Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

We've had a great Christmas here so far.  Sam really "gets" Christmas for the first time and even Will is having fun playing with all the new toys.  One of my favorite memories of childhood is seeing our presents Christmas morning for the first time.  Here are Sam and Will enjoying the same tradition:

Merry Christmas everyone! I wish you peace, contentment, good times and a the happiest holiday season ever!!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Children's Book Grammar FAIL

From the "Mighty Movers: Emergency" board book, "Printed and bound in China". Somehow we have not one but two copies of this masterpiece. Could someone please check for typos before printing the next batch? Thanks in advance.

Snow (Continued)

Well, it has been snowing since Friday afternoon and shows no signs of letting up until tomorrow.  Here's another shot off our back deck for comparison to yesterday morning. This is certainly throwing a monkey wrench into last minute shopping and holiday parties- at least we're all home safely. Hope you're having a good weekend!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

First Snow

We got about 6 inches of snow last night to kick off Christmas vacation. The timing was great for us- everyone was safely home and hunkered down. I hope everyone who was traveling last night made it to their destination safely, and I hope everyone has a great couple of weeks full of movies, relaxation, and spending time with family and friends!

Monday, December 15, 2008

How To: Turn an iPod touch into a Phone

Step 1: Buy a 2nd Generation iPod touch
It's important that the iPod touch be 2nd generation because the 1st generation doesn't support microphone input which we'll need to make phone calls.

I see the 2nd Generation iPod touch for $229 at the Apple Store (but be sure to check for educational and corporate discounts) -or-
Buy one from

Step 2: Buy an Apple Stereo Headset
The iPod touch comes with headphones that don't contain a microphone, and the device doesn't have a built in microphone. To overcome this limitation, we'll need to buy a new set of headphones that include a microphone.

I see them for for $29.99 at the Apple Store -or-
Buy one from Amazon:

I also see some confusingly-similar 3rd party models that can be had for less than $10:

Step 3: Download Fring or truphone from the iTunes App Store
As far as I can tell, Fring and truphone are very similar applications. They provide the software that we'll use to make phone calls on our iPod touch. They're similar conceptually to making phone calls from your PC- the only difference is that we'll make phone calls from our iPod touch via WiFi. I have used Fring, I have not yet tried truphone. This is what the Fring dialer looks like:

Step 4: Sign up for a SIP provider or Skype
You may have heard of Skype before. Fring works with Skype. I hadn't heard of "SIP" before performing this exercise and honestly I haven't done the research to tell you what SIP is all about. However, because we'll want to make calls from the iPod touch to cell phones and land lines, we'll need to get an account either with SIP or one of the providers that Fring (or truphone) supports. Here is a sampling of the SIP providers that Fring supports:

If you want to do this for testing purposes, I'd recommend trying one of the SIP providers because they give you a few credits for free and it's pretty neat to hear your home or cell phone ring when you dial it. If you're looking to really use this longer term I'd sign up for Skype. In order to test Skype, you'll need to buy a $10 credit (which would last you a long long time if you actually used it) but for testing purposes it seemed like overkill.

I used "Gizmo" for my testing: (I guess Gizmo 1-4 were already taken.) If the names of these providers sound "sketchy" you're not alone. It was at this point that I considering abandoning this approach, but in the name of science (and my dedicated readers) I had to soldier on! :)

Regardless of the provider you choose to try, you'll eventually associate your Fring account with your SIP provider or Skype by going to Fring->More->Add-ons and then select Skype or SIP (and then your SIP provider) and then entering the User ID and Password associated with that 3rd party provider.

Step 5: Make Phone Calls
Once you've successfully configured your SIP provider or Skype, you should be ready to try a test call. Make sure you have a WiFi connection, connect your headset and then go to the Fring dialer. You'll know the SIP provider or Skype has been successfully configured when you see the green SIP or Skype Out buttons on the Dialer enabled (ie, they'll be green instead of black).

Dial up the number you want to reach and press the SIP button when done. If you're successful you should hear a ring! It's worth mentioning that if you just wanted to test this out you wouldn't even need a headset/microphone- you should be able to make the phone ring without the microphone and even hear your voice on the landline or cell phone (the other end just won't be able to hear you since the iPod touch does not have a microphone built in). While this may seem silly it may be useful to see if you can successfully dial the numbers you want to dial and assess the voice quality/latency associated with this approach before buying the microphone containing headset.

Random observations:
  • Although this technique is interesting, I hardly consider it practical. These days, domestic calls are virtually free anyway and cell phone minutes aren't even that expensive. The big problem as I see it is that if someone wants to call you, they first have to make sure you're up and running Fring before calling you (iPhone Apps aren't allowed to run in the background, and I rarely have my iPod touch "on"). And if someone was calling you from a landline they wouldn't have a persistent number to dial unless you signed up for Skype In which isn't free and kind of defeats the purpose of this exercise.
  • The voice quality when I dialed our home phone from my iPod touch through Gizmo was unacceptably poor. When I tried calling a Skype user on a PC, it was noticably better. Fring to Fring calls iPod touch to iPod touch were "OK" but it was hard to tell given that the other user I tested with didn't have a microphone.
  • I can only see this set up worth pursuing in two scenarios: (1) Internationally, where it's really expensive per minute to dial from a cell phone or landline -and- WiFi is available and affordable. (2) Where you have a cell phone that's lost service because you're inside a building and you really need to make a phone call. Note that these techniques would work equally well on an iPhone as on the iPod touch- the advantage there being that you wouldn't use minutes -and- you can call over WiFi.
  • The thing I'd really like to see here is that the iPhone would seamlessly transition to making/receiving calls over WiFi when cell coverage is unavailable. I'm hesitant to switch to an iPhone because AT&T service isn't very good at our house and I'd hate to have to constantly tell callers "could you try me on my landline"? I'm not sure whether it is technically possible for Apple to pull this feat off, but I think it could be a selling point for the iPhone if they were somehow able to.

Like I said, I hardly consider this approach practical. In my tests, the voice quality just wasn't good enough and the hassle associated with this just isn't worth it for me. The only time I could see this being worth considering is if I had a trip overseas and wanted to call home and talk for an extended period. However, if the voice quality internationally were as poor as what I've experienced calling our home line from my iPod touch, I don't think the conversation would be enjoyable (hence, what's the point?).

That said, I do see this capability as being another example of the power of the App Store model that Apple has put forward, and an instance where the iPhone/iPod touch is more of a mobile computing device than a simple mp3 player.

Did you like this entry? If so, you might also reading about Three Things You Can do on an iPod touch (that you can't do on your computer)

Question of the Day: What do you think of this? Are you considering purchasing an iPod touch or an iPhone? Do you have one already and can see where this capability would be useful?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Sam's Favorite Video: A Honda Ad

Every night before Sam will go to sleep, he wants to watch this video on my iPod touch:

I have to admit- it's pretty fun to watch, and much more age appropriate than most of the content on YouTube. I've always loved chain reaction things like this- dominos or what have you. The video may be a little doctored or impossible (or maybe not) but it's still pretty clever. Hope you like it as much as Sam does.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Visit to the Mandarin Oriental Spa

After our stay last month at the newly opened Mandarin Oriental Boston, I wrote a lengthy review detailing our experience. Our experience at the hotel overall was positive, but we noted a number of areas which disappointed. I then sent an E-mail to Susanne Hatje, the General Manager of the hotel. Ms. Hatje responded promptly and graciously and we set up a time to talk on the phone. We had a pleasant 15 minute conversation about our visit and my review. I especially appreciated the way she took note of specific areas of concern and engaged in deeper conversation about each of them. It was clear to me while talking to her that she read every word of my review and did significant research to seek to understand what happened.

