On movie reviews and movies …

While reading dooce‘s reasons for why she stopped reading music reviews, I had a thought along the same lines, but for the movies.

A music reviewer runs into a problem that plagues most writers: coming up with new ways to say the same thing.

Why is that most of my movie review reading consists of checking the first half of the IMDB page for the movie?  (The part with title, genre, user rating, producer, and top of the cast).  Well, because that’s all I need to know about most of the movies that I get a chance to see (TV, rentals, and cinema).

Yes, most of these movies are either total crap or half crap.  They don’t amaze. They don’t make me think.  They don’t bring back the memories, and neither do they stimulate my imagination.  Most of these movies have a pretty straightforward story, shallow characters with long time coined phrases. You know the ones I’m talking about.

It’s a tough job being a critique for such movies.  You’ll indeed run out of words to describe them, and that will happen pretty fast.  I know, because I tried a movie blog ones.  It’s dead for a long time now, and I don’t have much will to revive it.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now.  One thing that scares me a little bit is this move towards shorter time frames.  I’m guilty in participating, of course, but that makes it even scarier.

What I am talking about is this general move towards smaller pieces of information and entertainment.  We used to have printed books.  Those took a few days to read each.  Gradually, the majority of the population moved from books to movies.  Movies are much easier to consume, and then only take a couple of hours.  With the raise of the Web, the time frames got even shorter.  YouTube is one of the most popular entertainment resources on the Web, and it has a limitation of a 10 minute clip.  You just can’t upload anything which is significantly bigger than that (give or take a few seconds).   Now with mobile devices coming up strong, and popularity of short message services, such as Twitter and Jaiku, something tells me that we’ll go much under those 10 minutes of YouTube.  Of course it won’t happen in a day or two – I’m talking a general trend here.

Now imagine the reviewers going in step with the progress.  Writing a book review was simpler ( I guess).  Movies got tougher, because there are so many of them and because they are so much alike.  YouTube clip reviews turned into tiny user comments and star ratings.  You just can’t talk about a few minutes of video for hours I guess (again).  What will happen with a reviews of Twitter messages and tiny mobile video clips?  They’ll disappear.  It’ll be easier and faster to watch the original rather than spend time on the review.

Of course, it won’t all turn out that bad.  It’s just I’m having one of those pessimistic days…

Web-based personal finance managers

Over the last few years I’ve made several attempts at improving my personal finance management. With the exception of the last six month, I never tracked my spendings for more than a month or so. Two main reasons for that were:

  1. I never was on a financial edge for more than a month or so.
  2. I don’t enjoy accounting all that much and I never had a tool that made it anymore pleasurable.

Each of my finance tracking periods has been guided by a different tool. I tried a few approaches from plain text and spreadsheet files, through custom written scripts, to widely used applications. None of those worked for me, except for the last one I tried – GnuCash.

I use GnuCash for about six month now. It’s a really nice application, which implemented a few ideas right. But for me two things made it – documentation (especially 3 pages of Accounting 101 shipped with the software) and the wizard which asked a few simple questions and created some accounts for me to use. I started with the simple things, and somehow they worked. Then I tried a few more advanced ones (multi-currency, transaction splits, etc), and I still loved it.

I still love GnuCash. But I am starting to feel the need for a web-based tool. As good as GnuCash is, it has a number of pitfalls for me:

  • All data is on a single computer. I need to back it up myself. I can’t access it if my laptop is not with me.
  • My mostly used tool is Firefox browser, and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use it for my accounting too.
  • Web-based services can offer additional goodies such as SMS/IM integration, email reminders, social aspects, and so on.

So, today I started looking for a replacement. My quest began at the LifeHacker post titled “Is Mint Realy For Your Money?” The article reviewed Mint.com service, while comments suggested a few alternative solutions.

Here are the services that I tried. Note – I haven’t spent much time with any one of them. Mostly those were brief sessions of register – create an account – create a few transactions – check the settings – logout.

