Category Archives: Personal

Unplugging to Reconnect – The Technology Sabbath

It Started With a Game …

By now, you’re probably familiar with Pokemon Go, the game where people search for Pokemon characters around town with their smartphones. In 2015, I played a forerunner of this game called Ingress. The basic idea was the same – run around town accessing game spots, collect digital items, compete with other players for territory, etc..

At first, the game seemed like a great idea. I figured it would get me out for some desperately needed exercise and it did. I found out some of my favorite walking routes had a bunch of game spots I could access while  walking and I was out there at 6 a.m. every morning … willingly! It was a miracle!

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The World Without Us

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of an earth after humans ever since I read some of Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us. The idea of humans “destroying the planet” has always been a necessary bit of hyperbole; we are far more likely to destroy ourselves as a species by making the planet uninhabitable. After we’re gone, it will eventually recover and go on just fine without us. Still, the idea of “saving the planet” communicates the scale of the problem and the potential loss in a way that many people have an easier time grasping.

Aside from the environmental issues, videos like this show just how strong the forces of time and nature are. So many of the structures that we take for granted crumble and disappear relatively fast without constant maintenance, from the giant buildings and bridges to the subways and power systems. Much of our influence on nature, including specialized breeding of animals and cultivation of plants, would eventually be undone without humans around to maintain it. Ultimately, nothing we do is really permanent.

This becomes more immediate when brought down to the individual level. We can hope that humanity will never really destroy itself, although we’ve only been flirting with the possibility for about 100 years so we haven’t had a lot of time to really explore the possibilities. What is certain is that each of us will move on as individuals at some point. Very few of us leave behind names that will be spoken centuries from now but we all affect the lives and environments that we touch which then affect others. We define ourselves, in large part, by what we leave behind, either when moving on to a new job or city or in our final moments. We cannot truly move on without caring for what we leave behind. The willingness to stop every so often, turn away from the noise and distractions of everyday life and reflect on our real effects on the people and world around us is an exercise in the personal integrity that ultimately determines what kind of legacy we will leave.

My Latest Coffee Hacks

I have a dim memory of not making very good coffee with my coffee maker. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case and I can honestly say that I make some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted – far better than anything I can get at most restaurants or coffee houses. I’m partial to Seattle’s Best #3 coffee. It’s an inexpensive medium roast coffee that has a nice, smooth flavor.

I've found that adding a little unsweetened cocoa to the coffee grounds gives the coffee a nice, rich flavor.

I’ve found that adding a little unsweetened cocoa to the coffee grounds gives the coffee a nice, rich flavor.

An extra thing I do with most pots is to add a little something to the grounds as it’s brewing. I started with ground cinnamon, just a teaspoon or two to give the coffee a nice extra flavoring. With ground cinnamon, that’s the best way to add it since it doesn’t really dissolve even in hot coffee so letting the water drip through it instead did the trick.

My latest preference, however, has taken the coffee to a new level and that’s to add maybe a tablespoon of cocoa powder to the grounds. Just like some people add it to chili, I add it to my coffee grounds. It doesn’t really give the coffee a noticeable mocha flavor but it does give it a slightly richer flavor that works really well. I did it again this afternoon and I can honestly say it was more than coffee – it was a mugful of liquid joy

New Twitter Feed – One Thousand Choices

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I keep trying to come up with new projects that have less to do with technology and more to do with just improving myself or coming up with great content. It’s not easy given how long I’ve been immersed in the tech world but I decided to start another one.

One Thousand Choices is my new Twitter feed where I will be posting inspirational thoughts and quotes to brighten your day and inspire you to take the next step on whatever path you’re choosing. I claim no special expertise other than my varied experience and willingness to attempt to pack as much positive feeling into 128 characters as possible.


So check it out and if you like what you see, follow me on Twitter! If you prefer the technical side of things, I still have my original Twitter feed at @ComeauAndrew and I run a feed for the Ocala I.T. Professionals networking group at @OcalaITPros.

 

On unpaid overtime …

From TheCodist.com ….

Why I Don’t Do Unpaid Overtime and Neither Should You

From the article …

“In many countries working overtime is unusual and unpaid overtime is rare or may even be illegal. People value having a life outside of work and the thought of slaving away for their employer for nothing is unimaginably stupid to them. Yet we in the US (and in many parts of Asia as well) often think nothing of it.”

A few years ago, I left a company where my boss actually told us that the company felt it could ask us to work as many hours as necessary because we were salaried. We were told if we weren’t working overtime, we weren’t busy.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Wishing everyone a happy and prosperous year ahead!

There are a number of things I need to work on this year but most of my specific resolutions have to do with daily steps to keep myself on track to do the things I need to do. I have a way of getting distracted by various ideas and I’m hoping this will improve things a bit:

  • I have a master spreadsheet of the projects that I need to work on. I have resolved to check this file first thing every morning (before Facebook) to remind myself of what I need to be working on that day.
  • I have resolved to keep a daily journal and update it at the end of each day to record my progress. I will finish by making a To Do list for the next day.
  • Repeat …

There are also some things about updating this blog more, keeping up my exercise program and reading more but the steps that will keep me on track to do everything else are the big ones.