One specific area of disappointment for us was that the spa wasn't yet open during our visit. As a token of her appreciation for my feedback, Ms. Hatje extended an invitation to me and Deanna for a complimentary Two-Hour visit to the Spa in their Sanctuary Couples Suite. We thought this was a great way for us to re-visit the hotel -and- experience the spa now that it was open.

Ms. Hatje sent us a very nice letter thanking me again for the feedback, included contact information for the Spa Director and a fancy gift certificate for our spa visit. A couple of days later, I contacted Sharon Holtz and set up an appointment. She advised that we should show up 45 minutes ahead of time so we could experience all their spa has to offer.

Our spa visit was yesterday (thanks again go to Aunt Sarah for her amazing babysitting coverage.) We arrived curbside at the hotel 50 minutes ahead of our appointment and once again the valet service provided by the hotel doorman was flawless. We entered the hotel and were directed to the spa on the 4th floor by friendly hotel employees. When we arrived at the spa, they greeted us with a friendly "Mr. and Mrs. Dwyer?" While we were getting settled, Ms. Holtz came out to say hello and welcome us. They really did an amazing job of making us feel like VIPs.

The spa experience itself was pretty amazing. Not that I have much experience with spas, but I can't imagine one being much nicer than this one. After trading our shoes in for some spa slippers, Deanna and I went our separate ways for 45 minutes. I received a locker and a quick tour of the fabulously appointed "heat and water" facilities. I fooled around in there for a while and then made my way to the relaxation area and enjoyed some trail-mix type snack and bottled water. I rested my eyes for 10 minutes or so and then was rejoined with Deanna in our couples treatment room. It was like a luxuriously appointed hotel room, but instead of a bed and TV there were two treatment tables and tranquility abound. You can read more about the suites here- everything they say is true. We had two incredible therapists- Tegan and Jeffrey. The treatment was really awesome; it was very well done and completely indulgent. I had a great time. In summary, the place was fabulous, the service well coordinated and our treatments thoroughly enjoyable.

At the conclusion of our treatments we hit the showers and rejoined in the waiting area. Ms. Holtz visited again to confirm that we had a great time. Although our gift certificate entitled us to a complimentary treatment, I assumed that gratuity was not included. When I went to the counter and asked for clarification, the friendly woman at the counter said "Your treatment was complimentary, right? We've taken care of the gratuity. You're all set." I thought that was a very nice and complete touch.

After our spa visit we had lunch at Sel De La Terre (in the same building as the Mandarin Oriental, adjacent to L'Espalier.) We then made our way out to the curb where our car was ready for us in just a few moments. Perfect service from beginning to end.

I'd like to thank Ms. Hatje and Ms. Holtz for their gracious hospitality and their kind response to my somewhat critical review. I think they handled the situation very well and I wish them and the hotel much success.

Does this act of generosity on the hotel's part make it more likely for me to consider Mandarin Oriental for our next visit to downtown Boston? Absolutely. It gives me confidence that this hotel can execute well. Now that it has been open for a while, I imagine a lot of the initial kinks have been worked out and regularity and repetition is making for a more relaxed and consistent level of service for guests.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

How To: Change the Bag and Filters of a Miele Cannister Vacuum Cleaner

This morning while Deanna took the boys to Trader Joe's, I decided to quickly vacuum up a mess that 1 1/2 year old William made with our vacuum cleaner. The bag had been removed without being replaced because it was full, and as a result what should have been a 1 minute project turning into a much longer one, primarily because I had a hard time figuring out how to replace one of the filters on the vacuum cleaner. This blog entry is primarily for my own future reference.

Our current vacuum cleaner is a Miele Flamenco II. The model number is S251i:

The manual for the product is available here.

The bags and filters for this vacuum cleaner look like this:

To order replacement bags from Amazon:
Replacing the bag is done most frequently. This is pretty straightforward. To access the bag, push the button near the handle to release the lid:

Included in every box of replacement bags are replacement filters. There are 2 filters on our vacuum cleaner. Therefore, once every 5 bag replacements the filters should be replaced. Both filters need to be cut to size with a scissors. The first filter is here:

The next filter is the tricky one (and the one that gave me enough frustration to write this blog post). Do *NOT* attempt to replace this filter by opening the small hatch on the top of the vacuum cleaner that contains the accessory parts!

The correct way to access this filter is by opening the entire unit and removing the air filter from the same compartment as the bag and the other filter:

Here are Miele's kind-of lame instructions ("Open the dust compartment lid" and "Open the filter frame" aren't very instructive to a dope like me, though the picture is a little helpful):

It would have been better if directly on the device where I was trying to jam my screwdriver there was a warning that said "Achtung! Do not attempt to replace this filter from here! Access this filter from inside the vacuum cleaner!" In my opinion if I have to read the manual to figure out how to do something like replacing the filters, it is a failure in design. Overall, this vacuum cleaner is decent enough. It works well on hardwood floors and tile, but does *not* work very well on carpet. The carpet attachment frequently gets tangled up with debris and needs maintenance.

Common Causes of Distress

The most common cause of a "red indicator" is a full bag.
Pro Tip: When the vacuum cleaner is struggling it's most commonly caused by the bag being full. However, sometimes it's caused by an obstruction in the hose. If the bag isn't full, remove the hose from the unit to see if that relieves pressure. If it doesn't, re-connect the hose in stages from the unit to the attachment. When the problematic portion has been attached the "red indicator" will come back on. Then you'll know where to go after the obstruction.

If you've stumbled upon this blog entry from a Google search for "how do i replace the filter on a miele vacuum cleaner" please leave a comment saying "Hey thanks man! I appreciate it!". If you read this because you're a regular reader of our family blog then I apologize for subjecting you to such a mundane topic. I posted this here as a Dwyer family reference.

Hope everyone has a great week heading up to Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

David Cook Releases First Album

Well, the day has finally arrived. Thinking back to last May when David Cook finally won the thing, I remember thinking that I'd be sure to buy this album the day it came out. However, after hearing the first couple of singles from the album I'm not quite so enthusiastic.

I did a quick listen of each track (on Amazonwhich has a nice "Preview All" function that plays 30-second clips of all the songs on an album) and I thought there were some good songs. I'll probably buy the album at some point, but both iTunes and Amazon have it for $9.99 today. I'd imagine it'll be on sale for $7.99 or $8.99 digitally at some point.

UPDATE: I bought the album for $9.00 on iTunes. I got $0.99 off since I purchased the "Time of My Life" single when it first came out.

