The Battle for Democracy in Ukraine

Post-Soviet Russia is not the democratic heaven some have expected.  It was an oligarchy from the day Communism ruled, which meant you had an “Inner Party” of the privileged few, and the VERY poor, under-educated majority.  Fast forward to 2014 – Russia is still much the same kind of place – ultra-wealthy few (and the mafia) control the government, while most Russians are barely able to get ahead.

The components of the Soviet Union have gone their separate ways – or at least some of them have.  One fledgling democracy, if you want to call it that, is the Ukraine.  Their democratically-elected President has been unduly influenced by Russia’s Putin to NOT join the European Union, which all Ukrainians have called for.  The result is nothing short of violent revolution, with dozens of citizens dead and hundreds wounded by a police force trying to quell dissent.  Watch this video, and spread it around.

Compare “Obamacare” Insurance Rates Here

obamacare-medicare

According to the proponents of the Affordable Care Act, individuals and small businesses can now shop for insurance plans across state lines.  But can we compare the actual premium costs across all these “ObamaCare” offerings?  Yes.

Buried in the Healthcare.gov site are a couple of pages where you can review and download an Excel spreadsheet across all offered plans in all states.  I’ve provided links to the Small Business pages (up to 50 people) with estimated rates for various types of users (single 27-year-old, single 50-year-old, family, child, etc.).  You do not have to register on Healthcare.gov to see this.  Here you go:

Medical: https://www.healthcare.gov/shop-health-plan-information/

Dental: https://www.healthcare.gov/shop-dental-plan-information/

The Double-Dip Healthcare Crisis

Most Americans understand that the US Healthcare system is starting to strain under the load of the “Baby Boomers,” now entering retirement and a huge potential cost to Medicare.  But there’s a second wave of healthcare costs that we are only starting to understand, and it will occur right after this first wave, and last far longer: obesity.

Today, 69% of US adults are overweight (1 in 3 are obese), and children are far worse off – their obesity rates have tripled in a single generation.  First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign directly addresses childhood obesity, New York Mayor Bloomberg is outlawing huge sizes of soda, Kaiser Permanente is changing focus to wellness and prevention, and our current expenditures to treat obesity are $150 billion / year.  So it’s serious, but we’re handing it, right?  We are actually in for much worse.

brfss-self-reported-obesity-2012

The percentage of American obese projected in 2030 is astounding.  Try to imagine if the $150 billion per year (10% of all healthcare) doubled.  Add to that the reduction in productivity in the US workforce as obesity takes its awful toll. Why am I mentioning all this?  Healthcare reform can’t just be about new ways to pay for it all.  We don’t have that kind of money, even if Congress just wants to print more.

It’s time that the Federal Government gets serious about cutting costs, especially here – this growing threat plus already existing trillion-dollar annual deficits will make 2008 look like a picnic. Preventative care, nutrition education, physical fitness in schools, and yes, a public health infrastructure separate from the private tier that offers inexpensive medical care to the uninsured, those on Medicaid, undocumented aliens, etc.  This is a hard pill to swallow, I know – if we don’t do something now, our economy will collapse under the weight.

Earth – The Pale Blue Dot

Years ago, the late astronomer Carl Sagan remarked on a picture taken from one of our deep space probes in the neighborhood of Saturn, in which a small blue dot could be seen.  That was Earth.

He stated:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

So here is a great video, taken from a portion of his book “The Pale Blue Dot” – really awesome and profound (UPDATED VIDEO):

Strange Ways to Burn 200 Calories

It’s rather depressing to see how little food 200 calories actually is:

We Americans consume WAY too much and exercise WAY too little. So let’s look at the other side of the equation – what are some interesting ways of BURNING 200 calories? Here’s the answer from the same producer:

Don’t forget that 1 pound of fat is 3,500 calories – so that’s quite a bit of gum chewing.

Recipe: Orange Dijon Clove-Spiced Ham

This is an extremely simple recipe that wows the guests – perfect for holiday parties involving large quantities of ham.  People have actually threatened to kidnap me to get it.  This is possibly the most flavorful, moist ham I’ve ever made, and it’s got 5 ingredients:

IMG_0441

- 9-14 pound bone-in ham shank – uncooked (it looks triangular or pyramid-shaped in the package – DON’T get the pre-cooked or spiral cut variety)
- 3/4 cup red wine
- 3/4 cup orange juice
- 1/2 cup dijon mustard (I prefer Grey Poupon, but of course)
- 15-30 whole cloves
- 1 turkey-size cooking bag with tie-off

Combine the wine, orange juice, and mustard and stir. Remove the ham from its packaging and rinse. Stand the ham on its end, and run criss-cross lines in the fat side of the ham with a knife (just score it, don’t cut too deep). Insert cloves into the intersections of the criss-crosses. Place the ham at the bottom of the cooking bag and pour the liquid over the ham, then close it up with a tie (don’t poke holes, and push all the air out).

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Place the ham on the lower rack of your oven and leave plenty of room for the bag to expand. Bake at 275 degrees for 3 1/2 – 4 hours, occasionally shaking the top of the bag to splash liquid on the ham as it cooks. Remove and let stand 15-20 minutes before serving, and be mindful of the cloves.  Try this, you won’t regret it!

