One Aging Geek

Thursday, May 31, 2007


It's pathetic that I haven't posted to this in months. Since the last post I've been back to Amsterdam to teach my second class there, down to Sydney, Australia to teach, over to Paris for a customer visit ("I'm from headquarters, I'm here to help...") and day after tomorrow will be on my way back to Paris to teach a class again. Four international trips in 6 months is pretty astounding. Sydney is an astounding place. End of February, late summer, is a perfect time to visit. The harbor is beautiful. Took a ferry ride out to Manly that went smack thru the middle of an entire fleet of racers. Pretty cool. Amsterdam in winter isn't bad but I'd like to get back in the spring or summer to see the trees along the canal leafed out. On both trips I dang near got creamed by bicyclists. No issues with cars or trains but those cyclists are too silent. Oh, yeah, and I've survived yet another round of layoffs at my employer. I think that's about 14 rounds now. With each laid off person matched within a couple of months by a new hire in a country where labor is cheaper. Software development and testing is the new blue collar job. It migrates to where costs are low. The famous JWZ once said that big companies don't survive by doing great things, they survive by sucking less than other big companies. Sigh.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Gadget Christmas

This year was a Year of the Gadgets for Christmas. My grown daughter must have had a very good year. She and her husband bought new cars just before the end of the year. And she dropped a bunch on gadgets for the old man. One gift didn't quite work out as planned. She bought me a Samsung i730 Windows-based phone. I tried it out for a week and decided we were not a match. The phone was about like having a laptop in your pocket with Word, Excel, and whatnot. But it had several downsides. The thing weighed in at almost half a pound and was ... quite large. Since I do not get along with belt clips, it made quite a lump in my pocket. It had some other downsides like being incredibly battery hungry. And, being Windows, it locked up and had to be rebooted about once a day. Verizon has a 15-day trial period with purchases so before the time was up I did some research and swapped the Samsung out for a black Motorola Q. The Q is only a bit over 4 ounces and is thinner than a RAZR or the LG Chocolate I had. The Q is still a Windows-based device but it uses a "lesser" version of Windows Mobile. In the case of Windows, less is definitely more. I've had only a very few lock ups on the thing. Having access to my calendar and email and to-do lists on the phone has been quite useful. I've still got some stuff on the old PalmOS-based PDA but that device is destined for the dust bin. The other major gadget that the kid got me was a Logitech Harmony 550 programmable remote. The Harmony line is sweet! Plug in to a computer via USB and log in to a web application. Define your devices and "activities" (like "Watch a DVD"). The web app sorts out all the right settings and loads up the remote. So now with one press of a button all the right devices are turned on or off, set to the right mode, etc. Very sweet.

State of the world tour

I am between trips on my "world tour". I ended up blowing most of my Christmas vacation catching up on a major work task. I created a class for one of the software products I've worked on for the last couple of years. That was the downside. The upside is I get to take the class on the road. I taught it to a class of 23 in Houston (home), the second week of January. Then the week before last (fourth week of January) I taught 18 people in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam class was oversold so I'm going back for an additional dozen students. I'll spend most of the next four weekends on airplanes. To and from Amsterdam, then on Friday the 23rd of February I'll be off to Sydney. I'm adding a day or two to the stay in Sydney just to see the sights. And that will probably be that. After these trips it might be a long time before I go out of the country again. My last hurrah for this class will be to team-teach it with a professional instructor. From then on the class will be a chargeable item for the company.

The current pet situation

It's been a while since I've posted here. So I'll do some catching up in bits and snippets. It took the dog a month from the time we got her until she could negotiate the stairs. We could have accelerated her learning but we chose to leave the upstairs as a dog-free zone for the cat's safety. During that month we kept a close eye on the interactions between the two. By the time the dog managed the stairs we had actually over done it and she was afraid of the cat. Any time the cat came into the room, the dog would leave. For a time it was so bad that if the cat came downstairs, the dog would go upstairs or vice versa. The only neutral ground was the master bedroom at night. The cat sleeps on the bed and the dog on a blanket at one end of the room. We've now gotten things on a more even keel. The two of them have finally decided that the other is mostly harmless. So all seems to be well on this front.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

After market battery genius

This guy has a brilliant replacement for the instruction manual. Those things are usually written by someone for whom English is a fifth language and are damn near useless.

