How I Kicked Cable TV and cut the Cord in 2012: Part Two – The Plan

As  I detailed in this post, we had been thinking of ditching cable TV for a while and finally reached the tipping point about a week ago.

We have both had cable TV almost our entire lives and had the ability to time-shift programs for at least six years using Tivo.  Don’t get me wrong, we love Tivo and would still have the service if we intended to keep cable TV.  I can’t remember the last time we watched a show live or even looked at a TV guide and it has been wonderful.  We just told Tivo the shows we liked and watched whatever it had recorded the previous day.  We even chose to delay watching football games about 45 minutes just to be able to fast forward though the commercials.

When it came time to find a cable alternative we knew we wanted the time-shifting ability.  Now there are so many shows and movies available on demand for a flat monthly fee we thought that just maybe we didn’t need to worry about a DVR anymore.

Our Goals
1.  Watch TV within a day of broadcast
2.  Watch movies within a year of broadcast
3.  Have access to all of our favorite shows
4.  Be able to time shift anything we are watching

This would be incredibly simple if Hulu Plus had deals with all of the TV content providers.  You’d need a relatively high-speed internet connection. Then you’d just use hardware to stream media from your computer to your TV.  Content would come from Hulu Plus for current TV and movies would come from Netflix.  In fact, for many people this solution would be great right now.  They could cut their cable bill significantly and receive all the same TV plus a lot more movies.  For other folks with very basic cable, they would be able to receive many times more high quality content than they currently get for about the same cost.

The killer for us is that we apparently don’t like the same shows that most Americans do.  So to get the programs we look forward to the most we are going to have to do some extra work.

Below is a chart comparing our existing system to what we are in the process of assembling right now.  Once we’ve had some time to test it out, I’ll report back with what works and what doesn’t.

This system is going to have some drawbacks for us:
1.  We are going to be paying about the same amount.  Yes, we will get A LOT more stuff to watch but that isn’t a priority.  We already have more to watch than we ever do.
2.  We are going to have to put up with commercials on Hulu Plus.
3.  We may not have access to all the shows we want to watch.
4.  Live sports may be a real problem.

If you are interested in the options we looked into before deciding to try this plan, please read this post.  Check back later to see how this system worked out.  Better yet, subscribe to this blog through your favorite social media site so you’ll know exactly when we update.

How I Kicked Cable TV and cut the Cord in 2012: Part One – The Options

I will be doing at least three posts on this subject.  Check back for future entries where I’ll update you after I’ve had time to install and test various components of my solution.  You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, or have posts emailed to you.

About a month ago I got my final warning from Comcast that all-digital TV would soon be here (4/3/12) and I needed to make preparations.  For most people this would not be a big deal but we still have an old CRT TV that we inherited from my parents when they upgraded.  Because the TV isn’t digital we would have to get a converter box.  Hassle.  Our Tivo would only be able to use one of its tuners.  Problem.  Add in the additional cost of cable and Tivo’s monthly fee and we reached the tipping point.

I did some research on the current cable TV alternatives.  You can see my thoughts on each below or just  jump to this article to see my actual plan if you have a really short attention span.

Be forewarned, my exact solution may not be the best for you.  You will have to have a high speed internet connection.  If you can stream movies to your computer, your connection should work fine.  Also, you may have to live without live sports.  This is the deal breaker for many people.  I don’t watch a lot of sports so I may be ok, but the ones I follow I want to be able to see.  I’ve watch live legal football games on my computer before so I’m hopeful this will pan out.

Current Cable TV Alternatives
Hardware
Roku  is a box about the size of a deck of cards that you attach to your TV.  It is designed with one purpose in mind:  streaming content from your computer/internet connection to your TV.  It is supposed to be a plug and play simple solution.  It uses a remote so the experience should be more like watching TV rather than pulling up videos on a computer.
Pro’s  Small, cheap, no monthly fee, simple to use, fast (some devices like this are supposed to lag pretty badly), wide variety of content (Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc),  wireless and Ethernet connection options, works with digital and analog TV’s.
Con’s  Does not support Flash-based media like YouTube natively (There are work arounds though).  You must have a high speed internet connection for this device to work properly.  By default, you don’t have complete access to media on your computer.  That means if you have videos saved on your hard drive that you want to watch on your TV or you want to watch a show from a website that hasn’t partnered with Roku, there isn’t a built-in solution.  I understand the need to prevent people from illegally watching movies that they have torrented however a lot of legal content is left out in the cold too like YouTube and broadcast channels like PBS.  There are supposed to be several legal workarounds for this problem but they aren’t obvious because Roku (the company) doesn’t support them in any way.
My thoughts:  The lead-painted plaster and brick walls of my house pose an almost impenetrable barrier to wireless signals so having an Ethernet connection is critical.  The ability to connect to analog TV’s is also critical for me.  Unfortunately, only the top-end Roku has an Ethernet port so that meant a choice between a Roku 2 XS or a Roku 1 XDS.  The XS is newer, faster, and comes with a better remote which works off Bluetooth so you don’t need line-of-sight like the XDS’s IR remote.  Until fairly recently (9/2011), the XS did not work with PlayOn (detailed below).  Apparently this problem has been sorted out so now both the XDS and XS work with PlayOn.  Here is a pretty good review of the Roku 2 XS.  http://reviewhorizon.com/2011/07/roku-2-xs-review/

