Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lazy with forethought

My current job is installing computers in small offices across the country. We are talking well over 10,000 offices, and each office has an inventory sheet as part of the process. (Obviously I'm not the only one involved...)

Unfortunately, the sheet was designed very poorly. There is a part of the sheet that must be filled out by hand. That part was editable text. The rest of the sheet could potentially be filled out by cut and pasting from email, except it was actually an image. I am pretty sure that this was done for formatting purposes, allowing slight resizing of the left side without affecting the spacing of the right. The result is a form that has data available electronically, but must be entirely filled in by hand.

I wound up making my own version, with the eventual end result a form where you could cut and paste part of the standard schedule email as a single blob of text and that would fill in about 2/3 of the form. The rest could be typed, in fields that were in the order you would usually find the information. Took about 90 minutes all told, but it will save me alone that much time in a couple weeks. (It is also trading very boring administrative work for problem solving, so even if the net result was no time saved, it was a more pleasant use of time)

I don't know if this is the best way to do this, but it is certainly better. Things like the original form bug me--The solution was simple and if the rest of the installers adopt it, this could save thousands of hours, a few minutes at a time.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Karmic Koala first look

I've been having some glitches on my main laptop--Video downloads refusing to play in either Totem or VLC (even files that used to work), and Skype had quit. It turned out that the Skype problem was a dead mic in my headset, but in trying to figure it out I messed up the input settings. I had other alternatives, and wasn't very motivated to fix these, especially with the imminent release of Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala).

9.10 Release Candiate 1 is out, and I decided to try a fresh install. After backing up my home folder, I downloaded the ISO, burned it to a disk and rebooted.

Dual monitors did not work at first--I would either get a blank screen with nothing but a mouse cursor that I could move, or the same with a non-moving cursor. The moving cursor problem would revert after 30 seconds, the stuck pointer was stuck until cycling the power. After a bit of Google, I turned Visual Effects off, and that allowed dual monitors.

The microphone was turned off by default. As soon as I turned it on, Skype worked. Video was still broken, but in a different way--Totem, VLC and Mplayer would play the audio but show a blank screen rather than just shutting down. I did not turn up a fix for Totem, (although that has never worked well for me) (one of my gripes is that naming is not consistent--Totem is called Movie Player in menus) but I was able to fix VLC--Tools, Preferences, Video and changing the output from Default to X11. I was also able to fix Mplayer, by editing the config file for X11 output. Odd that it isn't set by default.

The default IM program has switched from Pidgin to Empathy. I have noticed some annoyances in the user interface. The biggest annoyance so far is that if someone sends you a message when the conversations window is not open, it does not open by default--you have to open it yourself before you can answer. It appears that I can change that in settings, and in some circumstances clicking on the notification icon will open it. Haven't found anything that leads me to believe I'll like it better, so I've installed Pidgin.

One of the nice things about Linux is that most settings are stored in .config files and .folders in the user's home directory--The program Xchat will have a folder called .Xchat (The beginning dot makes it hidden by default) with the settings in a plain text file. If you copy your old .Xchat folder when you reinstall, anything you customized before will be brought to the new system.

So far, with about a day of use, everything else seems to be fairly smooth. Nothing amazing, nothing particularly bad.

And as always, much faster and easier than a Windows install.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Desk

My desk:

(Click to enlarge) The middle computer is my main laptop, with Ubuntu Linux. To the right is a second monitor from the main laptop. To the left is an old laptop running Windows XP, for Windows-only applications--Mostly iTunes and my GPS. Usually turned off. Below the second monitor is my EeePC, running the Easy Peasy version of Ubuntu Linux, so far my favorite for the Eee. All three computers have Synergy, a free program that lets me control all three computers from the keyboard (an IBM model M2 from 1990--Similar to the Model M, in a smaller package) and mouse from my main computer--scrolling down controls the EeePC, scrolling to the left takes me to the Windows XP computer. (Macs are also supported, but I have not tried that) Cut and paste usually works between computers, but can be buggy at times. The full size laptops are on wire Closetmaid shelving for better ventilation--this reduces the amount the fans have to run, and keeps my office a bit quieter.

