Monday, January 28, 2013

Cloud Computing and Programming in JavaScript - A tale of 2 extremes in Scott Hanselman's BUILD Conference Talk

Year's ago, trade shows and conferences were almost mandatory to gain enterprise perspective on new technology and industry trends.  Then, the Internet was born, which led to animated dancing hamsters and rampant sharing of copyrighted music, to the eventual adoption of video ('thank you' p0rn industry).  Over time, these things became much more mainstream.. audio play lists on websites and now user uploaded video like on YouTube.  Now, the Internet is so rich of consumable media, we can broadcast and share so much, such as.. you guessed it.. trade shows and conferences.

So Microsoft has had a number of very good event's over the years, including MIX, which was a web-programming\up-and-coming hardware and architecture conference held in Las Vegas.  I never had the chance to attend it, and just as I was planning on doing so, Microsoft decided to cancel it and replace it with a combined programming experience in Redmond, which went on to be called BUILD.  They, however, kept with custom and continued to stream and share video from the conference sessions on their Channel 9 website.  Since I never had the means to attend said conference, I love having the ability to watch some of these video's time to time.

So today, I was able to take the time to watch Angle Brackets, Curly Braces, One ASP.NET and the Cloud, a conference topic presented by Scott Hanselman.  I really enjoy watching Scott present, he's an admittedly open failed comic who fully embraced his inner-geek, and finds a way to present really high level concepts in really fun fashion.  Google\Bing any conference video of his, you'll see theyre given high ratings.

So I watched the video, and really was in awe in the amount of takeaway I had, mainly because it goes to show how quickly the technology landscape can shift our IT industry.  The operative term here, of course.. is quickly.  So what was so awe inspiring.. well in short I recommend you watch the video (I linked to it above, so you have no excuse!), but here's my punch list of things I really enjoyed about it.  While, yes, it is a Micrsoft speech that does some demo's on Azure, it discusses so much more about how conceptual programming is shifting.  Watch the video for the full idea, but some of my personal takeaways are listed below:

  • The overall concept is that modern day programming.. and not just "web" programming.. is shifting from using the typical client server relationship to hunks of raw power (scalable cloud services) and the power of the end user's client.. not just the OS itself, but the web browser
  • Conceptually, Cloud computing gives IT the ability to start up their server architecture no longer in hardware investment, but in command line "loops", meaning we can specify a server image and use that as a server template.  In Azure, you can cook up Virtual Machines for a variety of server types and Operating Systems.. not just Microsoft.. and have these servers ready to deploy at a moments notice.  In other words.. decide on your infrastructure and have it.
  • Less headaches about hardware - Scott told a story during the talk that helps encapsulate one of the great wins with Cloud Computing.  In short, a chief architect for a major company was discussing the ability to switch to the cloud, and in the process the ehancements provided to the required hardware to continue to run their business centric applications.  As a question from the audience, the presenter was asked about the periodic degredation of using the new hardware, to which the reply was "That's not my problem".  The point here was simple, it's on the cloud storage provider's end to worry about data redundancy and availability, all the end-user has to worry about is speed.. in this case, receiving a greater throughput by switching to the cloud.  Any hardware issues and such are dealt with by the service provider, in this case Microsoft.
  • This just in... Cloud Computing is great for scalability!  OK, nothing mind blowing there, but what Scott did display was that with Azure, you don't just need to create the old-fashioned virtual machine (did I just call a virtual machine old-fashioned?), create a website to work with the VM, and then use cloud to scale that service if you go from 1 to 100 Million hits in a day.. because.. you know.. that's a common headache for all IT shops.  Instead, Scott showcases that you can use Azure to scale aspects of your processing or services.  Imagine needing to batch process large amounts of data, sure you can have a well-equipped server to handle the data load, multi-thread the process, and return the result set... but you don't have to.  With Azure, you can use the scale of the cloud to handle part's of this process, the part's that you need that extra horsepower.. paying for it only when you need it.  Cloud services aren't just for the web, you can use them for basic console applications too if you needed.  You can put your abstraction layer in the cloud, without re-organizing the rest of your applications.. pretty awesome stuff.

