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A settled nomad living on the edge of Appalachia. I love to listen to music, spend time with my family, and play sports. I'm lucky enough to write code for a living. I'm often accused of having no "filter" as I tend to overshare. I make beer on occasion and try to sample new beers whenever I can.$BillRawlinson

Sony Xperia XZ - A Brief Review

3 min read

Xperia XZ

Last summer I aquired a brand new, top of the line, Samsung Galaxy S7 Active. However, a few months later the protective lens on the rear camera inexplicably shattered and neither Samsung or AT&T gave a damn. Slowly, of the next 11 months the camera lens itself was damaged thanks to the missing protective cover and the screen has started to exhibit pink lines down the length of the right side. Overall, I've been disappointed. The camera was excellent while it lasted but, for a $700 device it didn't last long enough.

The camera is probably the most used feature of my phones. I love taking photos of things I see and places I visit. But all of my photos started to be very fuzzy and to have four black blobs scattered around the center of the image. It was unacceptable. So, this past weekend I bought another flagship phone from 2016 - the Sony Xperia XZ.

I basically went on the hunt for another phone of the same period with an equivalently good camera but which wasn't made by Samsung and which would work on our companies cell plan with AT&T. The Sony was the winner and, at only $350 brand new, it seemed like a pretty good deal. I've now had it in my possession for one day and I'm currently satisfied with my purchase.

The Good:

  • It comes with an even newer version of Android (7.1.1 ) than my S7 had (7.0.1).
  • The rear camera is fast and takes really nice photos.
  • The front camera also seems to take nice photos
  • The screen feels really nice to interact with
  • It seems quite responsive
  • The Sony UI is basically vanilla Android.
  • It is really skinny
  • One handed operation is super easy. It's the perfect size for my hand.
  • Expandable memory
  • Headphone jack

The Bad:

  • The body is slick - my wife fears she would drop it almost instantly. She was afraid to even test the phone less she break it.
  • The screen and body both really show off finger prints. I've never really noticed finger prints on a phone so much before.
  • The buttons are so subtle that I have to physically inspect the phone to figure out where the power button is some times; it's hard to tell if I have the phone upside down or not just by touch. I suspect I'll get better at this.
  • I can't rearrange the notification panel shortcuts. Like I want the flashlight to be in the first row so I don't have to swipe down twice.

I'm Learning:

  • screenshots are taken a bit differently. You have to long press the powerbutton then select screenshot from the menu. Or, you can press power and volume down at the same time. This second way is a better option as it doesn't change the screen at all.
  • copy/paste - to select a word to copy you double click it. I'm used to having to long-press. I was pretty annoyed until I found the guide on editing text

Overall, so far, I'm happy. I might get a lightweight case to improve grip - just to be on the safe side. But, at least for now, I'm not thinking about rooting the phone and installing a custom rom on it. Though I did switch out the launcher for Nova - I just prefer a more customizable UI.

Banned from /r/conservative

2 min read

I have been using reddit in one way or another for 11+ years. I've never been banned from a subreddit before until this past week when I left this comment:

yeah, paying attention to historical context and meaning is totally childish.

That comment was a little snarky reply to :

But the confederate flag represents southerners, who are also my fellow Americans. This "winners/losers" game is childish, everyone from back then is dead.

I'm not sure why I was banned honestly. But the moderators of /r/conservative sent me a message telling me I was and pointing to my comment. They also said I could contact them if I had a question about the ban.

If you have a question regarding your ban, you can contact the moderator team for r/Conservative by replying to this message.

So I did. I sent this message:

why was I banned? Was I too snarky? I said nothing that violated a rule as far as I can tell.

A little bit later I received this message:

You have been temporarily muted from r/Conservative. You will not be able to message the moderators of r/Conservative for 72 hours.

So I guess I really couldn't ask them a question about the ban.

Overall being banned from /r/conservative will have no real impact on my life. I try to read things from various perspectives to understand how different people view things and I can still read the subreddit when I want. I just can't interact with anyone. I can't ask questions or engage in any kind of discourse with them within the context of a posting.

Dollar Shave Club, Harrys, and Gillette Mach 3 Turbo

4 min read

I'm bald. Not totally naturally but bald nonetheless. My hair disappeared in a weird and awkward way so I just embraced it and started to shave. I don't remember how long ago but at least since 2006.

I typically use the Gillette Mach 3 Turbo (M3T). It's a good cartridge blade and it gives me a consistent and close shave. However, it's expensive. Really expensive. For instance I get a subscription of 10 blades from Amazon for about $22 after tax. $2.20 a cartridge is too much.

