Echo and Alexa

If you’ve talked to me in the past year, or visited my home, I’m certain I’ve mentioned the Amazon Echo.  I’ve been playing with it a ton lately, so I thought I’d write some of my thoughts for all of you to read.

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Amazon Echo is am amazing little device that sits on your kitchen counter or desk.

You talk to it.

amazonecho

Alexa is the voice that speaks to you and listens to your commands.  It does all the basic stuff incredibly well:

  • “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?”
  • “Alexa, what time is it?”
  • “Alexa, how many cups are in a gallon?”
  • “Alexa, what’s the current price of AMZN stock?”
  • “Alexa, order me some AA batteries.”
  • “Alexa, play some classic rock.”
  • “Alexa, set a timer for 9 minutes.”

What you may not know, however, is that you can also add additional skills to Alexa.  There’s a growing collection of skills being created by developers, much like app stores of the mobile phone world. There any many cool skills you can add, but the home automation ones have had the biggest impact in my household:

  • “Alexa, how much gas do I have in my tank?”  (via Automatic)
  • “Alexa, trigger the garage.”  (opens or closes my garage, via WeMo Maker)
  • “Alexa, trigger the office lights.” (flips the lights in my office, via WeMo Switch.)
  • “Alexa, order a pizza from Domino’s” (places my standard order with Domino’s.)
  • “Alexa, ask FitBit how I’m doing today.” (tells me my step count via FitBit.)
  • “Alexa, ask Capital One how much money I have.” (via Capital One)

I’ve even built my own simple skill, a game of Would You Rather.  It poses a situation for you, and it’s up to you and your friends to answer it.  Like I said, pretty simple, but a good way to include Alexa in your next game night.

I’m going to write another post next week with a simple tutorial on how to build an Alexa skill.  It’s surprisingly easy.

Making Changes

About a year ago, I took a chance on my career.  I left the stable, secure world of Microsoft to join and help found a startup.  I don’t regret this decision at all.  But I failed.

I failed because I didn’t make my expectations known.

I failed because I didn’t figure out what was expected of me.

I failed because I was scared to stand up for myself.

I failed because I didn’t communicate effectively.

I’ve always prided myself on being an excellent communicator, but it showed me that I’d made a mistake.  I took the job for the money, for the prestige, and for the wrong reasons.  I chased promises rather than reality.  From Day #1 I was counting the days to our acquisition.  This is absolutely the wrong approach, and I wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t taken that chance.

So I’ve decided to start making some changes in my life.

First, I am going to exercise every single day.  Between work and travel, I wasn’t taking any time for myself, and my energy levels reflect that.  I need to be healthier at 40 than I was at 30.

Second, I need to find “the right job.”  I’ve had a few of these in my career, where I can’t wait to get started every morning, and don’t want it to end every night.  I’ve started a pretty extensive job search, but it’s a slow, slow process.

Third, I need to get back to focusing on my family.  The weekly travel to startupland didn’t do any lasting damage to my relationship with my family, but I owe it to them to give them everything I have.  None of this other stuff matters if I can’t spend my time with my wife and children.

Finally, I need to find a hobby.  I’ve been scattered across a number of “interests,” but I’ve never really landed on one that really consumes my time.  I love golf, but it’s time consuming and expensive.  I like playing with Lego Robotics, but mostly with my kids.  I love writing, but I never seem to find the time to do it (as evidenced by the infrequency of my posts.)  The one I keep coming back to, however, is writing.  I’ve been sitting on the first 20 pages of a sci-fi novel for a couple of years now, and I think it’s time to dust it off and bring it to life.  Keep an eye out for something from me later this year, I hope.

I don’t like failing.  I don’t like accepting that a decision I made was a bad one.  But it was, and I did.  Here’s to making the next decision a good one, and making several aspects of my life better than they’ve ever been.

Leaving the Nest

For the first 9 years of my career, I was a software developer.  It hadn’t even occurred to me to be anything else.  Then, one day, I met a guy named Drew Robbins, who said he was an evangelist for Microsoft.  He introduced me to Josh Holmes, one of the best speakers I have ever met.  The way they described it, they spent most of their time learning the bleeding edge of software, and the rest of their time teaching people how to use it.  On that day, I asked Drew when he’d be looking for a different job, because that was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do.  He eventually did, and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to replace him in the summer of 2007, thanks to a very unexpected decision by Sam Henry.

I can honestly say that I will never be as excited to start another job as I was to start this one.

For six amazing years, I got to spend my time traveling through what Microsoft calls the “Heartland District”, and I got to know these states well.  I’m not sure why I decided to do it, but I have kept every single plastic hotel key I’ve ever had since I started this job.  There’s 163 of them in this photo.