DAY ONE
Every decision is made of a thousand choices. Today, I will go out and make the best choices I can to bring about the changes that are needed. I will then resolve to do the same tomorrow.

I wish you all the best with your resolutions this year.

Back to basics … my first TracFone

A couple of years ago, I was dazzled by the new HTC EVO 4G smartphone
that a supervisor had gotten himself.  I was about ready to change out phones, anyway and when I saw all the things the Android phone could do that my old phone couldn’t, I was sold. I was taken aback slightly by the monthly bill that was quoted to me but I figured, what the heck, I can do it and it’s a really cool phone!  The 3G service and the mobile hotspot served as my main Internet connection for awhile and I quickly got used to having this futuristic gadget that could do anything I needed, anywhere. If I needed another function, whether it was an exercise tracking program or photo editing software, there was always a free app to be found.

Now, the contract is almost up and I’m rethinking this $85/month bill that I’m paying. That doesn’t include the cost of the mobile hotspot that I dropped early in 2012 when I decided to get DSL service or the $8/month service plan that I just dropped. It does include a $10/month charge for 4G service that never materialized in my area, at least not on my carrier.  I’ve also realized that many of the features that I like so much on the EVO can be used even without the service plan and I’m asking myself how much I’m really willing to pay a month, especially when the promotional period on my DSL runs out in March and that bill goes up.  If you’re in a similar place or if you’re debating between a smartphone and something more basic, you’ll find some helpful information here.

I’ve been looking at some of the prepaid phones lately after a relative got one as a backup phone and a friend asked me to advise on a couple of the leading prepaid plans. I’d never bothered with prepaid phones before as I was warned early on that they were a bad value but I decided to check out TracFone  when I saw the LG 500G phone on Amazon.com and the advertised coverage on the TracFone network. I am amazed at the number of features that can now be squeezed into a $12 camera phone. The very idea of a $12 camera phone is actually pretty amazing to someone who’s been watching technology advance for the past 30 years or so even after using the EVO for the last 2 years. This is certainly not the only basic phone or the newest but it’s pretty impressive for the price. There’s a little bit of a learning curve to the menu system, even for a software specialist like myself, but the phone comes with a manual so that should help. Once you dig around, you’ll find that it has a nice list of tools available for a small phone:

Alarm Clock
Calendar
To-Do List
Notes (normal and secret notes)
Calculator
Stopwatch
Unit Conversions
World Time
MP3 player
Contacts List
eMail
Web Browser
Games
1.3 MP camera
Video camera
etc…

None of these applications are state of the art and you wouldn’t expect them to be for this price but they are there. The camera and the video are adequate for taking basic images, especially outside, and have some surprising settings for image manipulation.

Activation was simple and quick through the TracFone site and there is the option to move existing numbers to the phone, either from TracFone or other companies. Again, the menu system takes some learning and I avoid having to dig through documentation if I can so I had to search for a bit to find the voice mail number. I finally found it, called in and found the prompts to setup the mailbox to be pretty easy to follow.  There’s actually a shortcut key on the phone that will take you directly to the voicemail.

At this point, I’ve had the phone for a couple of days, tested the reception at home and found it to be good. I also bought a 120 minute card and added it to the phone. So far, I’m happy. Having said that, I’ll say this:

Be sure to order the accessories you need with the phone.

This phone comes with the activation card, a coupon book for bonus minutes, the battery and a charging cord that runs from the mini-USB port on the phone to an AC outlet. It does not come with a few other things you’ll probably need. If you look at other phones, keep these things in mind:

 

Mircro SD card on top of a quarter for size comparison.

The storage media keeps getting smaller.

MicroSD Memory Card – The LG500g uses a Micro SD storage card for storing pictures, MP3s and anything else that won’t fit into the 170 KB or so of memory in the phone. Be aware that the LG500g phone will not recognize  anything over a 4 GB card. These 4 GB cards are becoming harder to find in the stores and, when you do find them, they are unreasonably expensive. I went to five different stores and finally found them for anywhere from $17 to $29 a piece. This is odd since the 8 GB cards go for as little as $6. Amazon has the 4 GB cards for under $7 each so it’s best to order one with the phone. Another option would be to get another phone that holds the 8 GB cards and larger cards. Regardless of which phone you get, this is an accessory to be aware of.

MicroUSB to PC cord with LG500g

Note the connectors – MicroUSB to USB.