Blu-ray Player or Game Console  Many have the ability to stream online media or content from your computer like a Roku player.  I didn’t even consider these because we are hoping to skip Blu-ray entirely and just stream HD content whenever we upgrade the TV.  We don’t play enough games to justify a game console.  A Roku player is cheaper and less obtrusive than any of these solutions so that is what I focused on.

Redbox is one you shouldn’t forget.  They offer old-fashioned DVD’s from vending machines.  They are consistently the cheapest pay-per-title place.
Pro’s Cheap, good selection, excellent choice when multiple rentals are to be made at once.
Con’s Inconvenient, can be more expensive than other choices once gas to and from the vending machine is factored in.
My Thoughts:  It amazes me how many people do NOT use their computer to find and reserve their movies before they go to the kiosks.  Go to the website, make sure the movie you want is there, reserve it, and then when you show up at the physical location all you have to do is swipe your credit card and all your movies vend.  I’ve also heard that an online streaming option like Netflix is in the works.

Ceton is a company that makes computers and computer components specifically targeted at viewing media on your TV.
Pro’s  Looks like an all-inclusive solution, could be a decent price for what you get.
Con’s  May be too much of a techy experience rather than a casual TV experience.
My Thoughts:  At half the price, I’ll try a Roku player first.

Simple TV is basically a DVR for over-the-air digital channels.  It has the capability for season pass recording like Tivo (a critical component of a DVR in my opinion).
Pro’s  Expensive for features offered, simple to use, season pass recording, streams content wirelessly to any device in range (iPad, computer, etc)
Con’s Season pass is $5/mo subscription, limited to locally broadcast stations, single tuner (but multiple units can be ganged together to for multiple tuners), no hard drive included for recording (but is easy to install via USB), not available until “Spring 2012.”
My Thoughts:  Antenna digital is supposed to provide the best picture quality so with this setup your channels are free and you get a high quality image.  This might be a solution once the price starts dropping.  I can’t see paying $150 for a single tuner item that only gets over-the-air channels, requires a $5/mo subscription for what I think is a critical season pass feature, and requires that I provide a hard drive to record it on.  At $25-50 this item begins to make sense.  Then you could gang two together and really have a nice solution for local channel recording.

Axio TV appears to be a combination of a Roku player and a Simple TV with some Tivo thrown in.  It can DVR over-the-air channels as well as subscribing to streaming media a la carte.  Curiously it has two different websites here and here.
Pro’s  Compiles many features in one box?
Con’s  Expensive.  It won’t be available until “Summer 2012.”
My Thoughts:  I’ll admit I don’t really understand this product.  I buy a box for $200 then I pay $15/mo in a subscription fee then I have to pay for the content I want to watch on it.  That sounds like Tivo’s strategy which I’m trying to get away from.  It also sounds like Roku’s strategy but the Roku box is half that price and I don’t have to pay a monthly subscription fee.  Of course with Roku there is no built-in option for live TV.  Axio TV isn’t available now so there really is no point pursuing this one further until it is.

Google TV looks very exciting to me, but just isn’t ready for prime time yet.  As Google is good at doing, they appear to have put an umbrella over all kinds of media and made it searchable for easy access.  Google TV incorporates live TV, on demand TV, movies, pictures posted by you/family/friends, YouTube, web surfing via Chrome all with the ability to utilize picture-in-picture.  It is even designed to allow creators to write apps for it.
Pro’s  Every type of media you could want available on your TV.  No monthly fee.
Con’s  Slow to change channels, seems to require cable TV to have access to channel guide, may not be able to do season pass recording, current iterations of hardware are prone to crashing, a few (many?) media outlets (like Hulu) are blocking Google TV from accessing content.
My Thoughts:  This thing seems like it is still in beta testing.  Not an option for me.  The biggest problems with this system are the hardware, which Google doesn’t supply, and the deals they don’t have in place with some providers to allow content to be shown on the system.  These are both challenges that can be overcome and with some time, maybe they will be.  There are currently two hardware choices: Sony NSZ-GT1 Wi-Fi-Enabled 1080p Blu-ray Disc Player Featuring Google TV for ~$200 or Logitech Revue for ~$160.  Apparently some TV’s have or will have hardware to access Google TV built-in.

