HP Mini 1000 - Upgrading the Transcend JetFlash T3

A while back I posted about the HP Mini 1000 and some of the ways it can be upgraded. Probably the easiest upgrade is to the Transcend JetFlash T3 drive that comes with the machine, and fills the recessed USB slot. The Mini comes with a 2GB drive, and the easiest upgrade is to simply purchase a higher capacity Transcend drive in the same line. The 4GB unit is priced at $16.70 on the Transcend store website, or $16.29 from Amazon.

I found a neat alternative. Kingston offers a MicroSDHC card that comes with a MicroSDHC card reader whose form factor is very similar to that of the JetFlash T3. The 4GB card with reader is priced at $14.95 through Amazon currently. I wanted to upgrade the MicroSD card in my GPSr anyway, so this seemed like a good opportunity to try it out.

The first thing I noticed when I got the package was that the MicroSDHC reader is about 20% shorter than the Transcend card. Aside from that, the form factor was perfect. I slotted the 4GB MicroSDHC card into the reader, and then slide it into the small holder that covers the recessed USB port on the Mini. I slid everything into place, but nothing happened. Unfortunately, the shorter length means that the pads don't quite reach to make a connection to the USB port. All is not lost though. With a bit of fiddling, I found I could get the reader to slot into the recessed port without any issue. At that point, I can leave the cover on or off, it doesn't really matter, as the reader is completely within the recessed slot. If you do want to keep the cover on, be sure to slot the reader into the cover first, as trying to push the cover on over the reader after it has been slotted is a chore. Getting the reader back out again is a bit of a trick, but nothing you couldn't do with a handy set of tweezers, or a small set of needle nose pliers.

Given the lower price of MicroSDHC card and reader at the same capacity, I think this is a pretty good way to upgrade your machine. Another advantage is that, as MicroSDHC card capacities increase and prices drop you can continue to upgrade this part.


I've recently gotten into the sport / hobby of geocaching. What is geocaching? Think of it like a treasure hunt, or the world's biggest easter egg hunt, and it is going on every day all over the world. The way this sport works is that someone out there hides a container, call the cache, that holds, at a minimum, a logbook for those who find it to sign. The person who hides the cache locates a clever hiding location, and then gets a GPS fix of the location. The hider then registers the cache on a website such as http://www.geocaching.com/ and publishes the lattitude and longitude from the GPS fix of the cache. Once published, anyone else is welcome to use that location data to try to track down the cache. Given this basic description it sounds pretty simple, but clever hiders can make it really fun and interesting to find the cache, even when you know exactly where it should be.

Cache Types
There are various types of caches. A traditional cache is a container with, at a minimum, a logbook to sign. The cache can be as small as a match book or 35mm film case, all the way up to a large storage container or ammo box. Larger caches usually contain little tchotchkes, toys, and doodads that younger finders can trade for. There are also virtual caches with no container at all, the destination being the goal. Puzzle caches and multi-stage caches are fun variations where you must either first solve a puzzle to get the true coordinates, or find successive stages before reaching the final goal.

Types of Hides
There are as many ways to hide a geocache as there are geocachers. That said, I've noticed that there are some common features to some hides. Many smaller caches use a magnet or some other method to affix themselves to something else. Hollowed out trees are a common hiding location too, as well as under a fallen log or under a pile of sticks. There are also some ways to know that you are looking in the wrong place for a cache. If it looks like you would have to hurt yourself or break the law to get to the hiding place, it probably isn't hidden there. One of the best pieces of advice I've received on how to spot a cache is to not look for the container, but instead look for where you would hide the cache. The coordinates of the cache won't necessarily be right on top of the hiding place, it may only get you within 20 or 30 feet.

Trackable Items
Aside from the logbook and simple toys, you might find a trackable item in a geocache. A travel bug is an item that has a dog tag attached to it with a unique serial number. These items are trackable at the Geocaching.com website, and often have a stated goal, such as racing from one ocean to another, or reaching a specific destination. A geocoin is similar in that it has a unique ID, but in this case the coin itself is what is traveling, rather than what is attached to the tag. Many avid geocachers have also created custom tokens that they drop into each cache they find, sort of like a calling card.

There is a bit of etiquette that goes along with geocaching. Foremost is discretion. Caches are intended to be hidden, and only known to those who are looking for them. Non-geocachers nearby the location are known as muggles (think Harry Potter), and it is important not to expose the cache to muggles. There are a couple of bad things that can happen if you do. A curious muggle might investigate after you leave and find the cache. Not knowing what they have found, they may take it with them, spoiling the fun for anyone else looking for it. Worse, they may think it is something dangerous and call the police. Another important bit of etiquette is to respect the property owners in the area. Caches should only be placed in either publicly accessible areas, or in rare cases, private areas where permission has been granted. Regardless of where the cache is, care should be taken to respect the goodwill of the owner of the grounds by not trespassing through private property or littering. In fact, many geocachers will take an empty trash bag with them to 'Cache In - Trash Out', picking up any litter they might find along the way. Once you have located a cache, if you intend to take something from the cache it is important to replace it with something of your own. Nothing can disappoint a young child on a treasure hunt like opening an empty treasure chest. One exception is travel bugs and geocoins. In this case, it is ok to take the item to help it toward the goal, but be sure to log that you have taken the item at the Geocaching.com website so the owner knows where it is. Finally, when replacing the cache, try to hide it as you found it, or better, and always in the same location. There are probably other bits of etiquette, but I'm too new to this to know what they might be.

There are a few things to take with you that will enhance your fun with geocaching. The most common tool is a GPS receiver of some kind. While you might be able to get by with a print from Google Maps, having a good GPS receiver will greatly increase your chances of success. Most modern smart phones (iPhone, Blackberry, Android, etc.) either have a true GPS antenna, or are able to get a GPS fix based on nearby cell phone towers. Native applications are available for many of these phones that will get you on your way. Stand alone GPS receivers are also available and can range in price from one to several hundred dollars depending on the features of the unit. I use a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx. In addition, it is a good idea to wear durable clothes that will protect you as you hike through rougher terrain. A good pair of hiking shoes will help you keep a grip on the trail and prevent rolled ankles. Pants, long socks, and a light jacket will protect you from common trail hazards, and some good bug repellent is also a good idea. When hunting smaller caches, you will want to bring your own pen or pencil to sign the log, as often times the cache will not have room for one. Aside from these, anything you might want on a hike would be good to take, such as a bottle of water, camera, snacks, walking stick, etc.

Why Go?
There are lots of aspects to this hobby that I enjoy. It is a reason to get outside. I work at a job that has my butt in a chair for eight to ten hours a day. Once I get home, my typical evening entertainment (after the kids are in bed) is to watch some TV, surf the web, or play some video games. Geocaching is a great excuse to get outside and enjoy some of what nature has to offer. Geocaching is also something that my whole family can do together. I'll admit, it is a bit of a struggle with a one year old, but our three year old and five year old love going out and hunting for treasure. They like trading out some old toy they are bored with for whatever is in the cache, even if it is something simple. It is also nice that we work together on these outings. Finally, getting out on the hunt is decent exercise. I've read where some folks mix their running workouts with geocaching, jogging from cache to cache. I'm satisfied with getting in a healthy walk. I'm having a lot of fun with geocaching, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for the outdoors.

Angel Investors and Charging for the Pitch

Jason Calacanis is a very successful entrepreneur who is associated with some of the best known sites on the web. He is also an angel investor, and has recently taken other angel investors to task for charging startups to pitch their idea.

One of the first truisms anyone learns in the business world is that it takes money to make money. Even the best ideas need some seed capital to get off the ground. There are a number of ways to get this initial funding. You can exhaust your personal savings and go into debt. You can borrow from friends, family, banks, or anyone else that trusts you. Alternatively, you can seek out investors. One type of investor is the angel investor, someone who has independent wealth and is looking to invest it in startups. These investors typically provide the investment in return for a form of ownership in the business. In this way, if the startup is a success, the angel can reap some of the same rewards as the entrepreneur. In addition, if the angel invests wisely (or just gets lucky) the returns can be much greater than what other forms of investment might provide.