The "frankenstein's lab" thing behind the left laptop is the fuse panel from a big old house behind the house I grew up in. Big knife blade switches, cartridge fuses, all exposed and mounted on an inch thick slab of slate. I don't know much more about it, except that it has fused neutrals, banned by the National Electric Code in 1928.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Health care

I recently bought a new pair of glasses for an amazingly high price--Progressive bifocals with light-sensitive lenses. Nearly $500 at Walmart, which will be reimbursed via a use-or-loose health care spending account.

Although I like them, if it were "my" money, I wouldn't have spent nearly that much--I could have lived with my old glasses for quite a while longer, or I could have ordered traditional bifocals from a company like Zenni, starting at $25. The Zenni equivalent in features would have been around $100. I wound up getting the exact same frames as my previous glasses--If I were paying, I would have at least re-used my old frames.

This illustrates a major problem with non-patient-paid health care--there is often discressionary spending. When the person benefiting isn't the one paying, it is very hard to judge whether a particular spending is a good value. When the payor is judging, whatever is cheapest and meets their minimum obligation wins. When it is a non-paying consumer, some combination of "best" and "least effort" wins, regardless of cost.

If we must have universal coverage of some sort, there has to be some mechanism to encourage reasonable economic decisions. The patient has to benefit by taking cheaper options, but in a way that does not force everyone into the cheapest regardless of other factors. Assuming we have no choice but to offer universal health care, something like the Whole Foods healthcare system appears to be the "least bad" way of going about it--Health care savings accounts controlled by the patient (and ideally that roll over and are not tied to an employer), combined with high-deductible catastrophic coverage. Whole foods has lower costs, but higher satisfaction with this system, because patients have control of costs, and incentives to save.

It will be interesting to see what happens. In Massachusetts (with a universal system), a couple was fined because the rules changed and their catastrophic-only plan was deemed inadequate because their maximum out of pocket cost was $2500. They had to pay an extra $1000 in fines, about as much as the worst case scenario if they both were extremely ill in the same year. That was still cheaper than either the next higher option, or going with the state paid system.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Definitions of the second

I've never had a satisfactory explanation on what the second amendment means to an anti gunner. Instead of logic, there's something like "Of course I support the constitution, but the second is a collective right, and only applies to militia service, and doesn't actually mean your right to keep guns is protected".

Questions I'd like their answers to:

What does "collective right" mean?

Exactly whose 'right to bear arms" is it that "shall not be infringed"?

Under your theory of actual meaning, what would constitute a violation or infringement?

If your theory is that it is obsolete, what made it obsolete? How did that change the law? What other laws or constitutional provisions no longer apply due to the passage of time?

News Awareness

Mostly Cajun had a link to this quiz on current events, where I scored 10 out of 12, better than 89% of the public.

I don't think this is something for me to be proud of--I don't consider myself well-informed, and I really don't know what my primary news source is--I don't deliberately watch (or avoid) traditional news sources. Rather, I think this shows a disturbing lack of awareness by the general public.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Too nice for a gun

Drunk patron shoves owner, grabs bank bag. Scuffle ensues involving thief, owner and another patron helping the owner. Owner gets a a gun, thief runs, owner fires a warning shot. Thief returns, more fighting, owner throws gun into a truck bed so he doesn't have to shoot thief. Thief winds up with gun, leaves, is arrested later.

I know the bar owner involved. He is a really nice guy, possibly too nice to carry a gun. I haven't talked to him yet, so my comments assume that the newspaper account is closer to reality than most stories.

First of all, the paper says the warning shot was after the thief was fleeing. In Ohio (like most states), you can't use deadly force to protect property. Warning shots are rarely a good idea, and in an area as populated as where this happened, a warning shot into the air is a really bad idea.

Don't involve a gun if you are going to throw it away rather than use it--especially if you will throw it where a criminal can retrieve it. I think the criminal thought that the owner wasn't willing to shoot.

If the owner doesn't get charged, this worked out reasonably well, but only by really good luck.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not my fault

Near the end of June, I had a Tiki torch catch fire. Turns out that it wasn't my fault, the refill bottle in question has been recalled for doing the same to others.

IBM Model M

Marko has done a couple of posts on the IBM Model M keyboard, quite possibly the best PC hardware ever made.

IBM made some significant mistakes with the design of the original PC, but they got the keyboard right. This was all the more impressive because many computers of the day had keyboards that were impossible to touch type on, like the membrane keyboard of the Atari 400, or the keyboards with remote-control style rubber keys on some others. To make matters worse, most of these keyboards were built in and could not be easily upgraded.

