Sunday, May 31, 2009

Product Review - Nokia e63

If you follow the blog, you know I recently ordered an unlocked Nokia e63. It was a decent price (cheaper than I could find an iPhone for) and I was excited to get it. I've been getting used to it for about a month, I use it strictly as a smart phone that gets online whenever it can find a WAP.

Pros:
Simple to use, a Nokia trait.
Does what I need it to do-- surf, read PDFs, play mp3s, has several office-like applications.
Has a 2 megapixel camera and can record hours of video.
Allows me to use Nokia's Ovi server to host gigs of files for a year for free. I designate which files on my home computers I want to share, and it automatically uploads them.
I can set up internet phone service and call people via the Net rather than sign up for Cingular or some such. We put our GoPhone sim in it this week and it worked fine (although it was a little odd for me to actually use it as a phone).
The Google apps (like YouTube) work great with it.

Cons:
PDF reader has a hard time with charts & graphics... something important in the economics documents I'm reading.
Web browser crashes on various websites. Don't try to do much on Yahoo!. Anything with a javascript-heavy pop-up (like a NASCAR leaderboard) causes instant fail.
There aren't many free apps at the Nokia store. And many of the apps are faulty, slow, or only work on the newest Nokias. The app store experience is generally disappointing.
In "offline" mode (when there is no sim card) it constantly asks if I want to connect to the internet via the WAP. This gets old.

I would say it's as good as the Samsung Touch models I've seen (without the touch screen of course), but it's not an iPhone (what is?). It works well with what I want it to do, but I don't expect much more from Nokia at this point, their days of cellphone dominance are done.

I imagine that one day I'll possibly have a high-paying job that will require (or even pay for) a cellphone contract, and then I can upgrade to what's new. I can only imagine.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Product Review: Avira Antivirus

When our McAfee subscription recently expired I decided to switch back to a free virus scanner. AVG was always the most commonly-used one and I installed it only to find that the latest versions aren't as good as the previous ones. The newest version was a memory hog and caused my computer to run much slower. So, I ditched it and set off to find a better one.

Avira is the only free one I've found to be fast and reliable. It automatically updates upon boot-up and then displays a pop up advertisement. That's a very small hassle for this great product. It's a British company so the prices are usually in pound sterling.

Avira found stuff on my computer that neither McAfee nor AVG found. I highly recommend it. You can download it here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

On upgrading technology

My posts have been few and far between lately because we've been in the busiest part of the semester-- the end. And there are changes. A new campus health plan. Hopefully a new dean of my college.

And the most anticipated change-- switching from Blackboard to ANGEL.

Blackboard is a service that allows teachers to integrate technology into the classroom. It creates an easy way to communicate with students, form discussion boards, post assignments, create online exams, manage a gradebook, and much more. It allows classes to be offered more easily online, rather than in a classroom.

But Blackboard was limited in what it could do. I've been using it since I was a GA at Baylor and have long since been frustrated with it. The ITS guys at SBU got tired of the high costs and bad service. Like many universities, SBU decided to switch to ANGEL.

ANGEL is a competitive company that created a better product with better service. ANGEL will allow me to do three times as much. It's ridiculously detailed and customizable. I can incorporate video, RSS feeds, hold virtual office hours, and create automated processes that will do stuff for me, all in one place. Hopefully in the end the only real work I will have to do is lecture.

But then Blackboard sent an email to IT departments around America-- "we have acquired ANGEL." Alas, it was true. And IT departments all over the country expressed their frustration, as shown below (as most IT guys are Star Trek fans).

Blackboard is now the proud owner of ANGEL. SBU still will have a 2-year contract with ANGEL at predetermined rates, but it remains to be seen how Blackboard will modify (ie: screw up) the product.

Blackboard shows us the ultimate in anticompetitive behavior--if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. Blackboard had a monopoly and was able to build up a significant amount of cash. When ANGEL began to rapidly take market share, they simply bought it as fast as they could.

Nonetheless, I'm still cautiously excited about integrating ANGEL and am trying to figure out a way where I don't have to actually lecture anymore.

Really, I just liked the graphic above and felt it required a blog post.

Going on vacation to Kentucky next week, should be a busy time.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Happy Birthday!

