Canada: Paying More Taxes, Getting More Services

I don’t often delve into politics or healthcare economics on this blog, but I’d spent some time writing up a reply on a Facebook thread that I felt was worth re-posting here. The single biggest struggle I’ve had since moving to the USA has been the healthcare system. It’s…insane. The people who have lived in it their whole lives don’t all grasp how insane it is. This response was written to one such person who brought up the Canadian tax system and said the taxes were too high.

Yes, you pay more taxes in Canada. But you know what you don’t need? Basic healthcare insurance. Guess how much I had to pay out of pocket in 2015 for health insurance? Just under $10,000. My employer also paid $5300 above that cost, so figure $15K all-in to insure two non-smoking adults and two kids. Oh, and another $6500 off my paycheque for the HSA because I’m on a high-deductible plan and I have to pay for ALL my healthcare until I hit the deductible for the year (which is about $2000 per person or $6500 for the family I believe). The HSA is a great invention, but since it’s only for healthcare, it’s another healthcare cost – so figure I’m paying $21K per year so my family has healthcare coverage…yikes! The only good thing is the HSA rolls over each year and helps people save for the more expensive years of healthcare. And that I can pay for dental stuff with it – which of course I have ANOTHER plan for the costs me $1300 a year for. Oh, and vision…
Continue reading Canada: Paying More Taxes, Getting More Services

This Is Why I Love Amazon: Their Customer Service

I’ve been consistently impressed by Amazon’s customer service over the years – one of the reasons I buy so often from Amazon is how easy it is to return things, and how great their agents are when I’ve had a more complicated issue. Today though, they reached an all new high.

I’d purchased an Echo Dot in May, and right from the start we noticed the microphone array was inferior to the full-sized Echo we used to have in the same spot. It’s not uncommon for me to hear my wife or kids yelling at the Echo Dot because it doesn’t respond the first time. It’s especially bad at recognizing commands if there’s any other noise in the room. So it was always in the back of my head that the Dot wasn’t quite as great as the original Echo. I didn’t come to this realization within the first 30 days though, or else I’d have returned it.

Imagine my surprise then when Amazon announced a second-generation Echo Dot only four months after I bought mine, and at almost half the price to boot. The big feature was an improved microphone array. Tech marches ever onward, and I’m not normally one to complain about obsolescence, but four months is completely crazy! It made me think they knew they released a flawed first-gen product and they were rushing to get the new one out. You can’t even post a review of the first-gen Echo Dot now.

Today I called Amazon and basically said I was disappointed in the performance of my first-gen Echo Dot and upset at how quickly Amazon made it obsolete. Most companies would simply feed me a line about how they were serving their customers better by quickly improving their products, blah blah. I didn’t ask for anything specific, I just laid out why I was unhappy.

Instead of feeding me a generic response, the Amazon rep talked to his manager and came back with an offer of letting me return the Echo Dot – five months after I bought it – for an 80% refund in the form of an Amazon gift card. How amazing is that? So I can order the new Dot if I want, and have money left over for something else.

Can’t beat that! Amazon continues to earn my repeat business…which is one reason we’ve ordered from them 236 times so far this year. ūüėČ

A Modern Music Discussion

My Wife: “Alexa, play Two Steps From Hell“.

Alexa: “I can’t find the song Two Steps From Hell in your library or Amazon music.”

Me: “That’s weird. Maybe Alexa didn’t hear you. Alexa, play Two Steps From Hell”.

Alexa: “I can’t find the song Two Steps From Hell in your library or Amazon music.”

Me: “What? I’ve been listening to Two Steps From Hell forever! That’s impossible – we own several of their albums.”

My Wife: “Maybe it’s not in Amazon Music?”

Me: “Hmm. I was sure I uploaded those albums to Amazon music. Apparently, we don’t own any music by Two Steps From Hell? We’ve been listening to it on Google Music for two years.”

My Wife: “Oh.”

Two weeks later, as I’m writing this blog post, I still have this nagging feeling that I own this music…someplace. So I check my music collection on my NAS and five several albums by Two Steps From Hell. I walk over to my Amazon Echo Dot.

Me: “Alexa, play albums by Two Steps From Hell”.

Alexa: “Playing your albums by Two Steps From Hell.”

<music starts playing>

Me: “I’m really glad I ordered a Google Home today”.

Alexa: “Go to hell.”