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I met people from every type of company, writing every type of software, with every type of concern about Microsoft and every one of our development technologies.  And I loved it.  I helped start conferences (like Stir Trek), and encouraged others to do the same.  I spoke anywhere someone would listen.  I did all of it because I loved it, and Microsoft empowered me to share my passion.

I had the pleasure of working closely with Jennifer Marsman and Brian Prince for years.  I made lifelong friends in Clark Sell, Sarah Dutkiewicz, Mike Eaton, Matt Davis, Andrew Maxey, Rick Kierner, Matt Casto, Brian Jackett, Ryan & Travis Lowdermilk, and literally dozens of others.  Practically my entire social circle is a result of my work as an evangelist.  I am so thankful to have met all of these people, and all of you reading this.

My passion for software and evangelism led me to write over 500 articles, a book, and dozens of apps. That passion took me to a new role two years ago at Microsoft.  I got to share my passion with four high-profile software companies in the healthcare industry.  We talked about Windows and Azure at length, and I got to help them make some significant architectural decisions about their products.  It was still evangelism, but for a highly focused set of individuals.

It is that same passion that has me writing this today.  I have decided to leave Microsoft after 8 years of amazing.  8 years of learning.  8 years of loving what I do, with the freedom to do it.

I will miss every single thing about evangelism here at Microsoft.  Sincerely.  The people are amazing.  The mission is worth fighting for.  I can only hope that my path will cross with yours again time after time.  Thank you all for teaching me so much.

Jeff Blankenburg

On May 18th, I’m starting a new adventure.  I’m joining a startup as their Director of Product Management.  We’re going to try to change how the world thinks about software and healthcare together.  As we get close to a release, I’ll have plenty more to share about this endeavor.

#12: My Favorite Talk of the Year

For the past seven years, I have had the good fortune of being invited to speak at the Kalamazoo X Conference.  If you’re not familiar with this conference, you’re not alone.  It’s one of those hidden gems.  Once you’ve gone once, you’re angry you didn’t hear about it sooner.

In short, KalX is a conference for software developers that has nothing to do with software development.  It’s a focus on the other part of your career.  Work-life balance, mentoring, passion, enthusiasm, excuses, you name it.  Anyone, in any industry, would have tons to gain from these presentations.

As a speaker, this is my Superbowl of speaking opportunities.  It has been said that “every talk at Kalamazoo X would have been the best talk at any other conference.”  And it’s true.  I am humbled and flattered to be asked back each year, and am astounded by the raw human emotion that each speaker brings to the conference.

Two years ago, the organizers of Kalamazoo X recorded all of the sessions, and you can find them at the link below.  The best way I’ve heard these described is as “a braver, more profane version of TED talks.”

https://vimeo.com/kalamazoox/videos

This year, they opted to not record the sessions, but I did set up my tablet to record my presentation before the battery died.  My talk was titled “Be A Beginner,” and it focused on the benefits of being a beginner in a situation, and how, as experts, we should recognize and encourage the beginners on our team.  There is a moment early in the presentation where the projector fails me, but we rally and get past it in a relatively quick time frame.  I’d love your feedback on the content.  Click the photo below to view it on YouTube.


Get the entire presentation as a PDF here…

#11: Key Chains and Kroll

What’s On Your Key Chain?

It seems like more and more, I’m finding things that I want to put on my key chain.  Bottle openers, technology, all sorts of cool things. I’ve limited my key chain to two things (in addition to my car key, obviously), and they’re both pretty cool, so I thought I’d share them.

Machine Era

If you haven’t already heard of Machine Era Co., make sure to check them out.  It’s an American company that makes hand-crafted metalworking goods.  I currently own their wallet and the KeySquare, and they’re both amazing.  But we’re talking about key chain stuff, so here’s a picture of the KeySquare.

Cut from a solid piece of stainless steel, has a bottle opener, and can easily be attached to your pocket or belt loop.  I’m not much of a “keys on the belt loop” kind of guy, but that open hook has made it easy to attach my keys to a bag strap.  And it can open my beer.  It’s just awesome.

Where’s My Charging Cable?

The other thing I’m keeping on my keychain is a VERY short USB cable.  It seems that when my phone is low on battery, it’s always when I don’t have my computer bag with me.  InCharge allows me to have a USB cable with me at all times.  It’s available for micro USB or Lightning connections, and it’s less than $9, including shipping.

Have You Seen Kroll Show?

Aside from the brilliant intro, I’m a huge fan of the Kroll Show.  It just started its 3rd and final season.  In short, it’s a show of sketches, but it’s done in a way I’ve never seen before.  First, here’s the intro video (click the image to see the video)


Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a family friendly show, but that doesn’t stop it from being hilarious.  It spends most of its sketches skewering reality television, but what I enjoy most about the show is how much crossover there is.  In one episode, you meet Liz & Liz, who run a PR firm called PubLIZity.  One of the Liz’s discovers she’s pregnant, but isn’t willing to reveal who the father is.  In another episode, you meet C-Zar, a “toilet baby” they call him, who is attending “Dad Academy” to determine if he’s fit to be a father to the child his baby mama is expecting.  Two seasons later, you discover the connection.

