.  (The picture below is actually how big it is.)  It also comes with nearly every adapter you can imagine, so you should be ready to go out of the box.61R4mGfi81L__AA1333_

The Laptop Accessories

Nearly everything else in my bag is related to my laptop in some way.  Cables, dongles, converters, a mouse, etc.  I’ll cover all of the notable ones here.

Mouse

First, I carry a mouse with me.  There are some that will live and die by their track pads, but the moment I can use a mouse again, I’m happy.  I’ve traditionally been a trackball user, but trackballs aren’t generally small in size, and since I’m not using any of this equipment for 8-10 hours a day, a mouse is sufficient.  I’m currently using the Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 4000.  It’s small enough to fit in a compact bag, but big enough to feel like a real mouse in your hand.

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Ultimately, however, I think I’m holding out for the Microsoft Touch Mouse that’s coming out in August.  It incorporates gestures into a small, wireless form factor.  I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on one of these.  It’s like a trackball/mouse combo that fits in my bag.

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Memory Stick

Even though most files can be emailed or uploaded, those technologies are still no match for a trusty USB stick at your side.  I’ve actually got a jar of USB sticks that I’ve saved over the years, ranging from 16MB all the way up to 4GB.  But there’s only one that lives in my bag, and it’s the “just in case” drive for almost any purpose.  It’s a 32GB EMTEC drive.  It’s probably not the best drive in the world, and it’s certainly not the fanciest, but it works great, and it’s affordable.  It’s under $40 at Amazon.com.

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Laser Pointer and Presentation Controller

When you’re in front of an audience, there’s nothing worse than being stuck standing behind your computer, just so that you can advance your slides.  That’s where this becomes invaluable.  I carry the Logitech Professional Presenter R800.  It has a unique green laser (rather than the far more common red) pointer, as well as all the controls and features a presenter could want.  It connects via a USB wireless receiver, which is surprisingly fast and responsive.  You can go forward, backward, blank the screen, and it even features a programmable timer, so that it will vibrate in your hand as you approach your allotted time.  It is $60, but I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of this 4 or 5 times already. 

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USB Hub

You never know when you’re going to need to plug 19 peripherals into your laptop at a conference, or charge a few friends’ phones, so having a small USB hub never hurts to tote around.  I have a very cheap one that was probably a giveaway at some conference, but it’s been ultra-reliable and super portable.  Best part of this hub is that cable snaps into the bottom of the hub, so there’s nothing just dangling off of the device.  I found a similar one on Amazon.com for less than $9.

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Backup Display Options

Because I give many presentations in many different facilities, sometimes your laptop just doesn’t want to play nicely with the currently provided projector.  If that’s the case, I need a plan B and plan C as soon as possible.  The presentation starts in 5 minutes.  To accommodate this, I have several different devices in my bag.

Plan A is a mini-HDMI to full-HDMI cable that I got on Monoprice.com for around $4.  This, combined with the gorgeous orange 1,5 ft. HDMI cable that I also carry allows me to plug straight into any projector that can handle an HDMI input.  Unfortunately, I’d say less than 25% of the projectors I have encountered (my sample size is hundreds) actually have an HDMI input.

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Plan B is to use the cable that came with my laptop, a mini-HDMI to VGA converter dongle.  This has worked 100% of the time that I have used it.

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Plan C only even exists because I’ve heard horror stories of people with my laptop not being able to use the first two options.  This is a last resort, but as a professional speaker, I can’t afford to fail.  This plan includes taking the video output via USB, and converting it to VGA or DVI using a USB Display Adapter that I purchased from Monoprice.  It costs around $50, however, so don’t get this unless you’re as panicked as me that something will go wrong.

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Dust Cleaning Cloth

Part of having a pretty laptop is having a clean laptop.  (Thanks to Brian Gorbett for teaching me this obsession.) Fingerprints, dust, and smears make even the nicest machines look gross.  I recommend a cloth similar to the ones you get with a new pair of eyeglasses.  Microfiber, very thin, easy to store.  They should be relatively inexpensive, like these from Amazon.

The Deck of Cards

You never know when you’re going to need to pass the time, and a deck of cards solves that in many ways.  Solitaire by yourself, and hundreds of games with your friends, like Gin Rummy, Euchre, or any type of poker.  What I’m saying is that it never hurts to have a deck of cards.