Question of the Day: What do you think? Are you going to/have you bought this album?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Just Give

This article in the Boston Globe magazine was a timely read for me this morning as I consider the start of my new job tomorrow. Going back to work was no small decision for me. One of my major motivators was a sense of longing to do something for those in need. The position I chose (and which I'm proud to say, chose me) is one where I can put my marketing skills and experience to work as the Marketing Manager for a children's rehabilitation hospital in Boston. At first I wasn't sure how someone trained and practiced in the art of enticing buyers to open their wallets could turn those skills into something philanthropic. But one walk through the neonatal ward, and I knew that my efforts to help run fundraising events and make the hospital better known in the community could really benefit this place working hard to deliver life altering, quality care to those who so desperately need it.

With all the political chatter lately, I can't help but hear our President Elect's Kennedy-esque call to serve our communities and give back. With politics aside, I say, count me in.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Twitter Hits Its Tipping Point

Last year I signed up for a Twitter account as part of a Web 2.0 exploration experiment. I also signed up for Facebook, Corkd, and Viddler around the same time but drew the line at Pownce and did not sign up for a MySpace account. Of these services I would say that Twitter has become my 2nd most used social networking site next to Facebook. This past week, two of my Facebook friends rhetorically asked "What's Twitter?" and "How is this easier than updating my status on Facebook?"

Valid questions, and I can see why amidst the sea of silly-sounding sites people would be skeptical about joining yet another social networking service. It's almost comical when you log into these sites and see an eerily similar description: "'X' is a social networking site that helps you stay connected with your friends!" "Um, I thought they called that e-mail" you, might say.

Well, yes and no. To those who say "I don't have time to be on social networking sites" I propose that you don't have time *not* to be on social networking sites. The simple reason being that person-to-person e-mail exchanges are time consuming and should be reserved for occasions when privacy is needed. The better social networking sites enable effective and enjoyable asynchronous multi-person communication in ways that e-mail cannot. The majority of the interactions that define the relationships with people we know and care about are the mundane details that make up our days: The fever your child has. The thing you just did at work. The minor automobile accident you just got in. The product you're considering buying and the advice you're open to receiving about it. These are the details that keep people informed about what's going on in our lives that would *never* individually qualify as a reason for sending an e-mail. This is what social networking does really well.

What separates Twitter from Facebook? Well, Twitter (primarily) only replicates the "Status Update" portion of Facebook:

Here is what the input box on Twitter looks like:

So why play around with Twitter when you just as easily could update your status on Facebook? Well, first off, you can link your Facebook status so that your Twitter status updates your Facebook status automatically. To do this, search for "twitter" in the Facebook search box and install the Twitter Facebook Application. This is useful in two ways: First, you may not want to keep track of more than one status setting application. Second, it allows you to reveal details on Facebook separately from Twitter if you so choose. You see, Twitter updates your Facebook status, but Facebook does not update your Twitter status. This can be useful in situations where you would like to share a different status with trusted friends on Facebook but *not* share that same status on Twitter. For example, if you're out of town. Twitter is, by default, readable and searchable by the world. If you value privacy above all else, Twitter may not be for you. While it is easy to restrict who can read your what you're saying on Twitter, it kind of defeats the purpose. You see, keeping your Twitter status open to the public enables some interesting capabilities. Read on.

About a month ago, I sarcastically tweeted (that is to say, "I set my Twitter status update to...") "Hey Comcast! Our Internet connection has been flaky all week. Please repair- thanks in advance. " Wouldn't you know, 9 minutes later I received a message back from a user named "comcastcares" saying "@casperkill Can I look into that for you? There was a routing issue this morning that is now fixed" How did they do that? Well, if you go to you can search for what anyone might be tweeting. These searches can also be captured as an RSS feed, which basically means that without any work reloading web pages on their part, Comcast can monitor what the Internet is saying about them and diffuse hostile though-leader-type customers from spreading negative feedback about them. More importantly responses to the would-be hostile customer can be followed by anyone so not only is the hostile customer resopnded to, but the company publicly displays that they are listening and would like to help. If I'm looking in on this conversation I'm thinking to myself, "Boy, Comcast is on the ball. Well done!" If you care about your company and you're not monitoring what people are saying about your company on Twitter, take it upon yourself to get out there and at least monitor the conversation. You don't even need a Twitter account to do this.

But back to the tipping point... In the just-completed 2008 Presidential election, National Public Radio utilized Twitter to collect data on voter irregularity. You can read more about it here. NPR decided it would be more effective to have individuals from all over the country reporting their status than it would be to have their reporters try to capture stories by randomly running around. If there was a hot spot of suspicious activity, not only could NPR reporters have a closer look, but anyone who followed the discussion with the keyword "votereport" could as well. It is this kind of interconnected information sharing that makes so-called Web 2.0 technology great.

You can also have your Twitter status automatically update your blog. This is how we keep our status up to date on CasaDwyer. This is useful for your friends and family that don't want to sign up for Facebook or Twitter but have a look at your family blog every once in a while:

After a while, you'll find that more and more of your friends are on Twitter, and it's fun to follow what they're up to. You'll also find it an interesting way to keep tabs on people you know of, but aren't necessarily your friends. Guys like "garyvee" (Gary Vaynerchuk from Wine Library TV) or even Barack Obama. You'd be surprised who has a Twitter account!

So sign up for an account and follow me on Twitter. I think you'll be glad you did.

Question of the Day: What do you think of social networking sites? Waste of time? Or the best thing you've discovered in 2008?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Boo! (and sometimes Hoo.)

Once again, Halloween was one of those times when it became clear life is so much better with children. The excitement of seeing their friends, getting dressed up and eating candy seem to combine and yield pure joy. This year, Sam successfully walked up to the doors of neighborhood homes, knocked and gave the customary greeting. He got more than enough loot to fill his candy strip. William made it a few more houses than last year and then came home for bedtime. There were two minor fatigue-induced meltdowns but nothing that a little redirection couldn't resolve.

This year I got to pick the costumes again although I suspect this is short lived and Sam will probably have a strong idea of what he wants to be next year. Of all my ideas that met my criteria of being friendly, funny and cute, he chose to be a fireman. Poor Will was subjected to being his Dalmatian pal. One day I'm afraid he'll suffer an inferiority complex but for now, he was happy to go, "Unh, unh" when I asked him what noise a dog makes.

As promised last year, we laughed in the face of a bad economy and gave out full sized candy bars to all the kids who came to our door. A bit much some might think but Bob and I remember thinking a whole candy bar was really something special. Now that we're the grownups, we were glad to share that awe with all our little friends.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Note from School

Sam has been doing really well at his new preschool. Today, he brought home this note for me:

"Papa play time" is what we do when Deanna is making dinner and I get them out of her way for a while. You should see him on the iPod touch- it's quite remarkable how well he can navigate his way around. Obviously, the teacher wrote what he was saying for this note, but there's no doubt the words were his own. I'm looking forward to the Father's Breakfast!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Three Things You Can Do on an iPod touch (that you can't do on your computer)

Ever since I've gotten my 2nd Generation iPod touch, I've felt it's more comparable to a laptop computer than an mp3 player. In fact, there are things the device can do that most computers cannot. Here are three that come to mind:
  1. Play Accelerometer-based Games

    One of the coolest things I saw in iPhone ads before getting the iPod touch was the Labyrinth game. I remember playing the physical version of this game as a kid growing up- thinking what an interesting challenge it was to get the ball all the way around the maze without falling in one of the holes. I don't think I ever successfully navigated the course either because I was too young and lacked the coordination to play the game, or because the game was broke and the controls didn't work quite right.