It’s these kind of running jokes that you find throughout the show that kept me coming back for each episode.

There’s also another sketch series where two cousins run separate pawn shops, one in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh.  It’s called “Pawnsylvania.”  It plays on the massive cultural differences between the two cities, and made me laugh most of the time.  There’s dozens of other memorable characters and sketches, including Dr. Armond, the animal plastic surgeon, “Too Much Tuna”, and “Rich Dicks”.

Highly recommended.  Would watch again.

#10: Journeys, Jobs, and Jumping Into The Future

We’re Going On An Adventure!

I’m not one to advertise a vacation.  In fact, most times I don’t talk about it online until I’ve returned for a number of reasons.  This summer, however, my family and I have decided to take an extended road trip, and it got me thinking about all of the amazing opportunities I’ve had to see this grand, vast world of ours.

In my 38 years on this planet, I’ve visited dozens of countries, but only two continents: North America and Europe.  I need to start striving for the other five.  Yes, that even means Antarctica.

As for the United States, I’ve visited (and let’s be very clear about this one, I’ve been on foot or in a car) 48 of our fifty states.  My two remaining challenges are Alaska and Hawaii, and I’m certain I’ll knock those off my bucket list.

This is probably as far as you’ve ever gone with these kinds of lists.  Countries and states.  But what about counties?  How many COUNTIES in the United States have you visited?  A better question might even be, “How many counties are in your state?” or “How many counties are in the United States?”

My answers?  Ohio has 88, and the United States has 3,143.  I’ve visited a bunch of counties, but I’m not yet up-to-date on my count.  As of right now, I’ve recorded 393 counties visited, but there’s a big trip I took during college that I haven’t entered yet.  It will easily add another 100+ counties to my list.  My biggest challenge is that many of my trips involve an airplane, so I only get credit for places I visit or connect through.

“But Jeff, where do you record something like this?”

There’s a website designed specifically for this purpose, actually.  (Contributing to my theory that everything is already on the internet.)  Check out http://mob-rule.com.  My travels are NOTHING compared to a few friends of mine, however.  (These are the guys that I set a world record with a few summers ago.)

Dan Miller has visited 1,465 counties.
Jim Tocco has visited 1,672 counties.
Kevin Roll has visited 869 counties.
Jay Bohland has visited 831 counties.

They have also set a record for visiting all 88 counties in Ohio in under 24 hours, along with a few others.

So this summer, why not pick up a few extra counties on your way to your destination.  At least mark your entire home state in blue, right?

Employment

Having a job is a gift.  Making an income to support your family and your lifestyle is even better.  But so many people do something every day that they hate.  Why?  Why not change it up, and find something you’re excited to do every day?  I have a theory on this one that has nothing to do with money:

We’re afraid to be a beginner again.

Think back on the times you’ve been the most passionate about your work.  Passionate about your career.  Was it yesterday?  Probably not.  In my history, the times I’ve been the most excited to work was when it was new.  When I was learning.  But it seems like our professional culture rewards those who continue to build on their siloed set of experience instead of broadening their knowledge horizontally.  Why not reward the curious problem solver?  Having ZERO perspective on an industry can actually be liberating when you try to address the big issues.

As an example, I’ve worked for ad agencies, clothing retailers, and consulting companies, but all of them were as a software developer.  When Microsoft hired me as an Technical Evangelist 8 years ago, I was thrown into a different world.  Now I was doing a ton of public speaking, training, and research.  I didn’t have delivery deadlines and a feature list to complete, I had events to plan, technology to understand, and relationships to build.  I loved it.  But after a few years of that, I’d mastered it.  And it became tedious.  So I left, for the safe thing.  Now I’m working on software development projects again, but they’re HUGE projects run by billion dollar companies.

What I yearn for, however, is to be a beginner again.  To be put in unfamiliar territory, to have thousands of questions for hundreds of problems.  I want to solve problems from a unique angle that those entrenched haven’t been able to see.  That’s when I’m most successful.  That’s what I want to be when I grow up.  A beginner.

(I’ll be presenting an entire talk on this at the Kalamazoo X Conference on March 14.  It is hands-down one of my favorites conferences anywhere.  You should come!)

Welcome To The Future

Every couple of years or so, Microsoft releases a “Future Vision” video that is meant to illustrate how they see life, work, and play with technology that isn’t currently available.  Maybe the technology isn’t even possible.  But it makes you wonder what you could do when you see their vision.  It’s 6 minutes long, and you could definitely watch it without the audio if you’re at work.  Definitely worth checking out.

This letter is also available at TinyLetter, where you can receive these directly in your inbox.