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The Spare Batteries

My mouse and my presentation controller take AAA batteries.  You never want to be without power, so I always carry an extra set of fresh batteries, just in case.  I’d recommend you do the same if you’ve got devices that can’t be charged.  They’re small, and they’ll save your butt.

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The Summary

So, that’s the list of everything I carry with me everywhere.  There are a few pens, and probably an extra laser pointer in there, but for the most part, this in an exhaustive list.

I’m sure there are many things in your bag, and I’d love to hear what they are.  Is there something I hadn’t considered?  Is there something fun that you carry around instead of a deck of cards?  Leave a comment, or write your own article.  I’d love to know what’s important enough for you to carry around all the time.

Source Control Software Is Too Intrusive

Yes, I said it.  Read the title again.  Source Code Repositories Are Too Intrusive.  I am speaking in generalizations, but before you leave an angry comment on this post, hear me out.

Regardless of whether you’re using Git, Mercurial, TFS, or some other technology to store your source code files, your solution is intruding on your world.  It may or may not be built into your toolset, and you likely have to be ultra-conscious of what is and is not checked in.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think that being able to branch a project and merge it back later is a phenomenal feature.  I think that changesets are valuable.  What I’m suggesting, is that on a daily basis, I am very AWARE that I’m using source control.  In my opinion (and this entire article is opinion), great software is invisible.

An example of invisible software is Dropbox.  (I am not endorsing Dropbox for source control.)  I never think about it.  I never have to open the Dropbox client.  Yet, my files are persisted to a website where I can get them at any time.  They’re synced to each of my machines.  Never once do I have to “commit” them to one location or another.

Why isn’t our source control software invisible?  I don’t want to think about my source control software until I need it.  A hard drive fails.  I accidentally delete some files.  I absolutely want to be able to get previous versions of those files back.

Why doesn’t source control “check in” my code every time I save instead?  I’m not talking about “committing” to the original branch, mind you.  We’d be breaking the build every 7 seconds.  I think that committing my code back to the shared source repository that my entire team is using is a monumental decision, and should not be taken lightly.  But for my personal “bookshelf” or whatever term you use, I truly believe that each press of the Save button should also be preserved.

We get pulled away from our desks all of the time.  Meetings, lunch, meetings, etc.  If something happens when we’re away, we’ve lost our work.  I don’t know about you, but if I were to lose even an hour’s worth of code, my productivity for the day would be shot.  I have a trigger finger for the “Ctrl + S” command, and I think that our invisible software should recognize that, and persist it somewhere other than my local machine.

What do you think?  Do you like having to remember to check-in every time you’re done with a file?  Would persisting every “save” be beneficial or detrimental?  My vote is for beneficial.

Why Do Cable Companies Exist?

You may have read my earlier posts about Cutting the Cord.  In January 2011, I cancelled my cable subscription.  I was paying $80 a month to watch a bunch of television that was almost all available for free online.  By streaming that content through Roku boxes and my Xbox 360, I am now saving $80 a month.

But…there’s a few sticking points for me.  I no longer have access to Discovery Channel and the History Channel.  They both have some great shows that I enjoy.  I can catch earlier episodes of Pawn Stars, MythBusters, etc. on Netflix streaming, but keeping up with the newest episodes is a no-go.  It’s just not possible without paying the cable company.

So I thought I’d look into what portion of your cable bill those channels comprise.  And I discovered an interesting website:  http://www.howcableshouldbe.com/.  It breaks down the fees (per month) that the content providers like the Discovery Channel receive from the cable companies for each subscriber.  Here’s a quick summary of the channels can’t get:

  • Discovery Channel – $0.70
  • History Channel – $0.60
  • Comedy Central – $0.60

Yes, you read that right.  Less than $1 each!  So, I understand why the cable companies require me to buy ALL of the channels.  They wouldn’t make any money without it.  But why don’t the channels themselves offer individual subscriptions?  I’d happily pay $2-$3/month for each of these channels.  That would triple or quadruple their income, and I’d still feel like I’m getting an absolute bargain!

That gets me back to my article’s title.  Why do cable companies exist?  Is it because they own the wires?  Is it because there isn’t a more convenient delivery mechanism?  Why are the channels willing to live with meager fees per customer when they could sell their content to consumers directly for a significantly higher price?