Right about two years ago I bought a 40GB hard-drive based iRiver MP3 player. It has a few quirks but it's been a workhorse player until recently. The battery hit end of life. First symptom was that it would suddenly power off when trying to do line-in recording. And it went downhill from there. When new the player would go a good six to eight hours on a charge. At end-of-life it was down to between 10 minutes and an hour.

I checked into buying a replacement player since technology has moved along. But to get something of equivalent capacity I was looking at nearly the same price as I paid for the iRiver. Google came thru with a pointer to a battery available on for $29. The confirmation email came along with a pointer to an instructional video for replacing it.

There is the brilliant concept. No indecipherable manual with about a third as many diagrams as you really need, a video. And along with the battery came a teeny phillips screwdriver and a plastic pry tool for opening up the player.

Very cool.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Upstairs pet, downstairs pet

Two and a half weeks in and we're still not sure what the dog thinks of the cat.

The dog can't handle stairs, she's only been upstairs once. The weekend after we got her, I put her leash on and walked her upstairs so she could get a bath.

So the cat is staying upstairs for the most part. The cat is a complete wuss about dogs. Our previous had been trained by previous cats that cats own the house and rank higher than anyone else, including the two-legged staff members that tend to the food dish. So this cat never had to worry about the previous dog.

But this new dog has never been around cats. And the cat is pretty much the exact size and color of the lure that the dog has been chasing for the last three years.

We knew this could be an issue going in to the situation. So far we're keeping an eye on them when they do end up on the same floor. And when we're gone the dog goes in her kennel.

Last night the cat came downstairs to be adored while we watched TV. The dog kept eyeing the cat but never quite stirred out of her bed.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Googling the dog

This past Sunday afternoon we added a new member to the family. We adopted a retired racing greyhound. There is a dog racing track about 15 miles down the freeway from us. When the dogs are no longer winning, they go into the adoption center. When we visited there were 17 dogs up for adoption plus a couple that won't ever be adopted out. One had snapped at a child when placed and because of that has been parked in the center for two years. Probably not his fault, greyhounds are not used to children and are not recommended for homes with small children. Fifty to eighty pound animals that stand up to 30 inches at the shoulder just don't mix with rambunctious little kids, no matter the breed.

Our dog, "Gertie" (an abbreviated version of her racing name) is a four year old female who raced for a bit over two years. She's just over 60 pounds, about average size for a female. She's "red fawn" colored, a reddish tan, with some white markings and a bit of black on her tail and ears.

Because all racing greyhounds are registered and have a unique racing name, it's possible to google for the dog's racing name. That turns up a number of racing cards and information sites. One of the result sites shows that she won a total of 10 races out of around 70. She had six siblings. Two other than her had decent racing careers, the other three ran only a handful of times.

The dogs live such a structured life, it's odd to find what they just don't know. Like stairs. Stairs are a complete mystery. Because they spend a large portion of their day in a kennel, a "crate" is mandatory equipment. They feel safe in the crate and will go there when ever things get too confusing or stressful. Gertie is crashed out in hers now having an after breakfast nap.

The most interesting thing we still have ahead of us is getting Bailey, the wussy cat, and Gertie to know each other without any bloodshed. Bailey is a flame-point siamese mix so he's nearly white... too close to the color of the lure that racers chase. Since Gertie can't handle stairs, the cat has retreated to the upstairs. I'm in no hurry to teach the dog stairs until she and the cat are safe together.

When Bailey ventures downstairs, we keep a close eye on them. A proper cat would walk up to the dog, hiss, give it a couple of quick smacks to show it who owns the house and that would be it. But Bailey is a complete wuss. He ignored our previous dog, Zoe, rather they ignored each other. Zoe had been taught by Sherlock, a previous cat, that cats rule the roost.