#8: Horrible Ideas, HoloLens, and Handlers

Slinging A Horrible Idea

I should start this section with a preface: my family proudly “cut the cord” just over 4 years ago.  (You can read more about that here.)  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it simply means we don’t have a cable subscription.  We looked at what we watch, and what we were paying, and it just didn’t make sense.  So we dropped it in favor of things like Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and Netflix, all streaming through our Roku Boxes.

We watch almost nothing “live.”  Sports are an obvious exception to that rule, but otherwise, we are perfectly content to watch the show we like the next day, or several days later.  (This is exactly what most people do with their DVRs anyways.)  Hulu carries most of the shows we watch, and we actually purchase episodes of the shows they don’t from Amazon, like the Walking Dead, for example.  $27 for the whole season is WAY cheaper than even the most basic cable package over that 6-month season.

WE pick the shows WE want to watch, and they’re organized into a nice little queue for us to choose from.

Fast-forward to last week, when my wife and I decided to try the new Sling Television service.  They offer a 7-day trial, and it includes content from ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, HGTV, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and a few others.  The $20/month price tag seemed steep, but if I could watch some of the shows on those channels, it might be worth it.

Here’s why Sling Television is a horrible idea for cord cutters:

1) It’s not like any other streaming service I’ve mentioned.  It’s not a list of shows and episodes that I can select and watch when it’s convenient for me.  It’s just live streams of the channels, requiring me to tune in when the show is scheduled to air.

2) It’s 3x the cost of Hulu, with significantly fewer features, and significantly less content.

3) They still think like a cable company.  They’ve created additional bundles of channels, called Sports Extra and Kids Extra that are those “premium channel packages” that you probably skip on your cable subscription as well.  Sports Extra includes ESPN U and ESPNEWS, among a few other niche sports channels.  Kids Extra includes Disney XD, Disney Junior, and Boomerang.  Each of these packages costs $5 more a month, making their total offering $30/month.  (As a reference, I can get a decent internet + cable package for $40.)

4) Watching ESPN on the Roku or Xbox One apps is a significantly enhanced experience over just watching the ESPN channel on cable.  I have access to every college football game on Saturdays.  As a guy that wants to watch his Bowling Green Falcons every weekend, this has proved invaluable.  When I’m watching Monday Night Football, I get live notifications about my ESPN Fantasy Football team’s performance.  Try doing that with your cable box.

What Sling needs to offer to make me a subscriber:

1) A Hulu-like DVR service.  I don’t want to manage my recordings.  I want to tell it which shows I like, and it should add them to a queue once the show has aired.

2) An ESPN experience similar to what is offered on Roku or Xbox One.  I can’t go back.

3) Adding baseball.  In your Sports Extra package, adding all of the regional MLB channels would go a LONG way.  It’s the one major sacrifice I made when we cut the cord, and thanks to MLB’s blackout rules, I don’t have an option to watch the Cleveland Indians without a cable subscription.

What do you think?  Is this a good deal?

Holograms are coming…

A few weeks ago, a revolutionary new product was announced by one of the most valuable companies in the world.  They make mobile phones and tablets, entertainment devices for your television, health monitors for your wrist (that can talk to your phone!), even mice and keyboards.

This time, they’re taking on the world of wearable computers.  (Yes, I’m talking about Microsoft.)


If you watch any single thing this week, click on the HoloLens above, and give it two minutes of your imagination.  This will be available this year, and it looks absolutely amazing.

Daniel Handler

Last night, I had the opportunity to go hear Daniel Handler talk about his new novel, We Are Pirates.  If you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of Daniel Handler.  Most of the books he has written have been done under a pseudonym you’re probably more familiar with: Lemony Snicket.

He spoke at our local high school last night, and I was drawn in immediately.  He was funny, clever, eloquent, and witty.  He spent 20 minutes or so telling some charming stories about his writing history, some things that have happened while traveling, and how he landed on the topic of his new book.

I’ve been toying with a story I want to write for a couple of years now, and I think hearing him talk made me realize that I just need to do it already.  So, in my ample free time, I’ve got another project to start working on.

I’ll keep you posted.

Letter #7: Games, Geocaching, and Gross Negligence

mo-NO-poly

As many of you may know, I love to play some board games.  But if you invite me over to play Monopoly, Life, or Clue, I’m likely to decline.  These games have been part of our lives forever, and are a mainstay of retailers shelves.  In the past two years, however, you might have noticed a new type of board game starting to make it onto those shelves.  Games with strategy.  Games that require thinking.  Games that don’t rely nearly as much on luck.

There are three, specifically, that I’ve noticed becoming more commonplace, and they’re the games that I’ve been pushing on my friends and family for a number of years now.