How does someone green to the startup business approach an angel investor? Networking, networking, networking is the best answer. Work your network of contacts until you can find someone who will put you in front of an investor who will listen to your idea. If all goes well, you get your funding and become a huge success. Are there any other ways? Many angel investors participate in workshops, conventions, and other events where many startups are able to pitch to a group of angels at one time. In some cases the angel investor(s) ask that a fee be paid. This fee could be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to possibly several thousand dollars as well as a ownership stake in the business. Is that an ethical practice? Jason Calacanis of Mahalo says no, and is calling out those angels who require entrepreneurs to pay to pitch their idea.

It is easy to side with Jason on this debate. From the entrepreneurs perspective, you have little money to start with, and a wealthy investor asking you to pay to present your idea seems like a kick in the teeth. Jason's position is taken from the basis that these wealthy investors can certainly afford the cost of a meeting room and a cup of coffee where the startup would struggle to provide those things. To an extent, I believe what Jason is saying is right. Angels that prey on the naiveté of new startups are as unsavory as those "modeling workshops" you may seen advertised throughout the year. On the other hand, I feel that there is a need to play the devil's advocate here.

One statement I take issue with is the supposition that an investor's time is both infinite and worthless. An investor's time is certainly not infinite. Investors are not stupid, and have typically attained their wealth by getting the most return on their time and effort. So is it so wrong for an investor to expect their time to be compensated for listening to a pitch? Jason even admits in his post that he is inundated with pitches, much like a lottery winner might have people come from every corner to ask for money. If I were in the investors shoes (and wouldn't that be great!) would I really be interested in opening the floodgates? Would it be worth my while to wade through thousands upon thousands of ideas to find the one I find interesting? Perhaps. On the other hand, I could assign some small fee to each pitch that says, "If you pay this fee, you go to the top of the stack and are guaranteed to get read." This could be taken a step farther, "If you pay for my time I commit to acting as a consultant for so many hours, advising you on your business and potentially making an investment." According to Mr. Calacanis, any form of payment for listening to a pitch is wrong. Not only is he calling out those that require payments, but he is seeking out those who might pitch to these investors and actively discouraging them from working with these folks. He is engaging in a tremendous smear campaign against anyone who charges startups to pitch their idea.

So is the Jason way the only way? Again, I have to say for the most part, I agree with him. The number of investors out there who ask a nominal fee and provide real value on that money are far outnumbered by those who are simply preying on the ignorance of others. Still, I do believe that there are those out there charging a small fee for their time who are legitimately providing value, so I can't agree 100%. I wish the Jason Nation the best of luck in exposing the most grievous offenders, and hopefully this leads to more great ideas getting the funding they deserve.

Have you ever paid to pitch? Did you get funded? If not, did you still feel as though your pitch money was well spent? Should those who charged and provided value be praised or vilified?

Proud of my Grandmother (You Go GG!)

I love my grandmother, very much. We don't see eye to eye on most political issues though. Leading up to the election last year we both said some things that rubbed each other the wrong way. We're family, though, and we love each other, so this was water quickly under the bridge.

My grandmother doesn't like our president very much. She doesn't like his policies. She doesn't like the direction he is taking our country. She has been pretty vocal about it too.

This week, I saw a note from my aunt that she had to spend some time on the phone calming my grandmother down. It seems that she caught wind of schools in her area not showing the president's speech to their students. She was really worked up: how could anyone show such blatant disrespect for our president? And over such a wholesome and needed message?

I love my grandmother, very much. I am hugely impressed by the amount of character that it shows in her to not only feel that the president deserves our respect, but to speak out against those who would do otherwise. Especially since she is defending someone she disagrees with so strongly. It made me very proud to be her grandson.

Rural Internet

My family and I are preparing to move out of the city and into a more rural setting. As part of that move, I've been researching what sorts of internet service will be available to us. At our current residence we have a number of different options for high speed internet service. We currently use the U-Verse service offered by AT&T. We are using the 1.5Mbps service, which adds $15 / month in cost to our U-Verse television bill. Comcast also offers high speed internet service, and I'm sure we could get DSL from any number of folks. Go a few miles outside of a dense residential area and your options quickly become limited.

There are four types of service that I have found that will be available at our new location:
  • Dial-Up
  • Satellite
  • Cellular Wireless
  • Microwave Wireless
Dial-up internet service is the old standby that hasn't changed in over 10 years. The top speed is still pegged at 56kbps (ignoring the "speed boosting" tech that some vendors claim). Depending on the service provider, rates run anywhere from $10-$20 / month. However, we don't plan on having a home phone, so add to this cost the price to install a home phone (around $25 / month with AT&T) for the sole purpose of using dial-up, and it comes to $35 or more per month for that sluggish dial-up internet connection. It would be useful for the most basic internet uses: browsing basic web pages and sending e-mail. Forget about online gaming or rich web media though. Compare this to our U-Verse service, which is the equivalent of 1,500kbps for $20 less each month, and it would be a serious step backward.

There are a few satellite internet providers, Hughes and WildBlue being the most prominent. Hughes offers 1.0Mbps down, 128kbps up service for $60 / month, while WildBlue tiers their service at 512K down / 128K up for $50, or 1.5M down / 256K up for $80. Those are fine speeds, if a little pricey. The real gotcha here is latency. It used to be that with satellite internet you only received data over the dish, and all of your uploads were on your telephone line. Now you get both your up and down data from the dish, but the latency can be anywhere up to 5 seconds. Compare that to the typical sub 0.1 second latency of other internet connections, and it is a big downer. This makes the satellite internet service unusable for things like voice chat, VPN connection for working at home, or online gaming. Using a VPN connection and online gaming are high priorities for me from my internet connection, so that eliminated satellite from contention.

Cellular Wireless
Cell phone companies offer data plans for their users who have smart phones (Blackberry, iPhone, Android, etc.). This offers a fairly speedy (348kbps or faster) way to access the internet. Most carriers offer mobile broadband service with the intention that you use it occasionally with your laptop, not as your dedicated home connection. Across providers, the standard seems to be to offer up to 5GB of downloads per month for $60 / month. That may seem like a lot, but it really isn't when it is your dedicated connection for home. You can quickly exhaust that 5GB quota and start paying exorbitant rates per additional kilobyte downloaded. For example, let's say a new product revision is released, and the download is 1GB or more. If there are alternate versions, I could exhaust all 5GB in a single afternoon. The idea of these caps is to prevent folks from hogging the network with P2P applications, swapping movies all day, and to keep usage as intended: occasional use on a mobile device. The net effect for me is that cellular is not an option as a home ISP.

Microwave Wireless
I found microwave wireless service to be the best mix of speeds, price, and availability. There are several service providers that can provide service to our location. With microwave wireless you need line-of-sight to the tower providing the signal. A small antenna is mounted on your home and communicates wirelessly with the main tower. Depending on geography and tree line, these systems can offer service in a 15-30 mile radius around a tower. Prices vary by speed, with it ranging from $35 / month for 512K down, 256 up service to $90 / month for speeds over 1Mbps. There isn't a single dominant player in this market like there is in the national cellular market. The best deals I found were offered by a local company: Hoosier Broadband.

512K/256 $34.95 Residential Service
768K/384 $44.95 Residential Service
1.5M/512 $69.95 Residential Service
512K/256 $54.95 Business Service
768K/384 $64.95 Business Service

The difference between residential service and business service is that Hoosier Broadband reserves the right to lower the priority of residential traffic in deference to their business customers, and business customers are guaranteed support within 24 hours. Residential customers are not. I'm not yet decided on whether I would choose the business or residential service. As the majority of my usage is late at night, I think the residential service should suffice, but given that I also intend to use this service when I need to work from home, the business service might be more prudent. Either way, I would be selecting the 768K service, which is half of what we get now from AT&T. A cut back, yes, but not a terrible one.

Just a quick note on these services: they aren't available. In fact, you probably can't remember the last time (or ever) hearing about ISDN. When I contacted the phone company, they said they are not selling new connections, but only maintaining existing accounts. That's fine, as ISDN has all of the drawbacks of dial-up with a higher cost and only barely better speeds. FiOS would be awesome, but there's no chance of getting that in a rural area as it is too expensive for Verizon to pull new fiber down country roads for a handful of customers. Maybe someday DSL will be an option, but not now.

I think that microwave wireless is one service that we will hear a lot about in the coming years. One of the president's major policy initiatives is to increase access to broadband internet service for rural Americans. Installing a tower for wireless transmission is one of the most cost effective ways to do that, and the FCC is in active talks concerning opening up more of our wireless spectrum for data traffic (this is a major reason why we had the recent switch from analog to digital television over the air). I'm hopeful that these changes will result in more options for me as rural internet consumer, and lower prices.

