The First Day

I begin walking towards the building filled with a mixture of fear and self-doubt. This is my first time, and there is nobody here to help me. I am completely on my own, and the outcome of this visit is entirely in my own hands. The backpack that I carry seems oddly out of place, but nobody seems to pay much attention. Can they see the trepidation on my face? Are they ignoring me out of pity or indifference?

As I get closer, thoughts of turning back manage to bubble up from deep within me. I resist, knowing what I am charged with doing. But my courage wavers, and I let my fears get the best of me. I quickly turn around in an attempt to return to the safety and comfort that the past offers, but that opportunity is no longer available to me. I have to plow forward, knowing that my world is about to change forever.

I enter the building and begin struggling past those who know exactly where to go. I silently resent them for their knowledge as I locate help. I feel completely unprepared, and the look I receive from the staffer seems to confirm it. “Can you direct me to Room 101, please?” I ask hesitantly, hoping for mercy. Surprisingly, she is both helpful and nice. She provides me a map, circles the room, and sends me on my way.

I locate the room and the next portion of my trial begins. I have no idea what to do. I stop and begin to taking in the foreign surroundings. Everything seems new and exciting, yet oddly familiar in some ways. After surviving a minute of embarrassing hesitation, I begin to emulate the actions of others. I scan a bank of lockers, and quickly locate one with the correct nametag pasted to it. I begin unloading the contents of the backpack I carried in. There seems to be no end to number of things that need to be removed, but finally it is empty and can be stashed away in the locker. I begin to fiddle with the placement of things, delaying for as long as possible.

With my options for procrastination exhausted, I finally begin shuffling towards the door. I step inside and see many smiling adults. What can they possibly be so happy about? One of the adults catches my eye and immediately rushes over towards me. She carries with her a Polaroid camera. “What new hell is this?” I ask myself.

I see her mouth begin to move and notice that I begin following her directions without conscious thought. I stand in the designated spot and get my picture taken, immortalizing the moment that I will always remember. I quickly scan the room, trying to determine what to do next. Thankfully she comes to my rescue by pointing out a desk.

As I finish getting my son Carter settled in to his first day of school, I cannot help but wonder if he was anywhere near as nervous as I was?

This is a paper I wrote for my English class four years ago. I was pretty proud at the time of the little twist I put in at the end.

Resume from Hibernation

After an entire year of slacking, it’s time I get this site spun back up.

I’ve moved away from running a Wordpress site. I really enjoyed the continuous integration setup I had in place for automatically publishing code file changes from BitBucket to Windows Azure. But then I stopped messing with it.

Looking back, a number of things happened personally that made it hard to keep up with this site. Instead of writing about them via a public website, I started keeping tracking of them with the excellent Momento application. Things happen in life, and it’s how we deal with them that defines us as people.

Anyway, I’ve moved this site over to GitHub Pages. I’ve been meaning to move the site since September or October, but finally got tired of paying $10 per month to host a website I really wasn’t working on. In early December, I came across a post from Phil Haack about how he had migrated to GitHub Pages, and decided to give it a shot. I even stole his theme temporarily, but have been making a number of custom changes. The template features in Jekyll make it a snap to do.

Sadly, in that same article, Phil also bemoaned the demise of SubText:

It’s with a heavy heart that I admit publicly what everyone has known for a while. Subtext is done. None of the main contributors, myself included, have made a commit in a long while.

Initially, I built my first site on Blogger. After a couple of years of that, I moved over to SubText and ran it on for quite a while. I made other half-hearted attempts to run other software, but just couldn’t find anything I liked. SubText really was the software that I spent most of my time creating content on. I’ll miss that package.

At some point I’ll get into more detail on how I have this site set up with GitHub and Jekyll. There a number of other resources out there that will help you get things running. Most of them helped, but I ran into a few snags that took me a little while to work through. I can’t help but notice some of the similarities between Jekyll and Blogger, but I definitely feel like I have a lot more power under Jekyll. This in spite of the fact that GitHub Pages doesn’t allow custom plugins to run; but the simple solution is to run Jekyll locally and then check in the published content. This is similar to how Octopress runs.