A few years ago, when Dollar Shave Club (DSC) first appeared I tried out their blades but I had some issues and I decided to just suck it up and keep going with the Mach 3 Turbo option.

I'm often pretty lazy about shaving my head so that was working out okay. Each cartridge was lasting a pretty long time and I could suck up the cost of the M3T option. However, a month ago I decided to be more consistent with shaving my head again and once again I discovered how quickly that wears out a blade. So I decided to give DSC a second try - but just for my dome and just with the cheap 2 blade option since one of my issues with their four blade option was how hard it was to clear the blades while shaving.

Let's just say the 2 blade option isn't great for shaving my head. To be fair DSC doesn't recommend that option. They recommend the six blade cartridge. The two blade deal just didn't give me a sufficiently close and consistent shave plus the handle is really really light weight. I'm glad they were so cheap since I'm not going to use them. One attempt at shaving with them was enough for me to know I had to move on.

I also bought their shave butter which, so far, is a different beast altogether. It's pretty good stuff. Very good lubricant so my razor, regardless of option glides nicely and both the two blade">DSC and M3T clear very easily when using it. Seriously, if you're looking for a good shave cream/bar/butter whatever - give it a shot. You might be a pleasantly surprised as I am.

So, yesterday was my attempt to shave with the DSC twin. Today, I bought the Harry's five blade option. It was at Target and came with a weighty handle along with two cartridges for $9 and a coupon for $5 off if I subscribe. I've not subscribed yet but I might.

I shaved my dome and it was about as efficient as the M3T. The handle (rubberized) is a bit harder to keep a grip on than the M3T handle - but it worked well enough. The blades cleared pretty easily with the shave butter and my scalp is very consistently smooth all over. It was a bit harder to shave over the weird ridges of my head vs using the Mach 3 Turbo. I'm not sure why. Maybe the M3T blades flex more or something? Either way I had to spend a bit more time shaving but the end result is very satisfactory.

It was also harder to shave my face with the Harry's blade than the M3T - especially along my jaw and near a scar just under my chin (Hockey). I think I'll keep using the M3T for face shaving and I'll try the Harry's blades for a bit and see how they work out. I may go back and give the "Executive" DSC (six blades) option a try as well. But, for now I'm pretty happy with the Harry option for shaving my head (along with the DSC shave butter).

Once these two blades from Harry's wear out (or just before) I'll order the Executive from DSC and see how it is. If it is as good (or better) than Harry's I'll probably stick with the DSC option (unless I try out an old fashioned "safety razor" and discover how wonderful it is; I'm skeptical).

TAG You're It - A Watch Band Story

4 min read

I've had a fancy watch for about 12 years that came with a silicone rubber bracelet. When the watch was purchased the salesperson suggested some kind of warranty package which we denied and some kind of joke was made about cats eating the band.

TAG Golf Watch

Less than a year later our cat, Grover, chewed on my bracelet a little bit leaving tear in it that made me nervous about wearing the watch out and about. A replacement bracelet at the time was really really expensive so I rarely wore the watch.

Damaged Bracelet

Every year I'd check to see if I could find a replacement bracelet for less and every year I'd fail. The official replacement part's price has come down but it's still over $200. It's crazy.

This year I finally found a non-official aftermarket bracelet for the watch for sale out of England for roughly 60 USD after shipping. I pulled the trigger and ordered it.

The bracelet arrived yesterday and it seems to be nearly identical to the original bracelet with a couple minor exceptions. The OEM braclet has the words "TAG HEUER" embossed on it; the aftermarket has the word "GOLF" in the same place. The aftermarket is slightly thicker than the OEM watch so installing the new band was difficult when it came time to close the final clasp. Also, on the inside of the band on the aftermarket band there are two arrows at one point amidst the pebbled bumps. I'm not sure what those arrows are about.

Replacment Braclet

Overall, I'm pretty happy with the new bracelet and, when I'm not wearing it, I'll be sure to put it out of reach of my cat. He's still around and will probably be happy to chew on the new band given a chance.

Deafening Silence

1 min read

The silence on facebook amongst my friends concerning the various tragedies of the past 36 hours or so has been deafening.

Is everyone just burnt out? Typically if there is a mass shooting, for instance, I see a lot of chatter about it. Yesterday there were two (the congressional event and the UPS shooting) and I haven't seen a single post directly speaking about those actions. I found the silence on the congressional shooting especially perplexing. Some POS coward attacked our government and nobody seems to care. I don't get it.

