Verizon FiOS.

Growing up I lived in Westerlo New York. No, its not a big town. Yes, that’s the reason you’ve never heard of it. In any case, its way out in the middle of nowhere and to this day large portions of the town can only access the internet via 56k…err, make that 28.8k. As a teenager I spent so many hours waiting for a page to load – I learned to read a book at the same time I was surfing the web (a habit that stays with me to this day).

Actiontec MI424WR wireless router
Image via Wikipedia

When I moved to Pennsylvania I experienced what high speed internet was on Philadelphia Biblical University‘s campus. Granted, the speeds weren’t that amazing – but since I worked oftentimes over winter and summer breaks when most of the students were away things cracked along at amazingly fast speeds. The bonded T1’s providing 3 Mbps of internet connectivity.

For a while I moved back to dial-up, until I was hired by Collages.net Inc. Then I moved up to DSL – and through several different providers including Verizon and Speakeasy. This continued until Charity and I bought our current home – and they had just begun FiOS layouts. So we had the FiOS run.

What exactly is FiOS? I’m glad you asked. Lets take a minute to talk about the different types of connectivity one can have:

  • Dial-Up – Uses traditional copper lines and communicates via analog signals. At the sender’s end the modem translates everything into analog and then it must be converted back into digital on the receiving. Okay, that’s not the big problem – the real problem is that dial-up operates at 56kbps at its fastest – and that’s slow.
  • Cable Modem – Operates over the same lines that the cable video network runs over. Much bigger pipes but everyone in a local area shares the same pipe. If you are the only person or one of a small number using cable, things go fast – but start to build up a lot of users at a local node and internet speeds will begin to deteriorate. Common speeds are around 1-8 Mbps (~1000-8000 Kbps).
  • DSL – Runs over traditional phone lines but at much higher speeds than dial-up yet usually at lower speeds than cable’s theoretical maximums. Oftentimes speeds where in the range of 1-2 Mbps.
  • FiOS – Uses dedicated fiber run to the individual home, providing exceptional speeds as high as 20-40 Mbps currently (~20,000-40,000 Kbps) and starting at 5 Mbps!

As you can begin to see from the above breakdown of service types (yes, I ignored satellite, ISDN, etc.) – FiOS kicks butt for two reasons. First, it has a dedicated line and second its speed is excellent. Not to say that cable can’t catch up, but it will require significant infrastructure upgrades by the cable providers.

So, anyways, I’ve really enjoyed FiOS and have very few complaints. But, to be fair, I’ll list the issues I’ve encountered with FiOS:

  • The technicians who installed my FiOS where telecommunications guys and didn’t really understand how FiOS or the internet in general worked. Verizon has been cross-training these guys, but they are still relative newbies. Perhaps they are better now with two years of experience under their belts.
  • Verizon at one point canceled my line due to a billing mistake on their end. Their network did not recognize I had been successfully connected and yet I had internet access, so out of the blue I lost internet connectivity when they decided one day to terminate my connection. They rectified this within 3-5 days.
  • Verizon is horrific if you have to call them. Granted, I barely ever have to call for technical support – but if you do, be ready for your patience to be tried. The worst part is the automated phone system. By the time you reach a technician you are ready to strangle someone. The technician’s themselves aren’t bad, though sometimes lack the ability to effectively troubleshoot the issue (I’m a network guy). The worst though is after dialing through their automated system and waiting on hold for 10-15 minutes you receive this message, “We are sorry, all lines are busy. Please call back later.” What?!?!
  • They only warranty their routers for a year. If your router dies after that period expect to either pay them a hefty fee (and it will die) or go to Best Buy/Circuit City and pick up a new unit (unfortunately, you’ll need to be a geek to figure out how to configure the router).

Okay, I know those sound like a lot of negatives…But its the best experience I’ve had thus far from an ISP. I’m pleased with the speeds and with the technology. If Verizon could work on the customer service aspect they’d have one killer service.

Propel – Energy Drinks.

Orange juiceImage via Wikipedia

[Update: I’m not drinking Propel on a regular basis any more, instead I drink bottled water and juices. We keep a constant supply of bottle water in my office at work – so its pretty easy…]

I drink a lot. No, not alcohol. In fact its a good reason for me to stay away from alcohol. I just mean I drink a lot of liquids – water, juice, lemonade. Yes, I spend a lot of time traipsing back and forth to the restroom.

