Saturday, January 30, 2010

good enough

I think we are in the middle of an important change in our use of technology. The pieces are there but aren't being seen clearly yet. The recent economic unpleasantness has accellerated the trend.

Mp3 is lossy and imperfect, which gets audiophiles all in a tizzy. Hey, if the population wanted perfect sound reproduction they'd use .flac or .ape or something like that. But they don't.
Recommendation: record companies should give away very low bandwidth (64k?) music and sell the higher bitrate stuff. People might pirate 128k or higher, but I believe the public would sample 64k and buy what they like for acceptable listening. Same for movie companies and iPod-sized video. Use the low quality encodings to drive business to the "real" product.
Related prediction: increasing use of opensource .ogg. Increasing use of opensource firmware that plays open formats like .ogg and lossless formats like .ogg and .flac.

cheap netbooks
OLPC tried to do it, but it appears Google will actually end up creating very cheap netbooks like this ~$100 version. Heavy gaming? No. Business meetings? Probably not. But most of us don't need screaming (and battery-draining) CPUs and acres of diskspace. How many people buy a PC from Dell based on important-looking performance numbers then never do anything more cpu-intensive than email and Word? If you are rendering CAD, gaming, editing video, or writing compiled code you likely need a fast machine. Most everyone else does not.
Related prediction: increase in numbers of opensource-powered adequate hardware. More attention paid to battery life. Cheap/ugly solar panels on the PC lid?

Yaris, Fit, Hyundai, Kia
Simple cars that get us from here to there. Cars have become excessively marketed, positioned, overstyled and effectively inbred. Simple cars and effective cars (like the Prius) may be the new Model T.

Mesh and other narrowband wifi networks
I think there is a place for free, narrow bandwidth wireless networks. Enough to read webmail and do light (proxystripped?) surfing but not enough to run p2p, move nontrivial binaries, or stream video.
Recommendation: communities partner with their local cable or other utils to put up mesh networks for free, and offer higher, sexier bandwidth for the normal rate.

Ok, must make coffee now so I can make better sense than the above.

Friday, January 29, 2010

spirit rover

It's weird to feel sympathy for a machine. Very human of us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Conspicuously missing from the Sonic menu

Ok, you know Sonic. The 1950s style drive-in. The company that succeeds by "... sticking to what made drive-ins so popular in the first place: made-to-order American classics...", etc.

I've got a Sonic cup in front of me now, all retro Eisenhower-looking postwar graphics in turquoise and mustard.

Guess which of these "American classics" you can no longer get at Sonic:
  • caramel mocha java chiller
  • m&m sonic blast
  • grape creamslush chiller
  • cranberry, raspberry, or peach iced tea
  • jr fritos chili cheese wrap
  • chicken bacon ranch sandwich
  • a malt
Yes, you guessed correctly. The malt is gone from the menu. You can get a caramel mocha java chiller but not a freaking malt.

Seriously, who made this decision? It's not like malted milk is expensive, hard to work with, expires quickly, etc. It's a relatively cheap commodity powder that sits in a bin until you need it. You put a scoop in and stir. Done. I worked for sonic when I was a high school kid and made a kabillion shakes and malts. It's not hard. Arrghhhh!

Headhunter calls as leading economic indicator

I have had my resume posted online for about 15yrs, so I get a certain amount of headhunter traffic on my phone and email.

Headhunter calls seem to be a leading indicator of what's to come economically. According to my highly unscientific sample it seems that the call volume and quality lead actual conditions by 6-12 months. I am happy to report that headhunter calls have started slowly picking up again this month after about a year of zero contacts.

If past performance is any clue, maybe the the economy will pick up mid- or late-2010. I sure hope so.

Now, if I could just get any of those headhunters to call about a teaching job rather than *nix administration...

The other side of the counter

If you have:

a. been indoctrinated with the "customer is always right" trope; but
b. have never worked a service or retail job

then you may be under the delusion that all humans are reasonable, intelligent animals. Working in one of the aforementioned jobs (or owning your own company) will quickly disabuse one of any misunderstanding.

