Monday, December 28, 2009

Fish, Birds, and God

Fish. Cheap ones cost about a buck and a half at the local pet store. We bought three of them and a small aquarium earlier this year. They were ostensibly for our youngest daughter, so naturally their care and feeding fell upon me. I couldn't help being saddened the other day when I found one of them had died. I wanted to replace him, but not unless I got a clean bill of health for my tank's water, so I took a sample down to the pet store for analysis. I learned the water had an ammonia problem, and I have to follow a particular regimen to bring the water back to good, and hopefully the other two fish will survive the ordeal.

This passage from Matthew 10:29-31 (ESV) came to mind:

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."

My eldest daughter said "I'm sorry Dad." When the Matthew passage came to mind, it dawned on me that if God cares about birds, then He probably cares about fish as well. But that's not the point of the passage. The point is that if God cares about a sparrow, then he really cares about his child. Really really cares. Cares like crazy. And so, child of God, do not be afraid.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Burgermeister Meisterburger is an Environmentalist Wacko!

There's been a lot of news lately for those of us wondering what we can do to save the planet from global warming.

According to Climate chief Lord Stern, “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.” He assures us that eventually it'll be quite normal for us to inquire about the carbon content of our food. Perhaps they can put that information on the nutrition panel.

And Robert Vale of New Zealand tells us in his book "Time to Eat the Dog" that pets are not eco friendly, and that we apparently need to swap Fido out for something a little more palatable. Apparently, a fish causes the same amount of carnage to our planet as two mobile phones. I had two mobile phones, and I have three fish. I wonder whether I should flush the phones or the fish.

So we need to give up meat, and pets. Got it.

I've been thinking about the impact toys have on the environment. Think about it: all the carbon emitted to produce them, the plastic, the batteries they consume, the lead in their paint--really, they are basically boiling cauldrons of toxic carcinogenic polluting choke hazards. We really ought to ban them. Really.

Which got me thinking about the Burgermeister Meisterburger, the grouchy villain of the children's classic "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." He fell and hurt himself, blamed the toy over which he tripped, and banned them all. He was not going to be happy until everybody was miserable. Much like Vale, Stern, and others. The Burgermeister must be an Environmentalist!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Enjoying a Starbucks Via

I really enjoy coffee. I don't however consider myself a coffee snob: I'm not one who'll say "oh, I never drink so-and-so, it's total garbage." But times have to be pretty tough for me to opt for the instant coffee. I'll take one of those "coffee single" dunk-the-bag-in-boiling-water contraptions if I'm going to be without easy access to my favorite caffeinated beverage: camping, company travel, the end of the world, etc. But powdered instant coffee? Blech. Only if I'm really desperate.

A few weeks ago Starbucks introduced their Via instant coffee. They said I would not be able to tell the difference. Yeah sure, I thought, and at a buck a cup, I'm not going to bother to find out.

I found myself at my neighborhood Starbucks, and was buying a drink on a gift card someone had given me, and because I had some room left over on the card, I decided to buy the three-pack.

At the house, I decided to give it a try. I dumped the packet out into my mug, and the first two things I noted were that it is ground almost as fine as flour, and that it smelled really good. I then heated up some water and poured it in, and gave it a good stir. I tasted it, and really was surprised at how good it is, and that I really would not have guessed it was instant. So, if you like Starbucks coffee in general, you're probably going to like Via.

I still have a touch of sticker shock, though. At a dollar a cup, it's wildly more expensive than most any kind of homebrew, let alone powdered instant. You get to make the cost/benefit decision. For me, I envision myself with a couple of packs the next time I go camping, or perhaps find myself going somewhere where good coffee isn't nearby.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Y2K and C4C

Can you believe it's been ten years since Y2K? Do you remember the flurry of activity getting ready for it? Ten years ago I was busy making sure clients' windows boxes and servers had the latest OS patches in anticipation of the big day; I was helping clients make sure their software systems were ready for a smooth transition. There was a bunch of IT spending, on hardware upgrades, software upgrades, reprogramming systems (COBOL For Dummies?!). Then Y2K came and went. And the flurry of activity came to a halt. It's as if everybody was now (temporarily, at least) on the same sales cycle. So very few people were interested upgrading anything through 2000 and on. IT spending slowed down, and so on.