Here’s a great video illustration about what cable companies are doing, and why it isn’t in the best interest of consumers whatsoever.  Try selling magazines the way cable companies sell television.

Why Can’t Software Development Be More Like Sports?

In today’s sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey), a team signs a contract with a player for a specific period of time (3 years, 5 years, etc.), and at the end of the contract, they are completely free to part ways.  In some cases, if the player did well during his contract, his current team might offer him a contract extension.  However, if the player did REALLY well, he might opt to test out the “free agent” market.  (Really well is relation to a specific set of requirements that are laid out in the contract.  All-star game appearances, batting average, touchdowns scored, goals made, etc.)

In the free agent scenario, the player declares that he is willing to offer his services to what basically boils down to the highest bidder.  At the end of the day, however, he gets to see what the market determines his value to be.

Imagine this scenario in your current job, even if you’re not in software.  When you start a job, you know that you’ve committed to be there for 3 years.  That’s an absolute.  Perhaps there’s even financial penalties if you choose to leave before the end of the contract.  And if the company decides to terminate your contract?  They still owe you the balance of the contract’s financial obligation.

(This entire article revolves around the idea of honest, hardworking employees, so let’s skip the “trying to get fired” argument for now.)

At every place I’ve worked, there have been all-stars, and there have been everyone else.  But when you look across the financial landscape of the company, there’s almost no significant difference between the high performers and the rest of the crew.  Why is that?  If someone is putting in significantly more effort, why shouldn’t they be compensated accordingly?  If they are driving significantly more business value, why not pay them more?

There’s the challenge though.  Can you sincerely tell me that you know exactly what you’re measured on annually, and what percentage of your goals are completed?  I don’t think that most companies give that much consideration to their employees.  And for you, how can you expect to get any kind of raise/promotion/bonus if you can’t show your performance vs. goals?

I’m sure there are tremendous downsides to contractually-based employment.  Many of you will bring those to my attention in the comments. I’m just suggesting that there be a more open market in our industries. A free agent athlete declares that he is a free agent, and all of the other teams begin a bidding process for his services. In our industry, you have to secretly meet with each individual "team", and negotiate a possible deal in each case, all while hoping your current team doesn’t find out you’re looking at all.

To close, no, I’m not looking for a job.  I actually love mine.  But as I look at my friends & family trying to play this silly game of hide & seek, it really frustrates me.

Why do we offer recommendations?

Yesterday, my neighbor posed a question on Facebook:

“Where is a good place to buy bedroom furniture?”

I found myself immediately compelled to respond with my recommendations.  We found a store that sells bunk beds and children’s furniture that is both nice to look at and incredibly sturdy, and I commented on her link.

It wasn’t until I read the entire thread that I started to ponder the title of this article.  Why did I do that?  Looking back, the bed we bought, while nice to look at and sturdy, wasn’t particularly inexpensive.  The showroom wasn’t exactly impressive.  The service was actually sub-par.  But that’s where we bought our daughter’s bed.  So why did I recommend them?

This same phenomenon happens with our technology too.  How many times have you seen someone complain about their Android phone, only to then turn around and tell other people that they have to get an Android, there’s just nothing better.  And I don’t want to single out Android.  iPhone, Blackberry, and Windows Phone users do the same thing. (Myself included).

We do it about our cars, our neighborhoods, our phones, our shoes, our computers.  Heck, I’ve even seen people recommend specific credit cards at times. (“If you’re looking to get into debt, I recommend this card.  It makes the debt hurt less.”) I’m not saying that some of these items don’t deserve recommendation, I’m just saying that perhaps our recommendation isn’t exactly as it seems.

Are we recommending this product because it is the best product for the person we’re giving the recommendation to?  Or are we recommending it because if they buy the product, it validates our purchase also?  I think that the latter is where my furniture recommendation came from.  If my neighbor buys a bed from the same store, it validates my decision to buy from them.

I’ve heard many people say that they’re getting an iPhone because all of their friends have iPhones.  That logic is lost on me, but their friends are likely making validation recommendations (now known as a valimendation), which in turn gets fulfilled when their friend gets the same phone as them.  There is no mobile device that is perfect for everyone, so why do we pretend that there is?

When you’re shopping for a mobile phone, ask the clerk for a recommendation based on your requirements.  Let them lead you to the phone they suggest.  Now ask them to show you the phone that they personally use.  I think you’ll find some eerie similarities.