Even if folks didn't want to talk about the shootings - I didn't see any discussion of the tragic fire in London which was on my mind all day. The plight of the people in the apartments reminded me of the horror that the victims in the WTC faced on 9/11 - having to choose between an assortment of horrible options and none offered a very good chance of survival.

Maybe the day was just too full of horror so everyone just wanted to ignore it? I don't know; but it was really odd to see nothing about any of it.

Google Home - The good and bad

5 min read

I have been an Amazon Echo user for a while - pretty much as soon as you could get one. We've actually had two plus an Echo touch. But, when Google Home was announced I immediately switched. I switched us because of the ability to have all of the Google Home devices synced and playing the same audio everywhere in the house. I bought four Google Homes and a Google Cast Audio (if that's what it's called) to connect to my stereo in the garage. The future sounded bright and I was pretty amped to be able to listen to music throughout the house.

Until I couldn't.

Sometimes I can; sometimes all of the devices show up as part of the group I defined and named "The House" and when they all do and I tell one Google Home to play music on "the House" it works. It's great. Sure, the speakers on each aren't all that good; specifically the bass which sounds a lot weaker than the full sized Echo. However, the sound is good enough and I didn't have to run wires or buy an expensive Sonos system to get wireless audio throughout my house. So, for the most part I'm pretty happy.

But, sometimes, the group only shows a couple of the Home devices as part of the group. I don't know why. Maybe it has to do with the mesh network (Luma) we have and maybe sometimes the Luma devices aren't working? Or maybe the Home devices have trouble realizing their on the same network when they are on a mesh network?

Whatever it is it's pretty disappointing because it happens too often.

Another problem I run into is that I connected all of the Home devices to my account. But if I'm in the garage casting music and my wife is in the kitchen and she tries to cast some other music - my music is shut off because I can't use my account in more than one place at a time. There is no obvious easy way to disconnect some of the Home devices from my account. It appears I have to reset them to factory settings, set them back up, then attach them to different accounts. So, in order for my family to use the various Home devices as separate music players I have to assign each device to a different account in the family. I'm already paying for the Google Music family account so then it should be fine. But it's still an annoying limitation. We're all in the same place on the same network it shouldn't be this difficult to have them work independently when we want. Or, at least, Google should warn you when you're setting them up that this could be an issue and advise you to use different accounts for each Google Home device.

Another big problem is the calendar integration. My wife and I each have our own calendars plus we have a shared "family" calendar. It makes it a lot easier to filter our events when we need to from within the Google Calendar app/webpage. But from within the Google Home device we can only access the link accounts primary calendar. And, as far as I know, we can't add calendar events from it.

Oh, and we can't "like" a song from the Home device either. I am pretty sure I could do that from day one on the Echo. Alexa had a lot of problems with her overall music selection on Amazon prime music via the Echo - but at least it could "Like" a song. I don't understand how this simple feature didn't make it into the earliest version of Google Home. I suspect a lot of people got these things for music as their primary use.

The wake word "Ok Google" is also shitty. I mean, it's a fine phrase, but if you use Android your phone probably responds to the same wake word. The wake word needs to be customizable. I'eve had the Google Home commercial wake up my Google Home device before. I don't need that kind of crap.

I like the Home devices when they work (playing music as a group around my house) but for the time being I just can't recommend them to anyone else. They are too limited on features and don't seem to be getting any kind of regular monthly updates. If they are then they aren't advertising the updates well. Amazon sends me an email regularly telling me about new things Echo can do (though I hate the "skill" integration of Echo and the need to manually activate skills; at least they are expanding the capabilities of the device). Google just rushed out their thing to be in the market before Christmas and then seemed to pretend like it's sufficient.

I hope it gets better. But, in the mean time I have to create a new google account so that I have five different accounts in my Google Family Music subscription (since I can't invite a not "" google address) and so each device can be on it's own account. Hopefully the group play feature will still work when they are all on different accounts.

I guess I could have named this post "Google Home - The Bad"

Pay it Forward Coffee House

3 min read

A few weeks ago the I drove through Lexington with my family. While there we attempted to visit a coffee shop called "A Cup of Common Wealth" that had a cool theme. They really wanted to make it easy for folks to "pay it forward." Basically, what they did was put up a big cork board and patrons could buy a coffee, any size and type, and label what it is on the board via the cup sleeve. Then, when someone else came in that fit the sleeves identity they could take the sleeve down and cash it in for that specific drink.

Some of the sleeves are bought for specific people. For instance, one in the previously linked image, is for "Lori Benard" but they can be for groups of people or anyone really. So you could prepay for the most expensive coffee in the shop and label it - "Any Coffee for Anyone" and the next person who saw it could take it down and cash it in.