  • Spanning to the opposite end of the spectrum here, you can also make use of the client's web-browser for applications now too, there's no need to constantly chuck data via HTTP GET\POST anymore.  JavaScript has wonderfully written open source API's - jQuery, D3, Vanilla JS as referenced in the video - that give you the ability to sort through data, mash values together, and provide an extremely rich application local to the client.  In other words, we don't need a web server to sort 100, 1000, or even 100,000 items and return a result set to a client browser.. the browser can do this for us anymore.  Don't waste time "waiting" for data to come back, the data is already available.. use it.
  • A final point I really enjoyed was Scott mentioning to "expect more from your tools".  Showcasing some new features in Visual Studio 2012, you can get design time support for your CSS files.  A color picker when choosing colors, image preview, font examples when changing fonts or respective sizes, or even browser support for selected styles. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Simplicity in Instructions

Earlier this week, my cousin asked me to share a dropbox folder with him, so we can share some ideas on an upcoming weekend guys trip that will involve some proportion of hiking, camping, eating meat and all around manliness.  I went ahead and created a dropbox account, and was amazed at the instructions provided:

Inspired, I had decided to update any end-user support documentation I had been working on recently.  Look at how simple the instructions are here.  Dropbox just wants to get the users to install their software, so they dont worry about any of the details, just simply "click run", "click yes", and "click install".  All of these details tied up quite nicely in 3 little images, all summed up in a single page view.. no scrolling.. no hovering or clicking, and all at the user's basic eye level across the middle of the page.

This is how all instructions should be written...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Using Excel in SkyDrive To Manage Your Office Pool

Incase you didn't know, I'm a huge fan of SkyDrive, a Microsoft based product that let's you store and share document's in the cloud, giving you access to your files no matter where you are.  As such, I have been deemed a member of the SkyDrive Insider's program.  Should you be interested in becoming an insider, learn more about it here:
A feature that came out pretty recently for SkyDrive, and one that I find very cool, is Excel Survey's.  In short, you can create a survey and share with anyone you see fit, the user can fill out the survey on the web, but you can view the results in Excel via your SkyDrive account, and you can even download the survey results locally to any PC you see fit!

I don't think there could be much better timing for this functionality, today was "Championship Weekend" for the National Football League, and many people will be looking to have an office pool to make the Super Bowl that much more fun to watch (and for amusement purposes only, of course).  When I was in High School, a friend of mine had a huge Super Bowl party at his house, and they had a block pool that required almost no football knowledge, it was a lot of fun! It required you to answer questions like "Who will win the coin toss".. the type of pool that really doesn't require any knowledge of the game itself.

So, I thought it would be fun to throw together an office pool survey, using said SkyDrive capabilities listed above.  What you should know is that this whole process took at most 10 minutes to setup.  So, let's get started!


All you need to get started here is a free SkyDrive account.  No strings attached, no annoying emails, no telemarketers calling you at 3 in the morning asking if you want a subscription to Small Businessman Magazine.. just a free cloud storage account with 5GB of space.  If you don't have an account, hop on over to and create your account.. take your time.. we'll be waiting for ya :)

Makin' Surveys

OK, we have our SkyDrive Account, now let's make our Office Pool Survey!  Go ahead and choose the Create button, and choose "Excel Survey".  You'll receive a prompt asking you to name a file, name your file appropriately

Now, you'll receive a dialogue box requesting you to enter your Survey Details.  Click in the "Enter a title for your survey here" to give a Survey Name, and do the same for your description.  For me, I just entered "Big Game Office Pool" and "Office Pool Questionnaire".