Consider this story of a customer looking for a book-related object, this story of a high maintenance lawyer, this story of a fellow serially mistaken for an employee, or this story of a dude trying to find a video about snakes on a plane.

Having/reading experiences like those reminds one to appreciate informed, low-maintenance customers.

I have many tales like those. Here is one that occurred in the Richardson WalMart @ Midpark (ie "Worst Walmart in the World") before it was put out of its suffering.

I am standing in the Customer Service line, as I need to make an exchange. I have apparently bought a previously-returned item and parts were missing from the package. The lady in front of me in line has two young boys with aggressively and recently buzzed hair. I'm guessing a #2 cut. I cannot see what she is returning, as the package is blocked by her body.

Lady: I need to return this. {holds up a package of hair clippers}
CSR: What is the reason for the return?
Lady: It doesn't work.
CSR: {pieces of buzzed hair are obviously, blatantly, unmistakeably stuck on the kids' shoulders and ears}
CSR: These clippers don't work?
Lady: It doesn't work! It doesn't work! I want my money back! {the kids are mortified}
ok, ok, I'll....
: I want my money back! Give me my money back! It doesn't work! {continues shrieking}

Something's defective, lady. I think it's your sense of honor. I think it's your ability to be a positive role model for your sons.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

composting, version 3

I spent some time this morning talking with local Richardson resident and master composter Rob.

I've been learning/experimenting with compost for a while but sometimes talking it out with a teacher really helps gel one's thinking.

Lessons I learned from Rob, and took to heart while watching him work his own compost piles:
  1. A practical, simple approach to composting will suffice for most people.
  2. Circular bins are great. They can blend into your backyard -- the mesh is almost invisible and the leaves and other materials are, by definition, a natural color. The bins can be unhooked quickly and relocated; this gives you plenty of room to "completely deconstruct" the pile and rebuild the parts that need more time (see below).
  3. Sifting can help seperate out the "finished" parts of the compost from the unfinished. Rob has MacGyvered up a sifting mechanism that lets the finer, velvety compost fall through for use while retaining the coarser materials for reconstruction of the pile.
  4. Multiple piles are useful and time is your friend. Multiple bins can help this process along, but Rob demonstrated that a working compost pile can stand on its own after it has taken shape. You can remove the circular bin to start a new pile.

So I came home and decided to make a few test bins. They wouldn't be as good as Rob's bins but these are another step in my own understanding of how compost works. The image above is one of the three 3' diameter bins I made that came out ok. I have one tucked away beside the house; it holds leaves I swept up from the curb. There's one stored behind the shed and one that's going to get used next as soon as the ugly duckling 4' bin gets full.

I wasn't trying to make a 4' bin; I was trying to make a 3' bin from 9.5' of material. But it was my first one and a series of mistakes meant I cut out 12' instead of 9.5'. Oh well. I didn't want to cut the material down and have an unusable scrap, plus I figured this would be a good way to experiment with size. It's holding together and isn't wobbly. The wire is 16ga and fairly heavy.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

rockbox forums

But first, a frank word about the Rockbox forums.

Rockbox is very, very good for the end user. The Rockbox forums OTOH are vicious, pedantic, and needlessly brutal. It's the worst stereotypes about programmers come true. Do Not Want.

For your peer-assist forum needs I recommend the "anything but iPod" forums.

rockbox report: iPod mini 2g 4GB

Second traded mp3 player came in the mail. This one is a silver iPod mini 2nd gen, 4GB player.

The clickwheel functionality and build of the Mini is superior to the sansa, but it weighs more and has no place to attach a lanyard that I can see. The screen is larger but is monochrome and has much slower refresh. There is a bit of lag in the iPod UI. That's odd, as both units use dual 80mHz ARM chips that appear to be very similar (pp5022 v. pp5024 PortalPlayer stuff). Maybe it's just a slow screen refresh making the UI look slow.

