Do you buy Froot Loops? Apple Jacks?

2010 December 30
by Steven R Jones

I was in the grocery store the other day and saw some brightly colored cereal boxes on the end of an aisle. I wanted to see how bad things had gotten so I grabbed a box of Apple jacks and Froot Loops to read the ingredients list. I could not believe it but I invite you to go here and here to see for yourself.

The first ingredient in both these cereals is sugar.

Sugar is first ingredient!Ingredients must be listed in order by quantity, from highest to lowest. The first ingredient in both these cereals is sugar.

Seriously? Part of me wants to blast the company that created these breakfast time travesties. But I think it may be more productive to spend that energy talking to you, the consumer.

If your parents bought you cereals like this when you were a kid, then I/we can forgive them, maybe we will just chalk it up to effective marketing and a parent’s desire to please (or appease) their kids.

I know that reading food labels is not as common a practice as it should be. But knowing that companies can get products like this on our grocery shelves and that they rely on us to be too lazy to read – or to care – should shake you out of your daze. All the recent work that has gone into better food labeling is wasted if you’re not taking the time to factor in simple things like order of ingredients as an indicator of a product’s relative nutritional value. At least glance at the label to see the sheer number of ingredients. How many ingredients do you think should be there? How many do you recognize? How many can you actually pronounce?

I once read that its around the edges of the modern supermarket where you should be shopping, filling your cart with actual food that doesn’t have labels or make sweeping claims, things like fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish.  Ha, if only it were that easy. I’ll be back shortly with why that’s not as easy as it sounds.

In the meantime, please help spread the word about the ‘Loops, the ‘Jacks, and all those fake food products. Shame on Kellogg’s for promoting sugar for breakfast. But we’re all a little smarter now, we’re on to you — shame on us if we do not change our buying habits. Let’s help each other become better shoppers and healthier eaters.

A New Year and the start of the next chapter

2010 December 29
by Steven R Jones
Jones gets a new job!

Jones gets a new job!

In 2011, I will start a new job working for a prominent email marketing company based here in RTP. The timing of this is ideal for me and after more than six years of plugging away at my second startup, I’m ready to make this change.

Each of us has his own reasons for the decisions we make and I won’t presume anyone is all that interested in my own thought processes. But you can rest assured that this is a good opportunity for me to continue to grow both professionally and personally. I want to thank my colleagues and friends who have all been supportive and helpful. I’m eager to continue sharing our ongoing experiences, especially with those of you who are contemplating your own similar opportunities!

A note about finding my next job

Many months ago, after moving from Chicago to North Carolina, I started this blog with ambitious intentions. One of my primary threads here was supposed to be an attempt to document my efforts related to finding my next job. Well, the blogging part trailed off pretty quickly but its hard to argue that the job search wasn’t successful. In fact, I’m pleased to report that it was precisely all that active networking that led to this new opportunity. My old college roommate connected me with a friend of his who was working in the local tech startup scene. He and I met once over (good) beers but, otherwise, not much different from any of the dozens of other introductions I was making. Then, months later, truly out of the blue, he recommended me for this role at my new company (thanks again Shane and Mike).

I will likely retroactively fill in the missing details here to finish that initial thread but the lesson is a good one and should reinforce what many people probably already know or at least have heard repeatedly in their own job searches. You need to meet new people. You have to think about marketing yourself as you network. You should always try to make a unique and lasting impression. And, throughout all of it, be receptive to new opportunities – you never know what new doors may open down the road.

So here’s to a bright New Year and the opening of new doors.

Laptop crash forces creative recovery solutions (plural)

2010 May 27
by Steven R Jones
Creative Recovery

Creative Recovery

I’m going to stick my neck out here right from the start and admit publicly that my Apple MacBook Pro crashed on me earlier this week. Us Mac folks aren’t fond of acknowledging failures with Apple gear but rest assured that it can and does happen to everyone.