Eulogy For My Father

I recently read the eulogy for my father that I wrote when he died, and it still moves me.  It’s a call to action as well as a tribute to someone who made me possible:

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you today not to mourn my father, but to honor him – as all of you do by being here.  The loss of a friend or family member cannot be undone, so it’s best to make the experience as positive as you can.  So I’m here today to simply say “thanks.”

But how do you begin to thank someone whose first gift to you was your very existence?  Where do you start – how could you even finish doing that?  I remember the old joke about someone famous standing up at an awards ceremony and saying, “I’d like to thank my mother and father for making me possible.”  But it’s so much more than that, isn’t it?

Every decision where that person gives up part of their life in order to enrich yours – that’s a gift from them to you.  Every time they drive you to practice, every dime saved for education, every meal cooked, every time they hold you back in the car seat while braking suddenly – everything they do during your life can be thought of as a gift without wrapping paper.  A present without a card.  Like a birthday every day.

And this extends to each and every one of you sitting here today.  It was once written that the value of a person’s life is directly related to the number of people they positively affect.  I can’t begin to tell you how many calls and notes I’ve received in the last week from people my father knew for most of their lives.  Many are here today, and I’m sure he is very glad about that.

As for me, I can tell you that I am, in no small part, a product of my father’s example.  He taught me to be self-sufficient, strong, compassionate, and giving.  Everyone makes mistakes, and he was no exception, but his mistakes helped me to avoid those pitfalls in my own life.

My father wrote me a letter years ago, with instructions to open it and read it upon his passing.  I read it for the first time a few hours before he passed away.  It includes this:

“Every parent, including me, likes to think that somewhere along the way, they said or did something that by its example, influenced their child to choose a better way to do things than the many other alternatives.  Hopefully the good examples I displayed outweighed the bad – I know you’ll set the same example for your children.  No man has ever had a better son.  I love you always – Dad”

I love you too, Dad.  I always have.  I always will.

You know, Life is a beautiful cycle – as he was leaving, I’m sure a couple of new babies were arriving not too far away.  And along the same lines, I have great news that you all should remember.  Regardless of your beliefs in the afterlife, this much I can assure you: my Father remains alive and well.  He is all around me, in all of you, every day.  So honor him today as I am, and write a letter to your kids today, please.  They will treasure it more than gold.  Thanks.

Here’s a “Dear Photograph” styled photo of him as a Choir Boy at West End Methodist, age 12, taken at the exact spot where the original picture was shot.

john.pamplin.west.end.choir

Character-Building is Overrated

A personal note: Many folks who know me understand my personal code of ethics, which I’ve been living by since I was a kid. A few people know what I’ve been going through recently, and have seen my ability to overcome challenges tested. Some people hit this site with some sense of casual fascination – who is this person, what’s he like?

Let me be absolutely clear: I know what I have and have not done in my life (because I was there when it happened).  There is no person, no group, nobody who can say with certainly that they know what kind of person I am better than me.  And I can say without hesitation that I have stuck to my strict code of ethics my entire adult life.  Not only that, but I have committed myself to “doing the right thing” far more than most people.

Anyone can judge others – we do it every day.  We look at a poorly dressed person in Wal-Mart and instantly think we know they they are about.  We see news stories and think we know the truth about the facts – it’s on the news, so it must be correct, right?  Wrong.  Not everything you see, or read, or hear is even remotely correct.  Just because someone is in a position to blare something from the rooftops, doesn’t mean they are any better at drawing conclusions, predicting the future, or explaining reality any better than you.

Actions speak far louder than words.  Example: deciding “I’m going to devote months of my life to raise money for people who don’t even know who I am” is a far braver act than offering up an opinion or judgment about somebody.  That’s transitory – just vapor.  What’s real is the results of your actions – who truly benefits from what you do?  You or others?
john.pamplin.riverfest.proceeds

The picture above is the “check presentation” from one of the years I led the Riverfest Music Festival, a small charity fundraiser I founded to raise money for Atlanta charities.  This was not a trivial task – it required teams of volunteers, and was pulled off annually to raise tens of thousands of dollars for people who we would never meet or know.  But it was needed, and someone had to do it, and I decided one day that it would be me.

So what am I trying to convey in this article?  It’s not easy being generous or ethical.  What’s harder is enduring life’s challenges (whether you deserve them or not), and staying just as selfless as before.  An old saying goes something like “suffering builds character” – but some of us have built enough of it, thanks.  Before you go off knowing everything about a person, just know that you don’t, and should keep an open mind about others.  The world would be far nicer if we all did.

John’s Slow Cooker Chili

Everyone loves chili, especially as it gets colder.  This is an evolving recipe that is the basis for a “chili bar” – a party favorite in which people can assemble their own chili bowl.  I put a few ingredients around the completed crock pot: finely shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, chives, onions, and the foundation: Fritos.  Regular or Scoops work equally well.

  • 1 pound ground chuck 80/20
  • 2 medium sweet onions, medium diced
  • 1 green or orange bell pepper, medium diced
  • 10-12 baby carrots, sliced into 2mm slices
  • 1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can of beef broth
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 2 cans black beans, 1 can red kidney beans, and 1 can cannellini beans, with fluid

Spices:

  • 1 tablespoon each of chili powder and cumin
  • 2 tablespoons of curry powder and sugar
  • 1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, basil, oregano, and course black pepper
  • 4 bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and 2 teaspoons salt

Brown the meat and drain, lightly sauté the veggies, and add these into a large crock pot with all canned goods and spices.  Cook on high for 4 hours, then low for 2 hours.  Done!