Ticket To Ride – possibly my all-time favorite, this game pits you against up to four other people in a race to build train routes around the United States.  On each turn, you have to decide if you want to acquire more trains, build a train route between two cities, or take on more “route goals” to complete before the end of the game.  A game usually takes about an hour, and each turn can be impactful on the outcome.  Definitely worth trying.


Settlers of Catan – Settlers is probably the first modern board game I played, and it definitely got me hooked.  Tons of strategic options, limited interaction with the other players (other than the occasional turf war or trade), and lots of options on each turn.  Do you buy a settlement?  Trade with another player?  Maybe you deploy a soldier and screw up someone’s resources?  Another great game I’d play any time.


Lords of Waterdeep – another very strategic game, Lords of Waterdeep has definitely become my wife’s favorite game.  You have a collection of workers that you can place on the board each round, and you gather the resources from that placement.  These resources help you complete your quests, but can also provide you with additional quests, “intrigue” cards which generally just give you a bonus, or money.  You use all of these things together to gain as many points as you can, and the winner is declared after 8 rounds.  Definitely one of the best ones out there.

I’ve got an entire closet of games that are similar to these: rich strategy, player interaction, and multiple layers.  If you’ve played the ones I’ve mentioned, here’s a few others that are a bit more complicated, but totally worth checking out:

  • Eclipse – explore space, gather resources, upgrade your fleet, destroy your enemies.
  • Killer Bunnies – chaotic and crazy card game for a larger group.  funny and strategic.
  • Lemming Mafia – put the fix in on a race to the finish as a “don” of the lemming mafia.
  • Pandemic – a cooperative game where you work together to cure diseases around the world.
  • King of Tokyo – as one of several horror movie monsters, smash your opponents to take over Tokyo.
  • Dominion – you build a deck of cards that helps you acquire more cards, which help you win the game.
  • Castle Panic – another cooperative game, you defend your castle from an onslaught of orcs and goblins.

Gee-Oh-Cash-Ing

Geocaching, pronounced like the title above, is one of those activities that I’ve been doing for a few years now, but it seems every time I mention it to someone, they’ve never heard of it.  So now you’ve heard of it.

The basic idea is simple:  people have hidden small “caches” all of this great planet of ours.  It’s highly likely that there’s a dozen or so within a mile of your house.  They’re all hidden in publicly accessible areas, like parks or parking lots, but you’d never find them unless you were looking for them.

“What’s in a cache?” you might be asking yourself.  Sometimes, they’re so small it’s just a roll of paper to add your name to a list of people that have found it.  Other times, it might be a collection of small toys or coins.  You’re generally expected to bring something new to add to those boxes, and remove something of your choice.  In either case, they’re usually well hidden, and not obvious unless you’re looking for them.

Of course, there’s a website to find them all:  http://geocaching.org.

In some cases, they give you the GPS coordinates for the cache, so you can go directly there.  In other cases, they make it a bit trickier, and require you to solve puzzles to determine those coordinates.  (I spent most of an afternoon at a park in Atlanta hunting down a 14-step puzzle, only to discover that the final destination had been removed, but that’s not common.)  I recently made a trip to Wheeling, WV, and I completely forgot to look for a cache or two.  Just within a few square miles, I can count over 50 caches! Next time.

This is an especially fun way to spend some time with your kids.  The time to find a cache is generally pretty short, and if you plan it out, you can spend a few hours tracking down 5 or 6 of them at once.  Use your phone, or some GPS device however, because without some GPS tracking tool, this would be incredibly difficult.

The best part of this geocaching game is that it’s free.  I think you can look up 5 caches per day from the website at no charge, and if you want to go crazy (it happens), you can buy full access for $30 a YEAR.  It’s very affordable.

How Time Warner Is The Worst

Yesterday, I decided to see if I could get a better price on my internet and phone bill than I’m currently getting with Wide Open West.  I went to Time Warner’s website to look at pricing, and they had a really compelling price on the services I was looking for.

I currently have 30MB down / 3MB up for my internet speed.  That, plus a home phone line, costs me about $90/month from WOW.  That seemed like too much, especially considering I would like a much faster “up” speed.

Time Warner was offering on their website 50MB down / 5MB up for $65/month, with another $10 for the phone.  That would save me $15 a month, and dramatically increase my speeds.  As a household that exclusively streams all of their entertainment (no cable), and I work from my home, we need a reliably fast connection.

I decided to call them, because the website had a bunch of questionable sales tactics, like saying the price is $10 for phone for the next 12 months but not mentioning what it would regularly be.

Reason #1: I couldn’t get a clear price on their website.

Once I called them, I waited a few minutes on hold and navigating their awful menu system only to arrive at a person that was clearly not provided all of the information they just asked me to enter in the menu system (zip code, phone number, etc.)  After deliberately skipping past his screening questions, like “How many devices do you have connected to your wifi?” I finally started telling him what I wanted.  (He was audibly surprised when I told him that I have more than 20 devices connected.  That’s a low estimate.)