After a successful complete restore from Time Machine – which was so ridiculously easy that I could devote a whole post to praise for that miracle tool – I found myself in a bit of panicked state. Time Machine, like any good backup tool is only as useful as the effort you put into it. Thankfully I had been diligent about keeping timely backups so I only lost a few days of data BUT –

I had made the decision awhile ago to exclude all my media including music, videos, and photos from the regular backups because it would have quickly filled up my external hard drive. So my “recovery” was tinged a bit and as it sunk in that I may have just lost countless hours of organizing family videos and the memories that come with that work. That’s when I started my frantic search for miracles.

Turns out, I had a few unexpected options that helped me stave off the tears that I feel the urge to share in case you find yourself in this situation.

Step 1: Recover music from iPhone/iPod using Pod to Mac (or Pod to PC)

A quick web search and $20 from my PayPal account let me install this magic little app that will simply pull back all the music from your previously-synced mobile device into iTunes.  In my haste, I didn’t look hard to see if a previous iPhone backup would have been a cleaner option but I know that a fresh sync from my restored iTunes could have increased the damage by wiping out everything still working on my iPhone. Within minutes of running Pod to Mac, I recovered all my music, complete with playlists, album art, and podcasts, audiobooks, and iTunesU material. Simply outstanding – kudos to the myPodApps folks!

Step 2: Recover photos and videos from hacked AppleTV

There is an option with Pod to Mac to recover photos from the phone as well but as I had only synced a portion of my rather large iPhoto library so at best, it would only be a partial recovery. I remembered that I had been pushing my entire library to my AppleTV to view on a larger family TV and that I had recently hacked it to install the Boxee app (highly recommended btw). One of the side benefits of the hack is that you gain shell access to the underlying operating system on the AppleTV which is a godsend if you need to reverse the one-way media syncing Apple uses to get content on the box. Even if you don’t know any Unix commands, you can find simple instructions on the web for installing the software and for executing the commands from your computer to pull back the media files.

There is a downside here however. While I was able to fully recover all my photos and videos by copying the physical files back from the AppleTV device, I lost all the  information I had used to tag and organize them. By design(?), Apple rearranges and obfuscates all the files that are synced over. So while I copied over “Hiking Mt. Mitchell” video, I got back “GDZX.m4u”. I also pulled back TIFF versions of my photos which are fine for organizing back in iPhoto on my laptop but not exactly the most convenient image format for sharing. At this point, I’m grateful to still have the photos – even if the true original versions are lost.

Step 3: Recover iPhone apps with iTunes App Store

In the third and final(?) recovery step, I went looking for all my iPhone apps. There was no one-click retrieve method for pulling down all the missing apps I had previously bought and downloaded but the iTunes Store stores your history so there is no danger of accidentally buying something twice. To keep track of which apps were already installed (and how I had organized them) I made snapshots of each screen on the iPhone and emailed them to myself for reference. From there, it was a short stint in the iTunes Store to pull down all those apps and stage them for syncing back to the phone.

The best part is that many of the apps that maintain any kind of “state” (e.g. preferences, high scores, etc.) completely survived the ordeal. At last check, it looks like I didn’t lose a single thing!

You don’t miss your water…till your well runs dry

The main message here is that you should absolutely invest in a good backup solution – advice I’m sure every one of your techie friends have passed on. But if you’re like most people (including me) that plan poorly or take seemingly innocuous shortcuts, then you should be prepared for having a bit more excitement in your post-crash venture.

Truthfully, with disk storage so cheap these days, there really is no good reason why we can’t all make suitable preparations for keeping digital backups of every bit and byte. I know manufacturers continue to push ever-simpler solutions for making this feasible with near zero-configuration, run-in-the-background, non-intrusive “magic boxes” but we users are still not completely conditioned to appreciate the total cost of ownership for our digital homes. Even for me, despite a setback like this, I have yet to make any new resolutions to change my ways, much less follow through with any immediate plans to head off future disasters….sigh.

Should I be proud that my kids know something about food?

2010 April 1
by Steven R Jones

mother-grocery-storeIt sounds silly to sing my childrens’ praises for knowing a thing or two about healthy eating. Leaving formal education aside for the moment, I think its fair to expect parents to take on the responsibility for helping their kids learn about life lessons including financial responsibility, running a household, exercise, hygiene, and otherwise taking care of their bodies. And most parents seem to do a decent job of that for each new generation.

