Sunday, May 29, 2005

Byebye Tivo ;-(

This morning I canceled my Tivo service. I bought my first Tivo box, a Philips HDR112, on Ebay a little over 4 years ago. I paid about $120 for the box plus about another $100 for a 120GB hard drive. I loved the service so much that I even bought a second box for my parents. I was the model Tivo customer. I would rave to my friends about how great it was, and converted at least a few of my friends who later bought their own Tivo boxes.

So what happened? Tivo lost its edge. The company stopped innovating, and DVRs became commodities like cd or dvd players. When I called Comcast to order my new cable service, they offered me a dual-tuner integrated DVR/cable box with HDTV support for only $10/month (that's $3/month than Tivo charges, and the hardware is free). I've heard mixed reviews of the Comcast DVRs, but I figured I'd give it a try and see how they work for myself. The good thing about getting a box from my cable operator is that it's easily upgradeable at no cost when a newer/better version comes out should this one fail on me.

The box I have is one of the new ones powered by Microsoft software. Tivo has now established a similar agreement to embed their software in Comcast boxes (or maybe it's the other way around). It'll certainly be interesting to see how this one plays out.

When the Tivo customer service rep asked why I was canceling my service today over the phone, I told her "Well, Comcast is giving me a free new box with 2 tuners and HDTV support, it's all in one box that's half the form factor of my current Tivo, and the monthly fee is $3 less than what I've been paying". She didn't have much to say to that other than offering to cut my Tivo monthly service fees from $13 to $7 a month and telling me I could buy a new Tivo that supports HDTV and 2 tuners. Right.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Contact Management

In the process of moving, I had to update my contact information in several dozen places -- companies and organizations with which I have some continuing relationship, social networking web sites, address books of friends and family -- it's been quite a daunting task.

I've also realized that I need a better way to manage my contacts. I use Outlook (and Pocket Outlook on my phone) for my closer friends and family, sites like Friendster and LinkedIn for more distant acquaintances and professional relationships, and then there's the massive databases of all the email I've received over the last 10 or so years just in case I need to dig back into them and find someone from way back when. Oh, and then there's the large pile of paper business cards that only seems to grow even though I never refer to them.

So, I've decided to finally give Plaxo a try. If they can get the network effects on their side, I think the notion of instantly updating your own contact info in other peoples' address books and visa-versa is a great idea. I haven't played with the service enough to write a review just yet, but you can bet I will soon. My biggest question right now is how well will it integrate with Outlook on my PC and Pocket Outlook on my phone. I'd like to keep all my contacts in Plaxo, but only some of them in Outlook or in my address book on my phone (do I really need my closest hundred coworkers, vendors, consulting clients from 4 years ago bloating my mobile phone address book?)

I also have some concerns about Plaxo's business model. Frankly, charging for what they call "Premium Products" is a bad idea. Here's why. Plaxo's biggest asset is their userbase. The larger the number of active Plaxo users, the higher the value of their service. Plaxo should be courting as many users as possible by offering a completely free, un-matched service. The value adds of their for-pay premium products (aside from support) -- eliminating duplicate address book entries and mobile access -- aren't services that most consumers desire to pay for. Instead of charging their users to eliminate duplicates from their address books, Plaxo should be giving this and more away for free to grow their core asset.

I get the impression that Plaxo realized they need to make money somehow, brainstormed for awhile, and decided the best way was to slap fees on some of their services. I bet it's rough when your investors (or friends and colleagues even) come up to you and ask you "So, how do you make money?", and you don't have a good answer. "We charge for premium services" sounds a lot better than "We don't make money". But if you look at some of the biggest success stories, like Google, the latter was exactly how they operated for some time. With a valuable asset like Plaxo's, they *will* figure out better ways to make money than charging for duplicate removals -- if they can get the service to "tip" (which so far, it clearly hasn't).

There's also the Flickr model -- build an amazing service that knocks peoples' socks off, but impose some limitations as to how the free version scales. Note how Flickr did not create "Premium Tools". They didn't even restrict posting full-size, original images with the free account. The free account could do everything that the paid account could do, only with less photos. This allows free users to get hooked by an amazing service, and decide they're willing to pay to use more of the same service (upload more photos per month). This is quite different from supplying free users with a stripped down, less-amazing service on which they won't get hooked.

