My new Vox Amp

I have a new toy.
I have been teaching myself to play the guitar. I mean really play it, not just hit the rock power chords of “Freebird” like I did way back when.

The toy? A Vox amPlug Headphone Guitar Amplifier – Classic Rock version.

It is tiny, about the size of a standard deck of playing cards split in half lengthwise. I plugged it into my Peavey T-15 electric guitar and was amazed at the sound quality. And because I used my MP3 player ear buds I was the only one who could hear it. I can practice without disturbing the rest of the household.
I strummed “Horse With No Name” for bit, and then (ahem) hit the “Freebird” power chords.

Now I have no excuse not to learn to play.

This is so cool!!


Review: Installing Linux on a Dead Badger by Lucy A. Snyder

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger (and Other Oddities) by Lucy A. Snyder

Lucy A. Snyder provides us with zombie tech and horror humor stories in this hilarious collection.

Well, to be fair, it may only be hilarious to that part of the population that consists of zombie movie watching computer geeks. Snyder’s subtle humor and deft sprinkling of in jokes kept me laughing throughout this entire book. I first encountered Snyder’s work when I read the title story, and internet standout, “Installing Linux on a Dead Badger: User’s Guide” in Strange Horizons, an online magazine. It is just the kind of quirky weirdness that appeals to me.

For the less weird among us, do not fear. Snyder also includes social commentary on (okay, she pokes fun at) the GOP, Microsoft and the institution of lies my mother told me about dating.

I finished reading this book just before a subtle tiny knock came to my door last night, All Hollows Eve. Screams of “Trick or Treat, PLEASE” rocked me backwards as I opened the door. I was confronted with a pint size princess, scarecrow and ZOMBIE! (Alas, no badgers) But I ask you, what ever happened to “Trick or Treat, SMELL MY FEET?”

“Installing Linux on a Dead Badger” is the best zombie tech humor book I have ever read. Hands down.
I would like to thank my son, Chris, for picking up this autographed copy for me while he was at ZombieFest 2007 in Pittsburgh. It is the best early birthday present I have gotten this year!! (And yes, Lucy-S, I enjoyed it! But, what’s up with that penmanship?? You write like a computer geek… oh… yeah… nevermind.)

Procrastination Cessation …

Hello. I am a procrastinator. I sometimes can keep my head down and get things done, but over the last year I have really let a lot of things slip. I am going to rectify that.

I stumbled across an interesting meme here on the internet. It is called “101 Things to Do in 1001 Days“. The idea is to complete 101 preset tasks in a period of 1001 days. The tasks must be specific (i.e. no ambiguity in the wording) with a result that is either measurable or clearly defined. Tasks must also be realistic and stretching (i.e. represent some amount of work on my part). I realize that some of the tasks on my list may not seem to fit the requirements, but I think that even the most mundane ones will be stretching (and hopefully breaking) my procrastination. I like this meme because it gives focus like other “beating procrastination” exercises, but it also sets a time table that won’t cause panic or frustration. 1001 days is approximately 2.74059 years. That is a long time.

I am going to participate. But a lot can happen in 2 and three quarter years. Kids get married or graduate from college. There could be more grandkids. We could win the lottery. For this reason I am reserving the right to revise this list based on a major life event. I mean, if I win the lottery then fixing the van is not a stretching task anymore, right. A stretching task to replace the van task would be setting up trust funds for loved ones, or building them houses.

My list of 101 Things can be found on the sidebar as a sub-page under “About Me.” It contains such mundane things as taking care of all the broken door knobs in our house, and using and returning a power washer I borrowed from a friend over a year ago. It contains necessary things like doing my back exercises and and cleaning up my pack-rat messes (I am a hoarder of useless things. It’s genetic.) The task list has a few hard things like learning to read music (which I have failed at before), and important things like working with my parents and sister on formalizing the ownership of the family farm to protect it from seizure should my parents’ medical costs spiral out of control. It also has fun things for me, like going on a “get away” with just Doris (beach, cabin in the woods; something we have talked about for years), and reading all the Hugo Award winning novels that I have not yet read.

I took me the better part of a week to create the list. I strove hard to keep all the tasks realistic and important, even the fun ones. Don’t wish me luck, tell me “It’s about time!”

The Phone is Dead

Here at Swamp Acres we are starting our third day (24 hour period) without our land line phone. If anyone needs to contact me, try Doris’ cell. If you don’t have her cell number, send me email. If you don’t have my email, post a comment to this entry. Our phone goes dead periodically, although it is normally only off for less than 24 hours. It doesn’t happen a lot, but often enough to be annoying. The irritating thing is I think I know what is happening.

