Say Hello to Zsa Zsa

Here's our newest friend, Zsa Zsa, hanging out with Murray on the sofa. She's a tiny little Chihuahua, barely five pounds. She's nine years old. Her previous owners were forced to give her up as she doesn't play well with small children. So, we decided to adopt her, figuring a stable home would be best for her.

We've had her for a couple of weeks now, and she's slowly settling in. It took her a couple of days to warm up to us, and she's still in the process of warming up to Murray. So far, it looks as though she'll get there just fine.

She needs some help socializing, as she can be pretty afraid of new people. It's something we hope to work on in the coming weeks and months.

But for now, so far, so good. She loves to snuggle and her idea of the perfect day is alternating between napping and sitting on our laps.

You could have had a fan, but...

I spent most of Friday evening at the airport in Indianapolis. American Airlines was doing that thing where they can't decide if they want to cancel a flight or not. So instead, every 20 minutes, they just delayed the flight by another 20 or 30 minutes. (See the snapshot from my phone? That's all the flight alerts my travel tracking app sent me last night.) Eventually, as I rather suspected would happen, the flight was canceled, so I went to reclaim my bag and make my way to a hotel for the night.

As I was collecting my things and figuring out next steps, I pulled up and found a hotel downtown that I'm familiar with, one I like, and it happened to be the cheapest option downtown this evening. So I call them on the phone, instead of booking via, because my hands are full and I'm walking, trying to get out of the airport. The hotel clerk, after bumbling through the process and putting me on hold multiple times, quotes me a price higher than ($169 versus $149). I ask her if she can match the price, meaning, can they come down by $20? She says nope, sorry, can't do that.

I asked to confirm: So you're telling me, that I have to go book online instead to save that $20, and then your hotel has to pay the booking website 20% of the booking amount? You can't just give me the same rate directly, saving me the time and saving you the booking fee? Nope, can't be done, she says. "Um, that's like, some third party thing, we can't match what they do." (Buh?)

OK, thanks, no point in bothering then. I'll go online.

By now, I'm already kind of miffed that the hotel wouldn't help me out. Last time I was stranded due to a flight cancellation, another hotel downtown had no problem matching that rate. It's a shame that hotel wasn't available this time around. I then decided that I don't really care where I stay for the night, I just want it to be as cheap as possible and somewhere downtown, so I can make my way to the Amtrak station early in the morning.

So while riding back downtown in the back of a taxi, I fire up the laptop, plug in the Sprint modem, and pull up Hotwire had a four star hotel in downtown Indy for only $113 tonight.

So I booked it. On the Hotwire website, they don't tell you the name or exact location of the hotel until you make the booking. And when I pushed the "buy it" button I found out that I had ended up with the exact same hotel that I had talked to on the phone. I got it for a full $56 less than what I was quoted on the phone, and they still had to pay the website for the booking. Yet, I was ready and willing to pay them $36 more directly.

I'm left frustrated by all of this. This hotel could have turned me into a fan by doing me a favor on a really stressful travel day. Instead, they turned me away, and then it dawned on me that if they're not going to be loyal to me, maybe I shouldn't bother being loyal to them.

Oh, and I was booked to stay at this hotel for a week next month. Now I'm starting to think I should cancel that and just use Hotwire instead. Treat me like a commodity, and I can do the same to you.

(Oh, and after getting to the hotel and checking in? I wanted to meet a friend for drinks, but I decided not to spend another dime in the hotel that didn't seem to care about me. So, we went down the street a block to the other hotel, the one that treated me better, but didn't have any rooms this time around. It felt good spending my money in their lobby bar, instead of at the first place. I'm a fan.)

Dog Park in Rogers Park

Did you know that Rogers Park has a dog park? The Pottawattomie Park DFA (Dog Friendly Area) can be found at the far northeast corner of Pottawattomie Park near Clark and Rogers in Rogers Park. It's a bit hidden -- but don't be discouraged. If you're parking in the lot for the park, you'll want to come all the way back from the parking lot, to the far north end of the park, where you'll find the dog park area. It's just west of the Metra tracks. It's closer to Birchwood than to Rogers.