Proactive Budgeting with Double-Entry Bookkeeping

I am a nut about maintaining a budget in our house, and even more so now that we are planning to build a new home. I've used tools in the past, such as Microsoft Money, that allow me to tracker where the money went and to get an idea of what my regular expenses are. The problem I have with these tools is that they are reactive. They are only useful to me after I have spent my cash, not before. In my opinion, systems that give you a postmortem on your finances are not really useful. I want to feel the pain before I spend, not after. If I feel pain before, I have a chance to avoid spending at all, thus alleviating the pain of deviating from our budget (and potentially running into debt).

The system that I've come to use is decidedly low tech, but very effective. Using Google Docs I created a spreadsheet and added worksheets for all of our regular expenses, both monthly and annually. There are additional worksheets for our accounts: credit, checking, savings, loans, etc. Finally, there are worksheets for each of the things we would like to save for throughout the year. I use these worksheets to perform double-entry bookkeeping. Here is the full list of worksheets:

  • Checking
  • Savings
  • Credit Card
  • Television
  • Internet
  • Food & Gas
  • Electricity
  • Water
  • Sewage
  • Phones
  • Trash
  • Car Payment
  • Mortgage Payment
  • Life Insurance
  • Car Insurance
  • Plates and Tags
  • Christmas Fund
  • Birthday Fund
  • Personal Allowances
  • Slush Fund
Most of these accounts are self-explanatory, and the budget for each is fairly easy to gauge. We spend a set amount each month on television, internet, water, and sewage. Others are annual or semi-annual expense, such as insurance or plates and tags for our vehicles. The birthday and Christmas funds represent how much money we would like to spend for each of these events. Finally, the slush fund is just that, a pool of money for any unexpected, irregular, or one-time expenses.

So how does this double-entry bookkeeping work? I get paid twice a month, which means I get 24 paychecks in a year. Out of that paycheck I need to fund each of the accounts listed above such that, when the bill comes due, there is enough money in the account to pay the bill. Take the mortgage payment. Each time I receive a check, I initially enter the full amount in my checking account, but then I move those funds into the other worksheets to cover expenses. Let's say our mortgage payment is $800. That would mean that on each check I receive I need to 'transfer' $400 from the checking worksheet into the mortgage payment worksheet. On my second check of the month I transfer another $400 from checking to mortgage payment. Since it is the end of the month, my mortgage payment is due, so I transfer $800 from the mortgage payment worksheet back to the checking worksheet, and now I have enough money in checking to cover the check to my lender.

In doing this, I don't actually have a true account with a bank for each of these worksheets. In reality, all of the money from each of the worksheets just stays in checking. However, each time I am looking to spend money, I have to make a conscious decision to take money out of one fund in order to supply another. In this way, this budgeting system is proactive. If we want to go to a movie or I want to buy the latest gadget I have to take money out of a fund. If I want to buy a new gadget, but my personal allowance is depleted, I have to decide which other account I want to take money from to fund it. Do I spend less on food this month? Do I reduce the amount we'll be able to spend on birthday and Christmas gifts? It really forces me to consider how badly I need whatever it is I'm going to buy before going out and spending the money.

It would be very easy to ruin this system by simply putting everything on a credit card. A credit card is just another account, though. We treat spending on the credit card just like writing a check: we have to 'fund' the card prior to charging anything to it. If we go to the grocery store and spend $100 on groceries we transfer $100 from the food and gas budget to the credit card budget. This way, when the bill comes due at the end of the month for the credit card, we know that we can transfer the money from the credit card worksheet to the checking worksheet and have enough money to cover the bill.

I really like this system of budgeting. Knowing what budgets I'm taking from before I spend money is a huge advantage over trying to recover after the fact. There are some drawbacks. It is cumbersome to manage all of the worksheets. Money that sits in checking could be doing us a lot more good in a savings account earning at least a little interest. In my opinion, the benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks. We no longer fear opening the credit card bill at the end of the month, or scramble to find money for birthday gifts. We know ahead of time that we will be able to cover our expenses, and can feel confident about affording a luxury expense when we decide we deserve one.

HP Mini 1000 Internal Microphone on WIndows 7

One of the only complaints I had about my HP Mini 1000 netbook when I purchased it was the lack of a dedicated microphone jack. The Mini has a combined headphone/microphone jack. You can plug in a set of headphones and get sound, or plug in a mic and record, but not both at once. I like to use Skype, ooVoo, Ventrillo, and other voice applications, and this seemed like an unnecessary limitation.

After loading up Windows 7 on my netbook, I was further disappointed to find that the default driver did not detect if you plugged in a mic or headphone, it just always worked as a headphone jack. This left me with no option for recording other than to use a plantronics USB headset that I had laying around. Taking up one of two USB ports for a headset was less than ideal.

Then I read on a forum that the Mini has an internal microphone. What's this? Hidden, undocumented equipment? Sure enough, half-way between the left edge of the screen and the webcam there is a pinhole microphone. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to enable. I did see it was listed in my recording devices, but I couldn't get it to pick up sound.

After a bit of searching, I found a link to a driver for the sound chip in the Mini 1000:

I believe this is the official vista driver for the sound chip. After downloading and installing I went to the recording devices menu and sure enough, it is picking up sound! Yeah! The only quirk is that it appears the labels for the recording devices are switched. The recording device marked as External Mic is picking up sound, while the recording device marked Integrated Microphone Array is not. I just switched the default device and now I can carry on Skype video calls without any problems.

The Hoosier Plate Debate

Here in Indiana, you have a few options when it comes to your license plate. Assuming you are driving a car (not a commercial vehicle, truck, motorcycle, RV, or some other vehicle which requires a different plate) you can choose among the plates shown below.

There is no difference in cost between these. By default, the license branch is supposed to offer the simple blue background plate first, and offer the other two as options upon request. If you would prefer, you may pay extra for a plate that benefits the organization of your choice, such as your favorite university, or perhaps Habitat for Humanity, with a portion of the extra fee given to the organization represented on the plate. Further, Indiana permits personalized license plates (PLPs) with some restrictions on what is allowed on the plate. I'm paraphrasing, but the essence of the restrictions are that the common man will not find your combination of seven letters and numbers offensive.

If you live in Indiana, you've probably seen these plates already, and you may remember that the "In God We Trust" plate got some attention when it debuted. The ACLU brought suit against the state, not for the content of the plate, but to contend that it should carry an extra fee. The ACLU lost the case, and the plate continues to be available to anyone who asks for it at no additional charge.

Now, a bit of trivia. Do you consider the phrase "In God We Trust" to be a religious message? If you said no, the Indiana and US courts would agree with you. You see, "In God We Trust" is the official motto of the United States, and as such, is not considered religious speech. Way back in 1782 the phrase E Pluribus Unum ("out of many, one") was chosen as the text to appear on the Great Seal of the United States. This became the de facto motto for our nation, although there was never any action taken to make it official. In 1956, the lack of an official national motto was apparently a major concern, so congress worked on a bill and President Eisenhower signed into law that "In God We Trust" would become our national motto. This wasn't the first use of the phrase in our government, as it had appeared on our coins and bills since the late 1800's.

That effectively kills any religious argument against the "In God We Trust" plate, but what about speech on PLPs? Should I be able to reserve a PLP with the text "LUVSGOD", "BE GODS", or "NO GODS"? That's exactly what Jason Borneman wants to know. Jason, an atheist, applied for a PLP with the text "NO GODS". His application was rejected on the grounds that it might be offensive, and he is pursuing this through an appeal. Some have suggested that a more positive message might have been accepted, such as "GODFREE" rather than the negative statement "NO GODS". What do you think? If a "BE GODS" PLP is allowed, should a "NO GODS" plate be allowed too?

UPDATE: Mr. Bourneman received notice from the BMV that his PLP application has now been approved, and he will receive his "NO GODS" plate in February.

Selling Out

I like Extra Life Radio, and listen to it as often as I can. Occassionally something comes up in the discussion that gets me thinking, and this week's episode did just that. The host, Scott Johnson, mentioned that one of the things that really irritates him is when he hears folks use the saying "oh, they totally sold out". He mentioned this in response to criticism of the recent Mt. Dew ads featuring a World of Warcraft tie in.