OK, enough with the setup, here comes the fun part.  Click on "Enter your first question here", a sub-dialogue will appear requesting additional question information.  Enter your question, any question sub-title information you feel necessary, and the question type, which can be a variety of options including text, a number, Yes\No, or a Choice.  Here, I had the following details:
  • What Team Will Win The Coin Toss
  • No Sub-Details
  • Type: Choice
  • Choices: BAL\SF
  • Required: Yes
  • Default Answer: Blank

Once done, click the "Done" button, and you return to your main Survey area.  Now, click the "Add New Question" button, add your other questions, rinse and repeat!  You can use whatever questions you want, but if you were curious, here are the questions I asked:

  • What Team Will Win The Coin Toss
  • What Team Will Score First
  • What Team Will Score Last
  • What Type Of Score Will The First Score Be, Regardless Of Team (TD\FG\Other)
  • What Team Will Have The LONGEST PASSING TD
  • What Team Will Have The LONGEST RUSHING TD
  • What Team Will Have The LONGEST Field Goal
  • What Team Will Use A Timeout First
  • What Team Will Win
  • Will Any Team Go For A 2 Point Conversion During The Game (Yes\No)
  • Will The Game Be Tied At The END Of ANY Quarter? (Yes\No)
  • Tiebreaker: Without Going Over, How Many Points Will Be Scored Total In The Game
  • Name
And, with all that done, you're ready to start getting entries into your pool!  The first thing you want to do is choose "Save And View"

Here, you can see how your questions and answers will display.. built in field validation, all data is stored into Excel and available on the web.. told you this was pretty cool!

Now, choose "Share Survey".  This way, we just get a URL to email to other people, and they can access the survey.  Here's the coolest part.  Choosing the Share Survey button tells you that users can submit answers, but not see anyone else's answers.  Go ahead and click "Create"

When given the option, choose to "Shorten" the URL, which will give you a URL similar to the following:

And, when someone fills out the survey, you can see the information within Excel!

So as you can see, Excel Surveys are pretty easy to use, and are very robust.  I know what your thinking.. "Hey Eric.. where's your survey!?!".  OK, OK.. I'm happy to share it out.  

Survey Link:
Folder With Excel File Template:

Hope you enjoyed this post!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Spice up your PowerPoint Chart's With Animations

I had the opportunity to attend some Excel\PowerPoint training yesterday.  Where I work, a number of employee's use Excel extensively to generate business insight from our Data Cubes via Excel, in which these numbers are thrown into varying levels of documents, charts, graph's and presentations.

The course covered a number of advanced learning topics, but we kind of "played around" some when it came to the topics too, and our instructor gave us a cool tip about PowerPoint and charts.. something that I'm kind of shocked I never stumbled across in the past.

So let's start here, let's say you are developing a presentation, and you need to show some data in a graphical format.  In the end, you come up with something similar to the following:

Not too bad, right?  This is your standard "3D" bar chart whipped up in a few minutes within PowerPoint, basic stuff here.  Now, here's the cool trick, you can animate the chart when it's presented.

So, selecting our chart in PowerPoint, choose the Add Animation feature, and add an animation.. I'll use Wipe.  Now, with your animation added, navigate to the Animation Pane.

Right click the animation you just added, and choose "Effect Options..."  In the resulting dialogue box, choose "Chart Animation", and changed the value of the Group Chart drop down to a different value, here I'll choose "By Series"

What does this do?  Well, let me show you how this can spice up your chart!  Now, when presenting this chart, you can animate each individual series step as it is presented:

I just thought this was a cool, and simple, way of adding some pop to a presentation... I hope you feel the same!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Prove Yourself - Using Comparison To Emphasize a Job Well Done

I recently finished a book that I really enjoyed reading, "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely (  In short, it's a number of chapter's based on Daniel's personally designed studies on human behavior, and how while we tend to believe that human's decision making habits are wild, irrational and easily influenced.  As an example, there's a reason retailers may offer something for "free" rather than..say.. 99.9% off.  The lure of free is powerful and makes up buy crap that we don't otherwise need, which one chapter in this book discusses in great and thralling detail.