OK, so Alexa didn’t actually say that last part, but I’m sure she was thinking it. I started off as a huge, unabashed fanboy of Amazon’s Echo, but the lustre has worn off. My first Echo had a mysterious audio failure one month after the warranty expired; Alexa couldn’t verbalize any responses. I’d see the ring light up indicating she was responding, but no sound came out. A reboot would fix it for a while, but randomly she’d lose her voice again. Sounds like a firmware issue, right? Amazon tech support said no and that my Echo was faulty. They very graciously sent me a replacement – even though I was on month 13 of a 12 month warranty – and I sent the defective one back for a post-mortem.

I started off as a huge, unabashed fanboy of Amazon’s Echo, but the lustre has worn off. My first Echo had a mysterious audio failure one month after the warranty expired; Alexa couldn’t verbalize any responses. I’d see the ring light up indicating she was responding, but no sound came out. A reboot would fix it for a while, but randomly she’d lose her voice again. Sounds like a firmware issue, right? Amazon tech support said no and that my Echo was faulty. They very graciously sent me a replacement – even though I was on month 13 of a 12-month warranty – and I sent the defective one back for a post-mortem.

My Echo Dot was ordered March 17th, delivered May 20th, and made obsolete September 14th. That’s 182 day (6 months). Coming from the tech world, I know that technology marches ever onward. Products are always going to become obsolete. But six months between product releases? That’s slightly outrageous by any measure and as a customer, I feel burned by that.

The Echo Dot has a vastly inferior microphone system from my experience – since we moved the Echo upstairs and the Echo Dot became our kitchen-area¬†voice assistant, and it’s not uncommon to hear my wife and son yelling at it. If there’s any ambient noise at all, the Echo Dot simply doesn’t respond. The full-sized Echo was amazing at hearing us no matter what was going on, but the Dot is quite terrible at it. I don’t think I have a defective product, as I had a few people on Twitter reporting the same problem.

Amazon’s Echo is generally great at what it does (music, shopping, home automation), but the deep learning and insanely huge data set that Google can draw upon gives them a tremendous advantage over what Amazon can offer. I’m keen to see if the Google Home I ordered is really as good as they made it seem in the keynote. We’ll see…

“Too Many Minds”: How Consumer Electronics Companies Create Consumer Confusion

This is a re-publishing (with very slight updates) of an article I wrote for Digital Home Thoughts back in 2008. It’s just as true today as it was eight years ago.

There’s a scene in The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise’s character is learning the art of Japanese sword-fighting, and after getting soundly smacked around by his opponent for several minutes, one of the samurai says to him “Too many minds”. The idea is that he’s focusing on his opponent, his own stance, his sword, and the people watching – and that many “minds” is making him a less effective warrior. When I look at the¬†digital camera industry (and many other consumer electronics categories, such as Synology’s insane product chaos) and the proliferation of same-brand point and shoot cameras, it’s hard not to see the similarities. Rapid release cycles – usually unwarranted in terms of actual improvement in features – coupled with out-of-control model proliferation and confusing model names leads to a “too many minds” scenario – and it’s usually the consumer the ends up losing out. Continue reading “Too Many Minds”: How Consumer Electronics Companies Create Consumer Confusion

PayPal: The New Credit Pimp on the Block?

I don’t use PayPal as much as I used to – maybe a couple times a month – but I noticed something earlier this year that struck me as odd. Every time I logged into my PayPal account, rather than taking me to my home screen showing my balance and transactions, PayPal would show me a page promoting their credit card, or promoting their “pay later” service.


Recently, in this holiday season of buy-buy-buy, I used PayPal a couple of times and in every instance the default was “Pay After Delivery” and it was set to withdraw money from my bank account. ¬†You have to dig a layer down to find what should be the logical default: PayPal Balance.

PayPal has been spun off from eBay, and there’s clearly maneuvering afoot to re-invent PayPal as more than just a digital payment tool. They want to finance your purchase, and touch your bank account more often – they don’t want to be an isolated island like many of us (myself included) use them.