The coffee sleeve can have a condition - like "A Medium Coffee in exchange for Free Hugs for everyone in the room" - or it could have a very specific drink; "A free small vanilla Irish creme hot cocoa for a bearded man" you get the idea.

I really dig how they have taken the concept of "pay it forward" and made it into something concrete. Sadly, for us, the shop was closed for their annual staff Christmas party the day we visited so we couldn't see it in action or put a sleeve on the board.

One of our cool local coffee shops (bakeries) called "River and Rail Bakery" has a bit of a pay it forward implementation via a bucket near the register where you can plop in some cash. The limitation is a lot of folks don't carry cash. Via the prepaid option it would be a lot easier for regular customers to help someone out down the road.

The Cup of Common Wealth even lets you pay for a "pay it foward" sleeve via their website. Each sleeve you prepay for is $5 and you can put in the rules after you select the sleeve count. Then pay away. It seems to me that it is a good business idea and a nice way to build a culture around your shop.

Nashville Is a Fun Town That Was Closer Than I Thought

14 min read

This past weekend we took the kids to Nashville as an early Christmas present/experience. The trip included two shows; How The Grinch Stole Christmas the Musical! and A Christmas Story; a stage play put on by the Nashville Repertory Theater.

We drove in after school on Friday; with a pit stop in Bowling Green Ky to eat and drink at The White Squirrel Brewery which was a cool joint that reminded me a lot of Black Sheep Burrito here in Huntington but with it's own on-site brewery. The food at the Squirrel was pretty good. However, I didn't realize I'd ordered a vegetarian burger (black bean and corn) until I received it. Fortunately, it tasted good. I also liked the beer I had. I think we'd definitely stop in again. I'd kind of like to see what else Bowling Green has going on so it might be a fun weekend get-a-way without the kids sometime.

White Squirrel

In Nashville we stayed downtown at the Sheraton. I've had mixed experiences with Sheraton's so I was a little nervous; especially since we did the cheap route and booked via Priceline. Parking was easy to find (big garage behind the hotel) and the hotel seems to have recently gone through some major renovation - it was very modern and white on the inside. Sadly, the pool is being renovated and won't be open for a while. We were all a little bummed the pool wouldn't be available. However, the staff was super friendly and the hotel was very nice. Because I'd booked through Priceline we had a standard room which had two double beds. I asked if we could get a room with larger beds and the desk clerk offered to put us in two rooms with kings. That was very generous but we didn't really want the kids off elsewhere without an adjoining room so we stuck with the doubles. I kind of wish we'd thought about that a little more.

The Room

A double bed is just too small. I become very self-conscious when sleeping in a small bed and stay on the very edge of the bed. This ended up with me sleeping in a weird angle on a very firm mattress which resulted in my having pretty bad neck/shoulder problems the full day Saturday. Ignoring that though, the room was really nice, very clean, and had a great bathroom. The view was pretty good too.

View at Night

Saturday was really our only day to do stuff in Nashville so we made the most of it. First we got up and headed to a cool restaurant for breakfast called 817 Union. I had the prime rib hash for breakfast along with a couple biscuits. All in all pretty tasty. I also had my first ever Bloody Mary. I'm still not sure what I think of those. It was weird drinking something spicy. From the 817 we headed over to a cool memorial square where they had amazing monuments to those lost in a variety of wars as well as a really nice tribute to police officers who'd fallen in the line of duty. The WWI portion of monument square was amazing but it appears my camera failed when I took photos. Here is the Vietnam Memorial statue which is also very cool.

Vietnam Memorial

After exploring the monuments we hailed an Uber and headed to the Opryland Resort. We'd never really been in Nashville before and we had no idea what this place would be like. It's huge. It sort of reminded me of a cheap facsimile of Disney World's main street. It was nice but it felt a little dirtier and the people working there weren't nearly as friendly as the folks at Disney always are; especially the photographer on their river boat tour. The guide was nice but the photographer was kind of a jerk; he didn't seem like he wanted to be there.

The boat tour was nice - it gave us a nice chance to see some of the cool flowers growing around the river but it wasn't worth $10 a person. Opryland is clearly a money making machine. There were little bars everywhere and shops and endless opportunities for the Gaylord company to take your money. It felt overly hackish. I wouldn't go back even though the building itself is pretty amazing.