In another chapter, and an early one in the book at that, is a discussion on the power of comparison.  Let me demo the idea for you, as it is relative to this post.  A website for a magazine publication offers a page on their website for new subscribers, offering 3 options to sign up.  They show as the following:
  • Digital Only Subscription - $59
  • Physical Only Subscription - $129
  • Digital\Physical Combo - $129
That is not a typo, the last 2 options are intended to be the same price.  What Daniel's study proves is that when the "Physical Only" subscription is removed, most subscribers tend to purchase the cheaper of the 2 options.  Why?  In short, it's because the "Physical Only" option isn't truly intended to draw subscribers, what it does do, however, is give a point of comparison for value.  With the middle option available, user's tend to say "wow, I can get both!".  The chapter discusses in great detail how these method's were tested, and how digital\physical subscription rates are much more successful when the base of comparison is available.

What Does That Have To Do With The Price Of Eggs(*)?

Incase you aren't aware, I am a web developer by trade.  When people ask me what I do, and I tell them I'm a web developer, they usually reply "Oh, so you make web pages?", which is the equivalent of saying to Emeril Legasse "Oh, so you make soup?" I usually respond to people by saying "Ever use Google (yes), when you click the button and your search results magically appear.. that's what I do.. I make stuff happen behind buttons".  At this point their eyes gloss over and I begin to remember why people rarely ask me about my career.

When attempting to show potential client's my work, I've begun to make it a habit of providing a basis of comparison, much like the example provided above, and it's something you should think about as well if you want to not just showcase your current work, but also to emphasize how you've performed a job well done on your assigned tasks.  This methodology applies both in freelance work as well as in your current occupational workplace, and make's your results that much more quantitative.

As an example, when a client ask's me about redesigning their website, and they need better Search Engine rankings (who doesn't these days?), it's one thing to implement meta tags, keywords, appropriate page titles and perhaps even purchase some search keywords to start to drive traffic.  However, let's say website sales don't go up, and you start getting harrassing calls at the end of each month because YOU did a terrible job on THEIR website and YOU are causing a loss of sales.. not that I speak from experience here ;)

When you have historical data on page visits, unique visitors, etc. you can use this data to prove that you were at X, now your at Y.  Furthermore, it helps you determine if it isn't so much a technical issue, and perhaps it's the customer service that decided to wait an extra day to ship out an order (shocking how that can affect future orders).

As another example, I recently redesigned a website.  In showing potential client's some of my work, I simply don't want to show them a list of current website URL's to prove that I have done some work in the past, I want to showcase the improvements I made for the company.  So, I want to show a before and after shot:



So, it may not be that the current site design is ground breaking or winning awards (although I always aim high!), but with this method, showing some historical proof can display what was, and what is, and that while there is always room for improvement, some comparison can emphasize improvements made.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Productivity Time - Getting work done no matter what PC you're on

Incase you didn't know, I'm a huge fan of SkyDrive, a Microsoft based product that let's you store and share document's in the cloud, giving you access to your files no matter where you are.  As such, I have been deemed a member of the SkyDrive Insider's program.  Should you be interested in becoming an insider, learn more about it here:

As mentioned previously in this blog, I had the opportunity to teach at a local college for the first time this past Fall.  The experience was as rewarding as I had anticipated it would be, but the impact to my personal time was, easily, triple of what I thought it would take to appropriately prepare for class.  My father's sage-like wisdom was "be careful how much homework you assign, you have to grade it".

Life was very difficult and hectic for a few months as I attempted to appropriately balance full-time work (and a job switch to boot!) along with some side-consultation, fatherhood, normal husbandly duties, and attempt to get some me-time in as well.  One such tool that helped me navigate these murky waters was SkyDrive.. let me explain:

The Situation

Every morning, my alarm sounded at 6:15 am.  A quick brush of the teeth and finding a pair of pants that aren't too wrinkled, I threw some gel into my hair and was downstairs by 6:35 (that's right ladies, ready for work in 20 minutes total).  I would waltz over to the Keurig coffee machine, make a quick cup of coffee, and turn on the laptop.  Enjoying the quiet of the morning before the 2 year old is running around the house doing what 2 year olds do, I would work on my classroom notes and presentations for the week's class, having until 7:55 am before I had to shut down and head to work. 