Microsoft as Innovative Underdog?

I once said that it would be a cold day in Hell if Microsoft actually started innovating.  Well, it’s getting chilly.  Microsoft has been behind in a number of respects over the past few years, but it’s responding in force nowadays.  The company is actually putting out a bevy of cool new stuff that I never would have thought they could do a few years ago.  Let’s go:

Phones: Windows Phone 8 is the latest iteration of a line of (frankly) unimpressive set of releases for phones – but each release has gotten better in big leaps.  I’m an iPhone user, but I have to say that Phone 8 is getting very close to a smooth, intuitive phone OS.

Cloud: SkyDrive is a serious contender for cloud storage, and Windows Azure is a compelling application environment for hosting your own apps  on Microsoft’s servers.  I’m not as impressed at the “cloudification” of some of their Enterprise applications, but the next version of Office and Outlook online look absolutely awesome.

Hardware Platforms: Surface actually shows promise as a tablet platform – and they are appealing to Windows diehards by including a great keyboard as a tablet cover.  The problem with it all is that they are splitting Windows into two platforms (RT, which runs on low power ARM chips, and Windows 8, which runs on Intel CPUs).  Not good to do that.

OS: Windows 8 seems like Windows 7 with a new skin – but it’s far more than that.  With every release since Vista, Microsoft has continued to refine the speed and utility of one of their core products.  The risk there is that Windows 7 is becoming the new XP – corporate clients will stick with 7 for years to come.  This will affect their profits long term.

Honestly, I’m starting to get impressed with them.  I know they are fighting for their financial lives in the shadow of Apple and Google, but barring any Ballmer-related goofs, they’ll live.

Interesting AAPL Stock Trading Strategy

OK, folks, I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you a strategy I’ve been cooking up lately for stock investing.  This has NOT been tried yet, but I intend to the next quarterly earnings cycle.  It involves Apple (AAPL) and “betting on all the horses at once.”

Sound crazy?  It may be, but hear me out.  In the past few quarters, Apple has either a) blown out their revenue and income guidance and shares rise hugely, or disappointed “The Street’s” analyst estimates of how awesome they should be and shares fall like a rock for a day or two.  This happened in April 2012 when they reported earnings and shares rose about $50 / share, then again in July when they “only” had a 21% increase in sales year over year, and shares fell 3-4%.  In both cases, this massive stock movement happened the morning after they reported earnings.

This strategy depends on a) a stock like AAPL which trades in the hundreds of dollars per share (currently around $665), b) a pattern of huge movements up or down, and c) stock options which are about to expire, so you can leverage hundreds of shares with options contracts for a little money.  Here’s what I plan to do (prior dates are listed here):

  • The day of the announcement, buy the shortest contracts I can (if it happens on April 18, buy April contracts that expire a few days later).
  • Wherever the stock is 15 minutes before trading ends (4pm EST), buy a set of CALL options at that price, and an equal number of PUT options at that same price (CALL assumes the stock will go up, PUT assumes it will go down).  Say $1,000 each way.
  • The morning after the announcement, sell everything – one of them WILL vastly go up in value – so much so that you won’t care about the loss from the other.

Now, this will only make sense if the stock moves quite a bit, but it historically has.  Best times to do this are April (when iPhone / iPad sales are huge for the past few months) or July / Oct (when sales are typically lower in anticipation of the next iPhone in the fall).  I truly think this will result in a huge net gain for just a little invested.  Try it!

UPDATE: On January 23, 2013, Apple delivered it’s quarterly earnings report for the Oct-Dec 2012 quarter.  As of the morning of the 24th, it was down $60 / share.  So this strategy would have indeed worked.  Personally, I think the market overreacted.

iPhone on Straight Talk for $45/month

You may remember my presentation on cost cutting methods from a couple of months ago. Now, 9to5mac.com has done a review of the iPhone on Straight Talk (offering unlimited everything on GSM iPhones prepaid starting at $45 / month). Check it out – I use this service and I think it’s pretty good:

http://9to5mac.com/2012/07/30/review-the-iphone-on-straight-talk/

You can see more about Straight Talk (and sign up) here: http://www.straighttalk.com/

Do Any Pitch in 15 Seconds

Often your entire business is dependent on your ability to “pitch” your business idea or distinguishing characteristic.  Here’s a great video on how to do so – watch and learn!

Where Is The Next Revolution?

How many people thought THIS would usher in the future?

Futurists, venture capitalists, and people like me all want to know where the next huge revolution will appear – that is, the next event which will facilitate a change in how we live, and usher in new methods, industries, even fields of study.  Most refer to this as disruptive technology, because it shakes up and replaces the status quo.  Examples of this include the birth of the personal computer (shown in the Apple 1 above), the Internet, the printed book, irrigation, fire – go back as far as you like.

But where will it appear next?  Whose garage is it being developed?  This is a crucial question for businesses, investors, even governments – the answer is simple:

Any industry controlled by a few is a target for disruptive change.

This may seem obvious, but the application of this idea is not.  Think of all the industries in which a select few people (or organizations) were in control of it.  Those industries were generally very expensive (or impossible) to compete in without the blessing of the establishment.  Pricing was set by that small group, and without an alternative, people just HAD to deal with it and pay up.  Remember paying 25 cents / minute for long distance phone calls?