Apple TV is very similar to Roku.
Pro’s  Well-made equipment, low price.
Con’s  Slower and supposedly slightly harder to use than Roku, limited sources for video (supports Netflix and iTunes and not much more), only works with HD TV’s.
My Thoughts:  Unless you already have a lot of Apple hardware in your house, I don’t see a reason to pick this over Roku.  Even then I think it is still hard to pick Apple TV over Roku.  Maybe I’m missing some sort of Mac-only feature that would make this a winner, but until Apple has a lot more content options, I don’t see the point of this one.

Boxee  is designed to bring the internet to your TV.  It appears to have a very nice interface.  Many people really like this system.
Pro’s  Low cost way to bring the internet to your TV, can watch live over-the-air TV with a dongle.
Con’s  Much less focus on TV and movies than other choices or at least a smaller selection at this time. Cannot DVR anything from the live TV dongle.
My Thoughts:  There are a dedicated group of fans for Boxee so it must be doing some things right.  I’ve read some comments that suggest the hardware it currently runs on is not the greatest but the software is great.  Not being able to record live over-the-air TV is a huge miss.  If they get that straightened out this could be a good cable alternative.  If you are not in the market for a solution right now, I’d keep an eye on these guys.  A future product from them could be a real winner.

Software
Hulu Plus  This monthly subscription service provides access to many current broadcast and cable TV shows.
Pro’s  Access to most TV shows the day after broadcast, ability to watch shows on multiple platforms with one account (iPad, Roku’ed TV, smartphone, etc.).
Con’s  Monthly fee, not all channels or shows are supported (CBS and PBS are two big gaps), you still have to watch ads even though you are paying a fee.
My Thoughts:  Hulu is different from Hulu Plus.  Hulu is free but is blocked from all portable devices (and the Roku).  Hulu Plus is supposed to have a much wider variety of programming and with a more extensive backlog.  I would gladly subscribe to this service along with Netflix and be done.  Unfortunately, many of our favorite shows are on PBS and CBS so we’ll need some other service(s) to fill the gaps.

Netflix  is another monthly subscription service.  While primarily known as a movie viewing service, Netflix provides access to many TV shows (including TV shows from HBO) once they are about year old.  I’ve read that about the time a TV show is packaged for DVD release, it is available on Netflix.  Movies are released a little after they are available on DVD.  I’ve read that it is about the same time they are available on Redbox.
Pro’s  Large selection of movies and TV shows.
Con’s  Monthly fee, both movies and TV shows available are not current
My Thoughts:  The Roku is supposed to have been designed specifically to stream Netflix so the two should work very well together.  The amount of content that Netflix has is very impressive for the low monthly payment.

PlayOn turns most (all?) audio and video media viewable on your computer into a selectable channel on a Roku player.  This is supposed to include media saved to the computer’s hard drive as well as content streamed from the internet.
Pro’s  Fills the content gap between Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Con’s  Supposedly a little finicky to work with.  The PlayOn website even says  something like “Try it.  If it doesn’t work, then it probably won’t no matter what settings or configuration changes you make.”  It is not supported by Roku.  It has a monthly fee.
My Thoughts:  I’ve seen many reviews for the Roku that include comments about PlayOn.  Most say that it is a great way to get the additional stations and shows that cannot be found otherwise.  It has also been mentioned that Roku does not like PlayOn and offers no support for them.  I’m going to try one of the free services that supposedly does the same thing as PlayOn first.

Plex supposedly works like PlayOn but it is free.
Pro’s  Fills the content gap between Netflix and Hulu Plus.
Con’s  Supposedly easy to install, but can also be a little finicky.
My Thoughts:  This is what I plan to try first.  Here is a video review of it in action.  It is available for the Roku but, seeing that it was just released at the beginning of this month, I expect that it may not work 100% correctly.

