2009, a year of trying “new things” online

Dec 31, 2009 • alan


At the beginning of 2009, I made a New Year’s resolution, of sorts, to try new things online throughout this year. Specifically, I wanted to crawl out of my curmudgeon cave and try new services like online banking — things that had worked “well enough” in my old way, but that might be really cool once I opened up to them. Now that 2009 is over, I would like to report on my findings.

Online Banking

The first area that I wanted to expand my horizons was online banking. This can be a leap of faith, since financial stuff is very important, and since I already had a pretty good system for making sure things got paid on time and for keeping track of finances.

I converted most of my monthly bills into “paperless” billing, and I opened a new bank account that offered a relatively high interest rate in return for being totally paperless. I abandoned my paper filing cabinet in favor of an encrypted thumb drive. I replaced the “bill box” at home with a set of email folders that let me know which bills were in the queue, and which ones had already been paid.

For the most part, this system has worked very well. But there were a few hiccups. For example, one credit card company does not send me an electronic statement if my credit card balance is zero. That makes it hard to tell whether I am paid in full, or if I might have forgotten to download a statement. Also, I do not get email reminders from our city (my last remaining paper bill) when my water/trash bill is due.

Some banks and billers make the process easy, while others stand in your way. For example, my utility (gas and power) bills are sent directly to my bank, where I can pay them. However, to get my credit card company to send their bills directly to my bank, I have to give my bank the login credentials for my credit card company. BUZZ — I don’t play that game. There needs to be some other kind of authorization… like the way that domain transfers are handled, making the request on one side and validating the request on the other side.

There are also some “work flow” glitches. When downloading statements, some banks and billers pop up a “save as” box with a sensible filename filled in, like “Statement-2009-11-05.pdf”. Other billers populate the filename box with something not-so-helpful, like “billdisplay.asp”. Most offer PDF files, but a couple just show you a web page, and it’s up to you to “print to PDF”. I also had to choose how I was going to distinguish between (1) downloaded-but-unpaid, (2) paid-but-not-reconciled, and (3) reconciled bills. Little details like this can make online bill-paying either easy or maddening. But after a month or two, I had developed a new routine that works pretty well.

The one thing I am still getting used to — I end up with a bunch of windows open on the computer: GnuCash, bank web site, biller web site, file browser looking at PDF files, PDF viewer, email client with bill reminders.

Gadgets

I had my eye on the iPhone for a while, and I decided that when my Verizon contract expired, I was going to get one. By chance, I started shopping right as the iPhone 3GS came out, so I snatched one up, and I completely love it. It’s a game changer. It’s the sort of “nerd-vana” always-on network device that I had been wishing Ericsson could develop when I worked there.

A month later, I bought the ultimate iPhone accessory: a Mac Mini. I was hoping to learn how to write applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The Apple development tools, of course, run on the Mac.

Social Networking

I have always been a little suspicious of companies like LinkedIn that offer services where you can “build your network” of friends online. It’s just creepy… I feel like I am just feeding the marketing machine.

However, in spite of this, in 2009 I decided to take off all of my clothes and jump into the social networking pool.

I started with Twitter, which immediately appealed to me, with its minimalist design and its non-mutual “following” model. Next came the supposedly-professional LinkedIn and it’s more frivolous (and “fun”) cousin, Facebook. I also experimented with location-based services such as FourSquare and Gowalla, but these did not immediately “stick” with me.

I think the tipping point for me was during our trip to Malaysia. I really enjoyed taking photos with my iPhone and then posting them to Facebook immediately.

Online Services

My paranoia against the gatherers of information extends to the cat-daddy of them all: Google. But this year, I decided that these guys really are offering cool services that I would like to participate in.

So I got a Google Voice phone number, and a Google Wave account.

In 2009, I never got around to posting to Flickr or Youtube, although I had planned to.

Programming Languages

I had been feeling a little stale in my work, so I decided to teach myself a new programming language. I spent a couple of days reading through intro slides to Python, and then I wrote a small program to keep track of a “to do” list. It does not sound like much, but I used this one program as an exercise to learn about model-view-controller architecture, “curses” programming (full-screen windows and boxes on a text-based console), and SQLite (a small embedded database library) as well as the Python language itself.

The staleness at work did not last long. I was asked to help out with a new web application project, so I had to become an instant expert in Javascript and PHP, as well as Zend (a web app framework) and dojo (a set of Javascript widgets that can be used on a web page). Along the way, I also picked up a fair amount of CSS (cascading style sheets, which dictate how a web page is supposed to be laid out on the screen).

Shortly after I bought the iPhone, I wanted to learn how to develop applications for it. So I joined the Apple Developer Program, and I studied Objective C and the Apple development tools (Xcode and Interface Builder) by watching the video courses from Stanford University. After a few weeks, I was ready to write and publish a simple iPhone app called “Tipster”.

New Media

One unintended consequence of getting an iPhone was that I now had a very capable video iPod. So I subscribed to a couple of audio podcasts, so I could have some music to chill to at work.

After a while, I discovered video podcasts as well. I am totally hooked, and I have a backlog of TED.com videos I want to watch.

For fun, Sydney and I produced an audio recording that we referred to as “a podcast”, even though it was delivered to her friends on CD’s. But over the holidays, I decided to learn how to publish a podcast by uploading our audio file to my web server, and then by adding a simple XML index file.

**Productivity and Sharing

**

For years, I have carried a small lab notebook at work. It’s where I keep notes, such as what I did each day, tips and tricks, lab set-up, and administrative details. This year, I replaced my paper lab notebook with a Tiddlywiki, a small one-file wiki that I can carry on a thumb drive. It allows me to easily search for key words, share with others via a web server, and keep multiple copies… and it’s smaller and more durable than my paper notebook, too.

And finally, although I have been publishing the “Porter Family News” every month for ten years now, I decided to supplement it with a WordPress blog. This has been my place to give opinions and observations, and to share tips and tricks with the world.

Overall, I am very pleased with where 2009 has taken me. At times, I had to remind myself to keep an open mind. But I have encountered, and embraced, many changes this year.