The only way that these oligarchies were toppled was to introduce disruptive technology that allowed the common man to easily access an alternative to that product or service.  This allowed the Next Big Thing to bypass the establishment easily and quickly to bring about change.  Cell phones replaced phone booths, computers replaced typewriters, electricity replaced whale oil for lighting – the list goes on.

So what’s next?  The trick is not necessarily knowing where to look, but how to look.  Think of every activity today that is controlled by a small group, or is very expensive – then keep an open mind that it could be different, and eventually somebody will figure out a way to make that happen.  THAT is where the Next Revolution will happen.

Want some examples of disruptive technology that has appeared or will appear?

  • Personal space travel (has already been privatized, but it’s very pricey still)
  • Medicine (imagine a home machine which synthesizes medicine for you based on your own DNA, or visiting your doctor via webcam)
  • Energy production (generating electricity at home cheaper than utilities)
  • Fresh water reclamation (Solar condensers, or at-home rainwater processing)
  • Crowdsourced travel (chipping in on private transport instead of using airlines)
  • Do-It-Yourself Homes (well-built, cheap housing that you assemble like legos)
  • Private TV stations (taking YouTube to the next level – TV made for YOU)
Sound nuts?  Some of these things are already in process, and they would change the world if they are properly commercialized.  The question is: are YOU going to make it happen, or are you going to sit back and let someone else do it?  I pick Option A.

UberConference – 21st Century Conference Calls?

Just found this service, and it’s still in beta – but it’s worth checking out.  UberConference is a new service which gives you a visual interface to controlling conference calls.  Watch the video to see how they handle it.  Everyone who regularly sets up conference calls knows what a pain it can be, even today.  That’s changing.

This is (currently) a free service, but it isn’t alone.  Meetings.io is another free conferencing service that offers video, screen sharing, and file transfer – and if you register with them, you can set up a vanity URL for your own conferencing area.  Also, Google has been offering videoconferencing through Google Talk for a while now.  It seems that UserConference is for audio only for now, but that could change – I’m about to start trying it out when the beta opens up (you can get quick access by referring people to join the beta program as well).

I’m assuming they would offer it for free at first, then charge for a premium account of some kind (based on number of participants, frequency of use, etc.)  That seems to be the standard operating procedure for these kinds of services nowadays.  Try it!

NFC: Near Field Communications – The Next Big Deal

This article is a brief introduction to something you’ll be seeing in mobile devices in a few months. NFC, or Near Field Communications, is a short-range radio chip being built into phones which allows it to communicate securely with a base station when in close proximity to each other. It’s kind of like an RFID chip, or Exxon’s “SpeedPass.”

In Asia, mobile phones with NFC are already being used to purchase items (for example: retail items, vending machines, or bus fares) with transactions added to the user’s cell phone bill, or a credit card associated with the user’s account.  But NFC hasn’t caught on yet in the US, mostly because retailers haven’t agreed on a standard.  Yet.

Above is an image showing a new feature that’s coming out on Apple iPhones this fall – it’s called PassBook.  PassBook allows you to store tickets, loyalty cards, & membership cards of various types on your phone in one place, which can be scanned on the screen, or if your phone has NFC, waved over a sensor.  This new feature will work with the new iPhone 5 being introduced with NFC in October, so get ready for it.  Google Wallet has been around for Android phones for a while, but the ubiquity of the new iPhone will give this feature the necessary push to become a US standard.

But this will become FAR BIGGER than mobile payments – NFC chips will be designed into appliances, furniture, even clothing, to communicate information to your mobile device in real time.  Imagine your refrigerator telling your phone to add milk to your grocery list because your milk is going bad.  Imagine trying out a recipe in your kitchen and your mobile device tells you what you do and do not already have in the pantry.  Imagine your clothing alerting you of high blood pressure or low blood sugar.  Yup!

Convenience comes at a cost, of course.  Location-based data is about to get even more rich for retailers – they will be able to track where you shop with finer detail than ever before.  But this is already being done to a much greater extent that you know – you think the whole loyalty card system for groceries and retail doesn’t do data mining on your favorite shopping locations?  It does.  Trust me, marketing firms know about you.

So get ready – NFC is coming in a big way.  In the meantime, marvel at the accuracy of the 1993 AT&T “You Will” ad campaign, which features NFC / RFID tech at 2:00 – wow!

 

The Cloud – Rebirth of the Data Center

Remember mainframes? Those gigantic machines with vacuum tubes, reel-to-reel tape drives, and terminal stations with a huge printer / tiny screen staffed by technicians in lab coats? Those were the days – days which the technology industry triumphantly declared dead during the birth of the PC in the 1980′s, as computing power migrated to the home / office and everyone got connected to the “Interwebs.”

Well, those days are back! Not with mainframes and lab coats, but with blade servers, banks of hard drives, load-balancing routers and very tight security. Why should you care? Simple – those data centers can save you enough money every year to justify pulling the trigger and moving your stuff to the 21st century version called “The Cloud.”

Ooooooo.  Pretty Lights!

Cloud computing, via data centers, has enjoyed a renaissance because the ever-growing complexity of buying and maintaining server resources for your business can be handed off to a company that buys in volume and develops a maintenance ecosystem (so you don’t have to.) Just a few years ago, companies had to build out server rooms, buy servers, routers, battery backups, etc. – and the staff to keep it running.