Anyway… maybe I’ll actually stick with creating content on this site for a while. I don’t care if it’s considering blogging or writing or just simply blathering on. I look forward to having an outlet to randomly throw some words up to from time to time, because sometimes I vehemently feel like I need to say something that absolutely nobody will read.

Asus Zenbook UX31A Review

I’d like to start by stating that the Asus Zenbook UX31A is a spectacular machine. Although I’ve only owned it for about a week, I wanted to detail some thoughts about this Ultrabook in case anybody is considering it and would like some hands-on information about the overall experience.

In my previous article, I spent some time detailing my search for new a new laptop. That was a fairly comprehensive accounting of what ended up being important to me. I’ll touch on many of those features here also, but to really understand my mindset when I made the purchase, please refer back to that article.

At just under three pounds, Asus has managed to deliver an impressive looking machine that not only looks great, but also packs quite an impressive punch in the performance category. I’ve owned a number of laptops, but I’ve always felt the need to have a desktop that I can remote into to do the heavy duty work. The Asus Zenbook is the first machine that I believe will be able to replace my desktop for almost everything I need to do. The only thing I can’t do is to utilize optical discs as there is no on board drive. I hardly ever do that anyway, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything here.

Asus Zenbook PackagingWhen I picked it up from Best Buy, opening the shipping box was a delight. I’ve owned laptops in the past that weighed more than the entire shipping box. Beyond the boring shipping container, the Asus Zenbook arrives in a well designed piece of packaging. In addition to the machine itself, a number of extras are included. There is a nice brown lightweight sleeve that fits the Asus Zenbook perfectly. It won’t offer too much protection if it’s dropped, but it definitely will prevent scratching during transit. Additionally there are two provided dongles, as USB to Ethernet adapter and a Displayport to VGA adapter.

There are two Ivy Bridge processor options available for the Asus Zenbook UX31A, the Core i5 and the Core i7. I weighed the options and decided to opt for the i5 as I couldn’t justify the price increase to move to the i7 processor. I also have a sneaking, unconfirmed suspicion that I’ll get additional life on the battery with very little performance loss, even for larger tasks like software development and video transcoding. As for memory, it comes with 4GB of memory soldered on. Unfortunately this means that it isn’t expandable, but I decided that wasn’t enough to deter me from purchasing the device. The 128GB solid state drive (SSD) is amazingly quick and really pulls it all together.

Streaming Sons of Anarchy via Amazon’s 720p Prime Instant Video service. The display itself is brilliant, with a full 13.3? 1080P IPS panel. It’s quite crisp, bright, and extremely easy on the eyes. What’s even more impressive is that it’s also a touchscreen, which really makes the touch portions of Windows 8 (like the improved Start menu tiles and apps) work well.

The backlit keyboard is very responsive and feels great to use for the most part. The only time I’ve felt discomfort comes when I’ve tried using it at an awkward angle, like lying in bed. When that happens, my hands sometimes rest on the deck, and I can feel the shape of the unit puts some rounded but still somewhat sharp edges right under where the wrist lands. This isn’t the normal location for your wrist to rest, and is ergonomically incorrect, but might cause discomfort to some. The trackpad is fairly large and easy to use. Asus provides their Smart Gesture software, allowing for gesture controls with multiple fingers a la the Apple Magic Trackpad. Some have reported that the trackpad on the Asus Zenbook can a bit tricky to use. I didn’t have any problems, but I’ve updated to the latest drivers just in case.