Vudu is a movie streaming service like Netflix.
Pro’s  No monthly fee, movies guaranteed to be available the same day they come out on DVD.
Con’s  Pay per download, not available on Roku (as of now), owned by Walmart.
My Thoughts:  Since it isn’t available on Roku I won’t be using it.  I’m never as concerned about seeing movies right when they are released so using Netflix and Amazon On Demand should easily meet my desires.

Amazon Prime  is a multi-use service.  You get access to cheaper and faster shipping of goods bought through Amazon.com, the ability to share digital books, and all-you-can-stand-to-watch movies and TV.
Pro’s  If you are already a Prime member “free” videos are a nice feature.
Con’s  The most limited selection of content of any of the choices listed here.  Must buy an annual subscription instead of monthly.  Easy to confuse free Prime content with pay-as-you-go Amazon Instant Video when browsing media on Amazon.com.
My Thoughts:  I’d be an opposite customer for them.  Most people get Prime for great shipping options and watch free video as a perk.  I’d get it if they had an excellent video selection and the shipping would be icing on the cake.

Amazon Instant Video  is the only service we’ve actually used on this list yet.  It works with our Tivo and so far the performance has been flawless.  We have only downloaded movies and TV shows so I don’t know how well the streaming service works yet.
Pro’s  Many movies and TV shows available about the same time they are available on DVD.  Trusted internet company for financial transactions.  Good customer service.  Run deals offering free and 99 cent movies/content from time to time.
Con’s  Pay-as-you go can get quite expensive with this service – especially if you are using it to watch a TV series.
My Thoughts:  A good back up for when you absolutely “must” see that movie right now and Redbox + gas is more expensive or you just feel lazy and don’t want to leave the house.

Other Software
The following is a list of other software that you may find helpful.  I’ll only look into these options if I don’t get what I want from the software listed above.

Roksbox creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

Chaneru creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

roConnect creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

Gabby creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer

NokNok creates a Roku channel for accessing stuff on a local computer?
Notes: Links at the bottom of the site don’t work.  Links at the top do.  Not available yet?

Tversity allows you to stream stuff to the Roku player?

If all of these options have your head reeling, just wait for the next article which will focus on my specific plan.

The Best Apps for the iPhone 4s in 2012

We upgraded from our stupid phones to smart ones very recently and Melanie chose an iPhone 4s.  She loves it and is quickly adapting to life with the internet in her pocket.  Checking around with friends and various websites revealed a few of the best apps for the iPhone 4s.

Our criteria:  free, available through Apple’s app store, useful

Overdrive – This one is required to by our local library to download e-books and audiobooks.  So far we like it.
Redlaser - Bar code scanner.  This one seems to be the defacto standard for scanning products for more info and price comparison when shopping.
Runkeeper – Turns your phone into a GPS running watch.
Shazaam – Identifies songs by listening to them.
Web MD – For viewing the website.  I don’t know if this one will work out to be any better than just going through the browser.
Wikipedia - For viewing the website.  I don’t know if this one will work out to be any better than just going through the browser.  Oftentimes what you want to find out is info from Wikipedia so this a quick way to get to it.
Yelp - For viewing the website.  I don’t know if this one will work out to be any better than just going through the browser.  Great for finding local establishments.  When looking for my barber shop I could not find them even using a Google search but they were on Yelp.
Mapquest – Turn-by-turn directions.  It is tricky to find a free Garmin-style navigation program it seems.  Mapquest has worked for Melanie so far.
Gmail – Melanie wanted a separate app to view personal email.  It keeps labels intact unlike the built-in email app.  It is supposed to be able to do searches much faster too.
Dataman – Can set up a warning as you approach your monthly data limit.
Flixster – Movie app.  Haven’t tried it yet.
iHandy Flashlight – One of many flashlight apps.  This one also allows the light to strobe.
Grocery IQ – For making grocery lists.
Pandora – For streaming music.
Geocaching – This app by Groundspeak is the only app on this list that costs something.  It is $10 but it is an all-in-one geocaching app.  You can look up, find, and log geocaches all from this one app.  It makes geocaching a zero-prep event so you can just focus on playing.

Many of these apps Melanie has only had a chance to try out once or twice so I don’t know how robust they are.

Here are a few more that were recommended but she didn’t want:
Wunderlist – To do list.
Seesmic – Puts Twitter and Facebook stuff in one place.
Peak.ar – Tells you the height of nearby mountains just by pointing your camera at them.
Olive Tree Bible Reader – The only app on this additional list that costs money.  There are free ones available but this one is supposed to be very good.   Of course, I like the website http://www.biblegateway.com very much.