But what if you didn’t have to do this? How great would it be to run the same software on faster, redundant hardware, accessible anywhere on the Internet, and get automatic speed upgrades for you as the Cloud gets upgraded for all? I submit to you that the time to rent your slice of the Cloud is NOW, and here’s why:

  1. Cloud hosting is more cost efficient for smaller businesses – No hardware to buy and manage is especially beneficial for “Mom & Pops” (cash flow savings).
  2. Maintenance of your software is someone else’s problem – no downtime caused by upgrades, database corruption, etc.
  3. Ubiquitous accessibility (with proper credentials) – Got internet?  You’re done.
  4. Fast setup, and fast changes – Pre-made server “images” can bring up an application within minutes.  Need a new user?  5 minutes.  Time is money.
  5. Reliability is improved – your app is run on data-center-grade servers, with power, cooling and security systems you can’t even imagine, much less afford.

So where to start?  If you have a software VAR (Value Added Reseller), ask them about moving your app to Cloud Hosting.  If you’re looking for a particular application, check the company’s website to see if it can be virtualized, or Google it.  If it can run on a server in your office, it can definitely be run in the Cloud.

Here in Nashville, we have several hosting companies that offer virtual server hosting.  The best known of these is Peak 10 – I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Saving Energy & Money in Hot Weather

You might live in the Arctic Circle right now – but if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, and haven’t seen a polar bear wandering by, then you may be “enjoying” a record heat wave that has befallen us. It’s currently 105 degrees in Nashville TN, so everyone here is cranking up the air conditioning. This can result in huge utility bills – but you can do some simple things to keep those costs to a minimum.

  • Look for and minimize every heat source in your home

There are multiple sources of heat in every modern household, but most people don’t do anything to minimize them. Your AC has to work to counteract everything that is warming your house – let’s go through a few ideas:

  1. Turn off or down everything that uses electricity or generates heat – stereo receivers, computers, TVs, refrigerators, dishwashers, even lights! They all generate heat inside the home, so keep them turned off, use dimmers on lights, or use them at night.  Even shutting off the pilot light to your furnace helps.
     
  2. Cover windows where you get sunlight during the day – blinds, curtains, blackout shades, and other covers can prevent sunlight from roasting your interior. If you can’t do this, then move dark objects out of the sun’s path (they absorb heat).
     
  3. Seal your house – this may be obvious, but it has to be mentioned.  Make sure your windows are sealed shut, your doors (and AC vents) have no air leaks, etc.
  • Make your cooling equipment more efficient, and don’t push it too hard

This is the big one during the summer – air conditioners work by allowing a pressurized liquid turn to a gas (which makes it colder), forcing warm air through cold coils, then recompressing the gas back to a liquid outside (which moves out the heat).  These AC systems can vary widely in efficiency (and cost you money) based on a few factors:

  • The SEER Rating of the AC unit – higher SEER ratings mean they use less power for a given amount of cooling.  In 2006, the minimum SEER rating for new AC units was raised to 13 from 10 – if your AC condenser is 10 years old or older, you will save double or triple what it costs you to upgrade to a 16 SEER condenser.
     
  • The condenser itself – go outside and look at the box with the big fan on top.  This device compresses the gas into a liquid, then cools it by pulling air through a long coil.  If the coil is dirty or obstructed on the sides, the air can’t move through it.  If you’re handy, you can take the fan off the top, clean and straighten the coil fins with a wire brush, and spray out any debris with a water hose.  This really helps. If the air still isn’t cool enough, have an AC guy check the refrigerant levels (either older R-22 Freon, or R-410A Puron).  That can really affect cooling.
     
  •  Make your AC work less – having the condenser sit in the shade helps, but there’s more you can do to de-stress your AC: replace your air filter regularly, close vents to rooms that you’re not using (then seal them off), raise the thermostat to 78 degrees or higher (every degree below 78 costs you 3-4% more), and if you have cool nights, open your house up to the outside air during the night, then close it for AC in the morning.  Some even use alternative cooling, like a box fan with ice on it.

Here’s a good video that explains how to optimize your AC unit’s performance:

Maximizing Your Battery Life (iPhone/iPad Edition)

Maximize your iPhone or iPad battery!Battery life is always a trade-off between functionality and battery lifespan – the more you use it, the quicker it dies.  However, there are lots of things your device does in the background that really aren’t vital to your happiness, so you can tweak things to help your battery last up to twice as long.  This post will focus on battery saving tips for iPhone and iPad – let’s get started:

1.      Screen Timeout / Brightness / Locking: The backlight on the screen is probably the biggest battery drain of any one component.  Do the following:

a.      Go into Settings… Brightness and turn down the screen brightness as low as you can stand it – I usually do 35-40% with Auto turned ON (saves a bit more juice).  Manually adjust when needed.

b.       Go into Settings… General and turn Auto-Lock down to the quickest you can stand.  1-minute is good.

c.      Use the lock button!  This key is in the upper right corner of the iPhone or iPad – it locks the screen and turns off the screen immediately.  Use this every time you’re done with the phone, and even during a call if you use a headset – screen off = good.  iPads will keep playing music while the screen is off.

