Services I pay for online – 2011

I find that as time goes by, I’m less willing to engage in DIY-style tech solutions. I’m realizing that while I enjoy those projects, they take up too much of my time. I’ve decided I’m willing to pay a reasonable price to outsource the tasks. Especially with our semi-DIY cable cutting project taking up just about all my tech time right now. Here’s the services I’ve deemed worthy of paying for online:

Instead of running/maintaining my own photo server, I let Flickr do the job. Flickr is the relative old man on this list, since I’ve been a paid subscriber since 2005. In addition to the sharing & social features, I find my account gives me some peace of mind too – it’s like a low-grade off-site backup.

Rdio, on the other hand, is my newest acquisition. I once briefly tried to maintain my own streaming music server to access songs on the go. It never really worked right, and didn’t last long. For $10 per month, rdio lets me listen to almost any song I could want. In addition to listening on my desktop I can bring it up on my phone (with offline caching!) and they just launched a Roku app too.

I used to have an elaborate backup scheme involving multiple external hard drives and some scripted events. It didn’t always work right, and even if it did my backup was only on-site. Carbonite sits in the background, constantly making sure all my important files (here ‘important’ even includes my music & movies) are remotely backed up.
As a bonus, the service’s restore features can be used to transfer all those backed up files to a new computer as I did recently.

Tripit Pro is a very simple, yet very impressive service. I forward them all my travel confirmation emails (hotel, air, shuttle, etc) and it builds an itinerary for me. The result is viewable online or via their mobile apps. I get messages about changes to flights as I go, no need to juggle a dozen confirmation messages while I’m traveling! Meanwhile Tripit monitors all my airfares and lets me know about price drops, making it the one item on this list with the potential to pay for itself. Tripit Pro proved its worth to me during honeymoon planning last year, but it’s great for simpler trips too.

All four of these services Just Work, and are worth every penny. If time is money, I’m coming out ahead on the deal.

(With a little luck I’ll remember to continue & update this list in future years.)

Death of a Middleman

Related to the HarperCollins/Overdrive fiasco*, Jason Griffey makes a couple of ominous points over at Library Renewal. I want to focus on one bit in particular:

“It is vital that libraries find a way to move out of the middle-man between vendor and patron, and even out from between publishers and patrons. In the world of the digital, disintermediation is the rule.”

This is something I’ve wrestled with for a while now, and almost been afraid to articulate. Heretical statement time: In the Overdrive->Library->User chain of loaning library ebooks, why does the library have to be part of that deal?

Overdrive has the potential to be the Netflix streaming option of ebooks. What happens when they decide to offer a direct subscription option to individual users? And what if that individual subscription cost is less than an individual’s library-related tax burden? Which option is more appealing to support?

Jason’s right – we need to step out of the middleman role in this equation. And we need to do it fast, before it’s too late. I don’t have the answers about how to redefine ourselves in regard to the new reality. But if any good comes out of the HarperCollins nonsense, it can at least start the conversation.

*(Sarah Houghton-Jan has analyzed the situation far more insightfully than I ever could.)

Cutting the cable

We moved recently, and didn’t like any of the cable options in our new neighborhood (we’d go back to Uverse in a cold second if they’d only expand to Durham!). Frustrated and not willing to go with satellite, we took the opportunity to cut the cable as an experiment. We only ever watched a small subset of the cable lineup before, and the rise of video streaming services serve as a decent alternative to a DVR. Here’s how we piece things together, and how it’s going so far:

Hulu Plus. $7.99/month. The vast majority of the shows we watch are on the major networks, and so are part of Hulu. I’m still annoyed that the Plus service actually has less content than the free web version, but our TV has Plus support built-in, no extra box needed. The streaming quality is rock-solid in HD, and I don’t even mind watching the occasional commercial. Hulu Plus isn’t perfect, but is the clear leader in cost per episode of current-season shows.

Amazon Instant Video. $2-$3/episode. Our TV has Amazon Instant Video support built-in too, which serves as a nice supplement to Hulu. It would be too expensive to purchase all our TV this way, but it works well to fill in the blanks of what Hulu Plus is missing. AMC shows, BBC stuff, Community, etc. Their new free movie streaming for Prime customers is a nice bonus, but the catalog isn’t amazing yet.

Netflix. $8/month. We admittedly don’t use Netflix streaming as much as we used to, but it’s still king of movies and seasons of older tv shows. We currently have three different ways to play Netflix videos on our TV – Xbox, Blu-Ray player, and the TV itself has the service built in. They’re certainly king of device integration as well.

Broadcast. Free. Ah, the ‘ol rabbit ears! We pick up a surprising number of local stations, given that we’re just using an indoor antenna. We have some trouble getting our local ABC station, but somehow pick up the Greensboro ABC option just fine (it’s at least 50 miles away!). I’ve also discovered an odd gem – The Cool TV. They’re broadcast only, and show music videos 24 hours a day. Exactly what I’ve always wanted MTV to be!

We picked up a Roku box to handle streaming these services to our second smaller TV, and I’m really impressed with it. The realm of channels is amazing; Hulu, Netflix and Amazon are there of course. But there’s even live streams of BBC News’ UK channel and Al Jazeera English, which fascinate me to no end.

I think we save about $40 or $50 per month when all’s said & done. The future is now!

Wake up, citation styles!

Everyone, including the New York Times, seems to be hailing Amazon’s decision to add page numbers to the Kindle.

The lack of page numbers (when you can change font size in a book, the number of ‘pages’ in the title grows or shrinks) has been a long-time critique of the Kindle, at least back to Princeton’s 2009 pilot program. The critique often specifically centers on one question: How do I cite a Kindle text in established styles without page numbers?

This always rings hollow to me. The problem isn’t with the Kindle, it’s with the citation styles themselves. Kindles already provide ‘location’ numbers, an identifier linked to each bit of text regardless of font size or subjective page number. Why can’t that just be used instead of a page number? It’s more exact than a mere page number could ever hope to be. And isn’t that the whole purpose of citations? Being able to pinpoint the original source? The APA Style blog seems hell-bent on taking an alternate, overly complicated route instead.

I suppose this is a moot argument. The styles won, Amazon is adding page numbers. And I understand that it’s hard to use a location identifier if you don’t have access to a Kindle. But why should digital text have to constrain itself to the way things have always been? Why are citation styles so inflexible?