The machine arrived with about 70GB free on the SSD. I loaded a number of software packages on to the machine, including Chrome, Visual Studio 2012, SQL Server Management Studio, Dropbox, Trello, WebMatrix, Icenium, GitHub, BitBucket, etc. and still have about 50GB available. However, this doesn’t take into account things like photos, software projects, and the like. I assume that I’ll have to do some juggling, but I believe will be worth it. Besides, that’s a great use of an external drive: to store information that is infrequently used. Plus they’re small enough nowadays that tossing an external into the case or sleeve along with the Asus Zenbook shouldn’t add so much weight that the total is unbearable. From a day-to-day usage standpoint, the Asus Zenbook continues to excel. I’ve been able to switch to using it as my primary machine, and so far it’s been a great machine. I’ve performed a variety of tasks ranging from article editing to software development to streaming movies, and I’ve never seen a hiccup on the machine. Any performance loss that I’ve seen from selecting the Core i5 appears to be more than made up by the improvements of moving to the SSD.

Overall, I believe it’s safe to say that the Asus Zenbook really does a good job of fulfilling the expectations set forth by Intel for machines that carry their Ultrabook marketing designation. Unless something comes up that I’m not expecting, I’m looking forward to using this machine on a regular basis.

Ultrabook Purchase: A Process of Elimination

As forecast by my previous article, I’ve purchased a new ultrabook. Or as I’ve heard they say in England, I’ve purchased a new piece of kit.

I spent a lot of time evaluating my options. There is a bunch of cool stuff out there that I didn’t expect to see. I’ve been running on the Windows platform forever, but I didn’t want past history to lock me in. I also didn’t want to purchase something that I would feel like I had to replace in six months…. whatever I purchased needed to have the ability to last, although I might still swap it out soon. Who knows.

At the beginning of the year, I began doing research. I had been watching the various options passively in 2011 and 2012, but really didn’t plan to purchase one. I read some reviews and started making a plan. I think I had about 25 options on the table. There were regular laptops, ultrabooks, and even some tablet options (I figured I could mate a bluetooth keyboard and maybe do some work like that).

Last week, I visited my local Best Buy to see what options they had. Of my 25 items, they had about twelve in stock. I’ve purchased laptops online in the past, but I mainly was trying to meet a specification. Fastest CPU, highest amount of memory, hard drive capacity, etc. I had planned to potentially do that this time also, but within only a few minutes I knew I had a problem. The fastest machine didn’t mean what it used to. Features and functionality mattered more than it had in the past.

I started in the Windows PC section, and weight became a key issue almost immediately. I actually shot myself in the foot… I picked up some of the lightest machines first, in the low three pound range. After doing that, the heavier machines felt like they weighed forty pounds by comparison. And I suddenly found a requirement I hadn’t realized I had wanted: keyboard backlighting. I work in darker locations on a regular basis, so the ability to see the keyboard was going to be important. Also, some of the higher end models had touchscreens… cool to play with, but not really important to me. The ultrabook offerings were really starting to stand out. I went over to the full laptop section, and even to the desk PC section, but kept wandering back to the ultrabooks again and again.

I wandered over to the Apple section next. Both the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air were on my list of possible purchases. My various iPhones have served me well over the past few years, so I thought I might plug into the ecosystem a bit easier. I’ve been anti-Apple for a long time. Decent machines, but just too expensive for what you ended up with. They changed that with the various iOS devices… what they couldn’t solve for me in the desktop world, they nailed in the mobile device world. But, I digress.

Within a minute or two of playing with the Macs, I realized I was missing something big. The touchscreens I had played with on the higher end Windows ultrabook offerings were missing. This shouldn’t have been a problem for me, but it suddenly was. The Pro was nice and responsive, but felt very heavy. The Air looked great too as it has for years. But the interface started looking dated, and I couldn’t use the screen to change things. I wasn’t sure I loved the Windows 8 user interface, but it did feel more modern than those fancy looking Macs did.

With these thoughts, I left the store with plenty of things to consider but still empty handed.

Finally on Monday night, I decided to pull the trigger. Since my visit to the store, I had spent plenty of time working through the remaining options. I had basically narrowed it down to three potential options: the MacBook Air, the Asus Zen Prime Ultrabook, and the Dell XPS 12 convertible ultrabook.