Somewhere along the path from my house to the first switch a technician thinks our twisted pair is available and simply disconnects us. One tech slipped up and basically told me that he had disconnected me the day before when he was connecting someone else’s new line. He said it wasn’t marked correctly. You see, we use to have two land lines. One for voice and one for data. For some reason the phone company insisted that the data line was the primary line. When we got broadband I canceled that phone number. Ever since then we get disconnected periodically. There is no pattern… it could be a few months between disconnects or, as in earlier this year, just a week or two. In every single case when the tech finally begins working on our problem, it is fixed within what seems like minutes.

I bet our line has been labeled with that old data line number that is disconnected, and the techs keep using it thinking that those wires are up for grabs. If this keeps up I just may switch to VOIP (voice over IP) using my high gain wireless broadband. If cell phone signals came in stronger here at the house, I’d get a second cell phone and attach it into Doris’ service plan and disconnect the land line phone altogether. I am getting fed up with the shoddy service. Who is my phone company? Well, let me say that if they used there “Can you hear me now?” ad campaign for their land line service, they could be sued for truth in advertising.

56 hours and counting without local phone service… tick, tick, tick.

Why VPN Doesn’t Work on all Broadband

[22 MAR 09 UPDATE: This post fostered an idea for a story I wrote. You can read “VPN Doesn’t Work” at Every Day Fiction.]

I have mentioned here that I must use VPN (Virtual Privacy Networking) to connect into my work computer network.  VPN is a secure way to connect a personal computer anywhere out on the internet to a host computer in a way that ensures that no hackers can snoop in on the data stream.  It is really more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it.  In monitoring my blog hits, especially the search engine hits that direct people here, I see that more than a few are searching for information about VPN connectivity.  I have a little experience with the most common search I have seen: “Why doesn’t VPN work on all broadband connections?

I have found two major reasons for this.  The first, and most frustrating, is that your ISP may not maintain or present a persistent IP address to the outside world.  For normal internet use this is no big deal.  It really doesn’t matter all that much if every time you make a request in a web browser your IP sends that request on a different IP.  This is sometimes called packet-switching.  As long as your IP can route the returned data back to your web browsing session everything seems fine.  An example of an ISP that did this was DirecTV’s DirecWay, now HughesNet.  At the time I investigated using their broadband they had three levels of access.

  • The first was the cheapest.  It pulled incoming data off the satellite feed that DirecTV uses, yet the outgoing data had to be transmitted via a land phone line.  This kind of connection will never work with VPN because it needs a single common communication link.
  • The second was more expensive.  It required a special satellite dish that transmitted data as well as received it.  For normal internet usage it was blazing fast.  However, VPN kept getting disconnected.   I had this installed for a while.  I could connect to my work via VPN but the connection would drop shortly after connection.  This is because when you are authenticated via VPN it notes the IP address that you are using.  If that IP address changes, it appears that you are dropped because the host computer no longer recognizes you as being authenticated.  Just about any ISP that provides its end users with an IP address that begins with 10 does packet switching and will have a problem with VPN.  And because of the packet switching, real time online games would sometimes hang, stutter or run at slower than dial-up speeds.
  • Their final solution appears as if it would have worked.  But frankly, I only needed the one connection with a static IP address.  I didn’t need to buy an entire freaking small business solution at the cost of several thousand dollars a month.

The second problem I have seen may be fixable in some cases.  This problem deals with the type of security protocol that is being used with the VPN.  IPSec has been the most common, but that is changing now that SSL is becoming more popular, that is changing.  What happens in this case is that your ISP and your host computer may have conflicting (incompatable) or different security.  Some ISPs are willing to accomidate the customer and make sure that the security works, other ISPs won’t or can’t due to lack of hardware resources or due to lack of experienced personnel.   Of course the other alternative is to ask the IT staff that run your host computer to permit your ISPs security protocol.  I have found this to not be an effective solution for my workplace.

There you have it.  Some broadband connections won’t work with VPN because of a non-persistent IP address (packet switching) and others won’t work if the security protocols used by your ISP and your host are not compatable.

Keep searching.  Eventually you will find an ISP that fits your needs.  For me that solution was an ISP that uses  a wireless directional high-gain radio to transmit and receive data.  I have one of those funky sideways antennas you see on at police stations mounted to my roof.  My ISP provided me with a static IP address and I have never lost a VPN connection due to anything other than a power failure at a radio tower five miles away.