We have enough credit cards companies in the world destroying the financial lives of average people – we don’t need more of them. PayPal shouldn’t be going down this road…

An Apple Quote From A Long Time Ago

I was searching for an Apple-related video I did a long time ago, and came across this quote of mine that Gizmodo published over a decade ago:

“The most impressive thing to me about the iPod shuffle is the price point – $149 for 1 GB of flash storage is a lot of bang for the buck. The usual impressive Apple styling is there, but I’m dubious on the lack of a screen – what if you actually want to listen to a certain song? The Apple hype machine spit out some pretty text about how cool it is to be “random”, but I wonder how well that will work in real life…

Based on what I’ve seen so far, the Apple Mini is quite impressive. I’m blown away by how small it is – I was expecting some sort of Blade-sever-esque size, but the Apple Mini makes my Shuttle XPCs look like a full tower. The specs for it are absolutely pathetic (167 mhz bus speed? I can type faster than that), but people aren’t going to buy one because it will their fast, main computer. They’ll buy one as a second or even third computer, something to compliment what they already have, or to fit into a tight space. Hell, I’ve never owned a Mac (and frequently smack Apple around) and even I’m considering picking one of these up. The Apple OS has always intrigued me, but the price point always put the idea of getting one on the “When I get $2000 that I have nothing better to do with” shelf.”

– Jason Dunn, Executive Editor & Publisher, Digital Media Thoughts

It’s amusing to me that a decade ago I had the same conflicted feelings about Apple hardware, and now, ten years later, I’m finally taking action on my idle threat of picking one up. What can I say, it takes me a while to make a decision like this!

Also amusing to me is that a decade ago, I was being quoted between¬†the likes of the¬†Senior Editor of Playboy ¬†and the¬†Editor in Chief of Laptop Magazine. Now I’m an anonymous cog in the AT&T machine. ūüôā

Photo courtesy of The Shrine of Apple.

The Joys of Airplane Business Travel

Ever had one of those airport + flight experiences where enough things go wrong that you wish you could do it over again?

I get to the Dallas airport yesterday, having put in my Nexus pass number online and excited that I can finally use the shorter security line (bit of a long story as to why I’m only figuring this out now), only to find out it has to be put in 24 hours before the flight departs for it to show up on my ticket as a TSA Pre-Check. Apparently the fact that I did it 26 hours before my flight wasn’t quite enough time. Go figure.

Then I go through security and the four people in front of me go through the metal detector. I get instructed to go through the body scanner. I opt out of the body scanner as I normally do. I don’t mind the pat down; I do mind the unnecessary radiation (if there’s no medical reason for it, and it’s not helping me diagnose a medical problem, I don’t want it, no matter how safe it’s supposed to be). The body scanners are part of the war machine that churns away in the USA (and Canada) and is more about fear than actual security. So long as there’s an option to opt-out, I’m going to take it. Getting scanned because I’m told to is not something I’m OK with. The security agent loudly informs everyone in the area that the scanner is harmless and there’s no reason to avoid it. OK, thanks for that Mr. TSA agent, I appreciate you trying to embarrass me. Continue reading The Joys of Airplane Business Travel

Amazon’s Pricing Trickery

I’m a huge fan of and shop from them frequently – 177 orders in 2014 to be precise – and generally like most things the company does. However, when it comes to Amazon discount during limited sales, they aren’t entirely…forthright.

Today is Prime Day, and Amazon has some great deals – but before you click BUY because you can’t believe how deep the discount is, be sure to look at the regular sale price. Regular sale price? That’s right – Amazon sells virtually nothing at “regular” price. There’s always a discount, and when Amazon is showing you the discount – it will be off the original price, not the sale price.

For example, the backpack in the screenshot has a full price of $119.99 – but Amazon didn’t sell it for that price yesterday. The regular “sale price” is $76.85. So is this a 50% off deal at $59.99? No, it’s 22% off the sale price it was yesterday. When you’re deciding if a deal is just too good to pass up, look at the real discount, not the number Amazon is putting in front of you.