    This game is pure genius because it is such an innovative use of the accelerometer. When you first see than an iPod touch has the ability to change the orientation of the screen automatically depending on how it is held, you assume that it has a little switch in it that advises whether the device is upright or on its side. But the sensitivity of the circuitry that makes this determination is much more sensitive than you'd think it would be which allows games like this one and many more.

    The Lite version of Labyrinth with enough levels to get you hooked is free. Click on the image below to visit the Labyrinth Lite site within the iTunes App Store:

  2. Triangulate Your Position via WiFi

    Google Maps come pre-installed on the iPod touch and it is wonderfully customized for the device. Although it is easy enough for your web browser to remember the location of your home and other frequently used locations once you've searched for directions from that starting point, the iPod touch can determine your location automatically. Note that the iPod touch does not have GPS. Rather, it determines location using WiFi triangulation (read more about how this is done here.)

    This is handy for Google maps for sure, but other applications can make use of this feature as well. One that I've found particularly handy is called Around Me (free from the iTunes App Store). Just fire up the app and ask it which coffee shops, bars, restuarants, gas stations, etc are "around me" and it quickly produces the list (see below). I found this to be quite handy when we were at the Copley Square Mall a few weekends ago and wanted to find all of the restuarants near us. Though we could have search the mall directory, Around Me found restaurants just outside the mall that we knew existed but we didn't immediately recall were nearby. Well done!

  3. Enjoy Instant On/Instant Off Capabilities

    Leaving your desktop or laptop on all the time wastes power. However, many of us leave our computers powered on because we don't want to wait for them to start up in order to check something quickly. "Stand By" and "Sleep" functionality is notoriously flaky in my experience and even when it works flawlessly it isn't truly instantaneous.

    The iPod touch turns on and off *immediately*. There is no lag whatsoever which makes it a really quick and easy way to check things like E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. It is also very tiny and doesn't clutter the area up visually so it's fine to keep it out on the kitchen counter or in your pocket.
I don't consider the iPod touch a replacement for a laptop. In fact, the first thing you need to do when you open up your iPod touch is sync it with iTunes on a computer. That being the case, I think of it as a good way to supplement your existing computer, reducing the time you spend sitting down in front front of a keyboard and screen.

I've had the device for about a month now, and although it has bouts of flakiness (which I'll go into further in a future entry) I continue to be impressed with the device and re-iterate my "buy" rating:

Did you know you can make phone calls on an iPod touch?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Announcing The Wellesley Wine Press: All Wine, All The Time

It has been a busy couple of days here at Casa Dwyer. First, the epic review of the Mandarin Oriental below and now the announcement of Casa Dwyer's first spin-off: The Wellesley Wine Press!

I started the Wellesley Wine Press for a few reasons. First, I have a lot of information about wine running around in my head and increasingly it felt unbalanced to include all of that content on Casa Dwyer. Second, I wanted to try my hand at launching a web site and making a tiny bit of money on small ads and product links. I don't have grand visions for making a fortune- my goal is to pay for the $8 domain registration within the first year. How many busineses can you start for less than $10? (or free even if you didn't want to spring for the URL?) I'll let you know how it goes 1 year from today. Finally, I'm really excited about creating a site to discuss wine primarily from the consumer's perspective. There's a sea of information on the Internet about wine. Most of it is either wine reviews (professional or amateur), or retailers giving you their take on wine. I really want to bring a value-minded consumer's view to the wine world, triangulating professional reviews, typical wine drinker preferences and sensibilities, and product availability. I'll also throw in some wine shop and wine product reviews. I anticipate having a mild slant towards Massachusetts, but I hope the information is interesting reading for anyone mildly interested in wine or my views on consumerism.

It is a little ironic that there be a site dedicated to buying wine in Wellesley since the town doesn't allow wine stores. Although you *can* buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant, no wine can be sold in grocery stores and there are no liquor stores, period. Some nearby towns do allow wine sales and I'll be featuring the stores I have a good experience with for the benefit of others who might be interested.

I do hope you enjoy the new content on The Wellesley Wine Press. I'd love to hear what you think.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mandarin Oriental Boston Hotel Review

Summary: A modern, sophisticated, and tranquil urban oasis in the heart of Back Bay. Perfectly situated for a metropolitan getaway for shopping, dining, and more.

  • Elegant and relaxing property
  • Gracious residential-feel rooms
  • Connected to world class shopping and dining
  • Glitchy service
  • Contentious billing
  • Unempowered staff

Since this was going to be our first overnight away since Will was born (almost a year and a half ago) we really wanted to stay someplace special. The Four Seasons Boston was sold out, and when I learned that the Mandarin Oriental would be opening just days before the Columbus Day weekend we'd targeted for our getaway, I was enthusiastic about staying there. I was a little concerned that the hotel might not open on time, and also concerned that there might be some start-up glitches. However, the hotel did indeed open up on time and, as anticipated, there were a number of small glitches.

The Mandarin Oriental website is "okay". So-so I'd say. It doesn't really give you a feel for the personality of the individual properties the way some other hotel web sites do, and some specific information we were looking for wasn't on the web site- more on that later.

Before I go much further, I want to acknowledge that my expectations were very high going into this. The Mandarin Oriental prices and luxury positioning put it near the top of the hotel industry. At this high level I think it is reasonable for guests to have high expectations. Staying at a hotel like this is, for us, a once-every-few-years kind of splurge and by nature I'm a very value-minded consumer. I'm not cheap- I just expect services and products to deliver at the level they're priced at.

After reviewing the room options on their web site, I noticed a "Seasonal Choices" package, which includes the following:
  • Daily American breakfast for one or two persons
  • Single or double occupancy at the same rate
  • Late check out until 6pm (subject to availability)
  • Complimentary extra bed for a child under 12 sharing the same room
I thought this was a pretty good option, since the late check-out effectively stretched our stay to be more like 2 days than 1 night. Breakfast being included didn't hurt either, but I wanted to get more clarity on what "subject to availability" meant (with respect to the late checkout) so I called to make my reservation instead of booking online.

The reservations agent was helpful enough, and explained that she couldn't guarantee a late checkout, but they'd try their best. Since it didn't cost much more for the late checkout, I booked the "Seasonal Choice" package at a room rate of $699. I don't think I've paid more than $400 a night for a hotel in the past (and even $400 is a boatload of money for a night in a hotel in my view) so this was definitely a splurge for us.

I called back a few weeks later to ask about the spa services since they weren't posted on their web site. The agent told me that since the hotel was so new they hadn't finalized the spa menu and that he'd E-mail it to me when it became available. I had my E-mail address attached to the reservation and I thought it would be pretty impressive if he actually followed through on this request- but he didn't. I never heard back regarding the spa services, but the weekend before our visit, we checked back on their web site and found that the spa menu was posted.