Me: “I would like the Ultimate 50 internet option, bundled with the Digital Phone service.”

TWC: “One moment while I calculate your price.”

(Three minutes later…)

TWC: Your total, before taxes and fees will be $89.83.”

Me: “The website seems to suggest the price would be lower.”

TWC: “Oh, you looked at the website?  I can give you those discounts.”

Reason #2: They deliberately tried to rip me off, assuming I was uninformed.

Many minutes later, he comes back with a price that should have been about $15 less.  It was $4 less.  When I asked, he mentioned (did I mention English isn’t his first language?) that this also included the cost of a modem, which is $8/month.

Me: “Can’t I just use my own modem?  I already have one.”

TWC: “Oh, you have your own modem?  Absolutely.  I’ll remove that from your bill.  It’s now $82.99.”

Me: “Shouldn’t it be $8 less than your last price?  It’s not.”

TWC: “No sir, the fees change when you have your own modem, so it’s not exactly $8 less.”

Me: “OK, whatever.”

Reason #3: I can’t get a clear price on the phone, either.

Me: “Are there any other costs that I need to be aware of?”

TWC: “No sir, this will be your total monthly charge each month for the first 12 months.”

Me: “What will the price be when your discounts expire?”

TWC: “Sir, I do not know that answer to that, but we will send you an email before they expire letting you know what the price will be at that time.”

Me: “That might be the worst possible answer I could have heard.”

TWC: “I’m sorry, sir.  We don’t know what the prices will be 12 months from now.  But they will be higher without your discounts.”

Me: “Thanks.”

Reason #4: They offer discounts, but can’t tell what the price will be when they expire.

TWC: “OK, so your monthly bill will be $82.99, and you have a one-time installation cost of $79.99.  How would you like to pay for that this evening?”

Me: “$80 for installation?  What are you installing?  I’m using my own modem, my own router.”

TWC: “Oh, I’m sorry sir.  I can get you a discount on the installation as well.  It is now $59.99.”

Me: “I’m still not paying $60 for installation of a service that I then pay you for monthly.  That’s ridiculous.”

TWC: “Sir, for any home that has not had Time Warner service in the last 24 months, we have to send out a technician to make sure that everything is set up properly.”

Me: “And you expect me to pay for that?  What happened to the cost of doing business?”

TWC: “I’m sorry sir, $59.99 is the lowest I can offer for installation.  Which credit card would you like to use for this?

Reason #5: They charge you a large sum of money to make sure their hardware works.

After this final exchange, I informed the sales rep that I would like to cancel any and all services that we had been discussing, politely said goodbye, and hung up the phone in disbelief.  I’ll stick with what I’ve got.

How is Time Warner Cable even in business?

#6: Flowers, Forgetfulness, and Freefalls

Flowers, Anyone?

At some point in this series of letters I’m writing, I was going to talk about Bing Rewards.  Now, before you scoff and run back to your beloved Google, hear me out.  Bing is actually REALLY good.  Don’t believe me?  Try this: http://www.bingiton.com

QUESTION: How much is Google paying you to use their search engine?

Using Bing as my regular search engine for over 4 years now, I can tell you that I’m easily making $5-10 a month just by switching my default search engine. Every single search earns you points that can be redeemed for gift cards from Starbucks, Home Depot, and dozens of others.  It’s definitely worth your while.

QUESTION:  What does this have to do with flowers?

This morning, I decided to see what I could spend some of my Bing Rewards points on.  Right at the top of the page, there was a $15 coupon for ProFlowers.  It costs 100 points, and I have well over 1,000.  Next, I headed over to ProFlowers‘ website, to see what kinds of things they offered as we lead up to Valentine’s Day.  This is usually the most expensive time of the year to buy flowers, so I wasn’t optimistic.  Then I discovered this:


A dozen roses, chocolates, and a vase for $30?  And I have a Bing Rewards code for $15 off?  That’s my kind of deal.  Then I discovered the delivery costs.  Normally $12.99, except that February 14th is on a Saturday this year, so an extra $5.  Then tax, $3, and a “care & handling” fee, $3 more.  In total, however, with all of that, I will still have a dozen roses, in a vase, with a small box of chocolates, delivered to my wife on Valentine’s Day, for under $40.  If you’ve purchased flowers for delivery before, I think you’ll agree that’s actually a pretty reasonable price.

Now I just have to hope she didn’t read this letter.

Proofreading Pays Off

In last week’s letter, I wrote a segment on a clever way to have your own email address, and how it helps create unique usernames and passwords.  Except that I didn’t do a good job of proofreading, and almost an entire two paragraphs went missing before I clicked “Send.”  So, due to my forgetfulness, here’s what that paragraph should have said:


Come up with a simple phrase, like “NotMyCircus24!”  At each website you register on, use this passphrase, plus the name of the site.  In this example, it might be “NotMyCircus24!amazon” or “NotMyCircus24!facebook.”  In each case, you’ve now created a situation where no matter which website you’re visiting, you don’t have to remember anything about your credentials, but you can know them by following your pattern.