The last thing on my mind regarding Plaxo is the annoying amount of information update request emails they send out. These emails are ruining their brand. Plaxo allows their users to send email notifications to their contacts requesting that they update their address book entry. This is something I would never do, personally. If I want someone's updated contact information, I will personally email them or even pick up the phone, ask them how they've been and how their family is doing, and let them know that I need their address to send them something by mail. Anyone who's like me in this way also probably finds it incredibly obnoxious to be on the receiving end of a stock message that reads "Hi from Plaxo!!! We need your contact info!!! This isn't spam and it shouldn't annoy you because you can opt out if you don't like these emails!!" It doesn't matter if my friend Bob is the one who is actually clicking the link to send me the email. It has Plaxo, not Bob, written all over it, and as such, represents Plaxo as much or more so than it does Bob. And this isn't just a personal pet peeve. When widely-read bloggers like Russell Beattie begin noting they've permanently opted out of Plaxo, perhaps it's time to re-think your strategy.

Anyhow, I'll let you know how I like the service. ;-)

Mark, am I completely off?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Back to the US

It's Sunday night, and I'm heading back to the US via Amsterdam on a 5:30am flight (fun!).

For my last day here, I took a bus trip from Herzliya to Jerusalem to visit my dad before I leave the country. The bus system is amazing here -- the full trip was about $6. Security at his hotel is pretty tight because apparently the first lady is staying a few floors above him. I guess she had some trouble at the holy sites earlier today. Unfortunate.

I've uploaded, rotated, and tagged most of my photos. Here's a link to the Flickr set -- Israel, Spring 2005. If you're truly bored, check out the slideshow.

I've seen and experienced so much over the last 2 weeks. It's incredibly hard to recall and share it all here and now, but I hope people have found the updates and pictures at least somewhat interesting. I suppose the one closing thought I have on my way out has to do with what Israelis call "the situation". Earlier today, I found myself comparing this trip with the six previous trips I've taken, three of which I was age sixteen or older (1997, 2001, and 2003).

On this trip, I felt by far the safest. There's an optimistically cautious expectation of peace and stability among the people here, and believe me, the people here have plenty of reason for doubt and cynicism. But after over a year of relative calm, there seems to be more hope and confidence than fear and doubt. It's not something that's understood back in the US. Sporadic bits of protest and violence make for good CNN news clips, peace and relative calm do not. I would compare the US media's coverage of the Middle East to the local news coverage of Los Angeles or Detroit -- driven by fear and violence.

I'll add, as a quick aside, that CNN Europe is so incredibly different than CNN US. The stories have substance -- they're more than hyped up short bits with sensationalized titles like "America At War" that are overlayed with more effects and fancy camera work than MTV.

I've intentionally stayed away from making statements on the situation here on my blog. It's such an involved, deep subject and it becomes all to easy to make sweeping statements or do it injustice. But as tourism begins to pick back up here, I hope Americans (and Europeans and everyone else) feel motivated to come to this special place and see and learn through their own eyes.

That's all for now. Next post will be from the states.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Another quick update from the road

It's now 2:30pm Saturday, and I'm at my friend Doron's place in Herzliya just north of Tel Aviv). The lack of updates is pretty much due to my not having been online at all over the past few days.

Masada and the Dead Sea were a great time. I'd have to say that driving through the Israeli desert in a small rental car flipping between radio stations blasting traditional arab music along the Jordanian border was like something out of a movie.

After returning to Tel Aviv, Greg and I went sailing with our friend Eli and his friend David on David's 37 ft yacht on the Mediterranean. We sailed from the marina in Herzliya all the way down to Jaffa south of Tel Aviv. Afterwards, we trained it up to Haifa and spent a couple of days with a group of tourists from my Dad's temple in Los Angeles. From there we visited the Tefen industrial park, Safed, and the Golan Heights. We had dinner at Decks, an amazing Argentinian steakhouse on the Sea of Galilee.

The next morning, Greg and I left the group and cabbed it to Doron's place in Herzliya, and last night we hit the bars in Tel Aviv one last time before Greg headed back to Michigan this morning.