So what do you think?  How many recommendations have you made lately that were specifically in the best interest of the recommendee? How many were valimendations?

Fees vs. Price…What’s Going On Here?

As with my last post, I want to start this one by saying that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about on this subject, but it interests me.  I’ve formed my own opinions about the subject, and I’ll share them, but they’re opinions, not fact.

I recently had to go to the Men’s Wearhouse to rent a tuxedo for my son for my brother’s upcoming wedding, and I was perplexed by how the costs were presented.  It reminded me of the fees that I incur at my gym, and several other places that I do business.

It was simple.  The tuxedo rental was $99, plus tax.  On the invoice, however, there was an additional $7 “rental charge.”  It was described as a non-refundable fee to cover any wear & tear on the garments, and that it’s standard across all of their rental agreements.

At my gym, I pay a monthly fee.  Let’s call it $35/month.  However, in the membership contract, there is also two $15 charges.  One in January and one in June.  They are “club maintenance fees.”  They were described to me as a separate fund that is used to keep the equipment new and up-to-date, and to modernize any portions of the facility that needed to be updated.

What am I paying for?

In both the tuxedo rental and the gym membership, what am I paying for?  I understand that there is overhead to running a business, and that you need to pay your employees, pay for utilities, cleaning crews, etc.  Those costs should be part of the fees that I pay you for your service. Additional, line-itemed fees should be optional charges that are above and beyond the base services.

For example, my hosting company charges me $12.95 a month for hosting, and $5 a month more because I added a second SQL server instance.  That makes total sense to me.

If you need to charge me $7 for wear and tear on the garments, why isn’t that just part of the cost of the rental?  Why are you calling it out as a special fee?  I’m sure there’s a reason, but it’s just not clear to me as a consumer.  What does my $99 cover, if not the wear and tear on the garments?

For the “club maintenance fees", are you telling me that all of the membership dues don’t contribute to the overall appearance and maintenance of the health equipment?  What does my $35 a month pay for?  It’s certainly not customer service or knowledgeable staff.

I’m sure you’ve encountered fees like this as well, and I’d love for you to help shed some light on this for me.  I really don’t understand why these fees are called out seperately.

Is it a marketing tactic, so that they can say their rentals are under $100, or their membership dues are lower than they appear?

Is it an accounting practice, because fees aren’t taxed, so they have to do them seperately?

Gas Prices…What’s The Big Deal?

To give you some sense of my age, when I started driving, there was a little math game I used to play when I filled up my tank. Gas would be $0.99/gallon, or perhaps $1.01/gallon.  In either case, it made for easy math in my head, and by looking at the gallons tallying up, I’d make myself guess what the cost will be.

I still do this today, but the math tends to be little more difficult.  Calculating multiples of $3.6499 is a little tougher.

Anyways, I just took a road trip to North Carolina last week, and as we were packing for the trip, I heard several newscasts talk about how today’s gas prices were going to dramatically limit the amount of travel that Americans will do this summer.  As gas prices approach $4.00/gallon, more and more people will be unable to make the trip.

The trip to Corolla, North Carolina is approximately 675 miles each direction.  I didn’t track my actual gas mileage, but my 2011 Honda Oddysey gets 19 mpg in the city, and 28 mpg on the highway, for a “combined” mileage of around 22 mpg (source).  So we’ll use that number for our math.

The Math

675 miles x 2 = 1350 miles round trip.

1350 miles / 22 miles per gallon = 61.36 gallons.

If gas rose from $3.65/gallon to $4.15/gallon before my trip, this would be an astounding increase of $0.50/gallon.  50 cents!

This means that my ENTIRE trip would cost $30 more because of increased gas prices.  THIS is the prohibitive cost of travel that everyone’s talking about?  Thirty dollars?

The Questions For You

  1. Certainly $30 isn’t what is holding people back from travel. The thought of spending over $250 probably is. 61.36 gallons x $4.15 = $254.66.)  But to get my family of four to a vacation, ~$60 each doesn’t seem to painful, does it?  It’s certainly better than flying.
  2. Are these gas prices changing your driving behaviors?  Or are they changing your extravagant coffee-buying behaviors?
  3. What is maximum price you’d pay for a gallon of gas before it actually impacted your driving habits?  $7?  $10?