If you have a dog and live in Rogers Park, I hope you'll come check out the dog park! It's been open for almost a year now and it's never very busy there.

For more information about the Rogers Park dog park at Pottawattomie Park, check out the PPDFA website.

Please tell your friends! And please link to the dog park website from your website, if you're able. It'll help make it easier for other neighbors to find information about the dog park.

What's Cheaper at Family Dollar

I'm a big fan of Family Dollar -- I'm not ashamed to admit that I shop there three or four times a month. But, after reading this article, I'm wondering if I need to check out an actual 99 cent store instead, if I want to save the most money possible.

This doesn't mean I'm done with Family Dollar, for sure. In the article, the author highlights the comparison items that turned out to be cheapest there, including Ocean Spray juices, Palmolive Dish Soap, Cascade Dish-washing Powder, Hefty trash bags, and Reynolds Wrap.

At Family Dollar, I personally tend to buy a lot of stuff like bags of little candy bars, toilet paper, facial tissue, and basic foodstuffs like mac and cheese, just about all of these seem to be cheaper than you could get from any other store. Some things, like gourmet mac and cheese and little candy bars, I've observed that Family Dollar charges less than half what a Target or a CVS charges.

New Verizon Option: Pay More, For Less

Verizon Wireless just announced "Share Everything" data plans, going live on June 28th. Engadget has the details here or click on through directly to Verizon's website here.

The pricing is confusing, and really doesn't seem like any sort of a discount. I can't imagine anybody going for this. These plans are definitely not any sort of discount, from what I can see.

Let's do the math: I just paid $171 to Verizon for this month's access for two iPhones, with unlimited data, and 700 shared minutes. That includes about $10 for text messages (we found it cheaper to not have a text messaging plan and just pay when it happens) and $20/mo for tethering on one phone. It also includes a 10% discount that Verizon provides to employees of the company I work for, and about $20 of the bill is taxes and administrative fees. (Also, there's a "Nationwide - Line Access" fee of $9.99/month being charged for each phone that I don't quite understand. I need to call about that.)

So if I wanted one of these new shared plans, with a reasonable amount of data, here's what I'd be looking at: $40 per phone, so $80 per month, for unlimited voice minutes and text messages. (Great, it's unlimited, but who cares. We're not maxing out our voice minutes currently.) Then on top of that, I'd be paying, say, $70/mo for 4 gigabytes of data each month.

Four gigabytes is not a ton of data -- I am told that most people use between one and two gigabytes of data each month. Probably more if you're traveling a lot, and I do travel some. And iPhones have a lot of software and application updates, and unless you're careful only to run those only on wifi, they count against your usage. So basically, we have what amounts to a modest-to-average amount of data available for each phone, and we'd have to worry about overages.

So for not-really-a-win as far as data access goes, we'd pay $150/mo. And that is before tethering ($20/mo) and taxes (approx. $20/mo), so that brings us up to...$190/month.

It's like, for the privilege of paying extra, suddenly I get to worry about data overages.

Who would go for this kind of plan?

Why are cell phone plans overpriced?

My wife and I love our iPhones. But the costs! Oh, the costs. We're paying Verizon Wireless nearly $200/mo for two phones. I make maybe one phone call a week. And most of the time wifi is available and I could be using Skype instead. I got rid of unlimited text messaging, bringing the cost down by, oh, maybe $20/mo or so, but it's just not enough, and I just can't find a cheaper plan for us on Verizon Wireless. So, I've started to look around. Our contract is not up for a while, but that's not going to stop me from at least looking.