Unfortunately, the Dell was fairly easy to eliminate, although it still makes me a bit sad because it was a simple thing. The shipping date for a purchase made on Monday night, January 21st, wasn’t until February 12th. That’s a long time to wait when there are other options out there. I also wanted to utilize some of the great financing offered by the HSBC Card Services Capital One Best Buy credit card. Dell’s financing offer wasn’t that attractive as it only offered six and twelve month interest-free options with a high minimum spend. I intend to pay it off early, but I like the flexibility in case I need it. The features were cool and I really liked the convertible option (even though I was worried about the durability). And for an ultrabook, it had 8GB of RAM, wuich was pretty impressive when comparing to some of the other ultrabooks that were available.

I ended up passing on the MacBook Air for two main reasons: the interface hurdle and my planned usage. I knew that no matter what, I was going to be dealing with a new interface. I hadn’t used a Mac in forever, and hadn’t even touched the Windows 8 up to that point. But deep down, I knew that Windows 8 could still be adapted to run like my Windows 7 machines, and I knew that the collective knowledge and familiarity would pay off. I would be struggling with the Mac for up to a week. My planned usage was a lot easier to nail down; I utilize Visual Studio and other development tools on a regular basis. Once I realized I was spending most of my time trying to figure out how I was going to rig up a MacBook Air to be able to run Visual Studio, I realized that the Asus Zenbook ultrabook was going to be the best choice for me.

On Tuesday morning I ordered the ultrabook and picked it up within about an hour or so. I’ve captured a number of first impressions on the device and intend to share them as soon as I can get them complied. Short answer is that as a developer, I find this to be a great machine. As long as the hardware keeps up, this should serve me well for quite a while. I’ll be putting it through its paces over the coming weekend and will share anything that I might learn.

Changes in My Technology Purchase Habits

I’ve had a serious problem that I’ve been able to repress for quite a long time. I’m a technology junkie. I used to make purchases all the time. I’ve been able to keep that at bay for quite a while, but the urge is coming back.

Over the years, I’ve made a lot of technology purchases. Desktops, servers, laptops… I’ve picked up my fair share. Initially I bought a few machines from retailers, and then I decided I could build it cheaper. That trend lasted for about ten years. A few years ago, I realized that I was spending a lot of money trying to build the ultimate machine, when I really didn’t need an ultimate machine.

That was a sad time in my life.

But I like to think pretend I was also ahead of the curve. Cloud computing technology was just starting to take off. The Web 2.0 fad was starting to die, and people were seriously starting to look at what the future of computing could be. Moving more and more things to remote data centers and using their processing power was going to be the next big thing. I didn’t need to have impressively cool hardware anymore.

But I still wanted it.

I learned to behave myself, though. I definitely still bought stuff, but not as many big ticket items as I had in the past. As a matter of fact, the machine I’m working on right now is three years old. I had to look it up. I couldn’t even remember the specs on it… only the magic of Gmail search saved me.

Actually, right there is the true indicator of much things have changed… from 1992 through 2008 I knew the specs of my primary PC by heart. Everything. Now I can barely remember anything about it. I found myself no longer caring nearly as much about things like clock speed, the architecture and technology of the chipset, or the boot time.

I’m struggling with what I want to purchase. The landscape has changed a lot, and I wasn’t paying attention. Nobody buys desktops anymore, right? Only laptops. Wait, nobody needs a laptop… a table will do everything you need. Wait, how about a Chromebook? Of course! But more importantly, what needs am I actually trying meet?

Technology has changed. Apple has completely changed how we think about things. Technology is no longer about specs, but about speed. I don’t care if the machine has the latest version of CPU, but if I open a program or an app and it takes longer than a second, I start getting frustrated. Is this reflective of me as a person, the generation I’m a part of, or society as a whole?

A few years ago, I purchased an iPhone to replace a number of devices that I had been carrying previously. It completely met my needs for things I would previously do on a laptop. Lately, however, I’ve noticed I’m not using that platform to its full potential any more, either.

Pictures of Cats

Exactly. Yeah, even with with that, I’m not sure how I lasted this long.