People buy automobiles at different rates: some turn them in every two years, some run them until the wheels fall off. There are different sales cycles. The government wanted to encourage consumers to start purchasing new automobiles, so they devised the so-called "Cash For Clunkers" program. The program has proved wildly (perhaps unexpectedly) popular, and now politicians are trying to figure out how to meet demand. One of the things the program is doing, I think, is upsetting the normal automotive sales cycle. If someone was halfway through running the wheels off their car, they might go ahead and buy one now, instead of in three or four years, when they were "scheduled" to.

The concern is what happens when the program ends. Everybody who was going to be in the market for a new vehicle now already has one. I'll not be surprised to see the flurry of activity to come to a screeching halt. How much do you think that bailout is going to cost?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Fraud Alert In Action

So have you gotten yourself a fraud alert yet?

We placed a fraud alert on our credit reports, and promptly forgot about it. A month or so after we did this, we found ourselves at our local AT&T store, signing up for a new service package. We filled out a bunch of paperwork, and part of this involved giving them our credit card number. Now we don't have credit cards; we use debit cards, and we gave them our debit card number.

As an aside, we've used a debit card for years. We've used them to buy plane tickets, rent cars, hotel rooms, etc. We've never been unable to do something on account of not having a credit card. We did once try to rent a car through an agency whose policy was credit cards only. In that case, we found another agency which would let us rent a car with a debit card.

As the AT&T rep was running our paperwork, he said he'd they needed some additional information. At first I thought it was because we were using a debit card instead of the credit card, but in fact it was the fraud alert kicking in. While at the store, we had to get on the phone with the authorizer, who then asked us some pretty pointed questions (stuff that only we should know) in order to verify our identity. Once we got that ball rolling again, we were chatting with the store associate about the fraud alert, and he remarked that if we weren't who we said we were, we'd be having a chat with the sheriff's deputy right about now. We got all the paperwork finished and went our way.

At first I thought "What a pain to have to do this." But then I realized that if someone was trying to impersonate me, he'd have to go through the pain too, and he'd wind up being driven off in a squad car. So I'm willing to go through the extra bother for the extra peace of mind.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I like Balsamiq Mockups

There are few tools more flexible than a pencil and pad of paper. Great boot time, decent UI. When I'm having to sketch a diagram of any sort, the diagram almost always starts out as a sketch on paper, and then transposed to whatever media it needs to be delivered in. It's a pain to transpose a pencil mockup to something like Visio, but I've done it.

I'm skeptical of things that purport to allow me to toss the pencil/paper step. The demo pitch goes something like "just click, click, drag, presto, you're done." I wish it were that easy.

My boss sent me a link to Balsamiq Mockups (, a UI design and mockup tool. Sure enough, their demo video goes something like "click, click, drag, presto" while they draw a mockup of an existing application that you probably know very well. I rolled my eyes and thought "here we go again," but I played with the online version for a few minutes, and it seemed straightforward enough.

I'm working on a particular project and need to start sketching some ideas for it, and I instinctively reach for my pencil. I decide that to be fair to the product, I should at least try it (without using the pencil/paper), and we have an eval version of Mockups wired into Confluence. So I click the "Add UI Mockup" link on the wiki page, which takes me to the mockup editor. I want a dialog box. So I drag one off the bar on the top, on to my workspace. Now I want a list. How a button here. No that's not right; there that's better. Click, click, drag, presto, and I had something I liked. They even let me export it to PNG if I want (although embedding directly into the Wiki page was much quicker).

I like the Sticky Notes, and all the icons. I like how the properties boxes are handled. I like that it's extensible. I like how easy it is to add data to UI elements like list boxes. In short, I like Balsamiq Mockups.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Children's Ministry

"Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 19:14 (ESV)

The Lord Jesus Christ loves children. In this passage we see Christ rebuking the disciples for trying to keep the kids away. "Let them come... do not hinder them..."

It's easy to hinder children. We do it all the time. For example, when in church you hear that the children's ministries programs could use help, what do you ordinarily think to yourself?

I can't do that: I've never done it before.
I can't do that: the "Sunday school people" take care of them.
I can't do that: I don't relate to kids.
I can't do that: kids annoy me.
I can't do that: I'm involved in more important things.

I love Psalm 1: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked...He is like a tree..." So how do trees get there? Someone planted seeds.