But recently, it has become evident that many kids are failing to get proper education about food – at home or at school. Of course parents have more to contend with these days with massive marketing for fast food, processed food and the like. But I am constantly amazed at how little knowledge is being passed on about where food actually comes from, and even less about what is actually in their meals. It is shocking that most kids can’t identify basic ingredients by sight while walking through the grocery store. For an extreme, if not hyperbolical, example see Jamie Oliver’s TV show about starting a food revolution in “unhealthy” West Virginia.

Even if today’s busy schedules leave little time for cooking from-scratch meals, there is no excuse for putting your faith in fancy food packages and trusting the mega-brands with your family’s long-term health.

Our household is perhaps more attuned to these issues and have been trying to eat healthy for the last 20 years. We have always thought it was important for children to be able to know their fruits and vegetables – like they learn their alphabet or recognize animals at the zoo. And as they get older, we are teaching them how to cook these foods too (not microwave – duh). Unfortunately, like all parents in this country, we now also have to teach them about what not to eat, how to read labels to learn what ingredients are not supposed to be there, and most importantly how and why our food system has changed for the worse in the last 40 years.

So am I proud that my 8 year old puts frozen waffles back in the freezer case when he sees high-fructose corn syrup on the box?  I guess but it’s a shameful kind of pride.  I no longer feel guilty about driving the kids right past fast food “restaurants” and privately rejoice when they choose Indian buffets for lunch or can navigate an Asian market. I know they may not yet fully appreciate the farmer’s market and could care less right now about the value of seasonal foods. But they have already latched onto “organic” if only because it means there is less chance that bad stuff is in there. And they know that most food that is sold in pretty boxes is suspect. And they look forward to picking strawberries right on the farm in the weeks ahead.

Here’s hoping we haven’t turned our kids into “weirdos” who have yet another battle to fight with their peers. Sigh.

Software updates are like constant gift giving

2010 March 31
tags:
by Steven R Jones

Am I being petty or is receiving gifts from others one of the best parts of life?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could receive gifts more frequently than just on birthdays, invented holidays, or during periodic religious-based events? Imagine getting gifts every week, or even every day! That’s how I’m starting to feel thanks to all those tireless iPhone application elves.

AppStore Updates AvailableI have been working in the software development field for more than 20 years and have primarily played the role of gift giver. That is, I work continuously with a team of programmers to produce increasingly better versions of a product and ultimately release those improvements to the customer. Of course this includes fixing flaws or bugs in the software just like when you take your car in for a recall (what’s the software equivalent of a sticky accelerator?). But it also means adding new features, time-saving shortcuts, and other conveniences that weren’t there the last time you used the application. Over the years, it has become an increasingly common practice for providers to include minor and even major software upgrades for free, so much so that new releases hardly feel like a real gift. But I think that’s not necessarily the case, at least in the mobile application world where applications are smaller and more personal.

In a purely digital form, software products are relatively unique in how they can be delivered and re-delivered over time with relative ease. With the Internet and wireless connectivity, distributing new and improved software has become rather trivial.  Because of this, software applications are one of the few classes of products that have the potential to improve and become more useful for the customer over time. Not like steak knives, a Prius, or a ham sandwich.

By now, most of us are used to getting software updates beamed down to our computers, game consoles, even network-connected Blu-ray players. If you have a newer smartphone, no doubt you’ve dabbled in your provider’s “app store” and downloaded some applications straight to the device. But these days, it is not unreasonable to expect for those applications and, in turn, the underlying hardware product to improve incrementally over time as newer versions become available. On my iPhone, I now receive the “updates available” notification at least 3 times a week. And each time, not unlike a child, I eagerly race right down to the App Store, grab my gleaming presents from under the tree, and start ripping off the wrapping paper of each improved application.

I’m not always impressed with the “gift” but as is so often the case, it is the thought that counts. I really admire application developers who continually strive to improve their products.