After arriving at work and tending to my normal duties, the day would eventually make it's way to a lunch break.  When afforded the opportunity to devote some time to my school work, I would crack open the necessary books, open the appropriate presentation files and continue to work and be productive.

The end of the work day would hit, I would pack up and go home, spend time with my daughter and wife, get my daughter in the tub and eventually into the crib, and use any extra energy I had towards finishing up my work.

What this has to do with SkyDrive

In the background of all of this was having SkyDrive - a cloud based storage service that let's you store files and folders on the Internet, giving you access to files anywhere you have Internet service.  With SkyDrive installed, I could open a PowerPoint and Word file (or even just a text file!), edit the file appropriately, and save the file.  While the file saves locally, a copy is also stored on the Internet, making it available to you away from your PC.  Therefore, I was able to work on a file at home, or at work, at my convenience, all without having to worry about thumb drives or any other media, or even emailing files back and forth from personal email accounts to work accounts and so on.

My favorite feature, however, was that I didn't have to worry about versions of Office either.  At home, I have Office 2007, while at work I have Office 2010.  With SkyDrive, you can edit files on the Web, meaning that you don't even have to use Office to edit a file, it's all done within a browser.

How does this magic occur?

There are plenty of resources on the Internet about using SkyDrive, and the setup itself is painless, but I'll give you a brief overview.
  1. Go to and login using a microsoft account - if you don't have one you can set one up for free.  Signing up for SkyDrive automatically gives you 5GB of free space
  2. Go to the app store to download the SkyDrive desktop application -
  3. Once installed, a folder on your local PC will be setup to sync files to SkyDrive, meaning that any file you edit in this folder is automatically available on your SkyDrive.  So you can edit a file, save it, and then go to and have access to that same file!
  4. Installing the SkyDrive desktop application on multiple PC's (say your work PC as well, if your system administrator allows you to do so) gives you access to your SkyDrive files.  Meaning you can edit your files on one PC, and have the file update automatically on the other PC
Look for future posts on using SkyDrive, editing files in the Cloud via your web browser, and even sharing files for other people (such as students or family members).

Monday, January 7, 2013

Project Management Skills

I had a brief amount of time to reflect today as I was in between some to-do items at work.  I grabbed my marker and started to update my convertible whiteboard to keep track of some of my project items, and it dawned on me that even though my titles have included "Software Developer" and "Web Developer" (not that we are only what our titles indicate we are, but I digress...), but I think about the 10+ years I have been in the workforce, and all the opportunity I have encountered, and all the times I have found success in my career, and how they are not because of my technical aptitude (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask ;), but because of my project management skills.

Now, before we continue, I am NOT a certified PM.  My skills don't go much beyond "requirements gathering", a Gantt chart and a few lines in an Excel spreadsheet, but a co-worker taught me a long time ago to make deadlines, break down tasks into workable components, and to stay on target towards achievable milestones.

So why am I writing about this?  Simply put, having recently completed teaching my first full course on Introduction to Technology, I'm thinking about how I was on the opposite end of the classroom a little over 10 years ago myself, and the things I ignored, procrastinated on, or failed to work towards fully.  And then I realize that for all the technical courses I took, and all the business level courses I took, and for all the "core" classes I took, I was never introduced to any project management type of courses.

Admittedly, every career path is somewhat different.  I know that the way we code at where I work is different than the company across the street, let alone across the country.  However, when I think about life skills, "project" management is pertinent if you're juggling a few items at work, trying to maintain a household with a spouse and kids, or even generate extra income on the side by consulting.. or say.. teaching!