Rockbox slipped right on painlessly. Rockbox for iPod mini 2G (manual in .pdf) will let you dual boot; rockbox for when you want to control your destiny and Apple firmware for when you want your iPod's electromechanical soul to get savaged by whatever hellspawn invented iTunes.

Hey, have I mentioned how much I hate iTunes? I do. It's an abomination, an informational lobotomy, a power of attorney granted to an elderly uncle who wasn't that stable before senility hit him full force. It's the signing away of your birthright for a pot of soup. It's no way to live. Say no to iTunes. Say yes to something else, anything else.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

DirecTV to hike prices

Here's a thread about it.

I'm ready to go live with the free Over-The-Air antenna feed saved onto the mythbox. Will discuss it with the Dear Wife tomorrow.

If we do cancel, I'll disconnect the dish cables and network connection first so they can't do anything sneaky to our DirecTivo. There's about 100 hrs of recorded material there we'd like to eventually watch.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

rockbox report: sandisk sansa e260

Got my hands on the e260, put it in normal USB mode (MSC "Mass Storage") and plugged it into my linux box.

Ran the installer (requires sudo or root access): it found the device. Pressed the Install Bootloader button (only necessary the first time) then the Install Rockbox button. I looked around and installed some themes while I was at it.

It is not an exaggeration to say from the time I opened the box to the time it booted up into Rockbox was less than 5 mins. Probably less than 4 mins. First track played? Eno's Music for Airports, Track 1, which I bought off Amazon in 2009.

Rockbox makes the stock firmware look like a child's plaything. Rockbox puts the user in control. I recommend rockboxing your player if it's in the list of supported devices.

Friday, January 15, 2010

churchmouse indicator

Each podcast episode of the (highly recommended) NPR Planet Money podcast starts out with a Planet Money Indicator, an isolated numerical datapoint.

For example, the most recent indicator went like this: "85,000. This is the net number of jobs the economy lost in Dec 2009." They briefly put the indicator in context then start the real podcast.

As I was putting away the two small bags of carefully selected, heavily couponed and compared groceries I bought today I noticed my own indicator, hereafter known as a churchmouse indicator. We have one of the dispensers that holds plastic grocery bags so you can reuse them around the house. For the several years we've owned it it's been so crammed full that we've recycled the bags that would not fit. There are holes on the side of the dispenser that let you pull bags out. There are 8 holes top to bottom. In the past it was full up beyond all eight holes. For the past few months the dispenser fill level has been falling and is now at 1.5 holes. This suggests that the stuff we buy in plastic grocery bags has fallen about 80%.

That sounds about right. That's analagous to the decline in my income in 2009 compared to 2008. I've bet my mortgage (and marital bliss) on my confidence that I can get a teaching job, be an effective teacher, and return to a semi-normal income. So far that confidence has not been justified but we're not yet starving. Perhaps this is The Universe teaching me how to be more in tune with the kids whose families are, financially, treading water.

Further Reading: PM's iPod index and Big Mac index.

This is what a $15 stove looks like

Here's a good example of a $15 stove. Old, dirty, but not rusted. Parts inexpensive and easily available.

It's a 413G which makes it a 1960s stove. The original manual for this kind of stove is online at Coleman (pdf) and has delightful graphics.

This kind of stove makes for great camping (NOT hiking, it's a called a "suitcase stove" for a reason). Also nifty for cooking stinky foods outside or canning. Or, for you all-electric folks, cooking anything at all if your power goes out. A camping stove means you can cook no matter whatever else happens.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


rockbox is free / open source firmware for mp3 players. Probably most common on iPods and Sansa players, but it runs on many platforms and adds features like video playback, game emulation, small apps, and massive amounts of customizability. See what yours would do.

I've been intending to snag a used mp3 player that is amenable to rockboxing, but hadn't done it until recently. I traded a handful of serviceable (but not rockboxable) units to get a Sansa e240r e260 and a beat up 2G iPod Mini. I'll install the firmware on them and will report back when I do so. Until then I've got a Sansa c240 that is officially not supported (classified as "unusable" with rockbox) but I've got it loaded up and am listening to mp3 and FM Radio on it now. The "unusable" rockbox is already better than the firmware that came with the unit.