I'd have to say the bars here are rather spectacular. The one we went to last night, Vox, doesn't open until midnight. If you get there early (before 1:30am -- which we didn't), you get a free drink special with admission. At around 4am, they open the huge outside patio, and the entire party moves from inside to outside. This place was crazy. The nightlife makes Tel Aviv such an amazing place -- we really need to re-evaluate our noise/liquor laws back in the US.

That's about all I've got for now. In a few minutes I'm gonna head back into Tel Aviv to hang out with my cousin one last time before I leave Israel early Monday morning. I've got some amazing photos to upload, title, and tag. Hopefully, I'll get to them tonight/tomorrow. Otherwise, I'll upload them all when I'm back in Ann Arbor. Expect a few highlights to be posted here!

Monday, May 16, 2005

Updates + I'm Sold on Voice Over IP

It's 2:30am, and I'm just about to hit the sack. Greg and I spent the day with my parents touring the tunnels below the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City. We walked around the Christian, Muslim, and Armenian quarters freely, stopping along the way to chat a little bit with shop owners, which was pretty cool. Then we went out to a Hookah bar near the Russian Compound.

In 4 hours, we're waking up at 7am to rent a car and drive (through parts of the West Bank) to Masada and the Dead Sea, and then on to Tel Aviv. I think I'm more concerned about driving on Israeli streets than driving through the territories.

So, get this. My friend, Adam, who has been here for nearly a year, has a Vonage Voice Over IP box he bought in the US. For $25/month, he gets a US phone number and unlimited calling to anywhere in the US (and Vonage users worldwide with the same setup). Compared to T-Mobile's roaming rates of $3/minute, and even the local cell phone rates of about 20 cents/minute to call the US, I'd say that's pretty amazing.

I used the service tonight -- a regular cordless phone connected to a Vonage box connected to his Internet connection here (dsl or cable, not sure which), and it worked incredibly well. For 99% of the conversation, I couldn't tell it was VOIP. There were a few seconds where the quality wasn't so great, but the person on the other side was on a cell phone, so who knows.

Anyhow, I'm not sure what Vonage's policy is on taking their hardware/service overseas. But it's apparently all the rage among kids here studying abroad, and I think it's pretty damn neat.

In the name of self-preservation (spending all day tomorrow hiking up a 450 meter high mountain and in the sun), I'm off to sleep. I can't wait to tag and organize all my photos! So far I've uploaded over 300.

Update: Sorry if some people are seeing repeats of recent posts in their Atom feeds. I've been playing with time zone settings a bit. Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't allow you to set a time zone on a per-post basis. Oh well. [5/17 - 2:59am]

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Playing catch up

Just a few quick thoughts from Jerusalem after catching up on a few hundred backlogged RSS feed entries.

Bill Gates thinks that the cell phone will beat the iPod. I hope he's right, but I'm not so sure we're anywhere near there yet. The use model for listening to music lends itself to sucking up battery juice for anywhere from 3-5 hours at a time. I can't count the number of times my iPods (yes, plural) have died on me. And that's okay. But it's not okay when I can't use my cell phone any longer because I've spent the morning listening to mp3s on the way to work. So, I still think we have a ways to go on the converged cell phone/music player front.

The MPAA is targeting TV download sites. I don't blame them. At least they're targeting the download sites and not their own customers who are using them because they can't get what they need out of paid broadcast/cable television services. The MPAA should focus on providing legal TV download services that knock their customers socks off. Then, once those are available, deal with illegal downloading that continues.

Bruce Schneier blogged some thoughts on the REAL ID Act. Schneier's blog is one of my favorites. He's a top authority on issues of security, and I strongly suggest checking it out.

In catching up on my news feeds, it seems that Windows Mobile 5 has been announced. I can't wait to play around with it. I'm thinking this will definitely need to be my next phone purchase.

Finally, a few fun pictures from Israel...

The future of BlockBuster (if they're lucky?):

We can't even get a Coffee Bean in Michigan, and suddenly they're popping up all over Israel:

6,000 miles East and still plagued by the Live Strong fad:

Friday, May 13, 2005

Quoted in USA Today!

I was quoted yesterday in the Money section of USA Today in an article entitled Enter whole new world with your phone:

Recent University of Michigan graduate Adam Herscher spends $90 a month for a complete suite of services from T-Mobile, including Internet access.