Elias John was born 1 year ago today.
Most people say "That first year will fly by." No, it has pretty much felt like a year. And I've enjoyed every minute. We've been blessed with a happy, healthy little boy. Kids are one of the few things in life that I can say are worth it, without hesitation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Personal Financial Planning

By far the most useful class I have taught so far is Personal Financial Planning. It allowed me to get to know students better, and see their lives changed in regards to their finances. This was very rewarding.

The first task I gave students, even before the semester started, was to begin keeping a spending diary of all their purchases. Students saw for the first time where their money was going. It suddenly made sense why they couldn't afford, for example, the computer they needed-- that money was going to Sonic and McDonalds twice a week. The church was also getting left out, not getting nearly 10% of their income.

Students used their diaries to figure out how much money they needed to live on. Over the course of the semester, they budgeted amounts for spending into categories and then adjusted those numbers based on what they saw their needs were.

I assigned them to do an allocated spending plan, where every dollar of income gets allocated to a specific spending or saving category. I also required them to keep track of their allocated spending, when they went over in one category it meant they had to subtract from another category.

They found this difficult, but several of them "got it" by the end of the semester. Now they're saving for cars, weddings, student loan repayment, emergencies, etc.

We primarily studied saving, investments, insurance, home and auto purchases, and estate planning. The text was pretty good. I incorporated some expert guest speakers to cover areas I was not knowledgeable about.

I think the biggest mental "click" came when I gave a homework assignment to talk to their parents about wills and life insurance. Many of the students found out that if their parents were to die, the courts might decide who got what because there was no will or trust established. Many of their parents hadn't thought about life insurance, hadn't saved much money, and the student would be left trying to cover the cost of the funeral and figuring out how to get custody of a sibling while paying the parents' mortgage. This was a horrifying reality check for several of them.

Through the papers they submitted I was able to get to know their backgrounds and financial situations-- something I would never learn in another class. Some of them come from very tough situations at home, others have parents who are very responsible. Most all of them desire godliness, which is great.

Overall, I think they felt pretty good about what they'd learned. I learned a good bit too. I think the class ought to be a general ed. requirement on campus.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hendrick Domination

This post is long overdue. Hendrick Motorsports is dominating the NASCAR Sprint Cup series and that deserves notice.
(Courtesy: Yahoo!)

Mark Martin (twice), Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and now Tony Stewart have won races with Hendrick engines/setups. At Darlington two weeks ago, 6 of the top 7 cars were Hendrick-driven.

When a 50 year old like Martin can get in there and race at the top for an entire race, you know he's got a good car. Why Dale Jr. can't find victory lane is another story altogether, and has nothing to do with his car.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's like an episode of The West Wing

(HT: Calculated Risk). President Obama recently invited several non-administration economists to the White House for a long dinner. Michael Hirsh publishes the guest list, first time I've seen the whole list. It's like watching a week's worth of NewsHour economics segments during the peak of the crisis, except all in one 2 hour sitting. Observe (particularly the bolded part):

It’s not that Barack Obama isn’t aware of what’s at stake. That’s very likely why on April 27, the president gathered in some of his chief outside economic critics —including two of the most vociferous, Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman—for a secretive dinner in the old family dining room of the White House. Also in attendance: Paul Volcker, who has one foot in and one foot out of the administration as the head of Obama’s largely cosmetic economic recovery board; Princeton economist and former Fed vice chairman Alan Blinder; Columbia’s Jeff Sachs; and Harvard’s Ken Rogoff. Representing the home team, as it were: Obama’s chief economic adviser Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Why did Obama hold the meeting? “I think he wanted to hear the [opposing] arguments right in front of him,” says Blinder. “All I can say is if the president of the United States devotes that much personal time, and it was about two-hour dinner, he must want to hear what people outside the administration are saying and hear what his own people say in rebuttal to that. Why would you do that if you aren’t at least turning over your mind what to do next?”

Can I just say that I'm glad someone serious like this is president? It's like Jed Bartlett on the West Wing (he was a Nobel prize winning economist). Not only does he assemble a great team, he brings in other well-known figures and has them hash it out while he watches.

Ken Rogoff, of course, is the one I'd be excited about meeting; and Jeffery Sachs. Blinder is the only one who has authored a book I've yet to read (though it's on my shelf).