Finally, on the day of our arrival I called to ask what the parking options were (they're strangely not described on the web site.) They advised that it was valet only for $48 overnight. Okay, no problem. I thought this would be a good opportunity to confirm our arrival time so they could perhaps have our room ready early and/or confirm late checkout. Although the agent asked for my name and confirmed I had a reservation, the conversation stopped there. A minor missed opportunity to impress if you ask me.


Arriving at a city hotel always seems to be a stressful situation. You've got traffic swirling around, you're in a busy downtown area, and you don't know where to go. However, the staff outside the Mandarin Oriental made us feel welcome and comfortable from the moment we stopped the car curbside.

The doorman ("Jean") immediately opened our car doors, and the bellman took our luggage out of the trunk, tagged it and promised to deliver it safely to our room. Our car was taken by a professionally dressed valet, and the doorman escorted us into the hotel and introduced us to the desk clerk. It was a very professional, top-notch greeting. Exactly what I'd expect at a hotel of this stature. Well done.

The desk agent was quite formal and upright in the manner in which he addressed us. Probably needlessly so. This is where we get into a style preference and the matter of aligning your personality with the hotel you're staying at. For me, I like intuitive service, but I dislike pretentious service. In my view, the service at the front desk, and at the hotel in general, tended more towards pretentious service than intuitive service. Upon check-in for example, we had about a 30 second discussion about whether "The Boston Globe" was the newspaper we wanted delivered the next morning. He could have said "Is The Globe OK?" but he instead launched into a rather long-winded statement about how they have a number of newspapers they could offer me from all over the world, and the default selection is the Boston Globe, but that could be changed and would I have a preference? Um- the Globe is fine, thanks. An example of intuitive service would have been to look at my address on file and say, "Mr. Dwyer I see you're from the area; I assume the Globe will be alright for your Sunday paper?"

Other than being a little stiff with his word choice, he was quite a friendly and eager gentleman. He did confirm when asked that late check-out was a "go" (score!), that our room was *not* yet available (hey, that's okay we were early) and offered to take our mobile number and call us when our room was ready. He then offered us a quick tour of the hotel which was much appreciated and pointed us to the bar.

We proceeded to have a nice lunch at the hotel bar along with some very expensive but very good drinks. Most of the hotel dining staff seems to have come from area restaurants and bars, rather than from competing high end hotels. Right when we finished lunch, my cell phone rang and we proceeded back to the front desk where we received our room keys and an offer of some "welcome green tea." Nice touch!

The Room:

The room was very nice. Very spacious and thoughtfully laid out. It's one thing to have a room be "big" but I thought that in additional to being nicely sized, they did a good job of giving you space where it is helpful. in the walk-in closet so you can easily put your stuff away and not feel like it is in your way during your stay:

The overall style of the room was elegantly minimalist, and moderately Asian influenced. I felt very comfortable there, I have to say. The bed was probably the most comfortable hotel bed I've ever slept in.

The bathroom was pretty darn awesome. Really spacious and nicely appointed. The shower was a little quirky. The water didn't get hot enough although the sink was plenty hot, which indicates that the regulator was improperly set upon installation. There was an overhead shower head (in addition to the regular shower head on the shower wall) that was also a nice idea, yet quirky as well. Upon arrival, the overhead shower had low pressure. When we were leaving our room, we happened upon a gentleman from hotel engineering who was fixing the low pressure situation. We mentioned that the water wasn't as hot as it should be and he said he'd take a look at both issues. Though the low pressure was fixed, the low temperature was not. This was disappointing because I specifically asked him if it would be best if I called the front desk to advise them of the low temperature- he said it would be fine- he would take care of it.

There was even a cut orchid in a vase in the bathroom. A very nice touch since no other hotel room we've ever stayed in had fresh flowers.

The view out the window was quite nice- a sweeping view of Back Bay, with Boylston Street below:

The Property:

Everywhere you went in the property was nicely detailed and decorated to a high level. One of the best features of the hotel is that it is connected not only to the new tenants in the same building (L'Espalier restaurant where we had dinner Saturday night- really nice, and retailers like Frette and Gucci) but also the Prudential Center, and Copley Place malls. I can see this being a major advantage during the holiday shopping season and throughout blustery Boston winters.

The hotel seemed very thoughtfully designed towards tranquility. For example, have a listen to this video I shot of the pleasant "ding" the elevators make:

Even the room keys made a nice sound when inserted successfully:

One major disappointment was that the spa hadn't opened yet. We were a little surprised to hear this, especially since we called prior to arriving and the agent indicated not only that the spa would be open, but that he'd send us pricing. If the spa wasn't going to open when the hotel opened, I think they should have let us know that.

The hotel favored style over functionality on occasion. For example, the salt and pepper shakers were these little glass orbs (pictured below.) Cool looking and everything, but I could hardly get any salt and pepper out of them even when I shook them like mad!


Here's where it gets tricky. Now, I don't want to sound like a whining, complaining guest; but at this price point you've got to expect good service.

First, some positive words. There were many kind and gracious members of the hotel staff we interacted with during our stay. Overall- we had a *fabulous* time. Truly, I enjoyed myself very much and I had a great weekend I'll never forget.

Remember the Boston Globe the desk agent asked me about? It was wonderfully delivered and hung outside our door Sunday morning:

Now, for some not so good news regarding service... Our room was only made up once-- sometime between Saturday afternoon and Saturday early evening. When we were checking in, the bellman proudly pointed out that the room had a "make-up room" button on the thermostat unit that we could press if we ever wanted the room cleaned up:

The presence of such a button makes me even more perplexed why the room wasn't tended to, especially since we left the room often and pressed the button every time we were away. There was no turn down service on Saturday night and the bed was never made all day Sunday. The lovely tray of 'welcome' tea sat overnight and was still there when we checked out. At some point on Sunday housekeeping came into the room to take only the teacups away. We realized this because the housekeeper left the holster to some type of wireless device with a telltale 'HK' marking on it behind in our room.

I always enjoy the room care that you receive on a cruise, and I associate that same level of service with nice hotels. I was really disappointed with this poor level of service at a hotel of this caliber and I have to wonder whether it is systemic or a start-up glitch.

At breakfast, I asked the server about the "American Breakfast" that was included as part of our room rate. I don't mean to be cheap, but the lack of clarity on what is and is not included is a little annoying. I could have just ordered whatever I wanted and hoped that it would all be included, but I'm really not that picky about what I eat for breakfast. I just wanted to know what the deal is.

The server didn't know what was included either (nobody had ever asked him before, the hotel was too new) and after multiple times going back and forth with his management the verdict was that the American Breakfast meant a $50 *per person* credit for whatever we ate that morning. $50 per person? Really? I was pretty certain that at best, it would be $50 per room. We ended up getting a continental breakfast and eggs benedict and a charge of $39 plus a tip which was surely under the $50 limit. What annoyed me about this exchange was that *they* didn't know what the deal was, and in the absence of them knowing what the deal was, they should just say "hey, get whatever you want and we'll figure it out later." I wouldn't have ordered 2 breakfasts or anything- I'd just get what I wanted and that would be it. More about the breakfast charge later...