What other apps do you highly recommend?

100 Push Ups

Have you ever been able to do 100 push ups in a row?  I didn’t think so.  Wouldn’t it be cool if you could?  What if I told you there was a simple 15-minute program that could take you from lump to push up master?

A friend of mine went from being able to do just a few (maybe none) to 100 in a row on her toes in just a few weeks.  She said the secret was the free program at www.hundredpushups.com.

I looked over the schedule at hundredpushups.com and was impressed.  It meets you at whatever level of fitness you have and builds you up from there.  If you can’t even do one push up it has other exercises you can do until you can.  From there it tests you and puts you into a specific track for training.

So far I’ve found it to be just about a perfect balance.  When you finish you don’t feel injured but later that day your muscles feel worked.  I’ve read and been told that optimal exercise wears you out but doesn’t break you down.  It is tricky to balance an optimal work out against one that is damaging but if you can strike that balance your body is supposed to respond the quickest.

Because you are focusing on only one exercise, it would be easy for anyone to fit this program into any schedule because an entire day’s workout can’t take more than 15 minutes.  Admittedly I’m starting in better shape than the average person who might undertake this program, but so far I’ve found that I don’t even really breathe that hard and have yet to break a sweat doing it.  My point is that I think just about anyone that has the desire can successfully follow this program.

They have a rudimentary program to track and share progress on the site but I have not been able to get it to work for two people on the same computer so I’m just tracking our results on a spreadsheet.  They have a smart phone app but I don’t have a smart phone so I can’t speak to that.

I mentioned on Facebook that we were starting the program and invited anyone interested to join us.  Several people have taken up the challenge and we tested this past weekend and started on Monday (1/9/12).  If you are interested in tracking your progress and want the subtle accountability and inspiration of publishing your results online, please feel free to use the comments section below for that purpose.

When you finish this program, start mixing in some of the other programs.  They have plans for squats, dips, pull ups and more.

Do something good for your body!

Ricotta-Filled Orange French Toast

In the second recipe post of the week I’m going to reveal a secret family recipe that my mom has been using to wow visitors for years.  It will be perfect for your overnight or early morning holiday guests.

This recipe is simple, delicious and impressive looking.  The best part is that you prep it the day before so the morning it is to be served it just needs to be popped in the oven.  So far we’ve never had anyone turn their nose up at it and, in fact, when it was prepared just a few weeks ago, one of our guests photographed it to show his wife.

There is very little to say about this recipe other than it is a good one to personalize.  Basically, you are cutting a loaf of french bread into slices, stuffing it with a flavored ricotta cheese filling and soaking it in a flavored egg mixture to make fancy pants french toast.  It calls for oranges but you could substitute your favorite citrus.  We’ve tried tangerines to great effect (I think I like the taste even better than orange).  You can top them with maple syrup, butter that has orange rind in it, confectioner’s sugar or nothing at all.  If you use confectioner’s sugar you can get really extreme and place a stencil or doily on the toast to create a pattern.

You may want to half the recipe if you don’t have guests to feed.  One batch (as shown in the recipe below) makes about 16 pieces of toast and, depending on what else you serve, an adult can eat two pieces.

One last note, I use three tablespoons of sugar in the eggs and six in the filling but the original calls for two and four respectively.  I have a sweet tooth.  What can I say?  I also like eating them plain so that may be part of the reason.  Oh, and I also prefer two teaspoons of orange rind but the original recipe calls for one.

Ricotta-Filled Orange French Toast (Printable PDF)
Makes about 16 pieces of toast – about 8 servings

(2) 10oz loaves french bread
FILLING
6 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups ricotta cheese

EGG MIXTURE
6 eggs
3/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 Tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Grand Marnier, Triple Sec or Brandy (optional)

Cut bread in thick slices (about 2″).  Placing a slice on its side on a cutting board and supporting it from the edges where your hand won’t get cut, cut a pocket into one side of the bread.  Repeat for all other slices.  Mix sugar, vanilla and ricotta cheese to make filling and stuff slices with filling.  Place stuffed toast in (2) 9″ x 13″ pans.  Mix together ingredients for egg mixture and pour over stuffed toast.  Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours but preferably overnight flipping toast over halfway through the soak.  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Wrap a cookie sheet in aluminum foil and spray liberally with cooking spray.  Place toast on cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until golden making sure to flip toast halfway through cooking.  If you do not coat the foil with enough spray, the toast will stick.