So, I don’t really enjoy water sometimes. So Charity and I bought lots of juice. Eventually we realized this wasn’t particularly healthy for me since it wasn’t 100% – so we switched to 100%. That was great – except for one small issue, all-natural juice still has a lot of calories.

For whatever reason I struggle to maintain a lean waist, so drinking six or ten glasses of juice a day wasn’t going to help anything (600-1000 calories!). That is when I discovered vitamin water, but ends up that isn’t much better for you either. So now I drink Propel. It tastes pretty good and it only has 20 calories for a 16 oz bottle. Not bad aye? My only complaint is that they use some non-natural ingredients for the flavoring.

So go grab yourself a couple bottles – its good stuff and can help you keep the weight down.

P.S. I still drink three or four glasses of juice a day. Helps make sure I get my fruits. 🙂

Cats?!?

As I thought to myself, “I should really write a review tonight” I felt the blogging blues strike…I didn’t feel like it. But being the good blog author that I am (or want to be) I decided to plod ahead anyways. What could I review? Well I actually have so many products and services – though most fall into a few select categories (books, movies, websites, software, hardware, health/food/household products). I didn’t particularly feel like reviewing any of those tonight so to add some variety, I’d going to talk about cats.

Feral Cats
Feral Cats (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Ohh no, you are one of those cat people!” Well, traditionally I wouldn’t think of myself as a cat person. While I had two cats growing up the one drowned rather early on (a horrific story I’ll tell perhaps another time – end result being mad at my parents for not listening to me on the dangers inherent in keeping a cat in a garage with a water room) and the second was a barn cat – not the kind you grow extremely attached to. My wife (Charity) on the other hand loves cats and was convinced we should get one. Being  much more of a dog person I disagreed – but “while the man may be the head, the woman is the neck and I turn the head whichever way I please” (that is from some movie…and my wife is great! don’t get the wrong idea).

When she told me about the small kitten she had found on the side of the road – dirty and tangled in duct tape, I couldn’t hold out any longer and Hermione became our first kitten. She would be followed several months later by Barclay and then nearly a year later by Piper. Now she’s talking about getting another one – and my heart has changed. While I won’t actively pursue more cats, on the other hand I can’t say no to the little fluff balls.

Yes, cats can be a nuisance sometimes. Not long after we got Barclay I was sleeping when I awoke to something warm spraying furiously onto my arm and head. It was Barclay. For some strange reason she had determined by bed and my body was the perfect place to relieve herself. Barclay still has a tendency to leave little brown nuggets every once in a while – or to spray an aroma on some piece of carpet. Piper believes blatantly stealing toast and meats from one’s plate off the table is acceptable. Hermione likes to whine – when she wants to be held, when she wants food, when she feels like it.

But…Those moments aside, cats are wonderful animals and their benefits far outweigh their nuisances. If you give a cat attention and love they will return it ten-fold. I am sure over time I’ll talk more about my life-long afflict with both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and co-morbid struggles with Depression. Cats (and my wife) are two of the greatest treatments I have found for these ailments (no, you should still go see a psychiatrist! yes i mean now!).

OpenOffice.org – A Office Productivity Suite.

OpenOffice.Image via Wikipedia

[Updated July 28, 2017: OpenOffice.org is still available, but Sun Microsystem’s methods of managing the source code caused releases to take a long time.

Then Sun was acquired by Oracle, and they eventually cut the OpenOffice.org project loose entirely. It now rests in the hands of the Apache Foundation – good hands to be sure.

But there is another fork, called LibreOffice which was made while OO was still under Oracle’s control that has taken the lead in OSS office suites, at least for the time being.

I currently use Microsoft Office but primarily use Google Docs.]

If you want to write a document, what do you use? Microsoft Word. If you want to create a spreadsheet – what do you use? Microsoft Excel? What do you call those interactive slideshows you project onto a screen? A PowerPoint. Who owns PowerPoint? Microsoft, of course.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with Microsoft. In fact, I might even be a bit of a fan-boy. I write this post from a Windows Vista laptop and across from me sits a Windows Vista desktop. Downstairs is a Windows 2000 desktop. I’ve been running Windows for years – and DOS before that. But I’ve decided not to spend my money on Office productivity software. Why? Because similar software to what Microsoft sells is available for free.