Contrast this glitchy, clumsy interaction with the lunch we had at the staid Oak Bar at the nearby Fairmont Copley. After a long day of shopping, we stumbled in to the nearly entirely empty Oak Bar. This place is oozing with charm- it is pure old school Boston. It is also very dingy. However, the service was *perfect*. The bartender graciously let us sit anywhere in the place we wanted, set up a great little dining area for us, served us impeccably, and overall made us feel very much at home. They've been doing this for decades and they know what they're doing. A sharp contrast between the Fairmont and the Mandarin Oriental. Full disclosure- 4 years ago we stayed at the Fairmont and the room was quite tired. Would not recommend.


When we left the room (at 5:59 PM, kicking and screaming on the inside- we would have liked to stay longer) we went down to the front desk and had a look at our final folio. There were 2 charges on the list that I didn't agree with: $8 from breakfast and $23 from the in-room bar. The desk clerk knocked the in-room bar charge off without incident, but called over to the restaurant to inquire about what the charge for breakfast was. She was on the phone with them for about 5 minutes while we stood there waiting for the $8 verdict. She should have just killed the charge and sent us on our way- it was a little ridiculous.

I also mentioned the not-so-hot shower and the lack of attention to the room during our stay. Though the desk clerk was empathetic and apologetic, I felt they lacked curiosity into the specifics of the complaint and were just paying me lip service. If they really wanted to understand why I wasn't happy they would have asked clarifying questions about what I meant by "nobody serviced the room" and "the shower wasn't hot enough." Since they didn't ask me those kinds of follow-up questions, it seemed that they were primarily trained to gush sympathetically over the complaint without seeking to remedy the problem in any way.

After the check-out process was (mercifully) complete, the agent did something quite nice. She walked around the counter, handed me our folio, walked us to the front door, and wished us well. It seemed an important piece of protocol, which I did appreciate, though I was left wishing they'd engage me in more direct discussion about my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of my stay than on the pomp and circumstance associated with the farewell walk.

Outside, my man Jean was on point once again. My car was ready and waiting, and our bag was waiting in the trunk (but visible so I could confirm it was there). He asked how our stay was and when I said "good" he stopped in his tracks and asked why it wasn't great. I told him and he was more genuinely interested in hearing where they fell short than the desk clerks were. Good guy that Jean- he gets it. Big time.

On the way home, we tried to put the little things into perspective and take stock of our weekend as a whole. Again, we had a great time. But this is a review which seeks to color the experience as a whole. We knew there'd be some glitches going into it given the newness of the hotel. These start-up glitches could have been far worse. Overall, we had a splendid stay.

A couple of days later I had a look at my credit card charges. I was surprised to see that the $31 in charges I disputed upon check-out *hadn't* been credited to our account. In fact, they charged me an *extra* $31 for a total over-charge of $62! I had a look at the folio they sent me home with and noticed that it only included $31 charges and omitted the bulk of my charges.

I called them up, described the situation, and asked them to E-mail me a copy of my folio (that included all of the charges.) The agent told me they'd take care of it. I asked them to call me to confirm what "take care of it" meant. A different agent called back the next day. I asked him to E-mail me a copy of the folio too- it finally arrived a couple of days later. He said he had to work with a colleague of his to resolve the charges correctly.

There seemed to be a lack of empowerment of the employees at this hotel. Everything had to be run past a manager, and it only served to make issue resolution take longer. I feel the hotel could really benefit from empowering line level employees with small decisions like a $31 charge reversal. In the end they took care of everything, but I don't think it should take so much work on the part of the guest to make that happen. It was way too interactive a process for my taste.

Would we go back? Geez, I dunno. We'd definitely like to make an annual thing out of this, but next time I think I'll try to book a room at the Four Seasons with more advanced notice. I think it comes down to a question of style. I'm more of a Nordstrom guy than a Neiman Marcus guy. I favor quality service over being fancy. And while the service wasn't bad by any means at the Mandarin Oriental, it doesn't seem to be their primary focus. Based on my stay, if I had to guess what their primary focus is, it seems to be on understated elegance and offering a quiet enclave for guests. Not a bad aspiration, but not exactly aligned with my priorities as a guest.

UPDATE (11/30/2008): Please read my follow-up entry here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bates Pumpkin Fair

Thursday, October 02, 2008

First Single off David Cook's Debut Album

I was a huge fan of David Cook's performance on last season's "American Idol", so when I heard he was releasing the first single of his album (due out in November) I was really looking forward to hearing it:

I'm a little disappointed with the song. Okay, a lot disappointed. I think this song is worse than almost everything he did on the show- which is amazing because on the show he was able to either select or rearrange multiple songs each week and he succeeded far more than he failed.

Question of the Day: What do you think of this song? Like it? Dislike it? Just OK?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What is a good microphone for screencasting?

Recently, I wanted to produce some screencasts for work where I'd demonstrate doing something interactive with our software and embed that video in a blog entry. An example of a screencast I've recorded can be seen here.

The first thing I needed in order to be able to do this was a microphone. I considered using the microphone in my laptop, but that sounded awful. I also tried jamming a headset that came with our cordless phone into the mic input of my laptop, but it didn't fit.

So I did some quick research on microphones and came across this very helpful site. They produced audio clips of the same phrase recorded with microphones ranging in price from $35 to $269. The $269 mic sounds great, but the $35 Plantronics DSP-400 also sounded quite good.

I wanted to get started on my recording right away, and I thought the DSP-400 was a good value, so I went to my local Micro Center to see what they had in stock. They didn't have the DSP-400, so I got a similar but less expensive Plantronics microphone for $20. Here is a link to the microphone I bought on with my affiliate information included (they have it for $13.31):

Plantronics .Audio 310

Here are two recordings of the same sentence with the Plantronics .Audio 310.

First, as a screencast recorded with Camtasia and uploaded to Viddler as an FLV:

Second, as a .wav file:

I don't hear a ton of difference between the video and the .wav (which is good because if there was a big difference it would mean the Flash recording of audio was too lossy).

I'm relatively happy with the Plantronics .Audio 310. If I continue doing a lot of screencasting I may considering buying a nicer microphone, but for now this one is good enough to capture my voice without distractingly poor quality.

If you're in the market for a microphone for your computer, I hope you find this information helpful. Consider it my little contribution to the review of microphones everywhere.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cheesecake Factory Curbside-To-Go a Farce

After a week straight of preparing meals for the family, every mom needs a break. Since we never seem to have a good time dining out with the kids (especially at dinner), I thought we'd try to replicate the in-restaurant experience at The Cheesecake Factory by using their "Curbside-To-Go" service (from the Natick, MA area of their web site):

Enjoying a restaurant meal in the comfort of our home after the kids have gone to bed sounded great, especially on a rainy Saturday evening.

