Category Archives: Reviews

HDMI to VGA: Using your VGA monitor on your HDMI laptop

Looks like the trusty old VGA interface is on its way out and while you’ll still see legacy systems and devices using this 25 year old standard for monitor connections, the newer laptops and computers are starting to pass on VGA connectors in favor of HDMI which, among its other benefits, allows for thinner devices. When I bought my new laptop computer, I never even thought to check if it had a VGA monitor port on it and, sure enough, it doesn’t. Instead, it has an Active HDMI port on the side. This wasn’t a problem until I tried connecting it to a projector during a meeting a few months ago and found out that projector’s HDMI interface didn’t work.

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Book Recommendation – “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself” by Alan Alda

I read Alan Alda’s first autobiography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and knew that he had come out with a sequel but hadn’t gotten around to it. Then I found the unabridged audio version at a book sale and snapped it up. I haven’t been disappointed.

5174XKtys4L._SL250_The first book ended with Alda’s near death on a mountaintop in Chile due to an life-threatening medical crisis. The second book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, picks up where it left off and chronicles his search for meaning after surviving the crisis and recognizing he had gotten a second chance. He did this, in part, by going through some of his older writings, including the commencement addresses he’d written to deliver at his daughters’ college graduations and remembering the insights he “didn’t know he knew”. This was something that resonated with me because of the small amount of writing I’ve  done over the years and my own efforts to put some of my insights and lessons into words.

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StarTech USB to VGA Review / Windows 8.1 Display Issue

A few months ago, I purchased the StarTech USB to VGA adapter for my system. I got tired of the single display and going with a USB adapter was a lot easier than modifying the computer itself to support two displays.

Going by the reviews on Amazon, I decided on the USB32VGAEH model which supports USB 3.0, VGA displays and includes a pass-through USB port. There are also models that will enable you to add a new DVI and HDMI display through a USB port.

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Favorite Android Apps – Hi-Q MP3 Recorder

One of the many advantages of carrying an all-in-one device like a smartphone is the ability to record notes to myself, whether it’s short reminders or dictation of study notes. A device with some storage space can even store longer recordings including lectures and meetings. The old micro-cassette recorders and other voice recording technologies have easily been made obsolete by the near-ubiquitous recording features of the current generation of phones.

The only drawback for me was the AMR format that is standard with Android sound recording apps. If I’m going to be recording, I want to use the standard MP3 format that can be played on pretty much whatever device or software I’m using and can be recorded in various bit rates to balance the need for quality against the length of the recording and the space available. After comparing a few apps, I settled on the Hi-Q MP3 Recorder from Yuku.

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Transferring Files Between Computers the Easy Way

If you’ve ever replaced a computer or upgraded to a new one, one of the first things you probably thought about was how to transfer all of your data from the old system. These days, this can mean copying many large files and that can take some time.

One way to transfer the data is to copy it to an external device such as a flash drive
or an external hard drive and then copy it to the new machine. That can have the added bonus of creating a backup but might not always be possible or appropriate, especially if you have more data than you can fit on whatever external devices are available or if, like me, you work on other people’s machines and don’t wan’t to keep a copy of the data. It also takes time to copy that data down and then copy it back up.

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Alcatel OneTouch Fierce – Budget Phone Review

About a year ago, I got tired of the high smartphone bill I was paying for my HTC EVO
and, after trying out an ultra-budget TracFone solution, I decided to switch over to MetroPCS and a $20 Huawei phone. Over the past year, that’s probably made up for at least some of the money I threw at Sprint but I missed my mobile Internet connection and all the Android utilities I’d become so used to. I also got tired of pocket-dialing people on the cheapo Huawei keypad and the phone was starting to act flaky.

610214634436So, this past week, I started looking at some of the budget offerings from MetroPCS and saw the Alcatel OneTouch Fierce. Since it’s been out for a few months, it was as low as $29 depending on the line options and that was good enough for me.

The OneTouch actually surpasses the EVO that I had in some ways, although three years later that’s not completely surprising. it’s running Android 4.2 (Jellybean) and has a hi-def 4.5 inch screen with plenty of room to work. This is a 4G phone which is already an improvement over the 3G service I was limited to with Sprint. The service from the combination of the MetroPCS and T-Mobile networks has been pretty good so far, even outside a major metropolitan area.

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On software design …

firstguidecover In my upcoming book, Your First Guide to Database Design, my goal is to provide a clear guide for users at all  levels of experience on how to organize their data into an efficient database, regardless of whether they’re using a desktop database like Microsoft Access or a network software such as MySQL.

The first chapter starts out with the basic definition of a database and the various ways in which information is stored and transferred in modern systems. The rest of the book takes the user through clear, logical steps of modeling the data and creating a new database that can be used for analysis and reporting.