So far Bailey is eyeing Gertie from a distance and running upstairs if she comes out of her crate. Sunday evening Gertie made a move like she wanted to get a close look at him. We've muzzled her from some encounters but having the muzzle on and not going anywhere just confuses her. Time will tell how this works out. We have reasonable hopes since Gertie isn't showing signs of high "prey drive". We just have to convince her that Bailey is part of her pack and not lunch.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Home from "Norn Iron"

Spent last week in Belfast, N. Ireland ("Norn Iron" as the locals pronounce it). It was a business trip for me and a vacation for Mrs. Aging Geek.

We stayed at the Hilton Belfast on the banks of the Lagan. It's the tallish building in the center of the picture.

You can see remnants of "The Troubles" but Belfast is a very different place from a decade ago. Not much of a tourist stop, especially in October. The weather was beautiful, sunny almost all week but after seeing the murals, the empty ground where the Titanic was built and the Botanical Garden, Mrs. Geek pretty much ran out of things to do.

We did discover that Guinness really is a completely different experience over there compared to over here. The Guinness we get in America tastes like drinking a loaf of rye bread. In the U.K. (and I'm told even more so in Dublin where it's brewed), it's a great beer.

We stayed the weekend after my business was done. Did a bus tour up to the Antrim coast and a ferry ride to Scotland.

The trip back was ... long. The concierge advised us to be at the airport "three or four" hours before the flight. We opted for three so with a 30 minute cab ride that meant waking at 6:00am to pack and make an 11:10am flight. The advice wasn't far off. We stood in a line a good 30 minutes before talking to the person who checked passports and asked the usual security questions then another 20 minutes to check the baggage. U.K. to U.S. flights still don't allow liquids and strictly limit to one carry-on. They also are doing a final random check just as you board... Mrs. Geek and I got nabbed. My backpack had all the electronics, laptop, two cell phones, MP3 player, digital video camera, digital still camera. All of them had to come out, be turned on, and the screener had to see them do something. Plus a pretty thorough pat-down and emptying out of all pockets. Sigh.

After that it was an uneventful flight to Newark. Then the delays hit. Houston had gotten up to 10 inches of rain so IAH was a complete mess. We were delayed in boarding in Newark, then pushed back and sat on the tarmac for a good half hour. The plane was routed around the weather so the flight was longer than it should have been. Finally got on the ground in Houston only to wait 45 minutes for ground traffic to unsnarl enough to get to a gate. And then every remaining step was more crowded and took a little longer than normal, slow baggage, lines for the bus to parking, lines to get out of parking.

The final straw was when we got within a mile of the house and were blocked by high water on the road. It took almost an hour to get that final mile. We detoured, detoured again and finally went a good 15 miles out the wrong way to come at the subdivision from the other side. No problems on that route and no problems in the subdivision or with the house, just that one big deep puddle that got in the way. So we finally hit home and fell into bed after a solid 24 hours after waking in Belfast.

  • Best meal: Dinner at the Cafe Vaudeville
  • Cheapest meal: 1.50GBP for bottomless Irish Stew at The Front Page
  • Most interesting name for a dish: Bubble and Squeak (had at the Morning Star)
  • Local dish I wasn't adventurous enough to eat: Black Pudding
  • Other pubs:
  • Stuff lost on the trip:
    • Nice sunglasses
    • Debit Mastercard eaten by an Ulster Bank ATM
  • Stuff gained on the trip:
    • Coworker from the U.K. gave me an old unlocked cell phone since my shiny Verizon Chocolate is CDMA so doesn't work there. For a mere 5GBP I got a U.K. SIM card for it.
    • An appreciation for Guiness
    • A couple of pounds (the kind around the middle) from eating potatoes and sausages too much.

Update: repost with picture scaled down a bit

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Life with Chocolate

Life with chocolate is better than without ... but in this case Chocolate is the new phone I acquired.