At 5:55 PM, I called the restaurant and was left on hold for 5 minutes. At 6:00 PM I placed my order (a pasta dish, a salad, and a request for some whole wheat bread.) I was told it would be ready in "20 to 25 minutes." They even asked me the color and make of my car which inspired confidence that they would be cheerfully delivering the food to my car- curbside. I brought my 3 year old along for the ride and thought "no problem, we'll just be sitting in the car."

When I arrived at the restaurant (15 minutes after I ordered), the first problem I encountered was that all 5 of the marked curbside spaces were taken. None of the cars in the spaces had drivers sitting in them, which seemed strange for spaces that were intended for curbside delivery. To make matters worse, there is construction going on adjacent to this restaurant so the parking situation is a mess. I found a non-disruptive spot to temporarily stop the car and placed a call to let them know I was there in hopes that they'd bring the food out to me and I'd not need to find a spot. Once again, I was on hold for 5 minutes and when someone finally took my call, they took my name and said "I'll tell the Bakery you're here." This didn't inspire confidence that someone would actually be bringing out my food so I began to get a little worried.

Mercifully, a designated Curbside-To-Go space opened up and I pulled in and waited for another 10 minutes. Not once while I was sitting there did I see a curbside delivery occur. Since I didn't want to wait another 5 minutes on hold (and get my food spat upon) I decided to go inside and track down our food. I'm not too happy about this. I left the house thinking that we would be getting food delivered to us, so we weren't dressed for going out. Did I mention it was raining? At any rate, in pile the Clampetts (us) wandering around the restaurant amongst waiting patrons and find our way to the Bakery counter. I ask "Is this where I go when my curbside delivery isn't occurring?" She asks what my name is and goes off to hunt down my food. She eventually comes back 5 minutes later with our food, rings us up and we're on our way (35 minutes after I phoned in my order.)

I'm pretty disappointed with the whole exchange and fuming at this point. It seems to me that the moment you have to step out of your car, curbside delivery has failed. It is the take-out equivalent of walking back to the kitchen to ask where your food is. And it is not so much that you have to get out of your car; it is that you didn't *plan* on having to get out of your car and further, that you feel like every 5 minutes that goes by your food is getting colder and colder.

Indeed by the time we sat down to eat at home, my pasta was quite cold. And the salad dressing wasn't mixed in with the salad. A valid culinary technique to avoid soggy lettuce, but ultimately the food we ate was not comparable to what you get when you dine-in.

I don't fault any of the servers that I interacted with. It seems to me that the restaurant is fundamentally ill-equipped to be offering curbside service. And what stings is that I paid $30 for a lousy takeout meal. That was not the deal.

As a former CAKE shareholder (I bought in 2002 at a split adjusted price of $22 and sold at $29 in 2006, a modest 28% return over 4 years for a 6% annual rate of return) I recall hearing on earnings calls that the company was struggling to increase same store sales because their restaurants were booked to capacity during peak hours. They felt they could increase same store sales with curbside to go since their kitchen capacity was larger than their seating capacity. I don't think this strategy has worked. Look at their performance over the last couple of years in this chart. Their shares have fallen from $30 to around $15. This decline is surely due to other macro effects besides the performance of its curbside program, but I wonder whether there might be poor execution in a number of other areas in the restaurant?

Back to the systematic problems I observed:

The phone line that is supposedly dedicated to curbside orders goes to some general switchboard that in turn gets routed to the Bakery (the place where dine-in cheesecake orders are prepared and to-go counter orders are taken). There needs to be a dedicated person taking phone calls for curbside orders.

So many restaurants are trying to do this curbside thing- but the majority fail. The only restaurant I've seen do it right is Pei Wei. When you arrive at Pei Wei, there is a desk set up right near the curbside parking area and as soon as you arrive someone comes to your car and acknowledges you've arrived, takes your credit card and tells you how much longer it is going to be. So well done! The Cheesecake Factory needs to set up a dedicated curbside desk.

The entire time I was at the restaurant last night, I didn't see a curbside order fulfilled. I didn't see a single employee outside of the restaurant! When you arrive and observe this, you're left with low confidence that your order will be delivered to you. And you're left feeling that the longer you wait, the colder your food is going to get. They need a person running food between the kitchen and the curbside desk so that the curbside desk remains attended at all times.

It would seem that these needs require some alterations to the restaurant layout. What is surprising is that this location has only been open for a year- and the curbside program has been in place from Day 1! I can accept that older locations built before the idea of curbside delivery existed and are set deeply within a Mall don't work well logistically for curbside, but this restaurant is brand new. The company needs to incorporate curbside into their architecture if they're serious about it.

Finally, the employees taking orders need to be empowered to remedy bad service on the spot with no escalation to a manager needed. A free slice of cheesecake or a gift certificate for a future visit (even for a modest denomination) would have gone a long way towards acknowledging that the service wasn't up to standards that night.

I realize this is an excessive rant for the mediocre service I received. But what bothers me is that the company is selling something that it did not deliver that night- nor will it ever deliver until it makes changes in the way it runs the curbside program. When a company repeatedly advertises something it consistently does not deliver, I consider it fraudulent. Looking back at their description of the way the curbside program works, they told me it would "Be as Easy as 1-2-3!" (it wasn't.) They told me I could call their Curbside Pick-up Line (there is no such thing, the number is a general restaurant number). They told me my food would be delivered right to me car and I'd be on my way (didn't happen either.)

The final kick in the pants? Remember that bread we requested? Although it was noted on our receipt, it was not in the bag. Bungled! Talk about a little thing that diminished the experience.

What do you think of curbside service? Have you experienced similar? Are other restaurants doing this better than The Cheesecake Factory -or- is this problem common across all restaurants?

cc: Cheesecake Factory Comments

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Product Review: 5 Days with the iPod touch 2G

When the first iPhone was released in the summer of 2007, an 8GB model cost $599. Industrious types sought to purchase an iPhone so that they could take advantage of all the iPhone had to offer outside of its cellular service and then promptly cancel service with AT&T. The people who went this route saw the iPhone as a next generation iPod, and liked it, but didn't want to be encumbered by a cellular contract with AT&T. For them, the iPhone minus AT&T service equaled an awesome iPod for $600.

Apple quickly recognized that some customers didn't necessarily want cellular service on their iPhone and created the iPod touch- essentially an iPhone minus the phone. The iPod touch was available in 8GB and 16GB models initially, and later a 32GB model. They were priced between $299 and $499, which represents a far better value to the folks mentioned above who paid full price for their iPhones and promptly cancelled their cellular plan.

Fast forward to this summer. Apple once again revamped their iPod touch lineup with some minor tweaks and reduced pricing (to between $239 - $399). Initially, I was disappointed with what Apple announced. To be honest, I was hoping for more in this update (like a $199 price point for the 16GB unit, GPS, and what the heck- some major announcement from Apple that they were entering the Voice over IP market). But after I saw a customer running our Cadence software on his iPhone I felt compelled to get in on the action. Enough of this goofy deliberating- pull the trigger already, right? I found a meager corporate discount available and placed my order for an 8GB unit.