That's a good deal more than his fellow Michigan students, he admits. "At first, when people see what I do with the phone, they say, 'Why would anyone want to do that?' Then as they're around me more often, their attitude changes, and it's, 'I need to do that too. That's cool.' "

He not only looks up maps, restaurant or movie reviews, he also transfers episodes of South Park and The West Wing that he recorded on his PC to his phone and watches them on the bus.

When Google co-founder Larry Page visited Michigan to speak to students, Herscher recorded the entire speech to his phone, then posted it on his blog.

"It sure showed a lot of people what was capable with new phones," he says.

Smart phones

The caveat is that Herscher used a "smart phone," which is slightly larger than the traditional cell phone — and more expensive. Smart phones, like the PalmOne Treo or Siemens SX66, are combination PDAs/phones that can hold calendar/address book functions, often have tiny qwerty keyboards, memory slots for storing pictures and music and a more enhanced Internet browsing experience.

Pretty neat!

Here's a decent review of my current phone.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Independence Day

Today was Israel's 57th Independence Day. To kick off the event last night, I went to a national ceremony at the site of Herzl's grave in Jerusalem. A friend was an honored guest, so we got front row seats. It was absolutely amazing.

I'm in the process of uploading quite a few pictures. The Internet connection hasn't been fast or reliable here in the hotel, so I'm forced to use flickr's web-based upload form which only lets me send 6 photos at a time (I assume that the "uploadr" tool is failing because it doesn't have as many error-correcting mechanisms as IE). I also took a couple of videos with the digital camera, and will add them to this post as soon as possible.

Last night, we went out to a night club called Teatron (theater) in Jaffa, met some awesome people, and had a great time. Tel Aviv really is the city that never sleeps -- we got back to the hotel around 5-6am and crashed hard until about 1pm, and spent the rest of the day on the beach.

Tonight, we went to an outdoor reception at the army headquarters in Tel Aviv. The location and buildings were beautiful. The minister of defense, head of the airforce, and a few other important people were there, but it was a bit of an older crowd, and Greg and I didn't know too many people, so we left the place and hailed a cab (got quite a few "what the hell are these kids doing" looks from the many very well armed soldiers along the way out - hehe). Then we got back to the hotel, changed, and headed out for a restaurant/bar called Evita. More good times had.

Tomorrow, we're waking up early to go on a tour of the controversial security fence between Israel and the territories, then having lunch with my cousin and his girlfriend. Saturday, we're going to visit my extended family in the North, then heading off to Jerusalem for a few days.

More pictures and video on the way.

I'm still working on getting embedded/streaming videos to work, but in the meantime, I've uploaded a few clips:

Independence Day Ceremony 1
Independence Day Ceremony 2

Update: Added videos [5/16 - 9:45pm]

Update: Posted videos on Google Video [12/23/2006)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Remembrance Day to Remember

The first day in Tel Aviv has been simply amazing. I woke up early this morning, had breakfast with family and friends at the hotel, tagged along with the parents for lunch and a bit of shopping, and then spent the afternoon and evening at an Israeli airforce base for Israel's Day of Remembrance.

Visiting the base was a great experience. We even got to play around in an F15 Eagle and I got permission to post some of the pictures, which I'm in the process of uploading into my Flickr photostream. At the end of the trip, I'll drop them into a set, tag them, and possibly add some descriptions.

We saw an amazing film about the Israeli airforce's visit and flight over the Aushwitz concentration camp in Poland. It was incredibly powerful and tear-jerking, and my father was given a photo of Israeli fighter jets flying high above the remains of the site.

In the evening, we remained at the base for a Remembrance Day ceremony for Israel's fallen soldiers, which was again, quite tear-jerking.

Finally, we returned to the hotel in Tel Aviv, and I lent my father my laptop for about an hour and a half during which he wrote his first blog post ever (Yes! I succeeded! Muahahah!). As soon as he's made a couple more posts and is comfortable with it, I'll cough up the link. He writes slower and significantly more in-depth than I, and will probably have many more interesting words to share on our experiences here.

