Thursday, December 27, 2007

More Things To Do With Your New GPS Than Just Navigating

If you are one of the gazillion people who got a new GPS for Christmas this year, I have some suggestions of other things you can do with it beyond just getting from Point A to Point B. GPS uses are almost endless!
  • Geocaching (or TerraCaching) - This is one of the most fun uses for your new GPS. It is a game where you find and hide geocaches (a container plus a log book) along with other geocachers. You download or enter the coordinates of a cache into your GPS and let it lead you to the location where you then have to search for a container, some as small as the tip of your finger to some as large as a big storage bins (like the ones you may keep your wrapping paper in). Many contain toys and other items to trade which is perfect when taking the kids. Right now there are over 497,000 caches worldwide. Read more at the Geocaching FAQ page and go ahead to see if there are any in your neighborhood.
  • Waymarking - Brought to you from the same folks who brought you Geocaching, this helps you find all sorts of stuff from Off-Leash Dog areas to Ginormous Everyday Objects to Museums, all over the world. Many have made a game out of this too, trying to find 1 place in every category.
  • Exercise - Mount it on your bike or stick in your pocket when you exercise to keep track of your progresses as you go. Then use great sites like MotionBased or Training Peaks to upload the data, map it and analyze it. I use my GPS instead of a cycle computer to know my speed, distance traveled, elevation changes and all sorts of other interesting metrics.
  • Travel Planning - This past Summer my wife and I went to Europe. I spent a few hours with Google Earth finding and loading all of our lodging locations, train stations and major sites into the GPS. When we got to Europe, we didn't have to worry about getting anywhere, the GPS would always lead us there and tell us exactly how far we had left to go. This saved us a lot of frustration, time and money while on our trip.
  • Golf - Add your favorite courses to your GPS and never question how far from the hole you really are.
  • Exploring new places - Just go exploring!! I know gas is expensive but it is still fun to just get a little lost sometimes. Just hop in the car (or bike or by foot, you don't have to drive) and travel somewhere new in your area. You don't have to worry about getting lost.
  • Find a new restaurant/bar/club/movie theater/etc... - Most all GPSs come preloaded with points of interest (POI). Use them! On mine, I can search for places by category and when it comes to restaurants, I can get even more specific and find the closest Indian places when I have a curry craving.
  • Track your flight home - I love using my GPS while flying. It is fun seeing you are going 400-500 mph at 30k feet. You almost have to have a window seat and have to hold the unit up to the window for a while to get this to work though. It also takes a while to acquire a signal but it is worth it. Also, be warned, while some flight attendants understand the GPS doesn't interfere with anything, some can get downright mean. I have encountered both. Few airlines have concrete policies either so play it safe and ask a flight attendant first.
  • When the kids ask "Are we there yet?", you can tell them almost exactly how much longer until you do arrive.
  • Mark your favorite hunting and fishing spot - Get within ~10 feet of your favorite fishing spot.
  • See what the sun and moon are up to - Many GPS devices will show you the phase of the moon and when sunrise/sunset are. Don't forget your GPS is also a superbly accurate clock. It has to be to calculate your position.
With GPS sales up 488% this Christmas and all these other GPS uses, don't you wish you had bought some Garmin stock back in May 2007. What else do you use or plan to use your GPS for? Leave me some comments!

Note: I do have one little caveat to all these suggestions though. If you got one of the in car only units, not all of these things will work as well for you. After you fall in love with your in car unit though, try getting an entry level hand held unit like the eTrex Legend or one of the best selling hand held units (I bought one of these for my birthday last year and LOVE IT), the GPSMap 60CSx.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Blockbuster vs Netflix vs Redbox

My wife and I seldom rent from Blockbuster anymore. We have always found it hard to stomach paying ~$5 to rent a movie. For 2x - 3x the rental price we could own the movie so we may as well buy it!

A year or so ago, we tried Blockbuster Online for a few months. This was before the days of in-store trade ins. We did have the 2 free in-store monthly rental coupons. Back then I really liked the plan but we got busy and we really felt like we were not getting our money's worth so we canceled our plan.

I've always thought that Blockbuster has a much better offering than their main competitor and mail order DVD rental pioneer Netfilx. Being able to get movies from one of the over 5,100 stores nationwide in addition to movies by the mail allows you to grab a movie on a whim. Netflix offers video downloads which potentially could be great but I think it is still a little too early for that technology. People can't watch downloaded movies in the same environment or as easily as a DVD. I think downloads will be an advantage for Netflix in the future. Much of Blockbuster's advantage got thrown out the door just last week though when Blockbuster Online raised prices. This price increase has really pissed some Blockbuster (and now former) customers off. I don't blame them.