Go find the children's leader at your church, and ask him how you can help. You'll be glad you did. I promise.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Get Yourself A Fraud Alert

Several months ago, a very rude person called our house and spoke with my wife. He represented a collection agency, looking for Brian Smith. Knowing that we have no debt, my wife told him that I was not the particular Brian Smith he was looking for. He demanded that my wife tell him my social security number, and when she refused, he threatened to "turn it over to the attorney." My wife, upset about all this, calls me at the office, and I told her I'd call the moron and fix it. So I called the guy, who was as rude to me as he was to her, demanding my social, etc. I told him I'm not going to give that to him, I'm not the Brian he's looking for, etc., and he accuses me of "wanting to play games." So I ask him to whom should I send the cease and desist letter, and proceed to do that.

(After reading up on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, my opinion is that he committed at least two violations: his phrases "relaying it to the attorney," and "wanting to play games" can both be interpreted as threats. Incidentally, the FDCPA makes for some interesting reading, and it's good to know what collectors are allowed and not allowed to do.)

We pulled a credit report on ourselves, and nothing untoward showed on them. Knowing that "Brian Smith" is a pretty regular name, we decide to place a Fraud Alert on our reports. It is fall-off-the-log easy:
  1. Call a toll-free number of one of the credit reporting agencies (Transunion, Experian, or Equifax).
  2. Using your touch-tone phone, follow the prompts which will ask you your SSN, house number, and a few other things.
  3. If you're married, call them again, and put an alert on your spouse's report as well.
  4. For continuing protection, set your favorite reminding mechanism to prompt you to renew the alerts in three months.

This takes less than five minutes.

You only have to call one of the credit reporting agencies; they will notify the other two, and you will receive in the mail an acknowledgement that you have a fraud alert placed on yourself. A fraud alert does not prevent you from continuing to use open credit accounts. A fraud alert does not prevent you from opening new credit accounts. What it will do, if you are going to open a new account, is force the creditor to take several extra steps to verify that it really is you who is trying to open the account. (We got to see this in action, and it was very cool; perhaps I'll describe that in a future post.) A fraud alert lasts for 90 days, after which you're free to place the alert again.

The FTC estimates that 9 million people have their identities stolen each year. It's a huge pain for victims, who spend tremendous effort to clean up the mess the criminals cause. So get yourself a fraud alert. It's quick, easy, and free.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

One Way To Uninstall Software

I write code. I use Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 for a large part of my work. I've been wrestling with a problem lately, and one recommendation I received was to look at some sample code which comes with Microsoft's Platform Builder. So I downloaded and installed that product, but then VS2005 started misbehaving: giving me errors like this when I would try to go back to my project: "The following error has occurred... Error message: Catastrophic failure"

Catastrophic Failure?! Yikes. So I tried to repair my installation. Boy did I try. I uninstalled Platform Builder, hoping it would set my VS2005 back to rights. No such luck. I tried uninstalling VS2005. I tried a particular tool which offers to remove any vestiges of a previous install. After way too much time, I continue geting messages asking me to "Please repair Visual Studio." You have no idea how much I want to repair.

I found the following advice at , titled "How to troubleshoot the installation of Visual Studio 2005"
"The computer where you install Visual Studio 2005 should never have had any beta or release candidate Visual Studio product installed. If any one or more of these products were installed, you should rebuild the computer to verify that these products have been removed. To rebuild the computer, reformat the hard disk, and then install the operating system again."
That's one way to uninstall software. They should have simply recommended that to uninstall the software, shut the machine off, back slowly away, and go buy a new computer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

No Tea For Me

Tomorrow is April 15. Tax day. The day you turn your paperwork in to the IRS to prove that you have paid enough income taxes for the year and either request a refund, or pony up what you still owe. Various gatherings are planned for the day: groups protesting taxes, the growth of government, wasteful government spending, etc. Many of these protests are being called 'tea parties," a name inspired by Rick Santelli's wildly famous rant on CNBC a few months ago.

There was a tea party in my neck of the woods about two months ago. It was put together by the Upstate Young Republicans. There is a tea party planned at our State Capitol tomorrow, and at other cities across our state.

I have a very hard time getting worked up about these tea parties. "We'll teach 'em a lesson! We'll buy them a TEA BAG!" Don't hurt yourself making that bold statement, guys. The issue is that these people think that if only their party were in power right now, then "none of this would be happening." And they are precisely wrong. There is only one difference between today's Republican and today's Democrat parties, and that is a difference of degree. If the Democrat party says "the Government is great and we want to quadruple its size," the GOP says "the Government is great and we want to triple its size" and they think that this position, being the lesser of two evils, makes them deserving of the conservative vote. Of course, the GOP won't actually say this. Especially when they are in the minority.