UFC Fight Pass is the Worst/Best Video Streaming Service There Is


Imagine with me for a moment if you were a Netflix subscriber, except it worked like this:

…there was no history of what you’d ever watched
…you couldn’t pause watching on one device and resume on the other
…there was no ability to tag content you wanted to watch for later
…there was no binge-watching, even when it made sense* (see more below)
…it was all presented in 720p instead of 1080p (and an iffy bit-rate that sometimes makes for blocky-looking video if there’s a lot of action)
…if you left the iPad app while your video was paused, it would reset to the app home screen instead of resuming, thus losing your place
…if you resume your laptop from sleep, playback won’t resume without a page refresh (thus losing your place in the videos because there’s no history)
…there were no keyboard shortcuts to pause, play, skip back, etc.
…it was $12 more per year if you paid monthly
…sometimes when you skip back while watching on a Roku, it would turn on the closed captions
…if you were watching a TV series, the commercials weren’t cut out, instead replaced with a static image for a several minute duration, like this, repeated over and over again throughout the event:


I’ve just described UFC Fight Pass, a video streaming service launched in early 2014. Yet for all those cons, there are some great pros:

…it has a huge back catalog of content, perfect for catching up on what you missed
…there’s exclusive content only for Fight Pass subscribers
…if it’s aired anywhere on the planet under the UFC banner, odds are it will be available (though there are some blacked-out events)
…on browser-based playback it has a great timeline view that allows you to jump to specific parts of the event (walk-in, Tale of the Tape, knockouts, etc.)
…it’s available across a wide variety of platforms (Android, iOS, Roku, desktop)
…you’re getting to watch events that usually cost $60 (though a few months later)

*Binge Watching Where It Makes Sense: On the most recent Ultimate Fighter TV series, the winner fought on live TV and was given the belt on December 12th, 2014. Yet the UFC didn’t add the final episode of the season until January 9th…why not put them all up before the live TV event? It saps interest in watching the TV show when you know who has the belt already.

I’ve been a subscriber to UFC Fight Pass for several months now, and I’m fairly happy with the service now that I know all the rough edges I describe above. The inability to pause and resume from a previously watched point is the most painful – it makes it hard to watch an event in short sittings, forcing you to¬†hunker down and watch everything at once. I also have to keep a list in Evernote of which events I’ve watched to keep it all straight.

The other main negative is how long it takes for UFC main cards¬†to become available – as of Jan 18th, the newest UFC available is 178, which aired on September 27th. That’s almost four¬†months of exclusivity, which, while I get the importance of protecting the juicy pay-per-view window, four months seems like an excessive amount of time. I’d guess the vast majority of PPV orders come within 30 days of the event and they drop off rapidly after that. If the UFC wants to keep Fight Pass subscribers happy, they should offer up the fights on day 31.

I’ll keep paying for UFC Fight Pass for now, but I hope the UFC improves the experience, gets rid of the pain points above, and makes it worth the $120 they’re charging per year for it.

How To Speed Up Lightroom 5 JPEG Export by 32%

UPDATE: The good news is that Lightroom CC has addressed this issue. When I do a JPEG export now, it uses up nearly all CPU resources, so much so that my laptop gets a bit unresponsive (which is expected).


It all started with one of my customary tweet rants:


I was pointed to¬†a great article written a couple of¬†years ago that involved some great testing and tips for optimizing the JPEG output from Lightroom 2.x¬†(thanks to @MarkusTyphoon for the tip). The main¬†discovery¬†is that Lightroom simply does not fully take advantage of multi-core and multi-threaded CPUs for JPEG exporting. This wasn’t news to me, but the detailed level of testing was impressive, as was the¬†solution for a work-around: use simultaneous export processes.


I decided to replicate the tests on my own laptop; these files are ~25 MB Nikon D750 raw files being chewed on by an aging Core i7-2667 at 2.4 Ghz on battery power. Here’s what I discovered:

  • Exporting 38 images as a single export batch took 529 seconds
  • Exporting 38 images in three simultaneous batches (14 + 14 + 10 images) took 402 seconds
  • I saw Lightroom CPU usage shoot up from the norm of bouncing between 45% and 85% to lock in around 90% to 98% and stay that high:


The net result? Exporting the images using multiple processes shaved 32% off the rendering time. That’s huge!

How to do this? Select your first image, then hold the shift key and click on an image 1/3rd of the way through your set. Press CONTROL+SHIFT+E to bring up the export window and start the first JPEG export. Repeat this process three more times with the remaining images, and you should see Lightroom processing three export jobs:


32% faster exports is a significant time saving, especially if you’re exporting a set with several hundred images (which pros do regularly). I’ll likely repeat these tests when I move to a 6-core system later this year (Haswell-E? Broadwell? Skylake? Too many choices!). With more physical cores, there may be an opportunity for more time savings if there are more than three export processes going on simultaneously.

Now if only Lightroom 6 would do something useful like take advantage of GPU acceleration and not feel so damn sluggish all the time…