So the purpose of this post is a simple one.  If you haven't done so already, expose yourself to project management skills.  There are always plenty of resources online, for free, and project manager's are always needed in the workplace - plus they're a great way to become an integral part of your organizational structure.  For my career, having knowledge of current technologies is pertinent, and creating software that meets the mark for my end users is always a goal, but being able to juggle shifting requirements, or deal with production issues that always tend to creep into an already busy day, is a skill that takes time and practice, but will pay dividend's over your entire career.. and life.

Kindle PaperWhite - First Impressions

My previous post referenced the untimely demise of my lil' buddy, aka my 2nd generation Kindle.  I've been a fan of these devices since the original Kindle first made an appearance, and while I don't consider a tablet to be a necessary device in my life (I have yet to own an iPad, and the sun continues to rise), I can't picture my life without an eReader device.  It's not that I'm an avid reader, I certainly don't consider myself one, it's that when I want to read, I want to be ready and able to do so.

The largest book I ever read was Einstein: His Life and Universe, topping out at 704 pages.  I remember enjoying this book, the Valentine's Day I received it as a gift, the summer vacation when I finally had a chance to finish it, and all the curses I said when I had to find a way to pack that book along with so many other items into the carrying case of my choosing.  In addition, there's always the concern.. what if I don't want to read this while I'm away?   Books of that magnitude make you consider all your options, and whether or not you can physically fit another book or two on your travels.

As you can see above, I'm a fan of the Kindle because of it's technical capabilities.  I enjoy being able to research what book(s) I want to read next and then purchase them when able.. not having to time it with a visit to a bookstore, or wait for it to arrive in a few days after purchasing it online.  As also mentioned above (via my iPad reference), Im not a fan of technology for technologies sake.  MP3 players are cool, but don't buy it unless you think you'll use it.  So, I didn't want to buy a newer Kindle (or other eReader for that matter) over the last 3 years until I saw a need to do so.  While the death of my 2nd Gen Kindle was the cause of my purchase, I had anticipated on making the purchase of the PaperWhite sooner or later.. more than anything I didn't want to make the purchase til after Christmas, should Santa think I was good enough this past year to receive it in my stocking.

So what's the verdict?  Well, I had a few days to enjoy my purchase, and I am very, very happy.  The Internet is full of reviews talking about how 7.5 ounces is a little heavy.. compared to what?  Have we ever compared the quality of a book due to it's weight?  Secondly, as mentioned above, my previous Kindle was a 2nd Gen model, so that had some weight to it, so comparatively speaking, my PaperWhite is lighter than my previous model.  The backlighting of the text is done very, very well.  The "lightguide" does a very good job on evenly spreading the light across the whole page, rather it being cast down like a beacon from the heavens.  Unlike the nit-picking of the weight of the device, I find this feature to be terribly important.  If the light was an attachment on the device, you can atleast physically move the light source to illuminate the important part of the screen, but with a built in device, you really want this to work as expected, which the guide does.

With upgrading to this device, I also had to move away from having the dedicated buttons on the side of the device, and instead rely on a "swipe" or "touch" feature to browse pages.  All-in-all, it's not really a big deal.  Would dedicated buttons be better?  I suppose, but I can definately live without them.  The device holds in your hand pretty well, so unless you have unusally small thumbs (my condolences for my loyal readers who have small thumbs), tapping the left or right area of the screen is pretty darn simple.  Plus, when you look at the form factor of the original Kindle, and what the device looks like now, I have to believe Amazon removed the dedicated buttons for a particular reason.. mainly that they're unnecessary with a full touch screen. 

Finally, there is a large improvement with the screen "refresh" when switching from page to page.  The older model was slower.. and that never bothered me, but now having a device that is more responsive to page turns is certainly welcome. 