Before we get started, here are three important things to keep in mind when considering these, or any other, cell phone provider and service plan.
  • Avoid WiMAX-based 4G. Sprint's current 4G technology is WiMAX-based (as opposed to LTE-based) andClear is the provider behind the scenes, coverage is poor and the network has seemingly always had issues. We've tried to use Clear WiMAX ourselves both with home service and mobile service. It's just not ready for prime time, and I'm not sure it ever will be. Right now, true LTE 4G is available only on Verizon and AT&T, and the iPhone 4/4S supports neither WiMAX nor LTE as of June, 2012. The take-away here is: Plan your life around 3G service for now.
  • Most of these services actually utilize Sprint's voice and data (3G) network -- which has been demonstrated to be slower than Verizon or AT&T's 3G network. That's not going to be a problem for most users -- you're not going to be downloading movies over 3G. For typical usage consisting of light to moderate web browsing, email and social networking, you'll be fine. Turn on wi-fi as needed before downloading anything big and beefy.
  • Don't believe the "unlimited data" hype. All of these providers will throttle or cap you at some point. For example, Virgin Mobile says that they will throttle you if you utilize more than 2.5 gigabytes of data in a month. Unless you're streaming Netflix over 3G, you're not likely to be impacted by this. The one thing I'll miss is using Skype over 3G, but that's a small price to pay for...a much smaller price to pay ongoing. Also, most throttle instead of suspend service. Throttling is much friendlier than capping, in that you still have access to the internet, just at a slower speed. Providers who cap you will typically cut you off right there and then when you hit the limit, requiring that you pay an extra fee for additional megabytes.
  • Jump on the Google Voice bandwagon! I ported my old cell phone number to Google Voice for a one time fee of $20. Now my legacy phone number rings through to me at whatever phone I specify. I ignored whatever phone number Verizon provided to me, and I won't have to bother with number portability in the near future. If I switch providers, it'll take me about ten seconds to go into Google Voice and modify settings so that calls reach me on the new provider instead of the old provider. This process is transparent to callers -- they have no idea that you've changed anything. Also, Google's handling of voice mail is fantastic -- I highly recommend it. It can SMS you transcripts of messages. It will email you transcripts as well, and it's very easy to play back messages by clicking on the link in email or in the Google Voice app on iOS or Android. Consider this: I've never even bothered to configure my Verizon Wireless voice mailbox.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, allow me to share with you the top five cheapest smartphone plans/service options out there as of June, 2012, as identified through my research.

Option #1: Voyager Mobile -
Service plan costs: For an android smartphone, $39/mo unlimited talk, text and internet, including 4G. For a basic flip phone, $19/mo for unlimited talk/text. The details: You need to buy a phone from them, and if you want a fancy one, expect to pay up to $550. Android only, no iPhones. Shipping times are long, it might take 3-5 weeks for your phone to arrive. The 4G service is Clear Wimax, which sucks. (I would not bother buying a 4G device for this service - I think 3G is good enough.) Voyager uses Sprint's network. This is probably the way I'd go if I wanted an Android phone with unlimited service.

Option #2: Ting Mobile -
This is another Sprint reseller, run by internet company Tucows, based in Toronto. Good guys. Pros: They're hacker friendly, so while you do have to buy a phone from them, they don't care if you clone your ESN onto your personal iPhone, so you can use it on their network (if you know how to do that). They're friendly and responsive when it comes to answering questions on their web forums. Cons: The pricing model, while it can be significantly cheaper if you're a light cell phone user, involves doing your own math. They charge a base $6/mo per phone, then you add on various blocks of megabytes, texts and minutes. You could go data only with 1gig/mo for $30/mo. If you pick a large block of minutes (2000), a thousand text messages, and two gigabytes of data, you're up to $88/mo. Might as well stick with the post-paid plans if you're going to be a heavy user. Ting is another land of Android, no iPhone here. I probably wouldn't recommend Ting, unless you are a hacker or have unique pricing needs that might make the math more favorable. (Here find somebody else's thoughts on Ting Mobile.)

Option #3: Cricket Wireless - 
As of June 2012, Cricket Wireless says the iPhone 4S is coming any day now. They have their own network, but they utilize Sprint for 3G coverage. For $499 you can buy an iPhone 4S outright, then pay $55/mo for unlimited talk, text and data. They have a smaller network footprint, from what I can tell, so unless you live in a big city, this is probably not the plan for you. Perhaps not good for you, but maybe it's good for me. I'm intrigued by this. I want an iPhone, and I want inexpensive service. I'd consider this provider, though I don't know anybody utilizing them currently.