One of the perks of writing a book, and especially of being a self-published author, is that you can occasionally speak out on things that are important to you. An example of this can be found in the chapter on designing a user interface for your database application …

“Software users don’t like surprises as much as some designers seem to think and what looks cool and innovative to you as the designer can confuse and annoy the user. Many people have experienced this annoyance first-hand in the last few years as a certain leading software company has repeatedly reorganized the look and feel of its software products, leaving many users with the burden of having to re-learn how to do the same things they’ve always done.

“In my experience, many everyday computer users know enough to get their jobs done and that’s as much as they want to know. These people find more delight in getting their work done so they can go home to their families or out for the evening than they do in the latest tech trends. They’re far more interested in their own hobbies and diversions than they are in the ways in which a software company has found to make its products look more exciting in order to stay relevant in the marketplace. They find no joy whatsoever in playing hide-and-seek with the software functions they need. Some of them, like me, are getting to a point where the ever-escalating pace of change isn’t quite as thrilling as it used to be and familiar things are a lot more comforting. Maybe they have certain disabilities that make radical changes harder to cope with.

“What all this means to you as a designer is that your first priority, after making sure that the program doesn’t crash on start-up, is to design an interface that your users can be comfortable using everyday. It doesn’t matter if you are a lone developer creating database applications for your office to use, a corporate programmer designing enterprise software for the entire company or a software engineer designing the next software sensation; your users are your customers. Without them, your work is an intellectual exercise at best. If you deliver a product to them that causes confusion and pain, they will eventually find a way to go elsewhere.

“Does this mean that every program should look the same and that no new designs should ever be tried? Absolutely not! In over 20 years of working with computer technology, I’ve seen incredible changes in the way people interact with software. The keys to the successful changes are that they are incremental, they are useful and they are somehow already familiar to the user, whether they evolve from current designs or resemble something else in the user’s life. The concept of a desktop with folders and documents wasn’t hard for the average user to grasp. Users love relatively simple menus with clear options that they can navigate through the same way they navigate streets and building corridors. They don’t love lots of keyboard shortcuts they have to memorize or ‘helpful’ features that intrude when they’re trying to do something else. Touch screens that enable a user to move between pages or programs with a swipe of a finger or enlarge a picture by using two fingers to stretch it are fun and intuitive meaning that the steps make sense to the user because they’re likely what the user would have tried anyway.”

Writing a book, or at least doing it properly, is a fair amount of work and I’ve been working on this one for a a few months now. My goal is to have it published as an ebook by the first week of October. Check out the book’s official page for continuing updates.

 

Focus …

Browsing the bookstore today, I came across an interesting selection called “The Startup Playbook” by David Kidder and Reid Hoffman. It’s a collection of success stories from prominent startups today including AOL, Flickr and LinkedIn. Reading the Kindle sample later (I use the physical bookstore just to see what’s new. They’re way overpriced.) I found this interesting quote:

“How confidently do you value your focus, your most passionate efforts (not simply your passion), your time? If you value them highly, quit every activity that steals time without contributing to the important goals that grow and enrich your life. The physical and intellectual time recovered will be re-purposed into your greatest gifts and efforts, leading to dramatic personal and economic returns.”

That one quote pretty much sold me on the book. It echoes an idea that hit me over the head sometime ago which I’ve kept in mind and shared ever since even if I haven’t been able to fully practice it. The old adage says that time is money but time is not money; it’s infinitely more precious. I’ve wasted money over the years on things I didn’t need and that knowledge doesn’t hurt nearly as much as knowing the time I’ve wasted and can never replace. Money in the bank can be counted but tomorrow is never guaranteed.

Even over the last few months, I’ve let myself be snagged by a lot of time-wasters from Facebook to resentments I’ve held onto and I’m finally realizing the price that I’m paying for that baggage in terms of progress and self-confidence. It’s easy to whine about not being motivated but motivation only comes from exercising a little self-control and making ourselves take that first step and then the next.

So I’ve found another book for the reading list once I get some of the old stuff cleared off my desk.

New Music I found on NPR – Big Harp

I like listening to the NPR Weekend Edition shows. They’re a good mix of news and arts and I often end up being exposed to things I usually wouldn’t hear about.  One of the quirks of the shows is that I can often spot the final segment even without looking at the clock because they’ll be devoting it to a struggling artist or music group I’ve never heard of and I can tell by the tone of the interview that the artist is really new.

This morning’s segment was a group called Big Harp, a husband and wife team traveling the country with their toddlers and trying to make a go of the music scene on the Saddle Creek Records independent label.  Their laid-back mix of Folk, Rock and Blues is not usually my first choice but something about their story grabbed my attention and I decided to check out their record. I just listened to it during my workout and actually liked it.  Despite its mostly laid back sound, it also has a certain intensity to the lyrics and a polished sound that made me think of music that would go well in the soundtrack to a movie.

So if you’re looking for new music, especially from an independent artist, this one’s worth checking out.  You can also read and listen to the NPR interview and watch one of their videos at this link.

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.