So do I have any gripes?  Well.. I do wish there was atleast an audio port to listen to music.  I never needed a dedicated music player on the Kindle in the past, but it was always nice to have in those rare circumstances that I didn't have my MP3 player on me, but needed to drown out some noise while reading.  The "Experimental Browser" is also kind of worthless at this point.  Even though it's marked experimental (setting the bar kind of low), browsing the web in a black and white, limited refresh mode makes America Online\Prodigy dial-up seem more technically advanced.  However, these are both gripes about things that the device is not really intended for.  Want to read and listen to music and browse the web all in a handheld device.. go and grab a tablet.. the reading experience isn't the same, but you can fill your basket with those other eggs!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Death Of My 2nd Gen Kindle - Goodbye Friend

3 years ago, almost to the day, I opened a Christmas present from my parents.  Unwrapping the paper slowly, I found an already opened cardboard box, in which a Kindle had not only been present, but already fully charged and awaiting use.  I quickly named the device (Eric's Lil Buddy) and browsed the seemingly infinite titles available to me.  Ironically enough, my brother (who was 32 at the time) was equally pleased with his present, as he received a playstation.. what can I say, we're kids at heart. 

Over the past 36 months, my kindle has become quite a companion of mine.  No longer lugging around the large books I was attempting to read, nor did I have to wait til it was convenient to go to a bookstore and browse several titles before settling on one, I thoroughly enjoyed researching and purchasing a book, at a discount nonetheless since the book was in digital format.  The kindle was so easy to use, my mom eventually bought one too, the first technical device she has used consistently since a typewriter (Im not joking). 

Fast forward to present day 2013, I had spent the previous few days spending way too much time on playing games and drinking beer I received for Christmas, and to be honest, I had trouble focusing on work when I got back into the office.  Knowing I needed to settle my brain down some, I thought some good, wholesome reading was in order, as I was about 50% through my current book Predictibly Irrational.

Alas, I turned on the device, but the screen was not functioning properly.  The right half of the screen failed to refresh or change, and the left half of the screen was showing what was intended to be in the right half.. so the left most portion of the screen just wouldn't appear anywhere.  On a whim, I decided to hold the power button for an extended period of time, to see if a hard-reset would change the appearance at all, but to no avail.  What I found so upsetting was that my device was working just fine up until, well.. now.  I hadn't dropped it, scuffed it, scraped it or even yelled at it.  The device was in very good condition, except for normal wear and tear, and now.. poof!

Now, I know my device is 3 years old, but it stopped working, and frankly.. I was pretty upset.  I did want to upgrade to a newer version sometime soon.. the PaperWhite's look very cool.. but I had plans to make Eric's Lil Buddy my Kindle backup... maybe hand-it-down to my wife, and on the pretty good chance she fail to not even turn the bloody thing on, add it to Eric's personal tech hall-of-fame (my closet, where all things techie that Im too much of a nerd to throw away go). Not knowing what else to do, I hopped onto and skedaddled on over to the Live Chat support.  I would have settled on sending an email, but they were willing and able to chat now, and so was I.

I typed in my reason for chatting, which was along the lines of "My 2nd Gen Kindle has stopped displaying content, the left half of the screen is normal, but the right half is frozen.  Help me Amazon support, youre my only hope!" - hoping that the tech on the other side of the Interwebz would appreciate a little nerd humor and send me some free swag to sop up my tears.  Gian (the Amazon tech) had me perform some resets, recharges, and ultimately some mouth-to-mouth (ok, not really, but just about everything short of that).  In the end, Gian told me this thing was toast.

Fortunately, Amazon support is rock-star awesome.  They offered me the ability to send in my newly bricked Kindle for a refurb Kindle Touch, with 15-30 bucks off the price.. depending on which model I chose.  I told Gian that I respect the offer to replace my reading companion, but I really don't want to settle for a Touch, when I really wanted to upgrade to a PaperWhite.  As such, they offered me $30 off a purchase of a PaperWhite, which I gladly accepted.  In part because, to be honest, I didn't think they really had to do much for me.  After all, I had the thing 3 years, and they really didn't know if the device had been abused or not, but instead they were good enough to give me something towards my troubles.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Adventures in Cookin - White Bean and Spinach Soup

OK, a few things of note, one.. while I am a very qualified eater - I have eating thousands of dishes in my lifetime.. Ive cooked maybe.. at most.. dozens.  And of those dozen, most involved microwaving chicken in a can and Frank's Red Hot.  However, I also love the concept of a Crock Pot, the whole idea of blending herbs and spices, and a hunk of meat, and letting it simmer and cook together is very appealing to me.  The end of the year allowed me to take a few days of time off to spend time with family, read, play some video games (which ate up most of my reading time, to be honest), and relax.    I thought it would be fun to make some grub for me and the family as well, and so here's one such adventure!