Option #4: Straight Talk -
This is TracFone Wireless behind the scenes, selling via Wal-Mart and online. No iPhone here, but a number of Android phones are on offer. You can pick up an LG Optimus Black for $329 and then for $45/mo you get unlimited talk and text, data/web access. I'm not sure who the provider is behind the scenes -- Tracfone is a reseller of service from Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, so it might depend on which phone you get. This is the way I'd go if I wanted an Android phone and wanted the ability to be able to walk into a Wal-Mart to buy it, instead of having to wait to have it shipped to me.

Option #5: Virgin Mobile -
In the US, Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint. So this is Sprint's network, and you're actually buying the phone and any service directly from Sprint. They have a variety of Android devices, and the prices seem reasonable. They have announced that the iPhone 4 and 4S will be available as of June 29, 2012. If their current plan pricing covers the iPhone, you can get unlimited data and texting and 300 minutes for $35/mo or unlimited data, texting and minutes for $55/mo. You can save $5/mo discount by signing up for auto billing, meaning you can have an iPhone live and on the air for $30/month with a nice amount of minutes and unlimited data. This might be the winner for me, personally, since it's Just Plain Sprint behind the scenes, and not some third party reselling me somebody else's services. I think this is the way to go if you want an iPhone. When my Verizon Wireless contract is up, this is the provider I'll be looking the hardest at.

Doing the math: Starting from zero, plan out how much you'll pay in phone plans and devices over, say, two years. On Virgin Mobile, you'll pay $649 for an iPhone 4S, plus $30/mo for two years, for a total of $1369 over that period of time. For Verizon Wireless, you can get the same phone (or maybe even with more storage) for $299, but you're going to pay perhaps $90/mo for two years, for a total of $2459.

Is this a joke?

Is this a joke, or a fake review? Read it and tell me what you think. This guy took public transit all the way from downtown out to Lincolnwood to go to....Olive Garden.

He left Chicago, to go out to the suburbs, to go eat Italian food, at a chain restaurant.

Chicago, the land of a zillion fantastic Italian restaurants. Ones like Spiaggia, Osteria via Stato, Italian Village, Quartino, Francesca's, Prosecco, Frankie's, Gene and Georgetti and Carmine's -- and that's just of the top of my head, without looking anything up. (And that's just Gold Coast/River North.) There are probably more than a hundred more within walking distance of downtown.

You wanted a chain restaurant without leaving downtown? Try Maggiano's (which is pretty damn good). Or Barnelli's Pasta Bowl. Or Buca. took a bus and a train to go eat at an outbuilding of a mall in the suburbs. Really? REALLY?!

Hi, I'm Noodles!

This is Noodles. He's staying with us for a while. We're fostering him for PAWS Chicago, giving him a break from life in the shelter. He's a good little guy who wants nothing more than to sleep on your lap. He might take a couple of days to get to know you, but he was sleeping on my lap within an hour of bringing him home, and he'll have no problem warming up to somebody given a bit of time.

If you'd like to learn more about Noodles (aka Borys), hop on over to Kate's adoption blog, the Foster Woof.

Bad Dog Owner

Hey neighbors, watch out for this guy:

His dog killed another dog at Montrose Beach on March 17th, and he ran away instead of dealing with it. If I see him, I'm going to call the cops on him.

More info here and here.

This is a sad situation. And for anybody who would want to say anything about either dog or what somebody should or shouldn't have done differently; that's beside the point. The point is that this guy ran from the scene. And that is flat-out wrong of him.

Update: The guy has been identified as a Chicago police officer. What the hell was this guy thinking, that he could just walk away and that nobody would ever find him again?

Still No Internet

RCN rewired some amount of the internal wiring in our building, and we had internet for almost an hour yesterday. It was glorious. It was also about 1.15 meg, says Apparently there is a signal problem on the outside RCN line that has to be addressed. They're working on that over the next day or two, they claim. We shall see.

I found where the patch panels are for cable, and I tried connecting us back up to Comcast, to no avail. I can't figure out why we can't get that to work. We haven't canceled Comcast service yet. Maybe the wire I think is Comcast isn't actually Comcast.