That got me thinking about the phrase. Scott's beef was that it didn't make sense. After all, Blizzard (Activision) is in the gaming industry not to create some love-in for RPG fans, but to make money. If working with Mt. Dew leads to more money, then that's good business.

Is it really though? I do agree that this term "Selling out" gets thrown around rather flippantly, but sometimes, it is spot on. Branding is incredibly important to some companies. Great care must be taken not to dilute that brand or associate the brand with things that do not synergize with the brand. For instance, you probably won't ever see a Rolex tie-in with McDonald's. McDonald's is all about convenience and being inexpensive, while Rolex is about luxury and prestige. If such a combination were to occur, it could be accurately described as "selling out the brand".

I do agree with Scott Johnson that the pairing of WoW with Mt. Dew does not diminish either brand, and thus the "selling out" comment is not relevant. On the other hand, I do believe it is important to listen to your consumer base, and to be cautious about how, where, and when your brand image is used.

When Does a Quarter Cost More than 25¢

I had an interesting experience at lunch yesterday. My coworkers and I often go out for lunch, and often to the same places. It was on one of these trips that I realized a quarter can be worth a lot more than 25¢ given the right circumstances. There were seven of us heading to the restaurant, so we took two cars. After being seated, we ordered drinks: five waters, a coke, and a diet coke. The waitress (we'll call her "Kay"), returned with the drinks and a scowl on her face. She put all seven drinks at the corner of the table, then unceremoniously dropped seven straws in the center of the table. Not a big deal, but usually a waiter/waitress will pass around drinks and straws individually rather than asking the guest to do it. We placed our food orders and waited for it to arrive...

...and waited and waited and waited some more. It was more than 30 minutes before our food arrived. That's killer on a workday lunch. In the meantime, the drinks at the table were getting low and the waitress was not interested in offering refills. In fact, in the entire time that we waited for food, we never saw our Kay.

Once we were all finished and our checks arrived, six people paid by credit card and I paid with cash. My bill was for $7.25 and I put a $10 bill on the table. Kay asked me if I wanted change, and I said yes. She said, "Are you sure you want change?" Ummm, YES! Firstly, service was bad already, and a $2.75 tip on a $7.25 meal would be a nearly 38% tip! This should have been my first clue that Kay wasn't a math wizard.

Kay returned with the receipts for all of the credit cards and pens...and no change for me. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed she just needed to go back for it. Everyone at the table knew I needed change, so they waited....and waited and waited and waited. When it was clear that Kay wasn't going to give me my change, one of my coworkers called her over and I again asked for my change. With a heaving sigh Kay got her change purse out of her pocket and produced two ones and a quarter for me. Hmmm, not the right change for a $7.25 bill. Wanting the situation to be done and to just leave, I left the quarter on the table. I figured the 50¢ she had shorted me with the quarter was still better than a 10% tip, and definitely more than she deserved. We all returned to our cars to leave.

As we were buckling in, we see Kay come tearing out of the restaurant to the other car. We can't hear her, but we see she has a receipt and is talking emphatically with my coworkers in the other car. We assume someone forgot to sign their receipt and leave. When we get back to the office, one of the guys in the other car drops by my office and puts a quarter on my desk. He said Kay ran out to the car to let them know that we "forgot our quarter". The guys tried to explain to her that this was an adequate tip since she had already shorted me, but it wasn't getting through. Apparently she stomped off in a huff.

That was crossing a line for me. I can deal with bad service (I've lived in Maryland, home state of bad service at restaurants). Running out of the restaurant, harassing the wrong person, and being insolent due to your own ignorance is too much. I called the restaurant and let the manager know that, while we enjoyed their food, I needed an assurance that we would never deal with Kay again if we chose to return. The manager was profusely apologetic and assured me that Kay would not bother us again in his restaurant.

So here we have a case of a quarter being worth more than 25¢, it was worth Kay's job. I'm sure Kay probably hasn't learned any kind of lesson here. She's probably hating my guts for being a meany. Still, I do hope that at some point she is able to learn from this experience to know that you really have to pick your battles. When making that decision, make sure you've used good math.

Should Secretly Tracking Vehicles with GPS Require a Warrant?

There is a really interesting case in Wisconsin that got a write-up in the Chicago Tribune. In the case, the judge ruled that the police did not violate the suspect's 4th amendment privacy rights when they acquired a warrant for and placed a GPS tracking device on his vehicle. The defendent in this case was suspected of stalking a woman. The police received a warrant, although there is no law that requires that they do so, in order to place the tracker on the defendent's vehicle. It was retrieved a few weeks later and the data on the tracker used to get a warrant to search his home and vehicle for further evidence of stalking. He was later found guilty.

It's a sticky legal situation. In my opinion, the judge made the right decision in upholding that the use of the GPS device was legal and did not violate the defendent's rights in any way. The judge expanded on the decision to make it clear that, although the police did get a warrant in this situation, there was no law that made that effort necessary. The judge clearly called this out to get attention for the issue (congratulations, it was a resounding success) and for legistlators to consider a law that would require a warrant for such use of GPS. So what do you think? Do you agree with the ACLU that the police must receive a warrant in order to place a GPS tracking device on your vehicle?

The 4th amendment is a slippery devil. It is the amendment that guards against unreasonable search and seizure. The definition of what is unreasonable is pretty subjective though. It is currently codified for telephone tapping as, (paraphrasing) "If you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, the government must seek a warrant". This means that when you use your home phone from your home, you have a reasonable expectation that your conversation is private. As such, the police need a warrant to listen in on that conversation. However, if you are at the mall chatting with your friend, you have no reason to expect that conversation to be private. Anyone present could easily eavesdrop, and so the police are also permitted to eavesdrop in that situation. Applying the same idea to your vehicle, anytime you travel on a public roadway you have no reasonable expectation that the information about your position is private. Police have and exercise the ability to track you, and this is how people get speeding tickets, traffic violations, citations, or pulled over for an outstanding warrant for their arrest. What's more, anything observable from public grounds is also considered to have no expectation of privacy. So if the police stand in the middle of the road and watch you park your car in the garage, the location of your car is public knowledge (until we catch up to Star Trek with transporter tech anyway). The judge applied this reasoning to say that the information on the position of the defendent's vehicle never had a reasonable expectation to privacy. Given this, the judge ruled that placing a GPS tracker on the vehicle was no different than having an officer tail the vehicle at all times, as the position of the vehicle would always be publicly knowable anyway.

The judge was hoping to get a reaction with the inclusion of the note that the warrant the police received in this situation was not required, and boy did he. The ACLU is sounding the alarm that this is a "gateway drug" of sorts for the government which will inevitably lead to every man woman and child wearing a tracking chip from birth to death. I don't believe that, but I do think it is an interesting question as to whether a warrant should be required for all GPS tracking of vehicles. On the one hand, I don't relish the idea of my location (which is tightly coupled to the location of my vehicle) being public knowledge. Even though it would be possible for any interested party to track me day and night, they don't. As such, I have a relative expectation that my whereabouts are unknown to all except for those I give that information to. In fact, it would be a bit of a danger if my location was always public. If you could easily determine that I was, say, out of state, it might present an enticing opportunity for a burglar to break into my home. Worse yes, someone with violence in mind would know when I at home or at work.

On the other hand, I believe that the scenario cited in the case was a just use of surveilance. It was carefully applied (only the suspect was tracked) and it resulted in someone who really was dangerous being apprehended. I also think to another use of GPS that is used in high speed chases. The police fire a "GPS canon" at a vehicle in a high speed chase. The GPS unit sticks to the vehicle, and the police can then drop off the chase and monitor the vehicle remotely, and thus greatly lessen the danger to the general public. High speed chases are very dangerous, and when a criminal is running he is much more likely to drive dangerously when he feels he is being pursued rather than when not. If warrants were required, either the criminal would require pursuing, thus increasing the danger to the public, or he could contend that the use of the GPS tracker was illegal and thus he must be let free. Either scenario is unsavory.

So is a law necessary to govern the use of GPS tracking units by the police? If so, how should the law be framed? No matter which way you think, the fact that our legislators will be debating it means that it is going to cost you some of your taxes, so it is worth being interested in the answer. If no warrant is required, it might lead to greater use of this technology without the careful application shown by the Wisconsin police. If warrants are required it may create an environment more permissive for those with ill intentions for doing harm to others. Personally, I think that in most cases a warrant is probably in order, although special exceptions should be made to permit applying a tracker in chase situations or other intense situations where the use of the device could alleviate an immediate danger to the public. What about you?