About three weeks ago my "New every two" anniversary came up. I spent a few days wading thru the horrible Verizon website to try to figure out what phones were available. I narrowed down to the Motorola RAZR V3M and the LG VX8500 Chocolate. Both are small enough to go in a pocket. Belt clips and I do not get along. Both can play music and support a microSD card. The RAZR has speakerphone capability that is missing from the Chocolate but the Chocolate plays MP3 or WMA while the RAZR is WMA only. I ended up going with the Chocolate.

Given that nothing is perfect, I'm ... reasonably happy with the result.

What this thing has done for me is reduce the number of gadgets I drag around on a regular basis. In my typical work day I use a portable MP3 player to listen to podcasts while commuting and carry a PDA from meeting to meeting primarily so my calendar is handy. The phone has replaced both of these uses.

After having the phone for a couple of days I bought the Music Essentials Kit (MEK) and a 1GB microSD card (the phone can accomodate microSD cards up to 2GB). The MEK includes a set of headphones (which suck, more below), a USB cable, and drivers for Windows. After installing the drivers and plugging the phone in, it shows up as a modem and as a COM port. Presumably one could use the phone as a method of connecting to the Internet. In addition, putting the phone into "sync music" mode causes Windows to recognize it as a "portable player" device. The thing is interfaced, not as a simple disk drive... that would be too easy, but as a Media Transfer Protocol device or in Microsoftspeak "Plays for Sure". In other words it's got a layer to help enforce Digital Restrictions Management schemes.

I've tried using Windows Media Player 10 to transfer music to the phone. It's slow, about 250KB/sec so multiple minutes per typical track. There were some odd quirks. It would randomly decide to convert some MP3s to WMA before transferring. No idea why. It would also randomly lose the tag data so the track would show up on the phone as having no artist or album.

I next tried using WinAMP. WinAMP didn't do the weird convert-to-WMA trick but also lost tags randomly and also randomly deleted tracks.

At this point I'm sticking to putting music onto the microSD card by taking the memory card out of the phone and using a flash card reader. The card came with an SD card shaped "adapter". Slide the microSD card into the adapter and then just use an SD card reader. This is still slow so perhaps that's a "feechur" of microSD cards. But so far it seems to be more ... predicable. No disappearing tags or tracks.

So moving music to and from the device isn't as convenient or quick as I could have wished. But I'm still finding the MP3 player useful. What I'm listening to is audio books. These make my commute more bearable. I plug in the headset, put in one earbud, fire up the player and listen as I drive. I have a co-worker who has given me a whole pile of audio books plus I've got several queued up from That leaves my iRiver H-340 hard-drive MP3 player for podcast listening.

The headphones in the MEK are ... sub par. The earbuds are too big for my earholes. But for the moment I'm stuck with them. The phone has one all-purpose port, used for charging, headphones, everything. Included is an adapter for a "standard 2.5mm" headset but it will only work with four-conductor plugs (ground, left, right, microphone) and all I have is three conductor headsets (ground, single earbud, mike). So, until I can save up the nickels and dimes for a bluetooth headset the MEK phones are all I've got.

The phone is also doing decent duty as my portable calendar. The on-phone calendar is good but using BitPIM makes it truly useful. BitPIM recognizes the VX8500 when it's hooked up via USB and can manipulate most of the data on the phone. Ringtones, phonebook, wallpaper, pictures, SMS messages, memo pad, playlists, songs, and the calendar. In addition BitPIM can import my Outlook calendar. So it takes just a few clicks to get the calendar out of Outlook and onto the phone.

Let's see what other features... oh yeah, it makes, you know, phone calls. It's a good, small phone with all the stuff you'd expect on a modern cell phone. Good sound quality, good reception sensitivity. Battery life is solid even when running the MP3 player. It has a "music only" mode that turns off the phone part for use on airplanes. I ran the player for the duration of a flight to San Francisco (about 3 hours from down here on the third coast) and used about a quarter charge. Also used it as a travel alarm on that trip and have carried over to using it as my alarm at home.