Rosemary and Strawberry Christmas Tree Scones

Hi guys.  This week I’ll be posting two short articles in time to help with your holiday entertaining needs.  Today’s article is an idea that my mom had to modify this recipe for rosemary and strawberry scones turning it into a holiday treat.  Just be sure to watch anyone who shows up with a large purse very closely.  Once they try them, the temptation to shovel the rest into their handbag may be overwhelming.

First let me say that the original recipe is great on its own.  The combination of the sweet fruity strawberry jelly and the bright lemon icing counterbalances the  robust woodsy rosemary flavor creating a scone that is unexpected, complex and delicious.  When you add the Christmas tree shape, it just makes things better.

Step One.  Get a four inch Christmas Tree Cookie Cutter.  I noticed that Williams-Sonoma had them for $7 but I found one that worked just fine at a Michael’s craft store for $4.  They appear to be a seasonal item and were on an island display in the front of the store I visited.

The Cookie Cutter I Used

Step Two.  Get this rosemary and strawberry scone recipe.

Step Three.  Follow recipe as directed substituting Christmas tree cookie cutter.  Pay attention to the icing notes below.

* Makes twelve Christmas tree scones.
* Scones look better without icing but may not be sweet enough for some palettes.
* Recommend adding lemon juice slowly to the powdered sugar for icing.  In my case, I didn’t need any additional water and would have preferred even a little less lemon juice so that the icing would have been stiffer and could have been drizzled on the sconces (like a white garland) instead of having something so runny that it made an even coating over the whole cookie.

Icing is Runny - Coats Evenly But No Decoration is Possible - Suggest Thickening

*  If you don’t use a ruler when rolling out your dough, I recommend guessing a little thicker than 1/2″ instead of thinner.  The scones have a better feel at this size – a little more scone-y and less cookie-ish.
*  Offset the Christmas ball jelly ornaments instead of lining them up like I did.  I was afraid to get them too close to the edge of the cookie but the jelly didn’t really spread at all during cooking.  Unfortunately, it does stain the white icing around it making the scones look a little bruised once the icing is applied.
*  I tried substituting raspberry jelly thinking that it might be more Christmas flavored.  It is fine but strawberry is better.

Overall, this recipe is extremely easy.  It is certainly no harder than making chocolate chip cookies, but the sophisticated flavor will have your party guests spoiling their appetites if you put them out before dinner is served.  Hooray for holiday gluttony!

A Faux Treatise on Doughnuts and The Donut Shoppe

DOUGHNUTS
While I try to eat healthy most of the time, I’m no stranger to junk food and I love doughnuts (or donuts – both deliciously acceptable spellings).  In high school it wasn’t unusual to tuck into a cruller or Bavarian creme at Krispy Kreme after everything else but Krystal had shut down for the night.  With the slowing of my metabolism, I have to be more intentional about how often I eat these treats and, therefore, more selective when I spend the calories in my doughnut bank.

I’ve never had a doughnut better than Krispy Kreme.  Of course, I’m only talking about those that you get directly from one of their stores.  The hideous hardboard franken-nuts available at gas stations and grocery stores only share the green box and name with the genuine article.  If you want to tell me that Dunkin’ Donuts are a viable alternative, get out of my blog you lightly-sweetened bread eater!  You might as well have a piece of frosted toast.

Generally a shop can be judged on their plain glazed doughnut because there is almost always a direct correlation between the plain and the fancies.  When hot, it should dissolve almost without chewing like angel’s breath, cotton candy or a dream.  When room temp, it should have some chew but still be delicious and never too bready or greasy.  These magical properties must surely come from a recipe that is both 100% fat and 100% sugar.

I’ve heard many times before about how this local doughnut place is better or that doughnut shop is best.  In every case, the statement has been a lie.  Recently, a trusted doughnuteer recommended a local place I’d never heard of –  The Donut Shoppe.  I was immediately skeptical, but he assured me that the doughnuts were great – “the best,” in fact.  “They aren’t like Dunkin’ are they?”  “Of course not.”  “They’re really the best?”  “They are great.”  “Better than Krispy Kreme?”  “Wellll… As good as.  You should try them.”

He had withstood my withering cross-examination.  Maybe, just maybe, I’d found a Krispy Kreme alternative.  Dare I dream?  Perhaps even a new doughnut king?  I had to give them a try.