My iPod touch arrived last Friday and I of course immediately busted it open and started playing with it. Deanna chastised me for not even acknowledging the FedEx driver's existence, but forgive me- I was just so pumped to crack the thing open, I wasn't focused on my manners! (sorry, FedEx driver)

I'd played with the iPhone and the iPod touch at the Apple store many times, but having my own was different because I could enter my user name and password in sites without worrying about forgetting to clear them out. More meaningfully, it gave me a chance to set up my Yahoo! Email to see how that worked out. I was initially suspicious of how this would work, because I don't pay for my Yahoo! Email on my PC, and on the PC if you don't pay for Email you can't check your Email with POP or IMAP accounts- you can only check it through Yahoo! web mail. However, on the iPod touch, Yahoo! Email configuration was a breeze- I just entered my user name and password and I was done. It syncs with what I do on Yahoo! web mail automatically and overall works really well! Nice.

Before I get too excited and go all "Apple Fanboy", I want to note that nobody reads more about Apple products without buying them than I do. I'm all over, and any other Apple mention that pops up in My Yahoo!, but I can always find a reason not to buy the product. "Wait until it comes out on Verizon," (for the iPhone) "I'll wait until it has a DVR," (for the AppleTV) and "I'll wait until the 24 inch screen is $999" (for the iMac) are just some of my favorites. I can find the fatal flaw in any Apple product. And believe me- there are flaws. iPhoto's lack of selective import has been a pet peeve of mine since we bought Deanna's iBook and since nobody is developing good photo management software for Macs other than Apple (unlike Google's excellent Picasa application for Windows) you're stuck until Apple decides to address the limitation.

But this situation, I feel, is more problematic in the computing world than in the consumer electronics world. Namely, I think the iPhone, iPod, and AppleTV are further ahead of their respective competition than Macs are ahead of PCs. The consumer electronics space is less defined; less, I don't know- what's the expression I'm looking for here?- "pounded on by millions of users to the point where it works really really well". These days, I assess usability in terms of how difficult it is to do something with one hand free and a baby in the other and against that metric I find my Windows PC easier to use than a Mac. But that's a story for another day (PC vs. Mac). Let's talk about the iPod touch...

What I like so far:
  • Works really really well out of the box. The thing synced seamlessly and easily with my existing iTunes library without incident, Wi-Fi setup was a breeze, Email setup was a snap and I was up and running in less than 5 minutes.

  • A laptop computer in your palm. It is amazing what you can do on this thing. Via Wi-Fi you can check your Email, browse the web, search YouTube and more.

  • The App store. Apple recognized that the device would be more compelling if they opened it up to developers. Consequently, we have customized iPhone/iPod touch "Apps" for Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, The New York Times, LinkedIn, AIM (*free* SMS text messages!), and games. Tons of games, including my favorite free one- Labyrinth. Using the iPhone accelerometer perfectly it simulates the old physical metal ball/wooden table game we had when we were kids. SO WELL DONE. You've gotta check it out. They even have several "leveling" Apps so you can use your iPod touch as a level for hanging pictures and what not. Silly, but interesting.

  • An innovative jukebox. Continuing the iPod's long legacy as a great music player, the iPod touch has two capabilities that have changed the way we listen to music. Since it is portable as all heck, I can easily connect it to our home stereo to serve up music.

    The new "Genius" feature in iTunes (released in iTunes 8.0 and iPhone/iPod touch firmware 2.1) intelligently picks songs on your device that are musically similar. Ask it to produce a Genius list for Coldplay's "Fix You"- you get U2's "City of Blinding Lights" and Audioslave's "Like a Stone". Not perfect matches, but if there was some technology that could truly "clone" Coldplay's amazing song "Fix You" it would be worth more than Apple as a company in my view (but I digress).

    Separately, but similarly, Pandora is also available on the iPod touch. Founded in 2000, Pandora's claim to fame is that they've assembled a Musical Genome for a boatload of songs and as a result they're able to pick songs similar to artists or songs that you already like. Ask it to find songs similar to "Fix You" and I get "Sullivan Street" by The Counting Crows and "In the Middle" by Mat Kearney. The Counting Crows I'd heard of- Mat Kearney not so much; musical discovery. What I love about Pandora is their Web 2.0 angle- they were quick to come out with a Facebook tie-in (if you're my friend you can see not only which stations I'm listening to but you can also pick up the variant of that station based on the thumbs-up/thumbs-down I've given that station (thanks to my friend Michelle Crandall for pointing that nuance out to me). Very cool. Further, they were quick to come out with an iPhone App which means that for free with an iPod touch you can download the Pandora Application in a matter of seconds and you're up and running this (from my "Fake Plastic Trees" Pandora station):

What I don't like so far:
  • Hand-feel. Although the machine is impossibly thin and incredibly well designed visually, it is also very slippery in my hands. There's a free golf App that simulates being at a driving range and I swear if I gave that my full effort I'd throw the iPod touch through a window. Also, I find it near impossible to type with two thumbs when the screen is in the upright position because the screen is too small for my thumbs; everything is just too close together. In the landscape position, I can type more easily but unfortunately some applications refuse to go into landscape mode. Painfully- the Mail application is one of them (which is painful because Email involves heavy typing).

  • Crashy crashy. Many of the applications, including the Safari web browser, crash. Frequently. But it's kind of interesting the way they crash- they just kind of disappear and return you to the main screen. For example, when I was considering using Yahoo! web mail's free text messaging capabilities (before I discovered I could do the same in AIM more easily) I tried going to and then clicking "New"->Text Message. But as soon as I click "New", Safari crashes:

  • Limited VPN capabilities. I found that I was unable to connect to my corporate network because my company doesn't use Cisco VPN, which is the only commercial VPN standard the iPhone supports. When I contacted my IT department about this, they flat-out refused to support the iPhone in any way because of "security issues". I don't know whether it is possible to connect with enough information (like the "Group Name" and "Secret") -or- whether it is truly impossible to connect to a Nortel VPN server with a Cisco VPN client. At any rate, all of the hype about the iPhone now supporting enterprise and Exchange is not quite useful, at least for me. I guess that's OK though- I'll keep my iPod touch as a completely fun-time device that allows me to connect to the web without getting dragged into work-related activities.
Overall, I'm happy with my purchase so far. For a little over $200 the iPod touch provides what I feel is an affordable supplement to your existing desktop/laptop computer and is likely to change the way you interact with your digital media and the Internet. I'm far less likely to undock my laptop after working hours since I can easily check my Email, Facebook, and Twitter with just a few taps. Further, the music serving capabilities alone are (perhaps) worth the price of admission. To call the iPod touch an "MP3 Player" is like calling your computer a "DVD Player"- there's just so much more it can do than play MP3s.

I'm mindful of my initial exuberance when we first purchased Deanna's iBook, much of which has waned. I'll follow up in a couple of weeks to describe some of the more unique things you can do with an iPod touch (more info on Pandora, driving directions that automatically identify your starting point and chart a course without printing the directions out, and free text messaging on AIM come to mind). At some point I'd also like to consider the debate of an "iPod touch plus a Verizon phone" vs. an iPhone.

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Further Reading:
I'm curious what you think of this? iPhone? iPod touch? Or none of the above?

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