Phone to PC cable – The included charger for this phone plugs into the MicroUSB port on the side of the phone and then into an AC outlet. This USB connection is the same one used on a number of other phones and the Kindle. Those devices often include a charging cord that runs from the device to a PC so you might already have a phone to PC cord that you can use. If not, you will need one if you want to transfer MP3s or other data between your computer and the MicroSD card in the phone. These cables can be around $20 in the stores. It’s a lot less on Amazon where you can get a nice retractable USB cable for a fraction of the price. Just remember that the connection type on the phone is referred to as MicroUSB. The other end for the PC is a standard USB connector so it’s called a “MicroUSB to USB” cable. Again, you’ll see this type of cord used on a number of other devices so it’s good to be familiar with this type regardless of what phone you’re getting.

Minutes and Double (or Triple) Minutes card – The phone comes with 20 minutes / 60 days of air time. You’ll use up at least half of those minutes setting up your voice mail and trying it out. The additional minutes cost the same no matter where you get them but it wouldn’t hurt to order a card with an extra 120 minutes or so to start out.  You can also get the cards at many grocery and drug stores or you can purchase minutes on the TracFone site or through the phone itself. In addition, a Double Minutes card costs about $8 and will double every batch of minutes you add to the card for the life of the phone.  This will save you a substantial amount of money.  The 120 minute card I added was doubled to 240 minutes and the coupon book that came with the phone added 20 bonus minutes to that card for a total of 260 minutes.

If you’ve never used a prepaid phone before, as I hadn’t, when you add minutes you’re also extending the number of service days you have for the phone. At least, that’s how TracFone does it.  This is probably so they’re not wasting one of their assigned numbers on an account that’s gone inactive for one reason or another.  With a standard cellphone or land line, the number would be freed when the bill stopped being paid.  With cheap, prepaid phones, the company could lose a lot of available numbers to forgotten phones sitting in drawers and cars somewhere so, even though your minutes do carry over from one month to the next, there is a service expiration date that you need to pay attention to.

Also be aware that when you get one of these phones, the number assigned to you was probably someone else’s number a short time ago so you might get a a bunch of calls and text messages for someone else. Calls are rounded up to the nearest minute and received text messages cost you 0.3 minutes if you open them.  So, when the phone says you have a new text message, don’t just click OK to open it.  Go to the phone’s message center instead where you can delete the message without opening it and not be charged.

I’m especially happy with the coupon book with all the bonus minutes and I’m hoping this turns out to be a good solution to cutting down my phone bill every month.

In my off hours …

I’ve been re-reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Expanded Universe, a collection of his short stories and articles from throughout his writing career. I first read this book as a teenager and skimmed over some of the parts that just didn’t hold my attention at the time but, as I’ve found before, some books will say different things to you at different times in your life.

Heinlein was acknowledged as the American master of science fiction but this collection also contains other material that he wrote as he was trying to break away from the sci-fi pulp magazines in the 40s. In the process, he dabbled in mystery stories and political writing, finally returning to science fiction with a more developed style that often incorporated his own personal philosophy.

In addition to a fine selection of reading material from one of America’s most respected authors, Expanded Universe is valuable for its historical perspective. The earliest pieces date back to before World War II and Heinlein’s political writing provides details on post-war life and the thoughts and fears that many experienced at the dawn of the Cold War.

Latest developments …

So I was playing around with the blog’s theme after recommending WordPress to someone and thought “Gee, it would be nice if I actually wrote something here.  It’s only been since April.”. So here are a few notes on my latest projects …

A couple months ago, I started a new site at AndrewComeau.com dedicated to programming articles, this time .NET, SQL and other subjects a bit more advanced than Microsoft Access. Drewslair.com will continue to operate and will probably see some changes while I think of some more things to write about there.

Seriously, though, check out the new AndrewComeau.com.  In addition to the usual quality articles and slew of information that I like to share, the site is a full ASP.NET website programmed from scratch by tours truly. There are some neat features such as the search page where you can search the site’s content by title and keyword and articles describing how the site was put together. When appropriate, I’ll be including interactive demonstrations  with the articles for you to play with.  For an example of this, check out the article “Looking for Square Pegs” in which I write about devising algorithms to solve coding challenges. This article includes an interactive section at the bottom where you can see the code in action.

Also available on AndrewComeau.com is Job Search Plus, a re-release of JobSearch 2010, a job search organization and contact management tool which enables the job seeker to organize all necessary information on any job lead and more effectively follow up on opportunities. If you’re in the market for a new job, this tool can help you run a more efficient search and find employment faster. Best of all – it’s completely FREE!  No ads, no spam in your inbox, just a piece of free, quality software from AndrewComeau.com.

That’s what’s been happening lately and there’s more to come. As always, I welcome questions and comments about anything you see here so don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to know more.

Speaking of links …

Here’s one I found today in the Wall Street Journal on studies into the nature of happiness … one more of those studies that essentially tell us our grandparents were right after all.

Is Happiness Overrated?
Study Finds Physical Benefits to Some (Not All) Good Feelings

The message I take away from this one is pretty simple:  If you’re obsessed with being happy, you probably won’t be but if you manage your life well and do the right things, happiness will be the reward.   It’s a familiar principle that works with other things like love, money, respect from your peers, etc …

Study Finds Physical Benefits to Some (Not All) Good Feelings