Eating breakfast this morning when I saw a shape zoom into our backyard bushes and zoom out the other side with a lump in its claws.

Took a minute to figure out that some small hawk-like creature (a merlin ?) was going to have a a sparrow for his own breakfast. He sat on the ground for a while and I thought he might have to eat the sparrow there because it was too big to lift. But after resting a while he took off and had the picnic elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Don't buy this three-burner

Seller has been trying to sell this 3-burner stove for about a month.

Two problems:
  1. $45 is too much. A three burner goes for $25-30.
  2. this particular one is in bad shape. It's been left out (rusted) and has been set on fire once or twice. It's common to see burning on the underside of the lid. Burnmarks on the top indicated the conflagration lasted a good while.
Don't buy it. If it were $20 you might get it, tear it down, and respray it.

Ahh, Texas

Let me assure you that long hair on boys is NOT at the epicenter of problems in public schools. Generally speaking, the boys with hair in their eyes or touching their collars are NOT disrupting your kids' classrooms and preventing them from learning, NOT screaming or shoving each other around in the halls, and NOT being pulled out of the classroom by the police during class.

Preservation (and subsequent enforcement) of silly, backwards rules like this is deckchair rearranging of the most desperate kind.

For the record, my hair has been buzzed to #2-#3 length for the past few years. I have no personal skin in this game. I do find gender-specific rules repugnant.

Anecdote: I once was lectured on my then-long hair by a particularly unpleasant (and very short-haired) accountant. She cited Corinthians on this but conveniently forgot to mention that passage's references to short female hair. She was unamused when I pointed this out and encouraged her to re-read the passage.

I suspect this kind of religiosity is, obliquely, at the heart of many Texas dress codes.

Get off my porch

Hey, buddy. If I wanted to join your cult I would take one or more of these courses of action:
  • go to your church
  • put up a sign that says "spiritual help sought" instead of the current one that says "No Solicitors"
  • go to your house and ask you all about it.
  • stop calling RPD on you
How would you like it if I disobeyed your No Solictors sign so I could attempt to convert your family to my religion while you were at work today? Sound neat? Maybe we could work out some kind of theological Strangers On A Train scenario where we do our best to convert each other's family. Every time you knock on a door I want you to imagine someone knocking on your family's door. Let all your actions flow from that awareness.

Non-sales solicitation/distribution does not require the permit, however ORDINANCE NO. 3544 clearly indicates that potential evangelists (canvassers, in the ordinances terminology) must obey the No Solicitation sign:

Here's the definition of a canvasser:
Canvasser means a person who attempts to make personal contact with a person at a residence without prior specific invitation or appointment from the residence for the primary purpose of attempting to enlist support for or against a particular religion, philosophy, ideology, political party, issue or candidate, even if incidental to such purpose the canvasser accepts the donation of money for or against such cause.
Here's how the citizen says "don't bother me":
(a) A person desiring that no person conduct solicitation, home solicitation transaction, charitable solicitation, solicitation of funds, the placement of handbills or other advertisements, or canvassing for any cause at such person’s residence shall exhibit in a conspicuous place upon or near the main entrance to the residence a weatherproof card, not less than three inches by four inches in size, containing the words “NO SOLICITORS.” The letters shall not be less than two-thirds of an inch in height.

And here's the "pls obey the residents' wishes bit":

(c) It shall be unlawful for any person to go upon any residential premises and ring the doorbell, or rap or knock upon the door, or create any sound in a manner calculated to attract the attention of the occupant of the residence for the purpose of securing an audience with the occupant and engaging in or attempting to engage in a solicitation, home solicitation transaction, charitable solicitation, placement of handbills, or other advertisement, solicit funds, or to canvass for any cause, if a card as described in subsection (a) of this section is exhibited in a conspicuous place upon or near the main entrance to the residence, unless the visit is a result of a request by the occupant.
I didn't request it. I posted the sign on my door. This is why I say "get off my porch".