Today I ordered AT&T U-Verse, 3 meg for $19/mo. That magic is supposed to happen on Monday. We shall see.

Living in a cave in the 1950s

So this is what it was like before the internet existed. Our internet (RCN) has been down since last Thursday. A week prior, we switched from Comcast to RCN, because we kept having repeated connection issues with Comcast and wanted to try something else.

Then, on Thursday morning, at exactly 7:30 AM, we lost the RCN connection, totally and utterly. A cable must be disconnected somewhere, as we don't even get the "night light" channel 3 TV signal. I call RCN, they send somebody out on Friday who spends a few hours tracing lines and trying to figure out what's what. He can't figure out which lead on the outside pole is ours. Not a surprise, since it took the installer forever to find it, because it's not labeled. The installer didn't label it, though. If he had, troubleshooting might have gone a little easier.

Both the original RCN installer and current tech kept asking where the splitter junction was located, and both were sure it should be inside my apartment. After again visually inspecting every closet a second time, I think we finally convinced them that we have no such device or panel.

No luck, he can't figure out what's up and has to leave.

On Sunday, a neighbor shows me the hidden rooms where various connection boxes live for phones and cable. The RCN tech returns on Monday, and our landlord meets us here to let them into one of the rooms with the panel. Except, the landlord's key doesn't work, he can't get the room open. I email the neighbor who has a key, and it turns out that he's out of town, so no luck there. My wife asks another neighbor who calls everybody on her contact list looking for the key, to no avail.

So the RCN tech can't do anything on Monday, either. Still down. After he leaves, I email the management company and ask them for help. OK, they can send out a maintenance man with the key to that room. Our building has a maintenance man? I learned something new today.

Now we're on to Tuesday -- today. Maintenance man stopped by, unlocked the room, and left. RCN tech is now here, and is running wires. Will we get lucky? Will we have internet again today? And if not, what do we do?

Should we call Comcast and ask them to come out and try to undo whatever happened here? Or should we call AT&T and get Uverse? Looks like it's available on our block.

Avoiding Pink Slime

Even McDonald's has said they'll no longer mix "pink slime" into their ground beef. ABC News says 70% of ground beef you buy at the grocery store contains this gross stuff -- yuck. Looks like locally, the easy way to avoid it right now is to buy ground beef at Costco or Whole Foods. No word on whether or not you'll find it in ground beef at Dominick's or Jewel.

Google Voice for your Building Intercom

This Apartment Therapy post has a pretty good and simple overview of how you can use your Google Voice # as the number you give your landlord or condo association for your entry in the security phone system. We've never actually had a landline, so we used this for our front door buzzer solution for a good long while.

Why not take it to the next level, though? Instead of having our cell phones ring when somebody buzzes our front door, why don't we fake it to the max and pretend we have a home phone? Back in August, we bought this thing -- an Obihai OBi 100 VoIP Telephone Adapter. What does it do? It connects Google Voice to old school wired telephones. If you've ever know anyone who has Vonage, this is the same kind of deal. A landline phone plugs into this box. You also connect the box to the internet. Log in and enter your Google Voice username and password and boom, you've got a fake landline. Pick up the phone, get a dialtone, dial it like normal, and everything seems to work.

Now when somebody buzzes us from the front gate, our actual landline telephone rings. And when we miss somebody's buzz, we get an email from GV saying "Missed Call from Front Gate." It works pretty slick. We've actually got it connected to one of those cordless phone systems that has multiple handsets, so it gives us a landline phone both upstairs and downstairs.

Krunch Kretschmar: Over the line!

So this guy Krunch Kretschmar, whom I've never met, is being sued by a woman for allegedly creating a fake blog purported to be written by her, and posting awful things to it. Things about her being on drugs and supposedly embezzling from her employer. He supposedly said to her, "Now every time a company for a job or someone searches YOU on google they will read my side of the story."

So, OK, here's my tiny little tribute to Krunch Kretschmar. Maybe when people search for him online, they'll find this post.

Read more at Boing Boing, or CBS Chicago, or the Sun Times.