HP Mini 1000 Upgrades

Own an HP Mini 1000, or looking to buy one, and want to know what parts can be upgraded?  I've been poking around to see what is available for this great little netbook, and here are some of the things I've found.

The Mini comes with either 512MB or 1GB of memory.  This is definitely the easiest part to upgrade.  The documentation seems to suggest that 1GB is the max for this device, but mine took a 2GB Kingston DDR2 chip without any complaints.

Hard Drive
The hard drive is a bit trickier.  You'll need to take the keyboard off to get access to it.  If you have a unit with a SSD, you'll also need to disconnect the recessed third USB port.  There is a good demonstration of how to do all of this here: http://jkkmobile.blogspot.com/2009/01/runcore-18-inch-ssd-on-hp-mini-1000.html

HP Mini Drive
If you purchased with the SSD option, you probably received a 2GB "HP Mini Drive".  This is actually just a Transcend JetFlash T3 with a small plastic piece to help it blend nicely with the body of the netbook.  You could either order a larger unit from HP, or you could get an original Transcend unit.  As of this writing HP is selling the 4GB for $24.99, while transcend has the same unit priced at $17.60.  Transcend also offers an 8GB drive for $32.30, which HP does not currently offer.

There has been a lot of chatter lately about cellular carriers offering discounted netbooks on a 2-year data contract.  The HP Mini 1000 is poised to be a part of that offering.  If you ordered yours with the WWAN card built in, you are already set.  If not, you can still add one later.  This video from jkkmobile demonstrates how to add a WWAN module to your netbook.  Again, this involves taking off the keyboard and doing some pretty serious tinkering, so it isn't recommended for the faint of heart.

The stock 3-cell battery will net you anywhere from 1 to 3 of continuous use, depending on your power settings and what you are doing.  HP now offers a 6-cell replacement battery, available for order here.

External VGA
This one is a stickler.  That funky connector on the left of the unit is where you plug in a propietary VGA adapter cable.  Unfortunately, these are both in short supply and full of issues.   Users who have the cable are reporting that it refuses to output anything but 1024x768 regardless of what display is attached.  This is bad news for anyone hoping to connect to a projector.

I love my netbook and I am getting a lot of great use from it.  It is running Windows 7 RC1 like a champ, and I'm even able to do a little development in Visual Studio on it.  So far I have only upgraded the memory, but I'm tempted to upgrade the Transcend flash drive.  I'm holding off on a SSD upgrade until prices come down, but it is tempting as I currently only have about 1.5GB of free space on the main drive.  Even with a relatively "stock" configuration, I find this unit to be a very nice, performant, and portable computing platform.

Netbook, Windows 7, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a HP Mini 1000 netbook.  I had a couple of intentions for this netbook.  Firstly, I wanted to use it for any personal network use wherever I went.  Rather than using my work PC for checking account balances, personal e-mail, and other non-work related network uses, I would use the netbook instead.  Second, I wanted a portable machine that I could do some light development on.  Nothing complicated mind you, but just the ability to open up a small project, hack some code, and check that it compiles.

After playing around with the netbook for a while, I can safely say that I am very happy with the decision to purchase it.  Netbooks are the latest consumer trend in computing, and there are a lot of models out there.  You'll find that they are all very, very similar.  The typical unit has two or three USB ports, a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 512MB or 1GB or RAM, and a small solid state hard drive, or possibly a traditional magnetic drive.  Most come bundled with a simplified Linux operating system, or Windows XP for a slight price premium.  With so many vendors and so little to differentiate them it can be difficult to settle on one.  I chose the HP model mostly because the keyboard felt the most comfortable to type on.  Otherwise, there isn't much to differentiate it from the other $350 10" netbooks on the market.

I made some modifications to my netbook before even powering it on.  First, I upgraded the RAM to 2GB, which only cost $20.  Next, rather than use the provided Windows XP operating system I decided to load the beta of Windows 7 (with some help from my colleague Mike Hall who had done the exact same thing to his own netbook).  I loaded Visual Studio 2008, Google Chrome, and a handful of utilities that I like.  After install my 16GB SSD has about 1.5GB of remaining free space.  I put all of my code on the provided 2GB "HP Mini Drive", and I still have two USB ports and an SD Card slot to expand memory further, if necessary.

I'm very happy with Windows 7.  Even on the relatively weak processing power of the netbook it runs like a champ.  I definitely like it as a replacement for Windows XP.  Visual Studio runs well, if a bit sluggishly, and I am able to compile projects as I had hoped.

Still, this beta is eventually going to run out, and at that time I need to make a decision between paying for a license for Windows 7 (if it is available) or selecting some other operating system.  I could always revert to Windows XP, which came with the unit, at no cost.  Or I could try one of the linux variants on the market, also at no or little cost.  A friend of mine tipped me off to the Netbook Remix of Ubuntu.  Version 9.04 of the Linux OS just released, so I decided to download it and give it a try.  One of the nice features of this release is that you can try it by loading it on a USB stick as a "live" OS, which means you can run it without wiping out the OS already on the machine.

After playing with the netbook remix for a bit, I was impressed.  I'm not ready to swap out my Win7 install, but when the beta expires it will definitely be something I consider.  With MonoDevelop 2.0 and the Mono framework running I could probably still do some light C# work.  One feature of the OS that I really liked was how UI works to maximize screen real estate for the foreground application.  One of my frustrations with running Chrome (or any other browser) on Windows 7 is how much of my precious screen is taken up by title bars, menu bars, toolbars, bookmark bars, status bars, and task bars.  With limited vertical space, it leaves only just enough room for my active application.  This is exacerbated by sites like Google Reader that have a static header that cannot be minimized.

In summary, I'm very happy with the utility I am getting out of my netbook, and I think Windows 7 is a solid OS choice for the platform.  I'm impressed by what I see in Ubuntu Netbook Remix as well, and I may give it a try when my beta license expires.

Correlation vs. Causation

News media only makes money if your eyes are on their media.  As such, it is in the best interest of the news outlet to sensationalize their story in order to get the most eyes.  This can be tricky though, especially when it comes to blurring the line between causation and correlation.

Correlation and causation are both important terms in statistics, and it is easy to get them confused.  The difference is important though.  Correlation means that there is a statistically significant relationship between to observable phenomenon.  For instance, you may find that if you go to bed with your socks on, you have nightmares.  There is certainly a correlation between wearing socks and having nightmares, but are the socks actually causing the nightmares?  Possibly, but not definitely.  Once it can be found that wearing socks definitely causes nightmares, then you have causation.  Correlation doesn't automatically imply causation, it doesn't rule it out either.

This topic came to mind because I see articles in the news quite often that take statistical correlation as an opportunity to imply causation.  For instance, the recent Craiglist killer was said to have a problem with gambling and to be in debt.  There might be a correlation here...do more killers have problems with gambling and debt?  Potentially.  But do gambling and carrying debt cause you to become a killer?  Probably not.  

Wikipedia has more extensive article on the topic that you can read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation It's a little dry, but I found it pretty interesting.

Arguing on the Internet

I need to learn to stop arguing with the internet.  Until I do, here is my retort to one such misleading message I couldn't leave alone.

Wouldn't that be great!  But wait, Snopes to the rescue!

This is long, so go ahead and delete it if you aren't interested in hearing things you don't already agree with.

The truth of global warming truly hit me on my trip to the Phillippine Islands.  On the front page of the paper was a story of how the newly elected leader of a Micronesian country was forced to make his top priority the full evacuation of his citizens.  The reason?  Global warming has caused sea levels to leave the highest point in his homeland only 20 feet above sea level.  In five years or less the entire country will be submerged and the population displaced.

This isn't a problem that only the Pacific islanders suffer either, although Hawaii is another good example of a location soon to be submerged beneath a combination of lava flows and sea water.  Beaches are eroding at the fastest rate ever.  New York is also battling rising sea waters.  International relations with Russia have been strained over the claim of the newly opened arctic shipping lane, created by the continuous degradation of our polar caps.

There are alternatives to "Drill Baby Drill" that will result in our independence from foreign oil.  Even better, they will move our country into an era of technological leadership in the world where we again create the products everyone wants and needs.  