Yodlee MoneyCenter – looks like something feature complete, but the interfaces are overly complicated and there is a certain degree of paranoia with logging in and out. While it looked like Yodlee was doing everything I needed all at once, the complexity of the interfaces and the general speed of the site made me go away without spending much time there.

Wesabe – got me impressed. Twice. Just a few minutes after I registered, I got an email from one of the co-founders – Marc Hedlund, welcoming me to the community. Marc caught my twit, followed to this blog, read a few recent entries (especially those about privacy concerns and Firefox extensions). His welcoming message provided a few extra pointers in the areas that I appeared to be interested in. Wow! I’ve seen a lot of services with personalized, fast responding support teams, but Wesabe guys (there is a blog and forum too) are a couple of levels above anything that I can remember.

The second impression on me was by Wesabe’s tagging system. Again, being a web addict I’ve seen plenty of sites and applications that use tagging. Wesabe did something really cool – they kept the simplicity of the concept while greatly extending the functionality. You can do anything with tags there. It’s very similar to the way Flickr uses tags for some internal stuff, but here tags are given to the user.

Regarding the functionality, Wesabe takes a more social approach to finance tracking and accounting. Most of the boring stuff is simplified and automated. Things which are used most often are implemented in the very straightforward way. And there is just enough of functionality to make it useful without cluttering the service interfaces and users minds.

There are a couple of limitations that prevent me from using this service right now though. None of the Cyprus banks support a straightforward export of data in any format that can be used to input accounts into Wesabe. So, I’m left with only cash-type accounts. And currently those cash-type accounts in Wesabe cannot track the account balance (no opening balance, reconciliation, etc). Marc mentioned that account balances will be added to cash accounts shortly, since many people requested them. Once this done, I’ll jump back to Wesabe with my bank statements. Really, really neat service.

ClearCheckBook.com – looked like I can work only with one currency at a time. That’s not acceptable. I use three at the moment – CYP, USD, and EUR. CYP with gradually disappear over the next few month, but I’m stuck with USD and EUR for some time to come.

Then I finally got to the service which started my quest today – Mint.com . Unfortunately, I wasn’t at all able to try it out, because it supports only United States banks and financial institutions. There was no way for me to avoid account import from one of those places where I don’t have an account.

So, as you can see from the above paragraphs, Wesabe is the one closest to my needs.  And compared to the other ones it is so much nicer that I’d rather wait for those features that I need rather than settle for something that I don’t enjoy half as much.

What other services are there?  Did I miss anything?

Looking for a king of TODO list managers

Recently I did another round of TODO applications testing.  There are plenty around, but none of them seemed to fit into my work flow.  I wanted something online, but something fast.  I wanted something simple, but with enough features to integrate with the rest of my toolbox.  This, that, and a bit more, and preferably free.

Just to give you an idea where I was before the TODO list manager – I was using Google Calendar with tasks written down as all day long events, which I was constantly moving forward, spreading them across the upcoming week.  Needless to say this was somewhat time consuming and boring, with a few low priority tasks falling off the list every now and then.

My  quest for TODO list manager started with Hiveminder.  This is a really nice web application, which is easy to use. It implements some really neat ideas, like doing a brain dump first and then reviewing and reorganizing tasks later. It also integrates nicely with the outside world.  There is a way to link it with Google Calendar, as well as follow things via RSS feeds.  There is some integration with email.  And, also, there is a very nice system in place for sharing tasks with other people.  Plus, Hiveminder is the baby of the same parents who gave us RT request tracker.

As I said, Hiveminder is a really nice application.  But it didn’t fit into my work flow somehow.  And I was a little bit turned off by the interfaces. Needs a bit more polish  I guess.

Then I tried … well, I don’t really remember now all the applications that I tried.  What I remember is that there are plenty of good ones.  Each does something differently, focusing on different areas of TODO list management.