Square One

Several instances of holiday gathering's allowed me to meet my caloric and red meat intake for all of 2013, before the new year even hit.  I needed to make something healthy, and since it was wintertime, soup felt like a good idea.  I did some research (aka Googling) and settled upon this recipe:

Looks good, healthy, and easy.. all in my wheelhouse!  I went to the store to pick up all the necessary ingredients...  store brand vegetable stock?  Please, only the finest healthy veggie stock will hit this palate.  Pureed Tomato's?  I prefer my tomato's hand picked by African monkeys of which I will pay a premium for.  Canned white beans?  I scoff at your request to use canned beans.. dried is the way to go!

So, I went home and threw everything in the crock pot, giving the occasional stir.  Proud of my achievement, I started to dream about how fun it would be to be on a show like "Top Chef".  Would my soups rival the competition?  Would I ever fail to season my foods like so many other chef-testants failed to do properly? What would be the name of my first restaurant, which would surely open with critical acclaim?  Who knows, maybe I would start my own chain of soups and take down the Campbell's empire!  Well.. suffice to say, Mr. Campbell knew much more about soup than I do.

My mistakes were many, I spent more money than I had to on vegetable stock, as there was no discernable difference in the taste.  I completely forgot to add the spinach, which.. yes.. is a "rookie" mistake.. fitting as I am a rookie.  But the coup de grace.. apparently you don't just throw dried beans into a crock pot with the other ingredients..  I learned this, of course, as I tasted my soup after 3 hours of cooking, only to find that the beans we're still hard and chewy.  About 3 hours later, the beans were just about cooked, but soaked up any remaining liquid they could, making more of a white bean "paste" than soup. 

Still proud of my accomplishment to throw stuff in a big bowl and let it heat without burning down my house, I grabbed a ladel, scooped the sludge that is meant to be soup into a bowl, and dug in.  The beans were cooked, I cant say much beyond that.  The tomato's tasted like the tin can they were transported in, and I added a lot.. I mean A LOT.. of salt and pepper.  Out of spite to myself, I made sure to eat all of this mess I created (over the next few days, not in one sitting.. Im not that chunky).  Oddly enough, I wanted to make this dish tasty.  Im sure the fine folks at Fitness Magazine didn't just post a recipe and think "this is garbage, but nobody will eat it".  No, they surely tasted it, or knew enough that it would be a good, hearty, tasty soup that even Eric in Northeastern Pennsylvania can manage to not screw up (which for the record, I did).

Square Two

So what did I learn?  One, you have to soak the beans.  Two, seasoning is really key (duh).  Three, that Im not a good judge at what food will turn out as, until it's complete.  I didn't know what to expect, texturally, on how the soup would, should or could appear when it's all cooked through.
With a clean crock pot, and a few days to stew over the recipe (pun intended!), I went back to the store and picked up more items.  I wanted some fresh green and red peppers, to not only add some flavor, but some COLOR too!  Looking at bland food really does affect its taste.  I also wanted a different type of tomato puree for a base, so I found some Goya sauce in a jar with some added onion, cilantro and garlic.  I'm sure that added stuff will help with the flavor, but I really wanted to avoid that tin can taste more than anything.  However, I grabbed another package of dried white beans, and made sure to soak them this time.

After a full soak of beans, I added all the ingredients again, making sure to add a little extra salt and pepper, and much more concetrated on giving the occasional stir.  I still didn't add the spinach, don't ask me why, but the end result was well.. better!  Would it win me a spot on Top Chef?  Of course not, but it's one step away from the gruel I attempted to serve my family.