Taking the hard protectionist list isn't a solution either.  Even if we determined to become independent of foreign oil, but failed to proliferate our technology abroad, we would still be in the same mess.  Consider Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRIC nations): fastest growing economies on earth, and fastest industrializing.  If every household in these nations had a car, even a modest 32 mpg car, our oil supplies would be sapped and our air unbreathable.  Don't think it is going to happen?  Indian conglomerate Tata has already produced a vehicle that costs less than $2,000 with the intention of getting the population on the road.

Returning to the thought of drilling, I have worse news.  Even if we were to start drilling EVERYWHERE we possibly could within the boundaries of the USA (and even extending our international waters) that oil won't be available for processing for a minimum of ten years.  This quote from planetforlife.com regarding the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve sums it up nicely:

ANWR has the potential to reduce oil imports by 5% for 2 decades beginning in 2015. Other sources of oil within the U.S. will be depleting during that time. There is no realistic way to reduce dependence on imported oil if oil consumption continues at its present rate.

Further reading materials:

Book Review - Steven King's The Dark Tower

I've always enjoyed Steven King's works, and I've often been recommended the Dark Tower series. I decided to get the boxed set, convinced that I was going to enjoy the series so much I would want to go from book to book with no interruption. After reading the first book, The Gunslinger, I felt like perhaps I had made a mistake. The book was incredibly bleak and depressing, and I debated on whether I even wanted to finish it. Book two, The Drawing of the Three, was considerably more interesting. There was much better cohesion here. It was book three, The Wastelands, that hooked me. Now that I have completed the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, I am really absorbed in the story. The fourth book is definitely my favorite so far. If you haven't read the series, I definitely recommend toughing it out through the first two books. You'll be rewarded when you get to books three and four. Unfortunately, the boxed set only contains books 1-4, so now I'll need to hunt down copies of books five, six, and seven. This is probably a good thing, as I've found that taking a break from books in a series helps me to enjoy them even more when I return to them.

Death of an Office

On January 30th of this year I heard the words dreaded by many during these tough financial times: mass layoff. Our employer had called an all hands meeting for our office, which was not wholly unexpected as we were in the habit of holding all hands meetings on the last Friday of the month for company updates. This was different though, and it was obvious something was up because folks from the home office had flown in. The message was clear, direct, and immediate: the Indianapolis office was to be closed, and the meeting served as our mandatory sixty day notice.

I thought it might be useful to document what I observed during this sixty day period. Who knows, if your business is looking to perform a mass layoff or site closing, maybe you can get some use out of this.

The Indy office was composed of around 50 employees. There were training staff, inside sales, technical support, engineering and IT, product management, and manufacturing management. A severance package was offered to everyone at the site. The severance pay called for one week of pay for each completed year of service, with a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of ten weeks. They rounded down, so my three years and ten months of service called for three weeks of severance. Some people were offered an opportunity to move to the West coast to stay with the business, possibly in a new role. Some, especially those with daily contact with customers, were asked to go home immediately and issued a check for the full sixty days plus severance payment. One member of the staff sought and received permission to spin-off the product line into a new business. The engineering staff was asked to continue to come to work until a new job was found or the sixty days expired. The engineering staff would be paid for time at work, but once a new job was found, would be terminated at that time.

The reaction was grim. The following week most of the staff who were not asked to go home still came into work. Many of us made calls to recruiters we knew in the area and setup mini job fairs in the office. Our employer was very gracious in allowing recruiters to come on-site, as well as allowing folks to use their time and resources for seeking a new job. This only made sense: the company had no interest in the staff continuing to work on a product that they were abandoning, and it was not worth the effort to re-assign these folks as temporary help to on-going projects. At the end of the first week, most folks were sad due to the layoff, but upbeat about finding a new job. A couple had even found new work in that short time. The spinoff effort was taking shape, and the leader of that effort was hoping to receive good support from the staff before the end of the sixty days.

Week two was a different story. In week two the recruiting activity slowed way down, and people found themselves sitting at their desk just waiting for the phone to ring. Some had simply stopped coming into the office, and others only arrived for a few hours to put in some face time. I tried to keep my days full through calls to recruiters, interviews, and exercising my network of contacts. At the end of the week I checked the source control server to see what kind of activity there had been during the week: zero commits. Nothing was getting done. To compound things, at the end of week two the local employment office arrived to provide a two day seminar. It was late, out of touch with our staff, and provided a message that boiled down to, "This is a terrible time to be looking for a job". Those left in the office were demoralized. In addition, a handful of folks that were associated with the spinoff effort were busy excitedly discussing that effort and making the moves necessary to help it be a success. This was happening in front of a lot of people that were not part of that effort, and it only served to further dishearten them. One other factor that was irritating the engineers: why were they not going to be compensated for the full sixty days when others were guaranteed that pay? Some folks were asked to leave and given the full pay for sixty days, but an engineer who found a job would not receive the same benefit. The argument was that by allowing engineers to continue to come to the office and receive the benefit of the mini job fairs and career services that this offset the benefit of a cash payout. Some found it extremely unfair, and it caused tension.

Week three was more of the downhill slide. Only a handful of people were coming to the office. The recruiting rush was over, and no one but those involved in the spinoff were interested in working on the product. Some of the engineers who had found new work were hoping to quietly disappear and "double-dip" their income for the remainder of the sixty days. I had received my first offer at this point, and decided to just be honest. The offical policy was reiterated that I should either not start on the new position until after March 31st (the end of the 60 days) or start earlier and submit my resignation. I turned down that offer, so it wasn't an issue, but another engineer in the same position accepted his. He did not want to resign, but the forms were drawn up for him anyway. Towards the end of the week the press releases regarding the spinoff were starting to trickle out. One press release noted the spinoff date as March 16th. That got folks thinking that the original closing date of March 31st might not be good anymore.

By the end of the first month, the general consensus among the few folks still coming to the office was that the office should close early. For those seeking a job, coming to the office was providing no real benefit. An inventory audit had been performed. Some of the equipment had been boxed up for use by the spinoff, some sold off at a discount, and a bit was still in use. All of the personality and life of the office was gone as everyone had taken their knick-knacks and personal items home. The office was like a mortally wounded animal looking for a comfortable place to lie down and die. I made a count around lunch time that Friday, and there were 11 people in the building.

Week five was more of the same. In the middle of week six the announcement was made that the office would be closing two weeks early. A rep from the home office arrived to answer any final questions. We turned in our badges and keys and said goodbye to our office, our employer, and our technology for good.

If you are a business that is facing a site closure, I have some advice for you. Based on my experience with this layoff, I recommend the following:
  • Act quickly, and decisively
One thing I appreciated about this layoff was that there was no period of waffling, trying to decide how to approach the layoff (as either an across the board RIF, site closure, furlough, or something else). The decision was made and put into action quickly and effectively.
  • Don't make different conditions for different groups
Giving some folks the full sixty days pay plus severance and forcing others to come to work to receive pay caused a lot of unnecessary strife. If you are going to send people home, send them all home. If you are going to ask people to stay, ask them all to stay. It is understandable that some folks, such as the facilities and IT folks, will need to be incentivized to stay at the office to manage the transition, but don't create unnecessary differences in how people are let go.
  • Close quickly
I did appreciate the opportunity to visit with recruiters the first two weeks after the announcement, but I think that could have been handled in such a way that all employees were sent home immediately. Aside from time spent with recruiters, nothing was getting done in the office, and there was really no need for the majority of people to be there. It only provided the opportunity for already edgy people to feed off of the negativity of others. That isn't good for anybody. If you are going to perform a mass layoff, get those affected out of the office ASAP.
  • Expect nothing
This goes for both the employer and the employee. For the employer, don't delude yourself into thinking that the people you just let go are going to continue working on anything. For the employee, beware of thinking that the employer owes you anything.
  • Don't burn bridges
The easy thing to do for the employer or the employee would be to make some statement to the effect of, "I didn't need them anyway". Worse, for the layoff victim, it would be tempting to jump on some social media service like facebook or twitter and start bashing the employer. Don't do it. It might make you feel better for a few minutes, but you might not ever be able to take those words back, and you never know how that can come back to bite you.

So what happened to me? Fortunately, I found a great job with a new employer in such time that I never had an interruption in pay. It wasn't how I wanted to start my year, but I must say that I think everything has worked out fairly well in my case.