Blockbuster took very reasonable and competitive prices and made them non competitive. I looked at prices tonight at both Blockbuster and Netflix. The current Blockbuster's mail only prices are all the same as Netflix prices and the in-store trade in plans are only $1 more a month. The new prices, although only $3 more a month, still is enough to piss off existing customer. This is on top of a previous reduction from unlimited in-store trade ins.

I really would like to support Netflix for being the company that kicked off subscription DVD rental and forcing Blockbuster to offer a similar and competitive offering. I still don't feel like we would use either service enough to be worth our money though. My wife is in grad school and busy, busy, busy!

We have been renting a lot more movies recently though. A few months back we discovered RedBox at our local Harris Teeter. I have read that there are a bunch of these kiosks at McDonald's too but not in our area. With RedBox you can rent new and slightly less new movie releases for $1 per night (+ tax). How can you go wrong with this model? While shopping for groceries we can just pick something up or if looking for a movie we can grab some snacks. If it is a terrible movie, we've only spent $1 instead of ~$5 and I can at least say I have seen it. The RedBox kiosk is also right across the street from Blockbuster so it is no more or less convenient than going to Blockbuster.

If we liked the movie a lot or don't get to watch it that night for some reason, we can keep it for another day for only $1 more. The return time is always 9pm the next day, regardless of when you rent it on the previous day (it used to be 7pm). You can also return the DVD to any kiosk location, an ability I have taken advantage of several times now. If for some reason we are irresponsible and loose it, we'll end up paying $25 total. Not great but not crazy like the old fee system Blockbuster screwed customers over with.

A friend of mine has pointed out one issue with their model but it doesn't apply to my viewing habits and I wonder if he is not the exception or has just been trained by the Blockbuster model (he is also a current Blockbuster Online subscriber). When he rents a movie, he doens't always watch it that night. He generally doesn't get to watching it for a few days. My wife and I always rent a movie with every intention of watching it that very day.

We have had some problems with availability, especially of the newest releases. There is also the issue that the kiosk can only hold but so many different movies. You can't go to a RedBox kiosk expecting to rent Half Baked or some classic movie like that but you will likely find a movie or 2 that you want to see, at least for a dollar.

The other beauty of RedBox is the cost. I've recently rented Shooter which I doubt I would have ever watched but turned out to love. I also rented Transformers this weekend which I considered buying but for only a $1, I now know I don't want to watch it again (the special effects were great, the story line and dialog was NOT, and since when does an Aussie with a super cute accent work for the the DOD at such a high level she can sneak into a meeting with the Secretary of Defense?).

So my conclusion is RedBox wins! Blockbuster and Netflix offer great services that RedBox doesn't fill the need for (older movies, TV series rental, etc.) so I don't think they are without value, just not the best method for my rental habits. Look for a RedBox near you and use some free codes for a free movie from time to time (these codes work oncer per credit card I think, depending on the code) from here, here and here.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

What is the Senate Doing For Their Christmas Vacation?, Staying in Session is What!

I read an article last night on CNN about the Senate's plans to technically not take a break for the holidays (you know, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years and others). They plan to hold "pro forma" sessions through mid-January. I say not technically taking a break because all but a handful of Senators will be gone. The Senate will be taking the minimum amount of action required to legally remain in session. I believe that involves someone banging a gavel every 3 days or so. Senators Jim Webb of Virginia, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Chuck Schumer of New York will all take a break from their holiday plans to keep the Senate in session.

The reasoning for this really shows how at odds President Bush is with Congress. The US Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 3 provides the ability for recess appointments. The reason for this was so federal governmental positions would not go unfilled while the Senate, who confirms those appointments, is not in town to vote on those positions. Back in the day, the Senate was often out of session for many months at a time so it made sense for the President to have this ability. Sadly, recess appointments have become nothing more than a political maneuver.

Now the Senate does not take breaks nearly as long and with the advent of the flying machine and commercial air travel, the Senate can get back in a hurry to vote on a Presidential appointment if necessary. Recess appointments are now used by the President to make appointments that he (or she) can not get approved by the Senate for any number of reasons.

The Senate did this same thing over Thanksgiving and is doing it now to prevent the appointment of Steven Bradbury to the head of the Office of Legal Counsel for the DOJ. I think we should expect our President to use this provision responsibly and for the reason it was intended. Otherwise, maybe we should just get rid of it all together. That would take a Constitutional amendment though. I guess we should just start expecting longer sessions of the Senate.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Just a Place For the Leftovers

This is my second blog. The first one I started, Adventures in Switching to Linux, has a very narrow focus but I have a lot to talk about. I created this one for everything else. I don't know if I will write much on this blog but I would like to talk about politics, news and the like from time to time too. I also created this blog, initially, to play with templates and other Blogger features without screwing up my other blog while experimenting. Sadly, this blog may just turn into one of the many abandoned blogs. I hope not. I did try a dozen different URLs before I got this one.