One catch to this is the thing you’ve been thinking about as you read this:  what if someone knows my pattern?  What if someone sees my data and realizes what I’m doing?  This is definitely a risk to this solution.  The good news is that it’s very unlikely some hacker is trolling through a stolen database of usernames/passwords looking for a single record that has some kind of pattern like this.  They’re using software to test those stolen credentials that match up with other popular websites.  Manually going through a list of millions of records is a waste of their time when they can be exploiting those that use the same username and password on every site.  As for someone you know being able to do this, you should protect this information at all costs.  Don’t trust anyone with this information. Seriously.  My wife knows how to get into my accounts, but I wouldn’t share this info with my kids, no matter how much they ask.  (They know that when I’m entering a password to turn their backs to the screen.  I don’t even have to ask anymore. 🙂

I Love Falling

I’ve noticed that in my life’s history, I have a pattern of loving to fall.  More specifically, I love extended freefalls. I think it started with my love for the diving board in high school, which led to the diving team, which led to joining the diving team at Bowling Green, which ultimately led to meeting my wife, which resulted in my two children.  So I have diving to thank for much of what I am thankful for today.  But there’s more.

I’ve jumped off of cliffs ranging in height from 60-100 feet into deep rivers full of crystal clear Canadian water.

I’ll ride any roller coaster you can put in front of me.  (I’m going to find a way to get on this one this year.)

One of the biggest rushes I’ve experienced lately, however, was on a water slide.  It was last summer, at the Kalahari Waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells.  You enter a chamber that has feet printed on the floor, and it closes behind you.  You cross your legs and put your hands behind your head before the operator starts a timer that counts down

3.

2.

1.

And then the floor opens beneath you, letting you fall about 40 feet before the slide starts to bend, which has you slide to the end.

There’s a great video here of what it looks like to take the ride (POV).

Here’s a video of what it looks like to watch your friend take the plunge.

It was absolutely amazing, and I must have ridden it 4 or 5 times in a row.  I only wish the drop was greater. 🙂

So you might be wondering, “Jeff, have you ever jumped out of an airplane?”  Nope.  I haven’t.  But I think that’s got to be next.  I’m 38 years old, and I’m going to do this before I turn 40.  I need to just pick a date, pay the money, and show up.  It’s going to happen.

In the meantime, I’ve also got my eye on the Ohio Dreams Sports and Music Fest.  One weekend a year, this extreme sports camp opens their doors for anyone to be able to use their giant waterslide ramp.  I can’t do this place justice with words, so make sure you watch this video:


Does anyone want to go with me?

#5: Email, Exercise, and Elevators

My Secret To Email

Every time I give someone my email address, they give me a funny look.  As an example, I mentioned in a previous letter that I recently purchased some appliances at Sears.  When I was checking out, the sales rep asked me for an email address to send my receipt.

Me: “sears@jeffblankenburg.com”
Rep: “Really?  That’s your email address?  Do you work for Sears or something?”

I get the same reaction at Best Buy, State Farm, Huntington Bank, Home Depot, and every other retailer that asks for your email address.

SPOILER: None of those email addresses even exist.

The real truth is that you can send an email message to anythingyouwant@jeffblankenburg.com and it will arrive in my inbox.  Some of my friends have taken to getting pretty creative with this freedom, and if I weren’t blessed with a healthy amount of self-esteem, some of them might even hurt my feelings.

This email system provides several benefits:

  1. I actually know where my email is coming from, because the “to” address lets me know.
  2. If a company sells my address (or has their data stolen), I know instantly, because I start receiving email from someone other than the company indicated by the “to” address.
  3. If someone really starts spamming an address, I can just filter that “to” address to the Trash, because I never gave anyone my actual address.
  4. I never have to give my actual email address to anyone, ensuring that I’m buried in a world of unwanted email forever.
As most of the world is aware, anyone can buy a domain name for about $10 a year.  In my case, I bought jeffblankenburg.com.  (Some of you with more common names probably didn’t buy yours.)  As part of the cost of that domain, I also get a number of free email addresses as well as email forwarding.  I decided to set up a “catch all” address that forwards ALL email to my Gmail address.  (This is a very simple process, I promise.  Nothing technical.)  By doing this, I can give a new, made-up email address to every single company I interact with, without actually having to set up the actual addresses.

Now, you may be thinking: “But what about the times when you need to send a message FROM one of those addresses?”  I’ve got you covered there too.