2.      Turn off radios you’re not using.  The second biggest drain on an iDevice are the radio chips that interact with the world.  There are a few things here that really make a difference:

a.      Turn off BlueTooth when not in use.  If you aren’t going to pair your iDevice with something over Bluetooth, turn it off!  Even if it’s periodic, only turn it on when you’re using it.  Go into Settings… General… Bluetooth and turn it off when not in use.  Use a wired headset and you can avoid Bluetooth.

b.      Turn off 3G data if speed isn’t vital.  This is a big one: using 2G mode instead of 3G mode doubles your talk time.  Really.  Go into Settings… General… Network and turn “Enable 3G” OFF.  If you’re a light data user, you won’t notice much of a difference.  4G models of iDevices (like the New iPad) have a setting to disable 4G and just use 3G, but there’s not enough data out yet to justify this.

c.      Airplane Mode is your friend.  Don’t want to get calls/texts while you sleep?  Turn on Airplane Mode and it will shut down all radios – it’s at the top of Settings.  You can still use wi-fi in this mode, if you want.  If your device is Jailbroken, you can use “iPhoneTool” from Cydia to do this automatically at preset times.

d.      Wi-Fi is better than 3G.  This is counter-intuitive, but the wi-fi chip actually uses less power than the 3G chip.  Hook into wi-fi wherever you can, and 3G will switch to it automatically.  TIP: If you use Siri on an iPhone 4S, it will be faster on wi-fi.

e.      Turn off Wi-Fi when not in use.  Go into Settings, Wi-Fi and turn it OFF if you’re not going to be around a trusted wi-fi source for a while, or if you don’t need data for a while.  This keeps it from constantly searching for hotspots.

f.       Turn off Location Services when not in use.  If you don’t lose your phone (or yourself) much, you can turn off the GPS radio and save a bit of juice.  This is under Settings.

3.      Turn off or adjust Background Services. This is the silent killer, so it’s vital you change these settings.

Email Push / Fetch: Most of us are not important enough to need absolutely real-time message delivery.  If you are – congratulations!  But if you’re like the rest of us, periodic “fetching” is fine, as opposed to being constantly connected to online services, waiting for it to be “pushed” to you.  This uses the radio constantly, and thus your battery.  This applies to email, not texts.

Go into Settings… Mail, Contacts, Calendars… Fetch New Data.  Turn Push OFF, then set Fetch to the longest interval you can live with.  15 Minutes or 30 minutes means data will activate, fetch your stuff, then turn back off during those intervals.  If you only need email to be refreshed when you open Mail, then set this to Manually.

Then go into Advanced from there and set every service to Fetch.  This is my recommended setting for everything in iOS 5, because it allows background syncing.

4.      What about charging?  Your built-in lithium-ion battery will last longer if you charge it properly.  Tips from LifeHacker (where the picture above comes from) on this can be found here, but the short answer is: Don’t let it discharge to 0% every time, don’t keep it plugged in and charging past 100% for long periods (days), and keep it cool.

What if America Wasn’t “Addicted To Oil?” Would We Be Safer?

Let me first say that the presentation I’m about to show you is by a man I admire quite a bit – he has a passion for efficiency that makes me look like an amateur.  Check out this great presentation (and admire the style of the slides as well), then let’s discuss it for a minute…

Now, what would happen if we actually DID THIS?  What if America moved totally to an oil-free economy by 2050?  While I agree we need to strive for this goal, I started to think of the actual results on the rest of the world.  See if this makes sense:

  • The world price of oil would collapse to $20/barrel or less

Think of what would happen if the largest consumer of oil in the world stopped importing any oil?  The price of oil would not go to $0, since China and India still would need it in the short term.  But do you think OPEC would let America just STOP?  Of course not.

The price of oil would be drastically reduced, and a fair number of America’s population would desperately hold on to their oil-based machines since it would be so much cheaper to operate them (pollution be damned).  The only way we would totally stop using oil is if there weren’t any left.  But this would result in other effects…

  • The economy of the Middle East would collapse, fueling more extremism

There are a number of countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South America that depend on oil sales as their number one source of revenue – so what would happen if oil reduced in value by 80%?  Absolute economic chaos, that’s what would happen.

Many countries have grown so accustomed to oil revenue that they haven’t developed any secondary industries to supplant it (Libya and Iraq could be classified this way.)  Saudi Arabia has created so many obligations that they NEED the price of oil to stay high – if it didn’t, their governments would be toppled quickly.  So extremists would rise out of economic desperation to confront us once again.

  • The US would not maintain a strategic advantage using these technologies

Think of the companies that have or will develop clean technology – I would assume that most of them are publicly traded.  So if the US developed a revolutionary way to run our entire economy without oil, do you think the Federal Government would prevent those companies from selling these products abroad?  Would they be kept for Americans?

Probably not – in order to please Wall Street, these companies would have to open their markets internationally, and sell these technologies to our economic competitors (unless those nations just decided to take advantage of cheap oil, which they probably would).

My point is this: getting off oil is a dream for many (including myself), but it would not result in an economic revolution.  It might be a way to keep manufacturing in the US for a while, and it will definitely reduce our carbon footprint – but as long as oil exists and is cheap, other countries will continue to burn oil and our long-term problems will remain.  It would take an international mandate to abolish oil to affect real change – and that will not happen in this century, I’m afraid.  I think we should still develop a clean economy, of course, but the true impetus of change will have to be something other than money.

Growing Technology, Part 2: Cost Containment

I recently gave a presentation to the Cool Springs Chamber of Commerce about several topics, and the biggest component of the talk was offering practical ideas to reduce business expenses using technology – many ideas apply to individuals as well.  So I made a screencast of this section of the talk, and will post more sections later.