… then I settled on Ta-da List from 37 Signals – people, who really know how to web applications.  I loved Ta-da List the moment I saw it.  After all those features and ideas that I saw everywhere, it captured me with it’s simplicity.  There is practically no functionality.  Just create lists, add and remove items, and subscribe to the RSS feed. That’s pretty much it.  That’s what I was looking for.  In case I wanted something extra – plenty of functionality is available through commercial upgrades.  But, at that time, I didn’t want any extra functionality.  I’ve seen so  much of it everywhere that I wanted to get away from it for some time.  And it worked.  For some time.

Finally, I arrived to my current choice of TODO list managers – Toodledo.  A few of my friends were trying it out independently of each other, and all seemed to have only positive feedback about the service.  When I tried it – I understood why.

Toodledo is a very feature rich service. It has lists, goals, contexts, priorities, notes, due dates, and a tonne of other features.  Somehow they are organized so that they always nearby, but without jumping into the face.  The interface feels like it had a lot of thought put into it.  But the best of all – the connectivity of the service with the rest of my tools.  RSS feeds are there.  Google Calendar is there (and it’s done better than that of HiveMinder).  There is Firefox extension with sidebar and toolbar buttons.  And there is even Twitter integration.  What more can I ask for?  (Provided that I don’t use iPhone, for which they also have an integration).  In this place and time, Toodledo is just perfect for me.  If you are in search for a good TODO list manager, I strongly recommend that you give it a try.

The year 2005 in review

With some time on my hands I went through blog archives for year 2005. Once again I am glad that I kept blogging no matter what.

The highlight of the year is, of course, the birth of my son – Maxim. This is much bigger than the event of the year. This is the event of my life. Truly and honestly, nothing even comes close in comparison. I am sorry for all those of you who got offended – I didn’t mean to.

Preparations for Maxim’s birth and the birth itself have changed my life in so many ways, that I couldn’t even start to imagine the year before that. My house is different. My daily routine is different. My thinking is different. My relationships with so many people are different. I am different. This is like another life – some things are familiar and recognizable, but practically nothing is the same anymore.

Slightly more than 10 month passed. I calmed down a little, but I am still pretty amazed with the whole thing. And with the whole new human being. This still needs much thinking over.

In comparison – everything else was pretty unimportant. But still things happened. I lost some friends. Noone died, just we became less close than we used to. I found some new ones too. People change and I guess this year changed me more than any other – thus the friend shaking. Again, I am sorry if I offended anyone – I didn’t mean to.

This year was pretty healthy. I don’t remember being seak – except for a few indigestions and hangovers. Olga was fine too. I had a few worries about Maxim, but they all seem to come to a good ending. Things could have been a little better in this department, but they could have been much worse than they were. And so I am greatful that they weren’t.

Another good thing is that I am still employed. I have food on my table and much more than that. Things at work are somewhat good. I am not enjoying my office work as I used to, but it is still much better than painful. I also have got a few ideas on how to apply my creativity and love for new technologies and get something financially valuable in return. I have started a couple of projects and I hope to see them all succeed in the coming year.

I learned a lot of new stuff. Mostly I was dealing with Perl programming language applied to web development and RSS technologies. I wasn’t trying to limit my exposure to other things, but I was focusing more on these two. This should pay off.

I have continued to improve my photography skills. Though I have to admit that I was very narrow with my subject chosing – Maxim was the main subject of the year. I have made a few thousand pictures of him alone. But I tried. And there is proof that I was looking at other subjects too. From my opinion – I got a little better. But you are better judges here.

I watched many movies, although I could easily live without many of them. The film of the year is, with no doubt, “Sin City“. By far. And it is one of the best movies that I’ve ever seen. And I am saying something here.

On the down sides – this year wasn’t the best for my car. It was hit twice on the parking and it was seriously destroyed in the accident few days ago. Hopefully things will turn out better next year.

This seems like a good round-up of what I was up to the whole year.

Happy New Year and enjoy the holidays!

Daily del.icio.us bookmarks

I am still trying to dump all those links that I’ve bookmarked while Delicious API wasn’t working.

These were shared bookmarks for del.icio.us user tvset on 2005-08-23.