The lesson I learned is that all “broadband” connections are not the same.  The first question I will always ask an ISP is “do you support VPN”.   And be prepared to ask if they support your host’s security protocol.

Cruising for Hot Spots

The internet broadband connection went away again. For nearly two full days we battled connecting to the internet. They both needed to check things online, so last night Doris and Chris grabbed their wireless capable laptops and off we went into the great sprawling metropolis of Waverly in search of wireless hot spots. A year ago anyone attempting this would have been on a wild goose chase. My how the world of technology is changing–even here in this sleepy little town. Doris read that our public library had gone wireless. I read that a local motel had a hot spot. We figured it was worth a try.

We encountered more than just a few wide open wireless internet hot spots. Some signals were a little weak, and the wireless configuration on Doris’ laptop is a little kludgey (that is a technical term for the “special” software Dell and Microsoft use), but we found a usable connection and both Doris and Chris were able to get a few minutes of necessary internet connectivity.

I am more convinced now than ever that wireless is the future of communication as long as the government does not legislate in favor of big outdated telcom corporations.

Imagine this: You have in your hand a wireless device that serves not only as a PDA, but a VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone. As long as you have a valid account, you can use the phone anywhere there is a wireless hot spot. Free of any charges beyond the initial VOIP provider charges.

It is not a big stretch. Just last night Chris and Doris used a hot spot connected to who knows what ISP. We didn’t care, we just rode the bandwidth–free of charge.

I may borrow Doris’ laptop and go out cruising for more hot spots, just to see where they are. Hotels, libraries, restaurants, schools, taverns and even private citizens are setting up hot spots. Most are wide open and free to the general public. I knew things were like this in the big cities, but it never occurred to me until last night that wireless was so pervasive here in my little hometown.

Diesel from Plastic

If this is real, and it appears it is, then this is the most cool news to come out of recycling in a very long time.  I AM STOKED!!!  A month ago the magazine New Scientist reported about a company that has developed a process to take hydrocarbon based garbage like plastics and rubber and convert it back to diesel and gas using a specialized microwave oven system.

The machine developed by Global Resource Corp. uses microwaves to gasify plastics, rubber and any hydrocarbon based waste.  The lighter “natural gases” can be captured and the remaining molocules cooled back into a diesel grade oil.  The remaining byproducts are pure carbon black (a highly salable product), and any non-hydrocarbon based material.  A good example is that when 20 pounds of ground up automobile tires are processed the results are 8.5 pounds of diesel oil, 7.5 pounds of carbon black, two pounds of steel and two pounds of light gas.

The thought that they can convert tires back into nearly 100% usable products is very exciting.  A metals recycling company that specializes in recycling automobiles plans on using this process on the “autofluff”; the ground up non-ferrous metals, plactics, dirt, etc. that make up our cars.  They plan on using the resulting gas and diesel to run the machines to process the autofluff, and then sell the excess.

More exciting to me as an outdoors lover, is that this process can be used to clean up contaminated soil, resulting in clean fill and diesel.  It appears that even organic matter can be converted using this process.  I’d like to see if medical biohazardous waste can be made clean with this process.

I had a computer professor tell me that “the only free cheese is in a mouse trap”, and this news does appear to be to good to be true, but, GOLLY, wouldn’t it be fantastic!!

Atkinson on Asimov Nonfiction

When you mention Isaac Asimov to most people either they have no idea who you are talking about, or they identify him as a science fiction writer. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Asimov wrote mostly nonfiction. History has not caught up with him yet, but I would think that in years to come Asimov will be regaled as one of America’s greatest essayists.

He had a lot of practice at it. He wrote an essay in the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction from the late1950’s until the early 1990’s. His editorials in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine were normally informative and hilarious. He even wrote a continuing non-fiction column in American Ways, the American Airlines in-flight magazine. Most of these essays have been captured in book format.

I really like his short non-fiction, however, it is with his longer non-fiction that he really finds his voice. People have dubbed him “the Great Explainer”. I don’t think that hits the mark. His work does not just explain, it does not lecture. Asimov had a way of entering a topic and getting the reader, at least this reader, to become a participant in the book, not just a reader. He wrote books on just about every subject. The large portion of them had very simple titles like, Asimov on Astronomy, Asimov on Physics, Asimov on Science Fiction and so on. He wrote science books at the juvenile level and college texts on biochemistry. He wrote about the Christian bible and penned collections of dirty limericks and jokes. He covered Shakespeare and the complete time line of the universe as we know it. He wrote about the origins of words, and the biographical histories of scientists. He wrote on just about every topic and brought with each one a common man sensibility. He even wrote books that are hard to classify. I just picked up the tome, The Edge of Tomorrow and was pleased to discover that it contains both non-fiction essays and fiction that he’d published in Fantasy & Science Fiction. I find myself excited to read Asimov fiction that I have never read before.