THE DONUT SHOPPE

There it is in the Righthand Corner

The Donut Shoppe is located in Jacksonville, Florida in the Arlington neighborhood close to Jacksonville University.  As with almost all really great local one-off establishments there are Soup Nazi quirks and rules.  In the case of this place I’d been forewarned of two things:

1. Get there early.  These guys don’t play.  They make what they make and when they sell out they shut down for the day.  Arrive after 10 am and you won’t have much selection.  Arrive after noon and you’ll probably be greeted by a locked door.

2.  Know what you want by the time you get to the counter.  The line will probably be kinda long and the store is tiny so others can’t go around you and they don’t want to wait forever on you.  The staff will be polite but they keep things moving.

With the rules fresh in my mind, I pulled up to the shop one weekday morning around 9am.  I’d been told parking is a problem and that wasn’t a joke.  Every available legal and illegal spot had been filled at the shop and the connected gas station.  I ended up pulling around the corner and parking at a mini-park.

As I approached the front door I noticed the line of happy people extending out of it.  There was even a vacationing family getting a group photo in front of the building.  All signs were pointing to yum.  My wait was short lived as the line moved at a steady clip.  I got to the glass case and noticed a variety of old standards.  This would not be a crazy combo place like Voodoo Doughnut (another shop I’d desperately love to visit) but its lineup could certainly compete with Krispy – perhaps even topple it, I thought.

Soon it was my turn and I cracked off an order for a plain glazed, custard-filled, lemon-filled and an apple fritter (trail plop).  Confident that I had selected an excellent cross section of the available ‘nuts, I paid, returned to my car and headed home to test.

Look at the Size of that Fritter

I wish I could be more dramatic about the actual tasting but they were exactly what I expected them to be – deliciously predictable.  With my advanced planning, I had forgone breakfast so I was able to shovel all of them into my gut not wasting a single bite or saving any for a later snack.  It was the equivalent of five doughnuts in one sitting.  I’d be sorry later, but at the time I couldn’t have been happier.

The verdict:  As good as Krispy Kreme.  Please note, I was not able to compare any hot off the presses so they may fall a little flat there but this is the highest praise I’ve ever given a non-Krispy doughnut.  In addition, with this place you get the “in the know”/local-secret excitement when you visit.  I would definitely go back and would recommend it to anyone.  Well, not to a diabetic.

THE DONUT SHOPPE
1721 University Blvd N
Jacksonville, FL 32211
(904) 743-1844

Pro tip:  I’ve since learned that you can call in an order.  Do it.  That way you are assured you’ll get something before you drive over.

The Donut Shoppe on Yelp

The Donut Shoppe on Urban Spoon

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I’ve been trying to get The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on audiobook from our library for ages.  It is extremely popular but my patience finally paid off a couple of weeks ago when I was able to check out a copy.  I had heard nothing but good things about it and the story quickly captured my attention.  Unfortunately, this book has some problems…

Was it a fast-paced book perfect for listening to on a long trip?  Kinda.  It was exciting. Not as fast-paced as something like a Reacher book.

Were the characters interesting?  Very.  The most compelling part of the book was the two main characters.  Believable and unique.

What about the setting?  Great.  It was wonderful to have it set in a location that you don’t read about much.  Added a whole other layer of interest.

What’s the problem?  Waaay too much casual sex and graphic depictions of rape.  I didn’t understand why a perfectly good story had to be completely ruined by that crap.  If it was that central to the story it could have certainly been hinted at like the murder in an Agatha Christie novel.  The author went overboard and he did it on multiple occasions.

It was a very memorable and well-written book but I couldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Yosemite – Ovaltine Bonus Material

I know there are not that many pix from Half Dome. I was having a tough enough time just doing the hike without taking pix. I’ll get better at this the more I do it.

We were testing out some new equipment for this trip:
1. Gregory Z-30 daypacks – Awesome! Light, small, comfortable. The pack is held away from your back so you don’t get “pack sweat back” so easily. Lots of freedom of movement with these. Along with our tent, probably my favorite piece of outdoor equipment we own. Citron Yellow is a great color too. [Editor's Note:  In the three years since this article was first published, we have continued using these packs and still love them.  The Z-30 in the link above is the newer version as our exact model is no longer available.  We really like the longer narrower profile of these packs.  They hold as much stuff as a standard day pack without limiting the range of motion of your arms. We still love the curved frame to hold the pack away from your back but have noticed it makes accessing smaller things in the bottom of the main compartment more difficult.  They are sized right holding as much water and other stuff as you'd comfortably want to carry for a day. The well-designed shoulder straps and waist belt allow you to distribute the load comfortably across your torso.  On the downside, these packs are expensive.  For us, being able to hike with the stuff we want to carry for a day without ending up with a sore back, shoulders or neck has been worth the price.]