We get hooked on gift giving early on in life, mostly around major holidays (real or born out of marketing departments). Most gifts are a joy to receive and often both parties are richer for the experience. And when it comes to mobile software applications at least, I often feel like that they are the gifts that keep on giving. I hope we don’t get spoiled by this and that we stop every now and then to thank all the folks who make this possible.

A vegetarian asks, “what the #!%* are we eating?”

2009 September 1
by Steven R Jones

Nineteen years ago, I became a vegetarian. Looking back, I now consider it to have been one of the smartest decisions of my life. I would like to think my choice was completely rational even though, at the time, I was aware of having recently consumed a fair amount of propaganda. But it would be more accurate to call my decision a practical one since my soon-to-be wife was already a vegetarian and would effectively be making all the future food choices for the two of us.

vegetarian-dishesIt was not particularly difficult for me to drop red meat, pork, and poultry from my diet as I was not brought up feasting regularly on steaks, bar-b-que, and buckets of chicken. I did continue to include dairy products and eventually resumed eating fish as well. But the most important change I made was expanding my food palate. I quickly discovered a wealth of meatless options including Greek & Persian food, Thai & Vietnamese cuisine, Spanish tapas, Ethiopian fare, and more. It turns out that if you intentionally increase the variety of the foods you eat, proper nutrition is unavoidable.

So for the longest time I thought I had that part of my life all worked out.  I was convinced I was healthier than most Americans simply because I wasn’t consuming meat. But I slowly began to realize that even committed vegetarians could eat poorly — in fact, it was too easy to do. Blindly eliminating one area of the food pyramid isn’t really the answer. In fact, it may actually be healthier to simply make smarter food choices across the full spectrum rather than excluding an entire food group.

I never tell people they should become vegetarians – I do encourage them to eat healthy!

So then I started my own tradition of eliminating something unhealthy from my diet every year. The first year I said goodbye to soft drinks…forever. The next year I dropped potato chips, then donuts, then ice cream, on and on. Most people think I’m nuts and I can see how these would seem like silly, arbitrary decisions. But the truth is I haven’t missed these at all. For most of these bad foods, there is a readily available alternative (e.g. tortilla chips or frozen yogurt) and really, how many more donuts do you need to eat in your life?

Well about a year ago, I stumbled on to some fascinating new material (mostly books and documentaries) about the rise of the Western diet, the myriad problems associated with the modern commercial agricultural system, and how a new food processing industry has created a massive health crisis just within my own lifetime. This has led me to revisit the whole equation and rethink everything I thought I knew about eating healthy. Part of what I’m learning is validating. For example, my silly decisions to permanently drop “bad foods” from my own regimen don’t seem so crazy now. But the more I learn about the food we buy and eat, the scarier it seems to get.

I will share some of my thoughts here in future posts but wanted to start by asking these simple questions. These seem so simple that I’m stunned most people can’t answer them. If we eat 3 meals a day, then we are making over 1,000 choices each year of what we put into our bodies:

  • What are we’re eating? When is the last time you read labels or ingredients?
  • Where did it come from? And do you know what it took to get it to you?
  • How was it produced? I challenge you to learn how your food is grown/made, but brace yourself.
  • Is it healthy or not? Pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, oh my!
  • Are there other available options? You have to look beyond what food companies are telling you to eat.

For the uninitiated, I feel compelled to warn you that if you choose to explore this topic you will soon be drowning in issues – it’s that big. I have attached a partial mind map to give you some idea of just how many directions this can lead.

To be honest, I am struggling to find a way to explain it to my own children because it is so vast, so pervasive, and so wrong. Recently, I have begun to think I have found a good way to get started and will start down that path next…

Food Issues

Part 1 – Getting plugged into the local scene

2009 April 23
by Steven R Jones

This is the first in a collection of posts that track my progress in finding my next job. The initial thread started here.

Having just moved to a new State, I now needed to get my bearings. I know there is a tech community here but I’ve got no real head start. I’ve put out calls to my current network to see if they can make introductions, but there seems to be some sort of Continental Tech Divide between my old area and this new one. As a result, I’m mostly starting this from scratch.