Why DropBox Is So Cool

Remember “SneakerNet?”  Where you would literally walk from computer to computer, carrying a floppy disk, Zip Drive, or some other outdated thing with your files on it?  I can’t say that those things have totally gone away (USB thumb drives have replaced floppies, but people still carry them around).  I can say, however – there’s a better way.

DropBox was started recently by a devoted team of coders, and they were one of the first services to offer universal cloud-based storage.  What does this mean?

It means that they run a data center with lots of hard drives, and when you sign up, you get a small slice of that storage.  Then you can copy files to that space and have those files available to you anywhere you have an internet connection.  What’s “magic” about it is that whenever you update a file in your DropBox, every other device you have connected to it updates the file immediately.  Plus, you can access your stuff from any Android phone, iPhone, PC, Mac, or anything with a web browser.

What’s more, it has a rich developer community that has written amazing addons to DropBox (a complete catalog is here).  You can share a specific folder with others, or have a public folder with download links to any file.  You can email files to an email adddress which will add the email’s attachments to your DropBox.  It even supports syncing of photos and video like Apple’s iCloud.  There are whole websites that automate the processing of files that appear in DropBox folders (read about one example, Wappwolf, here).

I recommend it to small companies who need a shared “file server” but don’t want to set up hardware for it.  Give it a try by clicking here, it’s free!

Create & Deliver A Great Presentation

Everyone has to sell themselves at one time or another – selling your idea, the company or product you represent, or even you as a prospective employee.  Along those lines, most of us in the business world have to deliver a presentation at some time during our careers, and this activity strikes some people with sheer terror.  But fear not!  It doesn’t have to be that way.  There have been volumes published on this topic, but let me distill it down to a few key tips so that your presentation is effective and memorable.

Start With An Outline

I cannot stress this enough – in order to convey a message to an audience, start with the message itself.  Most people remember only a few concepts from a presentation, and they remember it better if small points lead into big conclusions.  You cannot expect to leave the audience with a cohesive set of ideas if you do not organize them into a “flow” that makes sense.  So make an outline of your content FIRST.  Here’s an example:

  • Agenda (usually this outline)
  • Introduction to the problem
  • Why this affects YOU, the audience
  • How does this affect you (what is, and how big is, the “pain point”?)
  • Propose a solution
  • Explain why the solution works
  • Summary and Next Steps (give your audience a “call to action”)

The above example tells a story about a problem, then suggests a way to fix it, then asks them to act in some way to make it a reality (buy my product, adopt a strategy, etc.)  People will remember it better because it flows from one logical point to another like a story does.

Plus, notice how I structured the content.  You tell them the story three times:

  • Tell them what you’re about to tell them (Agenda)
  • Then  tell them the story (Content slides)
  • Then tell them what you just told them (Summary & Next Steps)

If you repeat your message in this way, retention (and action) goes WAY up.

Less Is More – A Lot More

When creating slides, some people list out numerous bullet points on a single slide, then stand there and read them all to the audience.  Do not EVER do this.  Some slides merit a few bullet points, but keep the text on the page very, very minimal.  Otherwise, the audience is squinting at the slide, trying to take in all the text – and they won’t be listening to you while they do it.  Keep each slide to a few words, and they will read the slide, get the idea, then turn their attention right back to you and listen to the detail.

Spreading out your key points into several slides, and moving through them quickly, will also make the presentation more engaging – maximizing audience interest.  Also, use Google Images to find the highest resolution pictures you can to convey your idea.  Don’t use Clip Art unless you a) absolutely have to, or b) want to bore your audience.

Also, a note about animation: keep it subtle.  Don’t have ANYTHING flying around your slides.  It adds nothing to the meaningfulness of your message – only a distraction.  If you want to hide a portion of your slide/content, then fade it in with a mouse click when you get to that point, go ahead – that’s a good way to increase audience focus.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Put your completed (and saved) presentation into Slide Show Mode and pretend you’re giving the actual presentation to an audience.  Rehearse what you want to say in each slide, and go through the entire thing – make a note of your time spent.  Adjust your content or your delivery to fit within the time allotted for you.  Do this 2-3 times!

When you have to do the presentation, keep a second copy of your file on a USB thumb drive (or online).  You don’t want some disaster to wipe out the only copy.  Also, make sure your projector is connected correctly and focused beforehand, or if using an HDTV, make sure it’s set up correctly.  If using a TV, I would recommend you change the size of your slides to a 16:9 ratio.  You may want to point the laptop screen at you (so you can see the slides while looking into the audience), and use a remote mouse clicker if you have one – they really help!

Delivery of the Message

All of this preparation and creation of great content is all well and good, but what if you don’t like to speak in public?  Public speaking was recently ranked as the thing Americans feared most.  More than drowning!

Remember when you were a kid, and you asked your parents for something you really wanted?  You learned very quickly how to phrase things to get them to react.  This is no different, except no whining this time.  You want to speak to the audience as if you’re only speaking to one person, and you’re asking them for a favor, or telling them a joke, or justifying your attitude about something (video tips on public speaking here).  A passionless delivery will get you nowhere.  What I’m saying is: make it personal to them, because when they are listening, THEY make it personal to them.

That’s it!  More tips can be found here: http://presentationzen.com - plus, the video below contains some hilarious PowerPoint tips from comedian Don McMillan:

Maintaining Your Online Brand – the 21st Century Imperative

Most folks in the Internet business understand the importance of creating an online brand, but is it just as important for individuals as it is for businesses? Absolutely.