Gmail has an excellent feature built-in called “Send Mail As…” which allows you to pretend you’re sending a message from some other email account.  The only requirement is that you prove you own the address.  To do this, they send a verification email to the address, and if you click on the link it contains, you then have permission to send as that address forever.  You can see I have done this a few times:

Where this has led me, however, is also into the world of username and password management.  One of the key ways that people get their accounts compromised is by using the same username and password on every website.  Then, when a hacker steals all of the username and passwords from someone like Target, they immediately set up a machine to test those usernames and passwords against places like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo!, eBay, and Amazon.  If they find a match, you’ve got some trouble on your hands.

With my email approach, your username can be your email address (which it already often is), so that it’s unique on every website, and you don’t have to remember a single thing.  To add a password strategy (assuming tools like LastPass don’t appeal to you), consider this simple strategy:

Come up with a simple phrase, like “NotMyCircus24!”  At each website you register on, use this passphrase, plus the name of the site.  In this example, it might be “NotMyCircus24!

If you have any questions about how to do this, feel free to email me at ineedhelpwithmyemail@jeffblankenburg.com.

FitDeck

Let’s face it.  I’m not the slender athlete I remember in high school.  (Yes, I was actually a slender athlete in high school.)  There are many contributing excuses I use for this fact:
  • I sit in a chair all day.
  • The gym is too far away to be convenient, and it’s boring when I’m there.
  • My food choices would be better if I had more time.
  • My travel schedule for work makes it impossible to get into a scheduled rhythm.

All of those excuses are complete crap.  But they’re the ones I’ve been using for years as I continued to pack on 3-5 pounds a year, every year.  That was, until 2015.  I decided this the year I actually make some changes, because what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

Late last summer, my friend Ryan Lowdermilk pointed me to a set of products called FitDeck.  I use the bodyweight deck, because let’s be honest, I’ve got plenty of it to use, and it doesn’t require equipment.  The basic concept is that you have a deck of cards, you shuffle them up, and each card is designed to be 1 minute of exercise.  They have different levels of effort on each card, and you just do your 20-30 cards each day.  It provides variety, requires zero equipment (other than the cards), and provides a heck of a workout.  There’s also many variations of FitDecks, including Pilates, Kettlebell, Stairs, Basketball, Golf, Office, Soccer, Pullups, and more.

This gives me no excuse to get out of my chair for at least 30 minutes a day, doesn’t require a trip to the gym, and is tiny enough to fit into my suitcase for when I’m on the road.  It certainly doesn’t help me make better food choices, but I’ve been tracking every calorie using MyFitnessPal, and it has made all of the difference.  Once I realized how many calories were in that bagel with cream cheese, I just stopped ordering it.

I’m not going to say that FitDeck is doing anything transformative to my body just yet, but it has transformed how I think about exercise.  I’m down 10 lbs. already this year, and I have another 35 to go before the summer hits.  I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Elevators Have Been Lying To Us Always

This past week, I dove back into my collection of podcasts that I hadn’t listened to since before the holidays, and there were some great ones.  My current lineup includes:
  • Serial, a podcast that investigates a high school murder case, and shows some incredible inconsistencies.
  • RadioLab focuses on interesting stories (usually science related), and it is an auditory wonderland.
  • This American Life chooses a weekly theme, and tells 3-4 very interesting stories on that theme.
  • Freakonomics looks at very creative perspectives based on economics and data analysis.  Way more interesting than this explanation.
  • 99% Invisible looks primarily at the unnoticed architecture around us, and how it influences our lives.
  • Windows Developer Show, a weekly show focused on topics Windows developers would like.  I’ve appeared on this show several times.
  • MS Dev Show, another weekly developer show focused on building technologies using Microsoft’s products.
This actually has nothing to do with podcasts, though, except that I learned something from listening to a recent episode of RadioLab, called Buttons Not Buttons.

You know when you’re in a hurry, and you get on an elevator, and you can see people coming in the distance, so you start pounding on that “Close Door” button in an elevator?  It turns out that about 80% of those buttons are never even hooked up.  There’s generally three reasons for this:

  1. Many elevators rely on timing.  In the morning, most of them are kept on the bottom floor for people arriving to work, and in the afternoon, they’re distributed among the top floors to accommodate those heading home for the day.  The close door button can mess with that timing, so many elevator techs just never hook it up.
  2. In many states, there are laws that state an elevator must stay open long enough to allow someone in a wheelchair to have time to enter the elevator.  Even if your “Close Door” button is hooked up, that timing might prevent it from working in the time you’re hoping it will.
  3. Elevator technicians just didn’t feel like hooking it up.

There supposedly is a hack, however, but it will be pretty obvious to those folks you’re hoping to close the door on.  Stick your arm out of the elevator, breaking the laser sensor, and quickly bring it back in.  This will make the elevator think someone has entered, and trigger a door close event.  Give it a try the next time you’re in a hurry, maybe with your middle finger extended to really communicate your motivation.