I could contact the Chamber of Commerce, sign up for a local newspaper service, or start hanging around at one of the more populated online cafes. But that’s not really going to get me plugged in.

I need to meet people.

Easier said than done, even in a place like this where people are naturally friendly and will go out of their way to help out a newcomer. But where are these people or more specific, how do I get in front of them? And what do I say when I do get the opportunity to meet them face to face?

To answer the first question, it is important to know what and where the action is. I sought out online resources (of course) including feeds and daily emails from local media outlets, LinkedIn groups, and active network-oriented organizations in the area. For example, WRAL here in Raleigh has a great tech headlines digest that you can subscribe to via email called LocalTechWire. (See my previous post on how to ramp up quickly on any new topic). In following these feeds I found out about:

  • Upcoming lectures, workshops, and other networking events to sign up for, many of which are free and open to the public;
  • Early stage companies, who is leading them, and the local buzz they are generating including mergers/acquisitions, layoffs & hirings, funding, relocations & new offices opening, new product releases, etc.; and
  • More online resources including (skip if you’re not in the Triangle) Business Leader’s RaleighDurham.com, LinkingRaleighNC.com (also on LinkedIn), TechJournal South, and the Triangle Business Journal to name just a few.

iphonecalVery quickly, my calendar for the next few months filled up with places to be and people to meet. And with the near steady stream of news and information, I now had some relevant context to start conversations with what would be total strangers.

Regarding the second question (what to say), I think it would be difficult for me to prescribe a general purpose, fool-proof chinwag. What I will share are things that worked for me.

  1. Everyone can use some help -  it is always a good idea to talk about the other person’s current business challenges and try to find ways to help.  I found that I had an increasing number of topics, resources and even new connections to share as I continued to network.
  2. Local success story – I was fortunate enough to have done some recent business in the area so I could share stories about another local company (who, btw, also has ongoing needs and could use new connections themselves)
  3. New Kid on the Block – for transplants, there is a limited window of time to tap into people’s instinctive generosity by playing up the “I’m new here, what would you suggest? What groups should I check out? Who should I be talking to (people love to share their contacts and may even make introductions on your behalf)?”
  4. Restaurants (or similar) recommendations – it may be off topic but it can be very easy to get people talking about their favorite coffee shop, restaurant, pub, etc. I got turned on to some great new spots in town which became easy locations spots for future meetings.

After 3 months of this, I started seeing signs that I was indeed getting plugged in. Perhaps the most obvious indication was hearing the same recommendations repeated over and over. I had frequented many of the regularly scheduled events. I even helped make new connections between other people which lead to new business!

I realize that not everyone has the kind of bandwidth it takes to keep this level of activity going. Many of the folks I met would admonish themselves for not doing more to stay connected. Truthfully, my own pace may slow considerably after I land my next job but I have seen firsthand the benefits of getting (and staying) plugged in. And with the bevy of online tools that are available, it should be easier than ever before.

Next up: Accumulating Good Contacts…

MEGA Museum computers now on display at NCSU

2009 April 16
by Steven R Jones

I thought I’d take a slight detour here and share something very cool that I did today.  This is certainly computer-related but not exactly in line with the current string of posts. (I did pause briefly before I typed the word “cool” above but I think you’ll agree that this qualifies).

Anyone who has spent time with me has eventually heard me speak about my slightly geeky collection of old gadgets and computers. My “museum” was featured on both radio and TV stations and in the Tribune newspaper when I lived in Chicago. It was even filmed by the History Channel which continues to air the Modern Marvels episode every so often. I call my growing collection the MEGA (Mr. Early Gadget Adoper) Museum and it is simultaneously a source of personal pride and ongoing spousal conflict.

Well, after returning to North Carolina and reconnecting with my alma mater, I found a way to share my collection (or at least part of it) with a larger audience. This afternoon, I donated the first set of collectible computers to NC State in Raleigh. They will soon be on display in the beautiful Computer Science building on NCSU’s Centennial Campus.

I chose to part with these four computers first (the photos here are not mine, I snagged them from the web). It is likely that many of you have fond memories associated with the Apple IIe or the Commodore 64 but I suspect few have hands-on experiences with the NeXTstation or the much-hyped OLPC. Still, these all have some unique significance in the computer historical timeline.