{while I was writing this post the dispatched officer called me for more info. This contact, like every other personal contact I've ever had with RPD LEOs, was efficient, polite and professional.}

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


A rejection letter is, at least, an acknowledgement of the existence of your application. It's cold comfort but it's comfort nonetheless.

Dear Applicant:

Thank you for your interest in the position of [history/geography] at [local city] High School in [local city] ISD. We know that consideration of professional endeavors often involves difficult decisions and we appreciate your time and efforts in submitting your application. As we sought a replacement for the current teacher, we were looking for the ideal combination of experience, skills, and flexibility of teaching fields to complete the current team. An applicant has been chosen and will fill the position as an employee after Board approval.

Thank you for considering [local city] ISD as a component of your professional pursuits. We appreciate your interest in [local city] schools and we wish you well in your endeavors.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Since our dog has minimal bodyfat he is sensitive to the cold. When he's warm he spreads out to the size of a pony. When he's cold he curls up to the size of a large cat.

This makes him analogous to one of those round thermostats whose bi-metal coil contracts and expands with temperature. We refer to his sleeping configuration as a dogmomenter since you can tell the ambient temp by it.

In the illustrated configuration he was in full tuck prior to the application of blanket, then his head came out as he warmed up. The legs are still in semi-tuck so he's not fully up to operating temperature yet.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reminder: win98 was really, really bad

I threw win98 on that old laptop to see if the win wifi card would work, since I inherited the original win98 install/recovery CDs. Didn't work even under windows.

Things I forgot I hated:
  • installing windows
  • freaking long software keys you have to key in
  • rebooting every time you change anything nontrivial.
  • installing windows drivers
  • that "invisible drummer" please wait animation
  • "Windows has found new hardware..."
A modern linux vs. old windows isn't a fair fight, but get this: it took 2.5 hours to get win98 installed and browsing the net. The linux distro I put back on it after that was up in 13 minutes -- I timed it. Both installs including fdisk'ing the the hd clean and reformatting. The Win98 time would have been longer but I located/downloaded/burned the drivers on a seperate machine's CD burner while it was installing, so I wouldn't have to wait. I didn't even apply any service packs, which would have added more time.

good price on a dualfuel lantern

This one is NIB and about half-price.

It runs on coleman (for longest generator life) and unleaded. Good for emergencies.

DSL on a 233mHz laptop

I was given an old laptop yesterday to see if I could make it run. 233mHz, 64MB RAM, 4GB drive. Press releases suggest this was a $1,500 laptop in the late 90s.

It took a bit of guesswork and maneuvering but within a half-hour I had the little beast up and surfing the web on Damn Small Linux, a 50MB distro. DSL uses the 2.4 kernel so it's friendlier to older hardware.

The battery appears to be shot but but runs fine from mains.

Another reason to leave Office...

for OpenOffice or Google Docs. There will be no upgrade pricing for Office 2010.

99% of home users and businessfolk use only the most basic functions in Office. Doubt me? When's the last time you saw someone use footnotes, build indices or a table of contents, or use Excel as an actual spreadsheet instead of some faux database?

If you write macros you are probably one of the powerusers who need some specific functionality that is best provided by Office. The rest of us are fine with the work-alikes. In the meantime, microsoft will keep breaking backward/thirdparty compatibility intentionally by changing features and extensions (.docx, anyone). Microsoft holds its own customers hostage.

Tell them to shove it. Download OO and see if it meets your needs. I bet it does.

Friday, January 8, 2010

freshsaver + homemade tab-chek style valves

The FreshSaver is a gadgety looking handheld doodad but seems to work well. I've secured one in my attempt to keep stuff fresh longer so I can minimize food waste. [This method works well with dry storage or short-term refrigerated storage].