[As Of July 28, 2017: Microsoft now offers (and I use) Office 365 as a subscription for $100/yr. (call it $8.50 a month) which covers five family computers and comes with 1 TB of OneDrive data storage. For those who cannot afford this price, open source solutions are still an excellent option.]

Oracle, Sun Microsystems, a company best known for designing Java (a language that is cross-platform and runs on multiple Operating Systems – e.g. Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux) is actually a behemoth of a company that does much more than OpenOffice.org. Sun Microsystems attempted to best Microsoft at its own game with a office suite it called StarOffice. The suite never took off and so they open sourced the code and dedicated some developers to its continued development. Thus was birthed OpenOffice.org.

The OpenOffice suite of products includes almost everything you could need to be productive. They have Writer – which is similar to Word, and it saves in the ODF format which is much smaller than Microsoft’s older DOC format (though with Microsoft’s new OOXML they are getting closer). However, it can also save in a variety of other popular formats including Word (DOC) and Adobe Acrobat (PDF).

OpenOffice has Calc – their mysteriously named spreadsheet application – similar to Excel. Then there is Base, their database application which is based on a full SQL engine and probably is more feature filled than Microsoft’s Access database application.

But what about PowerPoint? Well, first off, the term is presentations. The use of the term PowerPoint to describe presentations is similar to the use of the term xeroxing for copying. Xerox is actually the name of a company – PowerPoint is the name of a product – not of the actual technologies. But, yes, OpenOffice.org even has a powerful presentations application – Impress.

When you have to choose whether to buy Microsoft Office or download the free OpenOffice.org, the choice should be simple for consumers – grab a copy of OpenOffice.org and get on with your life. If you really can’t stand that cash in your pocket drop me a line and I’ll give you an address to send the check to (mine).

Note: I did not say this was an easy decisions for businesses. Unfortunately, while OpenOffice can work in business environments and has been utilized by a number of large businesses there are issues of compatibility and adaptability that are outside the scope of this article.

AAA – The reasonable cost for peace of mind.

The AAA logo
Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t have AAA for years, but one Christmas my mom gave me a subscription, now I wouldn’t leave home without it. AAA at its most basic offers roadside assistance when your vehicle breaks down – not just your vehicle but any vehicle you might be driving. AAA will send out a tow truck, someone with a few gallons of gas, or a locksmith to unlock your doors if you left your keys in the car (again!).

I know some people feel like its a waste of money – but for $60-$100 a year? A single tow truck pull will cost you that much! I’ve used AAA on several occasions in the three or four years I’ve now been a member. There was the time I hit a pothole and flattened my tire – AAA towed me to my mechanic. There was the time my wife left her keys in the car and we called AAA and they unlocked the vehicle quickly and efficiently. These and other occasions make it so worthwhile. Instead of googling for a mechanic we simply call AAA and they take care of the entire process for us.

There are lots of additional benefits to being a AAA member as well. Want to eat out? Go to a hotel? Take a vacation? AAA offers significant discounts on a variety of products and services. Perhaps you are planning a vacation. They can help you decide the best route or rent a vehicle. They offer auto insurance with lower rates and send out a regular magazine with articles about safety and vacations.

Being part of AAA is sort of similar to being in a family. You know that they exist to care for you. I highly recommend them.

His Dark Materials Trilogy Book Review (Author: Philip Pullman).

I’m Impressed

Philip Pullman is a master in the literary genre. I have rarely read novels with such beauty and depth. His Dark Materials is a trilogy of works including the books The Golden Compass[1], The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. These works are rather recent but already deserve to be considered among the classics fantasy genre (alongside J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia).

The Golden Compass Summary

The first volume, The Golden Compass introduces us to Lyra in a world parallel to our own. In this world a Roman Catholic-like church rules with a dictatorial grip and the scholars are a rebellious yet subdued group. There are witches, armored bears, and all sorts of fantastical creatures – including the presence of daemons – visible creatures which accompany each individual throughout their life in a visible manifestation and represent the human spirit. Lyra becomes entangled in grand adventures and must liberate a friend from a secret group that is separating children from their spirits.