If you get a chance, read some of Asimov’s nonfiction. As a life goal, I am trying to collect one example of each of Asimov’s 400+ published works which are mostly nonfiction. I plan on reading them all.

Planned Obsolescence

So… the passenger window on my car decided it wasn’t going to work anymore. Fixing it has been on my to do list for over a month. Yesterday morning I finally got around to attacking the problem. One of the things I learned as a kid is how to be mechanical. My Dad hated working on anything himself, and there were times when something just had to be fixed. I have torn down, fixed and re-assembled a lot of 3.5 through 9 horsepower engines, including replacing bearings and piston parts. Breaking down a car door seemed easy. The thing is, while I have torn apart car doors in the past, this was my first “power” door. The wires and speaker system make it a little more complex. I got to curse at my stupidity when I broke a plastic part. (Duct tape will fix it!)

When I got the door panel off, I figured the fix would be easy. Silly me. It seems that GM cars have a planned obsolescence built into the window assembly. The scissor lift that pulls the window down or pushes it up attaches to the base of the window with a ball joint that fits into a clip, (the socket) that is embedded into a runner that is pop-riveted to the frame holding the window glass. A really slick design for a big car window that uses curved glass. It can flex inside the door.

The thing is GM used a cheap plastic clip. And over time plastic gets brittle and then one day snap, the clip breaks and the window glass can fall inside the door frame. I guess I am going to have to buy a two clips and get it fixed right. For now, I just got the window into the top position with the ball joint locked into the runner where the broken clip is. As long as no on lowers the window, it won’t fall down. I immobilized the switches.

I was talking with my Dad yesterday afternoon. Two of his GM cars have the same problem. Looks like I’ll be buying a bag of clips and fixing the whole lot.

The warranty period on these cars has expired. Did GM use plastic instead of aluminum or some other light metal to save money, knowing that the warranty would be over before the plastic turned brittle?

Sure looks like planned obsolescence to me.

Does anyone have a lever?

(another rant about work)

I have a place to stand, but apparently I am am not allowed to have a lever. We have a deadline. The deadline is god.

The project team I am on has been working without the proper tools for several years now. Oh, they keep fancy and powerful PCs on our desks. We have the latest and greatest communication aids and the appropriate software development software. None of that does any good if we can not test the software to ensure that it works (yet, we must produce useless paperwork to insure the bureaucrats against its potential failure.)

We can not adequately test the software because they refuse to give us a development environment that has robust data. Without data we can not prove the software works, and we put test sites at risk because of it. This is not rocket science. This is common sense.

Let me explain. Say you are asked to develop a math formula that does a whizbang calculation. You work and come up with “a+b+c=47“. You think it is right. You can invent numbers for a, b and c that will make the equation correct. But is it? What are realistic, real world examples of the values for a, b and c? What if in the real world a and b are always greater than 24 and c is never negative? Well, the formula is bad, and you need to develop a new one. Big deal right? You send the software to a test site, they find the error, you fix it; no problems, eh?

Now, imagine that a is a blood pressure value, b is a potassium level, c is a white cell count and 47 represents a patient’s life. The software I write is meant to assist caregivers in helping treat patients. As such, if the caregiver is working from a bad formula, real harm can come to the patient. Let me say that again a little more clearly. Bad software can harm patients.

However, we are not permitted to spend the time to understand and then create realistic data to test our software with. You see, the deadline is god. There is a process to allow software to be released “with known defects” just so that the deadline can be met. And this causes a big enough concern that the bureaucrats have developed a policy to deal with software that contain “patient safety issues”. Who cares about the patient as long as there is a strategy to deal with blame?

What they haven’t done is to develop a strategy to deal with the fact that the vast majority of our software developers do not have realistic data available to them to properly test the software before it is installed at a test site. We have lots of paperwork to protect the pointy-haired bosses from blame, but none to protect the PATIENTS!

I get to bring this topic up again during a meeting today. Is it a sign of a broken spirit, or a firm grasp of reality, that makes me so sure that I will be handed another answer similar to “we are looking into the problem and if it is indeed a problem we will request funding for a study on how best to deal with the problem”?

Some day’s I hate my job.

I have a place to stand. All I need is a lever that can move the bureaucracy into action. I am afraid that Archimedes would have had an easier time moving the world.