So far I've been using some FoodSaver canisters I got on sale and a manual pump with a gauge. Works ok, but the pump is small and causes hand cramps when evacuating the larger canisters. It has worked so far but I need something I can use more often.

Most FoodSaver sealers have accessory vaccum ports and are reported to be The Best but new ones are not in my price range during this time of challenging underemployment. I haven't been able to snipe one off eBay in my range, either. They are a bit bulky/heavy to ship, and total out to $50 or more. I've been sniffing around Craigslist but no luck so far. FoodSaver will seal mason jars using a regular or widemouth jar sealer. Or if you already own a canister larger than the jar you can just put the jar in the canister evacuate it; will take longer due to the additional volume but it does work.

I don't really care much about bag sealing (I already have an industrial grade impulse sealer) but I would like to leverage some of my existing canning jars. For this purpose the ludicrously named Pump-n-Seal (PNS hereafter) gets wildly enthusiastic reviews from real users and gets highest vacuum but they are currently only available from the manufacturer. After shipping they are $37.90; $15 is the point I'd buy one but they're even harder to find used than FoodSavers in my price range. BTW, be very careful when searching eBay for "vacuum pump" if your spouse's family is in the room.

The PNS option is interesting because you can seal basically any kind of jar that came vacuum packed in the first place. You pierce the lid, apply a little one-way air valve (tab-chek) and apply vacuum to the outside. The valves are inexpensive but I dislike any kind of proprietary product. So I was pleased to read you could make your own out of wax paper, a trashbag, and electrical tape. [Note: scroll down to the Valves section of that page. The instructions will make more sense if you translate Britspeak "plaster" as "bandaid"]. I made a little diagram to the right so you can grok how it works. The valves are built here but not yet applied to wax paper for storage. When you need one you snip off a bit, peel it off the wax paper and apply to the pierced lid.

So when I found the FreshSaver doodad for $17 at Target (on sale) I figured I'd try it out and see if it worked with my homemade tabs/valves; it does, as you can see in the top pic*. It says it comes with an adapter to let you evacuate regular foodsaver canisters but there was none in the package. A quick call to FoodSaver's tollfree number (they answered immediately) got an adapter in the mail to me in less than 5mins. I'll report back when I get it.

The instructions say to pump for about 10 seconds; I have been doing it by ear based on the air volume in the jar. Is it worth $17? Probably, but I won't know until I get the adapter so I can try it out on the containers. But for my main focus (jars) it works well.

* I recycle "used" lids that I've already used for canning since they cannot be reused for canning purposes. If you look carefully in the middle of the valve you can see where the suction has pulled the valve material into a little dimple. The valve looks ratty because I made that one about a year ago and some of the wax paper came up when I peeled off the valve. Function was not impaired. I used a pushpin to pierce the lid (from the top to ensure a smooth seal surface).

[Forgot to mention: if your used lids are malformed and don't want to seal or stay down you can spin the lid ring down on them and that will generally work. The ones that are still stubborn can be marked and used for other purposes. I lift lids with the edge of a butter knife instead of a bottle opener; less distortion.]


Last week a little flock of redbirds landed in our water fountain. I assume they are some kind of finch; I'm guessing the house finch given the absolute lack of crest, the rounded upper bill, and the longer tail.

Just before the freeze hit I made sure the fountain was topped off; it leaks a bit and needs a fill every few weeks. There were many squirrels and birds drinking out of it today so it may be the only running/unfrozen water in the immediate area.
This terrible pic was taken through my kitchen window with a regular point/shoot digicam so it's a wonder it came out at all. There are 4 birds in this pic. At the time I went for the cam there were 8 of them splashing around at the same time. I'd only seen onesy-twosies before.


I'm splitting my bloggy spew into two pieces: Moving Back to Richardson, Tx (MBTRT) for civic blogging and this churchmouse page URL will be more personal. I've imported my personal posts and will move over my personal links tonight.

I've been thinking about this for a long time and had basically quit posting personal stuff on MBTRT recently.

The picture of the sleepy mouse bebe is inspiration for the MuedeMaus URL.