Inside the Atrium of Opryland

The main reason we had gone to the Opryland was because the Grinch musical was at The Grand Ole Opry. I was kind of excited to go there since it is a part of American pop culture and has been for as long as I've been alive. We took a free shuttle from the hotel to the Opry building and a really nice guy with a golf cart picked us up from the shuttle stop and gave us a ride to the front door of the Opry. He was the highlight of the experience. A really nice and welcoming person. I wish I had gotten his name as I would definitely have sent Gaylord some feedback on his behalf.

The Grinch musical was pretty good. The guy who played the Grinch was really good (though I felt like he lost some interest when he was doing a bit where he was snapping a crop in time with the music) and the rest of the cast was okay. The guy who played "old Max" had a great deep voice so when he sang "You're a mean one Mr. Grinch" it was pretty cool. I liked his voice for that part better than the Broadway cast recording I had previously listened too. I didn't care for "Grandpa Who" at all and I thought little Cindy Loo Who did a nice job though I had trouble understanding her when she spoke.

The Grand Ole Opry

I thought the Opry building was interesting. There were, of course, more bars all over the place (I caved and bought an Opry Ale for almost $10; it was okay which is better than I expected). It looked like there were no bad seats. I'm not sure how it would be in the back of the upper balcony but the lower level seats were all really good; except they weren't very comfortable. The seating is basically made up of large wooden pews like you'd find at a church; just without the kneel boards. The seat itself was a bit deeper so it was a little more comfortable than a padded pew - but not much. I found myself fidgeting far too often during the show and my sore neck and shoulder were really aggravated by the bad seats. I really thought they'd have something like theater seating.

Once the show was over we headed across the street to a nice but very crowded mall called Opry Mills. It was a mad house and the traffic on the main streets coming in was insane. There is no way I'd want to drive there or spend any more time at that mall than necessary. We bought a couple things and then hailed another Uber and got back downtown for dinner and to prepare for our second show, A Christmas Story.

We had dinner at a little joint called the "Back Alley Diner" which is literally in an alley very close to the 817 Union where we had breakfast. The food here was pretty cheap and was just decent. But the service was friendly and prompt. It was really what we needed because we didn't have much time before the next show started and the diner was within walking distance of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). TPAC had two things going on that night; A Christmas Story and the Nashville Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker. Emily kind of wanted to bail on the show and see The Nutcracker but we'd already bought tickets so she was out of luck.

Christmas Story Stage

A Christmas Story was downstairs in an experimental theater. It was a small intimate space where the stage was the floor just in front of the seats. The photo above is of the main stage area taken from my seat. Through the use of lighting the calendar pattern helped tell the story. The setting was really perfect for the show and the entire set was really cool. I can't say enough good things about the quality of this show.

The cast was small but really good. I was a little doubtful about the casting of an older guy, Derek Whittaker, as Ralphie but he did a great job. He did a good job of projecting the persona of a kid. I was very impressed. The whole cast did a stand up job but I have to also mention Curtis Reed who played Ralphie's little brother Randy. Curtis was "all in" and really cracked me up quite a few times. If you live anywhere near Nashville and like "A Christmas Story" you should definitely check out the show. It is somewhat interactive and the cast is really great.

Set Panorama

The next day we slept in a bit before heading to breakfast at "Wild Eggs". Wild Eggs is a chain but we'd never eaten at one before so it was a local experience to us. The food there was tasty - I had Breakfast Nacho's. Shannon ordered a stack of pancakes and was overwhelmed by the amount of food she received. Each pancake was about 3/4 of an inch thick. If you go to Wild Eggs make sure you go hungry.

As a cool bonus; on our way out of the hotel before breakfast we bumped into two of the dancers (Kayla Rowser and Nicolas Scheuer) from the ballet company and Emily had her photo taken with them. We learned later that Kayla is a pretty accomplished dancer. It is good for Emily to meet people like that who she can look up to; she wanted to buy Kayla's used/signed pointe shoes after that but, once again, she was out of luck. Hopefully, next year, we can get back to town so she can see her dance.

After breakfast we headed home with a pit stop in Lexington at a cool little coffee shop called "Common Ground" and then dinner at some unremarkable Italian restaurant.

Common Ground

Overall it was a fun weekend and I am pretty sure we will be back in Nashville for more short vacations in the future.

Chimney Sweeping?

2 min read

We have some pretty old fireplace inserts. Only one has ever been used so today we had it cleaned and inspected before we start using it ourselves. I don't think it had been used much by the previous owners of our house. Here is a photo of it before the sweeping.

Pre swept chimney

Here is the same chimney after being swept:

Pre swept chimney

I don't see much, if any, difference. But at least it's been checked out and is deemed safe to use. I did smell some soot but that could have been just from them vacuuming the bottom of the fireplace and cleaning out that ash.