Stiglitz and Krugman are not doing any real economic research these days, they're just sort of living off their Nobels and writing columns & blogs.Sachs has been mostly interested in development issues for years. Still... these are the people that everyone who reads newspapers are reading. The people you'd be curious to know if the president and his staff are reading as well.

*sigh*

I assign two three-page papers on the first day of every semester. The guidelines are "pick a newspaper article from the list and write a review of it, applying what you've learned in this class."

One is due at midterm, the other is due by the end of the semester, but you can turn it in anytime.

It never fails, I always have someone who complains that they didn't have time to finish the second paper. Literally, ALL SEMESTER isn't enough time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Does God Want You to be Bankrupt?

Article by Ron Lieber in the NY Times.

This part catches my eye (bolding mine):

However strongly we believe in free markets (not, perhaps, as fervently as we did a year or two ago), the theme of forgiveness does run strongly through religious writings of all sorts. In the Old Testament, for instance, Chapter 15 of the book of Deuteronomy calls for the forgiveness of debts once every seven years.

Religious leaders were aware, however, of the chilling effect that could have on lending (particularly in the sixth year). “The Torah says don’t think that way, don’t be stingy” in that sixth year, said Rabbi Mark Washofsky."

I could replace "stingy" with "rational" here. This is one part of Scripture that is clearly God calling us to behave spiritually, rather than rationally. I wrote a series on this subject before, I would add this topic as a chapter in the book (if I ever write one).

It's perfectly rational behavior not to lend to someone when you know you're not going to get paid back, yet we're called to do it anyway. That is unprofitable and the loan just shouldn't be made, especially if you have shareholders to answer to. The borrower also has a clear incentive to not pay off his debts, just hold out for year 7. But not repaying your debts is called stealing, so he too is being called to behave spiritually.

Our markets require rational behavior in order to work properly. Economists would consider God's markets disfunctional.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Am I still a Republican? Are you? How do you know?

In a speech last week, Colin Powell said that "the Republican party is in deep trouble," and criticized Rush Limbaugh as unhelpful.

Today, Dick Cheney said Powell isn't a Republican and that he'd rather have Rush Limbaugh than the former General and Secretary of State. Criticism of the GOP is apparently anathema.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele gave a speech where he said anyone voting for the stimulus package (including Republican moderate Olympia Snowe?) wasn't a Republican.

David Brooks reported that Minority Whip Eric Cantor is being criticized for the Republicans' new "listening tour," because apparently Republicans "already know what they believe in" and don't need to listen to what Americans have to say.

So... does the fact that I also think the party is in trouble, leaderless, and clueless right now mean that I'm no longer welcome in the GOP?

Are there a large number of other people under 40 like me who would like to see a complete leadership change in the GOP and would like to never see Dick Cheney on TV ever again? If so, please comment. Maybe we can form a traveling band or something.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Riding the Storm Out

Today we experienced the worst storm I've ever been in. Tornadoes, 80mph winds even without the tornadoes, and massive flash flooding. Here's a picture of a car on campus that got destroyed by a tree. The girl who owned it was injured, and thankfully some students in a nearby classroom saw it and helped her out and called an ambulance, she's now okay.

Our neighbor lost his fence when our street became like a raging river into his backyard. Other neighbors lost trees. Someone died in the county east of us, all of Southern Missouri got damage. The county was without power for most of the day.

I learned a new weather term tonight: "The comma's head." This is where you have a large bow line, and on the top of it you have a comma-shaped rotating piece. Springfield got the bow line, Bolivar got the comma's head.

In fact, I was already pretty sure we weren't going to get much of anything when the edge of the bow was over Springfield; they had a tornado on the ground. It looked like everything was past us except the very high winds which were supposed to continue for at least an hour, so we put Elias down for a nap. I didn't know the comma head was upon us.

The power went out, but I kept my handheld scanner on (b/c I'm old school and the weathermen on TV are unhelpful). I listened to the NWS' StormNet HAM repeater taking in live reports from weather spotters. Then we heard Bolivar fire dispatch announce a tornado was heading toward Bolivar at 50mph. The sirens blew, (but not very well b/c apparently the power knocked many of them out) but I still wasn't real concerned because the weather spotters were saying the tornado would stay in mostly rural areas (I forget that Bolivar is considered a rural area).