The Subtle Knife Summary

The cover of the book The Subtle Knife.
The cover of the book The Subtle Knife. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second volume, The Subtle Knife brings a grander scale to the tale (one might thing of Tolkien’s The Hobbit in comparison to his Lord of the Rings trilogy) and introduces our second main hero – a young lad named Will Parry. Eventually our two heroes’ tales intertwine and we follow as they explore not only their own worlds but many parallel universes.

The Amber Spyglass Summary

In the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, the tale becomes epic in scope and the story is of a grand battle between good and evil – except it is the religious, the god who is evil and the usurper who is good.

[Okay, I really didn’t reveal much there, you’ll have to read it to find out. I am afraid that this book is marred by the urgency of the polemic Pullman offers.]

Why It Is So Good

What makes these works so amazing? First is the quality of the writing. Pullman has a way with words. He can make them sound so beautiful and describes in such vibrancy an entirely other world. But words alone do not make a story. No, the quality of his tale is deep and rich, the light of the world shines bright and one’s imagination easily pulls out the vivid pictures he draws with words. But even beyond this, it is the theories and the mysteries which he throws at the reader which draw this book above the masses of quality reads and enters it into the realm of classics. His discussion of daemons and dust and angels all are worthwhile and offer a philosophical as well as entertaining read.

But Aren’t You A Christian?

With that said, some may be amazed to hear me sing the praises of Pullman. My personal belief system is Protestant Christian and yet Pullman is an outspoken agnostic[2]. In fact, while his first work is extremely subtle, and the second slightly more outspoken, by the third work it is evident that Pullman intends to undermine many of the basic beliefs of Christianity[3]. Pullman has made no attempt to hide his aims and the work is as much entertaining fiction as it is a philosophical treatise.

So why would I read it? First, it is partly because it is a theological/philosophical treatise that I read it. When I speak to others about my belief systems it is with an eager desire for them to honestly consider my ways of thinking and why I believe as I do and the evidence I offer to support my beliefs. How can I offer any less of an open and listening ear to those who believe differently from me? As such, I find great value in understanding and being able to intelligently interact with Pullman’s beliefs.

Secondly, the book offers wonderful insights into the majesty of God. As Pullman discloses pictures of angelic beings, portrays the complexity of the universe, and contemplates the scientific topics that boggle the minds of modern scientists he unwittingly offers insight and wisdom which a Christian can well utilize[4].

I cannot recommend these three volumes highly enough. The first two are relatively light reads, but the third becomes highly dense though still extremely readable and seems the size of at least both the previous volumes. I cannot speak to the UK volumes, I have only read the US volumes and am aware that Pullman’s works have been censored in the US editions to remove some of Lyra’s sexuality which plays a small but core role in the third volume. But, to the US editions, I give my praise…and hope that some day Pullman will willingly use the skills he has been given by God in the defense of God rather than maligning Him.

P.S. For those interested in learning more about this trilogy, take a look at Wikipedia’s article on the subject.

  1. [1]Recently made into a feature film which does no justice to the work. This is mainly due to its less-than-epic nature. It needed Peter Jackson’s treatment and willingness to push the boundaries of acceptable movie length. It was simply too short to express the richness of Pullman’s vision
  2. [2] An agnostic believes we cannot know God (if there is one) while an atheist believes that God does not and cannot exist
  3. [3]While the attacks seem somewhat more focused on the Roman Catholic and similar hierarchical churches as compared to many of the less organized forms of Protestantism, the underlying principles attacked extend across all denominations.
  4. [4]I especially think here of his portrayals of angels and dust

Hotel Rwanda Movie Review (PG-13).

Hotel Rwanda Movie Review

DVD box cover for Hotel Rwanda
DVD box cover for Hotel Rwanda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hotel Rwanda stars Don Cheadle as a hotel manager in Rwanda (during the horrific national genocide in 1994) who also happens to be Hutu (the tribe in power at the time that led the genocide). Cheadle’s character, based on a real man – Paul Rusesabagina – refuses to participate in the genocide and rather than idly stand by begins to offer Tutsis (the tribe then being murdered wholesale) refuge within the walls of his hotel.

This is a gripping, frustrating, saddening, heart-wrenching drama about the genocide. It raises real and deep questions about the nature of the human condition and the responsibility of the world in light of localized evil.