The original PC keyboard was further refined into the Model M--Same key feel, but with additional keys and a better layout.

When a low cost IBM PC was $2500 and even cheap keyboards weren't all that cheap, this made sense. When computers are down to $300, spending 1/4 of the cost on a keyboard doesn't. This is reflected in the keyboards for most PC's getting cheaper and cheaper

IBM also had the best laptop keyboards I've ever used on the mid 90s Thinkpads--A similar feel, with a shorter stroke. One of the dumbest purchase choices I've made was when I bought a new low-end Toshiba laptop instead of the clearance IBM of marginally lower spec.

New type M's are around $70 shipped from This sounds outrageous for a keyboard, until you figure the per-year cost. I retired my 1988 keyboard that was still in perfect working order to replace it with a 1990 M2, the slightly smaller, lighter and less rugged version. I'm a little lucky that my USB port will drive this keyboard, some of them draw too much current for some USB ports.

If you need peace and quiet, the Type M isn't for you--they make a quite loud click on both the press and release. On the other hand, when someone hears you typing, they think you are twice as fast as you really are...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Easy chili recepie

1 can Bush's Chili Hot Beans
Equal amount diced tomatoes
tomato paste (small can)
Corn Meal (about 2 tbsp--I don't measure)
Onion (to taste--about 1 small onion)
Fresh diced JalapeƱo peppers (2 or so)
Minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
Cooked hamburger (half a pound or so)

(This recepie is for regular sized cans)

Dump it all in a crock pot, simmer an hour or three. Even though it is in a crock pot, you will likely still have to stir occasionally.

I usually make this using gallon cans of beans and tomatoes. For that amount I use two small cans tomato paste, a lot more fresh onion, and about half a head of garlic. It freezes very well.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Jam Jacket Ipod case

Since buying my Ipod Touch, I have been looking for a decent case for it, and a better way to store the headphones. As a temporary solution I had the 3 pack of silicone covers from Walmart, but they didn't stay on all that well. I kept the earbuds in a tiny plastic box in my pocket, separate from the iPod. I wanted a belt clip, and some way of storing the earbuds would be nice. A friend had a case for his Nano that had headphone storage, and I really wanted one like that.

I had pretty much given up, when I found the Jam Jacket while shopping for something else. The clip on the back does triple duty as cord storage, a belt clip, and a stand.

The clip is rubber coated metal X, and has a three dimensional curve to it. The clip will sort of pop and turn inside out to make the legs stick out to use as a stand, and to make winding the cord easier. I'd rather the stand function were a bit less upright. The clip also twists, but I have not found an advantage to that yet. The case adds considerably to the thickness of the iPod, especially in the center. The rubber is much thicker and sturdier than the silicone covers I had. The case also comes with a pre-cut screen protector.

As a belt clip, the iPod has to be vertical, and if you are shaped like I am needs to be on the rear half of your body if you plan to sit. (Someone with a smaller belly may not have this problem).

Cord storage works best if you arrange the earbuds at the top of the clip, and then wrap the first half of the cord in a figure 8 around one pair of legs, the other half around the other 2 legs. Tuck the jack in. This minimizes bulk by keeping the winding of the cord away from the thickest part (in the same way that holsters with their loops or clips beside the gun rather than on top do). The clip can keep the cord stowed reasonably well when using it as a stand, but not so much if being used as a belt clip.

(This is a filler post, not a compensated endorsement)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Gordon Food Service Primo Gusto pasta sauce

Years ago, Sam's club had a really good pasta sauce, really cheap. When they discontinued it, I tried to find it elsewhere, and was unsuccessful.

Not so long ago, Meijer's had a premium house brand pasta sauce that was really good, in several varieties, at about the same price as cheap sauce. Unfortunately they have shuffled their product line. They now carry a generic sauce, and a super-premium at twice the price.

Most of the time if sugar or corn syrup is not in the top 5 ingredients of a pasta sauce, it will be at least a little better than average, and if there is no added sugar it will be pretty good.

We were at Gordon Food Service and I checked the ingredients on their gallon cans of pasta sauce--No sugar! I bought a can, and it is really good sauce by itself. (Full disclosure--I haven't found a bottled sauce that isn't better with some fresh garlic and anise or fennel) The price is right too--Under $6 per gallon. The downside is that like a lot of Gordon products, you can't get less than a gallon.

(Not a paid endorsement--If I ever start doing them, I will mention the fact)