  I've been considering some sort of network storage solution for some time now.  We have three PC's in the house and our family pictures, videos, documents, and music are spread among them.  Worse, we have only taken one backup of the pictures, and the rest are squirreled away in unknown folder levels of each of the machines.  I wanted to change that.  I had a couple of options in mind: a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, a Windows Home Server (WHS), or setting up a share on my main PC.  I came into a little luck and found myself with four 320GB hard drives, which significantly helped matters.

One option I was considering is the Drobo, which is a USB / Firewire storage device from Data Robotics.  The Drobo is a box that can attach to your PC via USB or Firewire, and has slots for up to four hard drives.  You can add hard drives in any pattern that you like, and as the system gets full you are prompted to add more storage.  It uses a proprietary RAID format, offering some data security (if a drive fails, you won't lose everything).  As far as simple solutions, this is tops.  Just plug it in and insert your drives.  The first generation unit is $350 and the current generation is $450.  There is also an add-on piece for $200 that allows you to connect the Drobo directly to the network without any need for a PC to host it.  In that form, it can truly be called a NAS.
I also investigated other NAS products, including those from ASUS, IOGear, and Western Digital.  Those targeted to the home and small office offered two drive slots and a reasonable price, while those targeted at businesses offered four or more slots but at a premium price.

Windows Home Server is an interesting product that also had my eye.  I've known a few people to have them and all have had positive experiences.  One of the biggest benefits of a WHS over a simple NAS is that ability to take complete backups of all of the PC's on your network in an automated fashion.  Once scheduled, you can competely forget about this operation that will take periodic snapshots of your PC's.  If one of those machines should fail, just replace the busted drive and restore it from WHS.  The hardware for a WHS machine is fairly cheap (can be built for around $300).  Unfortunately, at that price point you are still looking at just a two drive setup.

In the end, I decided to setup a RAID on my existing PC and share the drive to the network.  I chose to use a RAID-5 configuration.  There are several flavors of RAID, and each has it's own nuances.  There is RAID-0, which alternates the usage of two drives in "stripes".  The advantage here is that rather than pulling your files from just one drive, it uses both drives equally, improving performance.  It provides no data protection though, so if one of those drives fails, you are toast.  Next is RAID-1, also called mirroring.  In RAID-1, two drives are used and are perfect copies of each other.  As with RAID-0, both drives can be used when reading files, leading to better read performance (writing is slower though), with the advantage that if one drive fails, you don't lose anything.  The disadvantage is that you only get one drive's worth of storage.  Raid 0+1 is a combination of these two techniques that uses four drives.  The data is striped across two drives, and each of these drives is mirrored, resulting in good performance and security in the case of drive failure.  Still, you end up wasting two drives of data here.  That's why I chose RAID 5.  RAID 5 uses some special parity math and rotates the use of the drives to attain a nice balance between security, performance, and disk utilization.  My RAID 5 setup uses four disks, and if any one of those disks fails I can replace it and not lose any data. (If two drives fail, I lose some data, so it is important to watch for a drive failure and deal with it immediately).  With my four 320GB drives installed my RAID 5 setup provides just under 1TB of storage.

Now that I've got it setup, I'm kicking myself for not doing this sooner.  The drive performance is great, and it is nice to know that I have some security in the unfortunate event of a drive failure.  My motherboard has six SATA ports, and it can have two RAID arrays.  I'm considering modifying my setup to use a two disk RAID-1 for the operating system and applications and the four disk RAID-5 for all data storage.  As cheap as hard drives are ($60 for 750GB!) it's seems silly not to take advantage of the security and performance afforded by a RAID configuration.  The next thing I need to do is adhere to a regular backup schedule.

A note: building the RAID (initializing it for the first time) took a long time.  I kicked off the build process last night and it took just over 10 hours to complete.  So if you are considering setting one up yourself, be sure to allow for that build time.

Movies and Theaters

(tldr; going to the movies is expensive, UA galaxy needs updated, Watchmen was good)

I went to the theater tonight to see Watchmen.  I really enjoyed it, but that's not what this post is about.  I went to the UA Galaxy Stadium 14 here in Indy.   Normally I prefer to go to the Goodrich theater at Hamilton Town Center, as it is a newer theater and they have digital projection and IMAX screens available.  I should also mention that the AMC theater at the Castleton mall is very nice after they renovated it, but it's the least convenient of the three for me to get to.  

I chose the UA theater because I had a coupon for a free movie at a Regal cinema, and the UA theater is part of the Regal Entertainment Group.  I also had a coupon for a free drink (with minimum $3.50 concession purchase) as well as a $1 off concession at the Goodrich theater, but I figured the free movie ticket was the better value.  After all, a ticket at our local theaters runs $9.50 ($12.50 for IMAX).  I had my mind set on indulging in the decadence of buttered movie popcorn with lots of salt and a fully leaded Cherry Coke.  The theater got all of that free ticket back with that purchase: Medium drink + Medium popcorn (combo #3) was $11.50.  I always thought combos were supposed to be some sort of deal, but this was just 25¢ off of the normal price for the medium drink ($5.50) and medium popcorn ($6.50).  You can save a buck on each item by getting a size smaller, or spend a buck more on each to go to the large.  I'm not calling out UA on this pricing either, as it is the same pricing you'll find at the AMC and Goodrich.  However, there is one difference between the theaters: bag vs. tub.  I prefer my popcorn in a tub, not in a bag.  At the Goodrich theater you can buy any size and ask for it in a tub, and they will happily oblige you.  I asked for the same at the UA theater and was told that the only way to get a tub is to buy the large popcorn.  I asked the clerk if she could just measure out my medium bag and then pour it into a tub, and she said she couldn't because they keep an inventory count of the tubs, and she's responsible for reconciling it with receipts!!! I haven't been to the AMC theater in a while, so I can't say where they stand on the bag vs. tub issue.

I was going to the 9pm showing, and it being a Tuesday I figured I might just have the theater to myself.  Almost, but not quite: there were two couples in there and one other fellow going stag like myself.  That got me to thinking, "What is the break-even cost for showing a film?"  Assuming that everyone else at my screen paid full price for their ticket, that's $9.50 x 5 = $47.50.  The two couples were younger, so let's assume it was a date and the gentlemen sprung for the individual small cokes and shared a medium popcorn.  That's ($4.50 x 4) + ($6.50 x 2) = $31.00.  The other gentleman and I each had the same snacks, so that's another $11.50 x 2 = $23, bringing our grand total to $101.50 taken in by the theater for the 9pm showing of watchmen (I knew studying those story problems in math would pay off one day).  I have no idea what the licensing terms are for a theater when they show a film, but I have to imagine that they pay some sort of fee for each showing.  Add to that the cost of the staff, electricity, maintenance, and who knows what other costs to running the theater, and I'm thinking that UA didn't make much profit on the six of us who wanted to watch the Watchmen.

This line of thinking got me to further pondering how theaters can survive.  The UA theater has the oldest equipment of the three I've mentioned here.  The Goodrich theater is newly built, and the AMC theater recently underwent a major renovation.  While the picture and sound at both the AMC theater and Goodrich theater is crisp and bright, the picture at UA was smeary, as if there was a bit of vaseline on the projector lens.  Making upgrades to a theater isn't cheap, and where I'm going with this is that I don't mind paying a proper amount to see a movie on a large screen with fantastic sound.  Nor do I have a problem with the theater making a profit on this venture.  What I do take issue with is the disingenuous pricing.  If the theater needs to take in $25 per patron for a film, charge $25 for the ticket.  Don't charge me $9.50 for the ticket, and then expect me to think $5.50 for a drink or $6.50 for popcorn is reasonable.  In addition, sweeten the deal.  What if when you went to the theater to watch a movie, you also brought home a copy of the DVD, or maybe your ticket included a code to download the soundtrack.  That would certainly make it easier to justify the astronomical cost of a trip to the movies.

To put it in perspective, let's say that in a few years I want to take my family of five to an evening at the theater.  Two adult tickets and three kid tickets are going to run me $38.50.  Assuming everyone wants their own small drink and popcorn, that's another $50.  So $98.50 to provide two hours of entertainment to my family.  For that same money, I could buy a DVD player (under $30), a copy of the DVD (typically $15), and a decent take-out meal, and probably still have money left over.  Or, for that same C-note, I could have my cable company turn on every cable channel available, including on-demand subscriptions and premium movie channels, for a month.