If you haven’t seen this film yet, it is a must see. Take the time to bring others together to watch it with you and discuss the political, religious, and individual implications of the film.

Localized Evil?

When I say “localized evil” I mean evil which occurs in a specific geographical region, which does not directly (immediately, visibly, emotionally) affect us.

Pertinent examples include the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, the Darfur, and the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Some would suggest we have a moral obligation to intervene in these situations but none other. Others would suggest our responsibility to stop “localized evil” extends to situations such as Syria and Mexico.

Others suggest we have no responsibility. That we cannot remedy the world’s ills so we need not try.

I believe we do have a moral responsibility to intervene – not only where human violence arises but where nature takes its toll. But who cares what I say? What will I do! What will I do!

Stamina Recumbent Folding Bike – Model 15-0200

As a geek I have a problem. I live a rather sedentary lifestyle – including a rather sedentary job. I may have the strongest finger muscles this side of the Mississippi, but I’m not sure that will help with my overall strength – or my bulging waist.

Jesse and Ricardo Erie PA Recumbent bicycle
Jesse and Ricardo Erie PA Recumbent bicycle (Photo credit: Ted Van Pelt)

Some of my geek friends take the time to visit the gym. Not me. I have too much to do to drive to a gym. For a long time this left me in a bit of a lurch. Thankfully, I lead a youth group which saw me running around at least twice a week – but still not enough. I figured if I could get a piece of exercise equipment into my house then I would start working out. But a treadmill or stationary bike was simply too big. It would take up half my living room…Not going to make the wife happy that way!

I began my search for a folding recumbent bike and stumbled upon the Stamina 15-0200[1]. It is fairly amazing. Folding up into a size just a tad larger than a vacuum cleaner it offers the comfortable seat with back that makes recumbents so wonderful as well as a monitor for calories, speed, distance, and time. While the unit did come in parts and took perhaps an hour to assemble, once assembled it has been nothing but a joy. Now I ride 1-2 hours every day – while watching television or reading a book. It allows me to get in my physical exercise while also avoiding guilt over taking some time to relax with a good TV show or book.

  1. [1]The model I initially purchased is no longer available, but Stamina offers several other options.

Book Review: Metamorpha (Author: Kyle Strobel)

Cover of Kyle Strobel's book Metamorpha
Cover of Kyle Strobel’s book Metamorpha.

I am a voracious reader and my interests cover a variety of topics. One of my specialties, so to speak, is books of a Christian nature. I enjoy a number of Christian authors and am constantly expanding my interests. Not too long ago I received a promotional copy of a new book by Kyle Strobel entitled Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life. Promotional books oftentimes aren’t of the greatest quality and when I saw that this was in fact Lee Strobel‘s son (Case for Faith, Case for Christ, Case for a Creator) I was instantly underwhelmed. I had tried Strobel’s Case for a Creator and while initially the volume had grasped my interest I became discombobulated and bored as the volume continued. I felt like Lee’s intense writing skills as an investigative journalist didn’t carry over well to full-length volumes and this challenge for journalists seems to be confirmed by David Aikman‘s The Delusion of Disbelief. In any case, my skepticism was high, but I began to plunge ahead – and I was pleasantly astounded.

Kyle Strobel writes with clarity, honesty, and wisdom I have seldom encountered except among the masters. I can rank him without hyperbole alongside John Piper (Desiring God, Future Grace), C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, Chronicles of Narnia), and George MacDonald (Diary of an Old Soul, Unspoken Sermons). The quality of his writing is superb, the content is clear and concise, the depth of his knowledge is amazing.

Strobel is young. Very young. But his work deserves the attention not only of this generation but also of the elder generations. With the wisdom of Solomon he carefully examines the faults of the elder and younger generations. Unlike so many contemporary writers who are blinded by the faults of the other generation Strobel is careful to pull the plank out of each generation’s eye as he seeks to unfold a clearer vision of following Christ.

If you are looking for visionary insight into the following of Jesus. If you desire to deepen your walk with God…Or even to understand who this God is and why you should care. If you find yourself in conflict with those of other generations – or are simply looking for deep, heart-wrenching, intellectual, theological stimulation – get ready to take a wild ride.