An “online brand” is the way other people (and businesses) see you on the internet.  This can be as simple as a Google search for your name, which most of us have done at one time or another.  Here’s a useful exercise: do one for yourself now, and make a note of what you see on the first page of search results.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Are they relevant, positive links to you and your identity, or are they:

a) links to another person with the same name, or worse,
b) links to negative items you’d rather people not see?

Positive examples can include profiles of you on sites that you can control (Facebook, Picasa Web Albums, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), while negative items can be web pages with your name on it that don’t put you in a good light.

Make no mistake: people can and will search for you – a new girlfriend, a prospective employer, or even family members.  There are a huge number of websites out there that specialize in collecting information on you and selling that package to whomever wants to buy it.  This is similar to companies that sell your browsing behavior to marketing firms, but it goes WAY beyond that – most of the time, you will not be personally identified in packages of browsing data (you will be part of a large statistical sample).  With sites like WhitePages.com, Intelius.com, pipl.com, 123people.com, and many others, it’s all about finding YOU, you personally.

Remember Big Brother in 1984? It's kinda like that.

There’s generally one rule to the internet – once it’s out there, it doesn’t go away.  This rule isn’t great for anyone who has embarrassing content posted about them – think about any celebrity scandal involving pictures or video.  But there are ways of bending these rules in your favor, and it has everything to do with flooding the internet with links to sites that are within your control to “bury” sites that have bad content, pushing those items to later pages of a search (where people are less likely to see it).  This is Search Engine Optimization for YOU, and this is what this article is all about.

First, a little background

Search engines like Google and others use a complicated method of determining what web pages are listed first for a particular search term.  This formula is called an algorithm, and the specifics are usually kept secret.  But there are general rules that everyone knows and follows to get on page 1 of search results.  Let’s say you have a website: FluffyBunnies.com, and you want people who search for “fluffy bunnies” to see your site on page 1.  The rules include:

  1. Web pages that list the exact search keywords (“fluffy bunnies”) in their meta tags are ranked higher
  2. These keywords need to exist in the title of the page as well as the content (and have those words appear more than once)
  3. If people search for “fluffy bunnies” then click on fluffybunnies.com, it moves up in the rankings
  4. If other web pages link back to fluffybunnies.com, that’s also good (especially if those other sites are popular)
  5. If you pay Google to list you as a “Sponsored Site” for those words, you’ll be listed (but we’d like to do it for free)

So what does this have to do with you?

Your online brand is made up of web pages displaying various things about you, so those pages need to be at the top of the search results (using your name as the search terms).  It helps to do the following:

Collect several sites that you use (or could use) to post content about yourself, then insert links to all the other sites in each site.  If you have a Facebook account, post a link to that page on your personal blog, and vice versa.  Here are some examples of popular sites that you can create free profile pages on, then cross-link all the others into each one:

Then make sure your name is listed in the body of each page, as many times as is reasonable.  Don’t write “Johnpamplin.com is John Pamplin’s website where John Pamplin talks about whatever John Pamplin thinks about, John Pamplin does, and everything else John Pamplin.  Oh did I mention John Pamplin?”  That’s stupid, don’t do it.

Note: there are sites out there that basically do this for you, and add in some basic monitoring of your brand.  Good examples are brandyourself.com, or safeshepherd.com, which walk you through the process of setting up cross links to your various online identities to boost your online brand.  It’s a pay site, but free for up to 3 links.  I’d say it’s worth the yearly $80 cost if your online brand is important to you, but if you’re short on cash, you can do most of it yourself.

Recipe: John’s Evil Mashed Potatoes

John's Evil Mashed Potatoes (not to scale)

Need some comfort food? This is about as good as it gets.

OK, I’ve been asked over and over how to do this, so one of my first additions to this site is a recipe I developed a few years ago and have been refining ever since.  It’s not complicated, it’s not difficult, it’s not expensive, and it’s NOT fat-free!  Don’t worry – it’s not that evil either.

John’s Evil Mashed Potatoes

Ingredients:

  • 5lb bag of whole red potatoes
  • 20-25 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 2 bricks of regular cream cheese (NOT reduced-fat or fat-free)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 medium Vidalia sweet onion, finely diced
  • 2 tbsp of dried parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste (about 1 tbsp of each works well)
  • 1/2 cup of finely grated cheddar or Romano cheese

Slice the entire bag of potatoes, skin-on, into 1/2 inch slices and boil in a large pot of salted water with the cloves of garlic.  You can put in the garlic about 5 minutes after the potatoes to make them a bit stronger, if desired.  Boil until a sharp knife will easily move through the potatoes, about 15-20 minutes.

While the potatoes and garlic are boiling, skin and finely dice your onion and saute it over medium heat in a non-stick pan with some butter or olive oil.  You need to cook the onion until it turns translucent with some browning (about 4-5 minutes).  Take it off the heat and set it aside.

Drain the pot of potatoes/garlic through a fine strainer and place back into the pot.  Add 1.5-2 bricks of the cream cheese, butter, onion, parsley, salt, and pepper into the pot and start mashing.  Mash to desired consistency, although chunky is my preference.  Try it as this point to see if you need more salt or pepper, then top it with the grated cheese.  Done!  Serves a whole lot of people.