I enjoy going to the theater to watch a movie from time to time, but I'm ready for a shakeup that will make the value proposition more interesting.

Windows Mobile 6.5 - Follow-Up

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article criticizing Microsoft for the lack of innovation in Windows Mobile 6.5.  Engadget has had a flurry of articles on the topic over the past month, and there is an interesting trend in the comments.  Most commenters are getting into heated fanboi arguments over which is better: iPhone, WM6.5, WebOS, etc.  To me this argument misses the point of the chief criticism towards Microsoft and the Windows Mobile 6.5 offering.  The point is not to compare WM6.5 with iPhone and others, but instead to compare WM6.5 with WM6.1 and previous versions.  Microsoft has stated that WM6.5 will probably not be available until the end of the year, and at that time will only be available on new phones.  So the question is, is WM6.5 enough of an improvement over WM6.1 to purchase a new phone?

It is clear to me the answer is no.  There simply isn't enough new here to warrant upgrading a phone to get the new OS, especially when considering the high cost of smart phones with or without contract.  Microsoft really needs to do something to breath new life into Windows Mobile if they want consumers to upgrade to a new phone to get the OS.

Is the OS Relevant Anymore?

I just read a post from @absenth referencing an article in Linux Journal about the relevancy of the OS.  The crux of the article is that, due to the transition to Cloud Computing and Software as a Service, the host OS is becoming less important.  Users are less concerned over the version of Windows or MacOS that the system is running, and more concerned with finding a good web browser and an office suite.  This trend is most visible in the netbook arena where most offerings include a stripped down version of Linux at a reduced price.  

So is the OS relevant?  If you were presented with a new laptop, and you had your choice of running Windows, MacOS, or Linux, would you have a preference?  How much would you pay for your preference?  I don't have any hard evidence, but I suspect that the average person would pick Windows if price were not a factor.  That would be my choice.  It would also be my choice when choosing an OS for a family member or non-technical friend.  I know my family members are familiar with Windows, and familiarity means fewer calls to me for tech support. That's worth at least $30-$60 from me.  On the other hand, I would choose the Linux variant for myself if it meant saving $100.  

I like the trend towards cloud computing, and I think it can only mean good things for consumers as the OS and hardware become less important.

Experiment: Pico-ITX as Hulu Client

I tried a little experiment tonight.  I wanted to see if my Artigo Pico-ITX machine could act as a Hulu client.  I cleared off the machine and installed Ubuntu 8.10.  After installing the flash plug-in for Firefox I pulled up Hulu and loaded a 30 second clip from Family Guy.  The audio was perfect, but the video was very choppy.  I checked the resource monitor and the CPU was just getting hammered.  I guess I'm a little disappointed that even with a 1GHz processor and 1GB of memory, this little machine can't display streaming video.  YouTube suffers from the same stutter.  This is unfortunate, as I had hoped to connect this box to my HDTV as a quick and dirty web video streamer.  

Windows Mobile 6.5

The Mobile World Congress (MWC) is underway, and all your favorite cell phone makers are there pitching the future of their products.  Microsoft is at the event in a big way to introduce Windows Mobile 6.5.  This facelift to WinMo 6.1 is hyped as the new, touch friendly version of the interface.

I'm not very excited about this update.  I think MS is right to call this a 6.5 rather than a 7.0.  There just isn't enough there.  And to make matters worse, it doesn't achieve the goal of making the interface a one-handed touch only affair.  

When I first purchased my PDA, it was running Windows Mobile 2003 SE.  I used the WM 5.0 upgrade when it was available, and recently upgraded to WM 6.1.  So what has changed in the Windows Mobile experience in the last 6 years?  Very little, to be quite honest.  If you have an old Windows Mobile PDA collecting dust in a drawer somewhere you could pick up the WinMo 6.5 devices on display and feel right at home.  The only significant change that I have noticed is that I am not required to soft reset my device on a daily or weekly basis anymore.  Taking six years to simply get the device to work is a sorry excuse for progress.  It is time for Microsoft to really rethink how to approach the mobile market.  If not, Apple, Nokia, Palm, and others are going to bury them with the smart innovations they are putting into their latest phones.

Flower on PS3

Last week the highly anticipated game Flower was released for PS3 via PSN.  I had heard a lot of hype around this game.  Rather than a high intensity kill fest, it was supposed to be a very relaxing experience more than a game.  I liked the idea, and for only $10 was ready to give it a try.  After getting the software loaded I jumped right in.  The idea is that you control a gust of wind.  Tilting the six-axis controller determines the direction the wind will blow, and holding a button will cause the wind to build up speed.  You guide the gust of wind into flowers.  Each time you connect with a flower, the flower blooms and adds a petal to the trail of the wind gust.  Bloom enough flowers and a section of the map comes alive with color.  As advertised, it is a very relaxing experience.  It is a game to the extent that there are loose objectives, a start, and an end, but really it is more something to do for the simple pleasure of the experience, like doodling or hanging your hand out of the car window.  If you have a spare ten-spot, and an open mind, I definitely recommend downloading this software.

I also watched a video published by the games creators.  In the video they describe Flower as a new experience in gaming, a video game poem, and something that will elicit an emotional response.  I can agree with the first two items, but I draw the line at the third.  Flower is definitely more experience type play than gaming play, and I can see the parallels with poetry.  I'm not buying the emo BS though.  When I think of emotional response, I think happy, sad, angry, etc.  I get none of those from "experiencing" this "poem".  The emo bit is just new age nonsense to my ears.  Fortunately, it doesn't detract from the experience.  

Friday the 13th Strikes!

I've gotten into the habit of donating blood to the Indiana Blood Center every two months when the blood mobile comes around.  Today was no exception, but it was also Friday the 13th.  My morning schedule was busy, but it looked liked I could fit everything in:

  • 8:00am Brief introduction to potential employer
  • 8:30am Donate blood 
  • 10:30am On-Site interview
Fate had other ideas.  After my morning intro, I asked around to see if the bloodmobile was ready.  It wasn't.  Apparently, the bloodmobile from Kokomo had broken down, so another one was coming in from downtown Indy.  When it arrived (just a few minutes after 8:30) I asked if they were ready, and they asked for 20 minutes for the everyone to arrive and get settled.  No problem, I though, donating only takes a few minutes and I'll still have plenty of time to get to my interview.  My office is on the Northeast side of Indy, and my interview was on the Northwest side, so I figured 30 minutes would be a good buffer for travel.    At 9:00 I stopped in again at the bloodmobile.  I finished up my paperwork, and then the technician came in to do the finger prick, temperature, and blood pressure.  Oops, no blood pressure cuff.  Whoever packed up the second bloodmobile apparently put the wrong case of equipment in, and it was missing a blood pressure cuff.  So someone drove off to pick one up while I waited.  Twenty minutes round trip they said, still plenty of time to donate.  So I'm having a snack with the crew at around 9:20 when they realize that all of the thermometer strips are expired.  This invalidates the temperature I had given, and they have to call the person fetching the blood pressure cuff to turn around and get thermometer strips as well.  Guessing that it would be another 20 minutes before they were back and I could even start to donate, I had no choice but to leave.

I feel kind of bad, as I think donating blood is an important thing to do.  Unfortunately, Friday the 13th worked some magic against me and the bloodmobile today, and it just didn't happen.

Lending and Home Sales

Is this the right offer for the times?  On the one hand, it is a great idea to offer a potential home buyer the peace of mind that, should you lose your job, your mortgage will be one less worry.  Wait a minute though....isn't risky lending one of the components that got us into this economic mess to begin with?  Exactly what kind of buyer is this ad going to attract?  If it attracts responsible buyers purchasing within their affordable range who are uncertain about buying, then great.  Getting responsible buyers to make responsible purchases is the goal of all of the economic stimulus we'ver heard about recently.  If, however, it attracts irresponsible buyers who KNOW their job is in danger, or encourages those with uncertain employment to get a bigger loan, it is a terrible idea.  This same sort of offer is found in not just home buying, but in nearly all areas of major purchases.  Hyundai recently ran television ads with a very similar message.  

I'm all for doing what it takes to get responsible people spending, but I hope that the lenders tied to these deals are donig a better job of screening applicants before giving a loan.  

Jade Mason