Then I looked outside and the wind was really picking up and I saw our neighbor's tree fall over and his gutters fly off, and that was quite disturbing. Joni ran to get Elias and take shelter. I listened to the updates and heard an officer report that the funnel was over the middle school, heading right for us. I waited for our crab apple tree to break (it broke last year without any storm help) but it never did. I watched our neighbor's fence get washed away and all the trash cans flow into his yard (today was trash day).

I heard the report about the SBU student, and soon afterward the fire crews were doing water rescues as people got stranded in their cars in the flash floods. The ambulances weren't able to go where they were needed because the roads were flooded. The city kept blaring the storm sirens to discourage people from driving on the roads since they were flooding. It was basically a rainy, windy mess for a couple hours.

Thankfully, there weren't many injuries or fatalities. This was our second tornadic event here. I would love this stuff if I was single, but it's a little different with a 1 year old.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

When Knowledge is Forgotten

Since I am a believer that God is sovereign, I sometimes ponder the way history worked out the way it did. Case in point: Archimedes and calculus. Calculus is one of the fundamental things that our modern lives are built on. Without calculus you cannot easily find the area of a curved surface, for example.

In 1906 someone discovered a prayer book in Istanbul and noticed that the prayers were written over faded Greek letters and diagrams. It was a copy of Archimedes' work from 200 B.C., the earliest known work on anything resembling calculus. His method of exhaustion was similar to the Riemann sum method of measuring the area under a curve.

This work was lost and calculus wasn't "discovered" until Leibniz and Newton worked things out in the late 1600s. The prayer book was recently re-discovered and sold at auction. The pages have been meticulously analyzed and you can view the Archimedes Palimpset at Google Books.

Had Archimedes' work been known, would calculus have come about much sooner? Probably. Would we now be further along in our technological understanding? Most likely. But we are where we are because, somehow, Archimedes' work was not passed along. Why would a sovereign God cause such a thing to happen? He is the author of history, so only He knows.

I'm reminded of 2 Kings 22, where Hilkiah the high priest accidentally rediscovered the Book of Law in the temple. Israel's history, customs, and laws had all been lost and forgotten. All that remained had been passed down in other ways. Josiah led the people to get back to the Book, he realized how far behind his nation had fallen over the centuries. I can imagine the "if only we had found this sooner," moment.

It's fascinating to think about. How many other works and discoveries were lost where, had they not been lost, the world would be a much different place today?

Trouble with Twitters



Someone stumbled across my site searching for "Why I hate Twitter." Googling that gives you lots of sites to choose from. Video above is very funny and explanatory (slight profanity/crudeness). If you think Twitter is a fad, then it might warm your soul to remember that most fads end with an anti-fad backlash.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Candid President

David Leonhardt's interview with President Obama published in tomorrow's (Sunday's) NY Times is great. Economics (specifically about his advisors), education, and health care. I am thankful that our President is a smart man. Listening to his interviews I feel like I'm listening to a CEO. I hope he doesn't lose his humility or get frustrated/burnt out. While I don't agree with many things the Administration does, I still root for them to succeed. A quote about getting heavy, needed reforms passed that will be politically costly:

In some ways it’s liberating, though, in the sense that whether I’m a one-termer or a two-termer, the problems are big enough and fundamental enough that I can’t sort of game it out. It’s not one of these things where I can say, Oh, you know what, if I time it just right, then the market is going to be going up and unemployment will be going down right before re-election. These are much bigger, much more systemic problems. And so in some ways you just kind of set aside the politics.

Friday, May 01, 2009

On Genius

David Brooks writes often about the books that discuss why people become great or excel at certain areas. Today he summarizes The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

The meat that I take out of it:

What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.


So, child prodigies aren't born, they're made.

It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.


That's how I feel about most things I study; I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but I will outwork you. I'll put the hours in and teach myself whatever is necessary in order to develop a skill or talent. I'm glad there's now a greater body of research saying that my work is not in vain.

Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.
Funny that the more I do and learn, the less I feel I know.

Still phone shopping

Just got off the phone with a helpful "cell phone expert" at Amazon.com. He was basically using phonescoop.com to compare phones.

I'm looking at an unlocked Nokia e63-2. Looks like it supports all major Windows file types (would that include PDF files), play MP3s, and use a microSD card. Looks to be about $229.

Anyone have any experience with this or similar phone? What should I be aware of?

I have about $50 in Amazon gift cards so that's what I'm considering spending it on.