2. Camelbak 2L water bladders – Highly recommended. The biggest size that would fit our packs. 3/4 of the people we saw hiking had these and with good reason. They make drinking water fun and easy. :) The weight stays centered on your body and you are more likely to drink more often because of the convenient drinking tube. Nice large mouth that you can fit your hand in for cleaning. Con’s: Still a pain to clean. No locking “off” valve (although you can buy one for it). I read that you can just toss them in the freezer rather than cleaning in between uses on longer trips. This is what we did and it worked great. [Editor's Note:  The link takes you to the newer version of this bladder.  You'll see that these now come with a locking on/off valve standard.  We still love these bladders and have had no leaks with our bite-valve-only versions.  Part of the trick seems to be pushing the tubing far in to the bite valve.  This way the bite valve and the tubing must be compressed a little for water to flow (more resistance so more force is needed for a leak).  We've come up with a pretty easy cleaning routine:  1. Fill part way with soapy water, shake, drain through valve.  2.  Clean any dirty areas inside and out with remaining soap.  3.  Rinse thoroughly.  4.  Dry inside and out with a towel.  5.  Stuff interior with two paper towels to hold it open for drying. 6.  Remove bite valve and spin hose (like you are cowboy getting ready to rope a steer or a kid playing jump rope).  7.  Let everything completely dry.  8. Replace bite valve and store with lid unscrewed.  It sounds much more complicated than it is.  It takes about as long as washing and drying a dirty dish.]

3. Marmot PreCip rain jackets – More affordable that the Goretex alternatives but much more breathable than standard nylon or coated nylon. Available in lots of colors. Cut large enough to cover a couple layers of clothing. Pitzips are nice for ventilation and work well. Stuffs in on itself with one of the pockets forming a stuff sack (handy). Overall this product was a good match for us. I’ve read that the waterproofing doesn’t hold up a super long time. Didn’t break the wind all that well. The hood works well but the feature to roll it up into a collar is a joke. If you are a woman, skip the lady’s version. The men’s design is better and available in more colors. [Editor's Note:  The link now takes you to a newer version of the same product.  We still really like these jackets.  The waterproofing has not failed, but that could easily be because we are intentionally babying them.  They stay stuffed in our day packs and are only used when we are hiking.  Since we try to hike when it isn't raining, they see little use.  We've probably only used them 5 or 6 times total.  We've also added long rain pants to the ensemble.  We usually hike in cooler weather and having dry legs is nice (in the summer we just wear shorts and don't care).  As noted in the Yosemite write up, nylon running or hiking pants don't cut it.  They let the water right in.]

Movie Reviews: Rango and Get Low

Well it has been a den of sickness at the Patz household this past week. As the week progressed, I continued to get worse and I manged to infect Melanie just in time for the weekend.  Joy!

With few channels on TV and only so many hours that we could sleep, we were able to download all of the movies on our wishlist that are currently available.  Most were ok.  None felt like a waste of time (except A Town Called Panic = crap!).  Two were head and shoulders above the rest though.

RANGO
This one you’ve probably heard of.  Johnny Depp stars as a chameleon lost in the desert in this animated tale.  If you’ve seen any images from the movie you know that the detail is amazing.  Probably the best I’ve seen.

You might be expecting a standard Pixar/Disney-like story but there is something different about this tale.  I think a heavy-duty movie buff could point it out, but I’m not sure what it is.  It is definitely more adult (grown up) but there is more than that.  Maybe it is the pacing or the way the jokes are formulated?  Maybe it is the character design?  I wouldn’t take my young nephews or nieces to see it just because the main villain is a little too scarey.

If you are an adult, I think these differences could be part of the appeal.  You get an animated tale that isn’t quite as predictable.  Overall, it is one of my favorite movies of the few I’ve seen this year.  Recommended.

GET LOW
Get Low stars Robert Duvall and Bill Murray in a tale about a hermit and his plans for his own funeral party.  It is a very Robert Duvall-y kind of movie with rich characters, old people, great dialog and plenty of humor and heartache.

Melanie and I both really loved this movie.  I’m willing to go as far as to say that it is the best film I’ve seen this year.  The question we asked each other afterwards is “How did we know about this movie?”  It was released last year and has been sitting on our wishlist.  How did it get there?  I think it must have been from a high critic and audience rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.

This one was a little tougher for us to find but Redbox had it.  Highly Recommended.