It's about 2am and I've gotta kick this jetlag at some point, so I best hit the sack now. Before I do, here's a list of random thoughts I had on the flight over:

1. No white earbuds (except mine) in sight. How refreshing.

2. KLM still gives out real metal knives with in-flight meals. Plastic knives are a knee-jerk, useless reaction to a very serious problem, and only make it difficult to cut into my hamburger at the airport Chilis restaurants.

3. The security profiler we spoke to before getting on the flight to Tel Aviv was intense. Now that's real security.

4. No cream or sugar for coffee on the AMS-TLV flight. I guess real men drink their coffee black. It wasn't half bad, actually.

5. KLM flight attendants (and the dutch in general) are all tall, blonde and gorgeous.

6. Israelis are all tall, tan, and gorgeous (okay, I'll stop).

7. Amsterdam Schipol airport has real manual water faucets in their restrooms and remain spotless, whereas in the US we need automatic sensors to stop morons from tossing paper towels into sinks, leaving the water running, and just generally trashing the place. Hmmm...

8. The Israeli travel visa form now asks for an email address. Cool, but I wonder what for?

9. The new Tel Aviv airport terminal is absolutely beautiful, and finally has brand spankin' new jetways. However, I think I'm actually going to miss walking immediately into fresh air and down the outdoor stairs onto the tarmac upon arriving.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Hello From Amsterdam!

I'm finally en route to Tel Aviv, by way of Amsterdam. Most flights arrive/leave Israel in the early morning hours (12-6am) in order to allow for easy connections in Europe, so I have quite a bit of time to kill between flights. My friend and travel buddy Greg and I spent the last few hours walking the streets of Amsterdam and lounging at various restaurants and cafes. I'm about to upload some pictures, which you'll be able to see in my Flickr photostream to the right (they'll later be tagged and placed into a set as well). Some pictures were taken with my phone, others with my new SD400. Check out the airport cops on their segways!

The flight to Amsterdam was decent. It was my first time on one of Northwest's new A330s. Shortly before the flight, I used my phone's GPRS connection via Bluetooth to check out the A330 on, and found out that my seat had power (and that my leg room was limited by the A/V equipment for my row -- doh!). I didn't even need my airplane adapter -- the port seems to meet at least US and EU standards. In the end, however, I spent most of the trip playing with the A330's entertainment system in the headrest in front of me. They had a great selection of movies, music, and a few addictive puzzle games. I also made some headway in a great book I've been reading recently (Unlocking The Clubhouse: Women in Computing -- review to come soon), and got in an hour or two of sleep.

I suppose that's all I've got to say for now. Oh yeah, and I thought it was pretty cool to see that in the Netherlands, the Dutch still see KFC for what it really is -- FRIED CHICKEN! It's so refreshing to get away from our own country's low-carb, 10-versions of diet coke, marketing-is-everything-quality-is-nothing culture. Hmm.. I sound bitter.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Gmail Ate My Ham

So the week of graduation, a friend casually asks me, "Hey Herscher, why weren't you at the nerdhouse graduation party the other night?" Huh? Party? Was I not invited to a party? Wait, that can't be it.. I'm on the nerdhouse-party mailing list! What the heck is going on?

Sure enough, it turns out Gmail filtered the invitation (a relatively normal-looking email sent by a human) as spam. I wrote a paper on this topic -- "false negatives" in spam filtering processes -- for my EECS 547 E-Commerce course a few semesters back (and I'd post it if it weren't on a hard drive buried in shipping boxes on their way to Seattle right about now).

Anyhow, it got me thinking.. what else has Gmail mistakenly filtered as spam? I have no way of finding out. My Spam folder has 5,372 items from the last 30 days. That's over 107 pages of message headings.

So, I decided to do a quick search through my spam folder of messages sent from addresses ending with @* Sure enough, there were more messages mistakenly filtered as spam.

There's no silver bullet (yet) when it comes to fighting spam. But I'm beginning to think that Gmail might be a bit overzealous with their filtering methods. There's also no way to change the threshold (at least, no way that I can seem to find). And, there's no way to sort my spam by % chance that it is in fact spam, or any other way of intelligently sorting through mail filtered as spam.

The fact that only 1 of about 500 spam messages slips through the filters into my Inbox every couple of days makes me rather suspicious of what other legitimate email I'm missing.