I look forward to seeing these computers in their display cases in the weeks ahead and encourage all of you who have old computers collecting dust in your attics and basements to find good homes for them. The nostalgia associated with some of these old dinosaurs is strong and your spouses may even help you carry them to the car!

10/2 – Update: new pics of computer display cases from the halls of Engineering Building II.

Rapid Ramp Up – getting up to speed with free online tools

2009 April 12
tags:
by Steven R Jones

I spent the bulk of my professional life as a technology consultant which took me into a wide variety of industries (e.g. health care, telecom, insurance, banking, options trading, etc.). I was expected to quickly learn enough about each new domain to be productive and to help solve the problems for that business.

But you don’t have to be a consultant to be faced with the challenge of getting up to speed in a new subject as rapidly as possible. Maybe you’re looking to switch careers, maybe you are trying to start a new business on the side, or maybe you just got turned on to a new hobby and can’t wait to learn everything there is to know.

By now, its probably safe to assume everyone starts off any new information search by first trying to “Google it”. But there are many more online tools that go deeper and produce better results than your favorite search engine. I put this mind map together to illustrate a number of the tools I use when I’m trying to ramp up on a new topic. The best thing about these is that they’re all free!

Rapid Ramp Up Overview

This is not an exhaustive list by any means but you should find plenty of options to get started. If you are a savvy web geek, then this is likely old hat. I’m speaking to the other folks who have probably never spent much time with Delicious, who don’t regularly subscribe to RSS feeds, or haven’t spent much time in online communities: these are amazing resources that should be on your radar and part of your strategy for getting plugged in.

Some disclaimers before I deliver the goods (link is below for the impatient):

  • I don’t regularly use all these techniques, and certainly not all at once. Even for a single topic, this would result in information overload. I suggest you begin with the tools that are the most familiar and then move on to the foreign ones.
  • You should feel comfortable exploring many of these without risk of embarrassment.  You will likely make some blunders early on as you try out these techniques (I know I did) but in most cases, this won’t go on your permanent record.
  • This particular list is being culled from a number of great tutorials out there – I don’t claim to have discovered all this on my own. I encourage you to seek out these other sites to strengthen your knowledge on a particular tactic.
  • This mind map is a work in progress. I will be making updates to it and may post/share new iterations with those that are interested. For those unfamiliar, mind maps are tree-based charts for organizing information and are typically read in a clockwise order.

Here is what the current version of this mind map looks like when its all unfolded. You can click on the thumbnail image below to download a copy of the full PDF (1.2 MB).

Enjoy!

Click to download PDF version

How I found my next job

2009 April 9
by Steven R Jones

missionaccomplished

That is a presumptuous title for this post perhaps since I haven’t yet.  Still, I have been making solid strides in the right direction and I want to share my experiences with others who may be contemplating or are actively in a similar transition point in their careers.

I’m a very big believer that the best opportunities come to you through people that know you, that can vouch for your credibility, and are willing to introduce you to new business ventures. It is no great secret that this is accomplished through active networking – initiated by you. I have nothing against the professional recruiting industry but if you are not taking control over the direction of your career, you are going to be unhappy with the results*.

This is a timely exercise for me personally and I suspect for many more who are making recession-related job decisions. I moved to North Carolina in the fall of 2008 and left behind a strong professional network in Chicago that I had been cultivating for over 15 years. Starting over has been both daunting and a great experiment. But what better way to validate my faith in the power of networking than to literally start over and find a job in my new home state?

Well, I can confidently say that it has been working very well.  My new network has grown significantly over the past few months and I now find myself ideally situated for “landing the next gig”. In a series of posts here, I will outline my own strategy for building a professional network (mostly from scratch) and how I leveraged it to create my next great opportunity. I hope you will join in with comments and your own observations.

Part 1 – Getting plugged into the local tech scene

*In full disclosure, I have a recruiter friend in Chicago who wore me down over many years and who ultimately placed me at a great gig within days of me caving into him. Thanks Ryan!