Anyhow, don't take this as "anti-Google" or "anti-Gmail". I use Gmail because it's the best web-based email system I've seen so far (the fact that it's free is nice too). I hope they keep improving it (and Blogger too, damnit! port over the gmail spellchecker already!).

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Yeah Yeah, I Got Slashdotted...

Well, that was fun:

I'd have to say that the coolest and most unexpected effect of being Slashdotted was the spontaneous, collaborative effort to transcribe Larry's speech.

Almost immediately after the story hit Slashdot, requests started rolling in for transcriptions of the audio from people who could not benefit from the audio version for various reasons. Some of these visitors may not be proficient in English, others may have hearing disabilities. Still others just wanted an easy way to quote Larry's words in their own blogs.

A matter of minutes later, volunteers began to work together to transcribe Dean Director's introduction and Larry's speech, posting portions in the comments of the previous post and emailing portions to me to be posted on the blog. Some of these contributions were completely anonymous. Others provided only a name and email address. Either way, it was a completely selfless act aimed at helping other people with whom their only established relationship was this blog (and perhaps Slashdot).

It reminded me of an recent observation made by Dan Gillmor on how quickly a similar community centered around Wikipedia came to construct this Wikipedia article after the election of the new pope. Pretty interesting..

Anyhow, to those of you who contributed to the (allbeit rough) transcription effort, thank you! To the rest of the world, take note of this phenomenon. It's worth taking a moment to reflect on.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


I've officially graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Michigan! My parents and little sister came into town for the weekend graduation festivities, and we had a great time. I had an opportunity to show them mates (screenshots coming this week, I promise!), and got some more great feedback.

Larry Page, Google co-founder, spoke at the College of Engineering graduation, and his speech was definitely the highlight of the weekend (plus, I got to shake his hand and accept his congratulations!). Being the geek that I am, I made sure to record his speech with my Windows Mobile phone. I would definitely suggest listening to what he had to say to our graduating class. It was truly inspiring.

Dean Director's introduction (mp3)
Also available: original .wav, .ogg

Larry Page's speech (mp3)
Also available: original .wav, .ogg

New! Check out the video version given to me by Diganta Saha (see update below for more info on player compatibility)

(Appologies in advance for the less than stellar audio quality and for the sporadic skips -- I couldn't find a way to record directly to the SD card in my phone. If any audio gurus out there want to touch up and send me better quality .wav files, I'd be very greatful!)

John Seely Brown also spoke at the main campus graduation ceremony. His speech was a bit more brief and less targeted at engineers in particular, but he did mention blogging twice and Wikipedia once, which I found pretty spectacular. So, why doesn't he himself have a Wikipedia page? Or am I just unable to find it?

I've also uploaded quite a few pictures from graduation to flickr and created a new set, Graduation Weekend, Spring 2005. Most of the photos were taken with my new Canon PowerShot SD400. It's my second Canon digital camera, and so far, I'm loving it!

In exactly one week, I'll be heading to Israel for a few weeks. I'm going to try to blog semi-daily about interesting differences and advances in technology that I come across. Then it's off to Redmond, where I start at Microsoft towards the end of May!

Update: Here's a link to a transcription of Dean Director's introduction emailed to me by Franklin Lynam. I believe a transcription of Larry's speech is in the works. Thanks for taking the time to do this! [5/1 - 11:18pm]

Update: A reader has posted a rough transcription of the speech in the comments for this post. Thanks! (Note: It's "Mary Sue Coleman", not "Marisa Coleman" ;-) [5/2 - 3:50pm]

Update: I've posted Ogg Vorbis versions of both files per readers' requests. [5/6 - 3:10pm]

Update: I've posted a video of the speech kindly provided to me by Diganta Saha. It's H.264 format, which isn't yet supported by most players but can be viewed with Quicktime 7 on OS X or VLC 0.8.2 on other platforms including Windows and Linux. I've also moved the audio files off University web servers and changed plugins to links so the content does not auto-download and consume huge amounts of bandwidth. [7/9 - 8:30am]

Update: I've put Diganta Saha's video on Google Video and removed the original audio-only versions and text transcript due to changes in my web hosting setup. [12/23/06]