Venting a frustration with a bunch of friends might be fun way to spend an hour or two, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything. So no tea for me, thank you very much.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The most fun I've had on a project.

I love technology. I love solving problems. I love learning new things.

One of the most enjoyable projects I've ever done involved all three of these things.

We had a customer who was using handheld barcode equipment in their remote locations, and they needed to upgrade that equipment; we were providing the new equipment and were tasked with writing code to essentially port their current functionality to the new devices. The existing devices used acoustic couplers to transmit data back to the home office. The particular setup at the home office was absolutely critical to their operations, and the customer was insistent that our work could not in any way affect their home office systems. The central office had a bank of modems to answer the data calls from the acoustic couplers deployed in the field. So we had to build a system, on new handheld barcode equipment running in their locations, which was "plug compatible" with their back office systems.

We found a hardware manufacturer who manufactured acoustic couplers for devices similar to the devices we were using, and we expected that the manufacturer would be able to write drivers and such so that we could use their couplers on the new hardware. In the meantime, I continued working on porting their application to the new platform.

We had continuous problems with the couplers. The manufacturer kept giving us new code to try, shipping us new devices, etc. Sometimes the couplers would make some noise when activated, sometimes the driver would fail. We were getting nowhere, and it was becoming more and more difficult to get status information from them. I started thinking "uh oh."

The customer used one-way acoustic couplers in their remote locations to transmit data to their central office. The acoustic coupler was essentially a speaker. I started thinking, "this thing is just making noise." Then it dawned on me that their new devices (they were Pocket-PC based) had built-in speakers, and could play WAV files, etc. I started wondering whether I could make noise with these things too. I figured the most straightforward way to do this was to write my own WAV file. So I learned about the format of the WAV file, and learned to write code to generate WAV files that would play tones of various frequencies. As a "proof of concept," I wrote code which would even generate DTMF tones, so I could put the device up to a phone's receiver and the device could dial the phone.

The challenge then was to take a file, break it into its component 0's and 1's, and then generate tones corresponding to each bit. I learned about Nyquist's Theorem, which describes how I need to build a sample to encode waves of particular frequencies. Very fun stuff. Took a while, but I figured it out. I could generate a WAV file which "sounded" like a real acoustic coupler, but my transmission wouldn't work with their host systems. It took me several days to realize that in C++, I needed to use the pow() function to raise a number to a power; I had inadvertently been using the ^ operator, I guess mixing that up from another language. When I figured this out, my transmission went through! Their system would give confirmation numbers on successful transmissions. My first confirmation number was "50." I wrote it BIG in my notebook that day.

For me, this is one of the most fun projects I've been involved in. An awful lot of fun. Very satisfying. Made the customer very pleased (they didn't need to buy hardware acoustic couplers). A great puzzle to solve.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Escape Route

1 Corinthians 10:13 (English Standard Version) reads as follows:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Christians often look at this passage and think that "the way of escape" is some sort of magic door that appears to "show the way out." If we find ourselves in a particular sin, we think it's God's fault for not showing us the door. If I worry about financial problems, if God drops a Lotto ticket in my lap, then I won't have to worry any more. That would be convenient. Make my life easier.

So why is this way of escape so hard to find? After all, God promises that we'll not be tempted beyond our ability. Go grab your Bible. Read Matthew chapter 4.

Satan tempts Christ three times. The first time, he tempts Christ by challenging him to turn stones into bread. He answers with Scripture. The second time, he tempts Christ by challenging whether he is who he says he is. He answers with Scripture. The third time, he tempts Christ by challenging him to worship Satan instead of Christ. He answers with Scripture.

He answers with Scripture.

If you're holding your Bible, you're holding your way of escape.

We've got to know God's word. It's the way of escape.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Deja Book

I used to read Tom Clancy books all the time. I haven't read one in a while, although Armored Cav happens to be on my to-read list. Back in the very late 80s or early 90s, I was reading a Tom Clancy novel (the name of which I don't recall) at the same time a significant world event was occurring, either the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union (which one I don't recall). It happened that the plot of the novel included that very same event, and what I do remember is how I felt watching the evening news, listening to them report on what I had read in the novel earlier that day. Fascinating effect, disorienting, and almost scary.

Deja Book.

I've been reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. If you're not going to read it yourself, you can find a synopsis not too far away from a query into your favorite search engine. I'm about halfway through the book so far, and I'm very much enjoying it. A fine novel. Fascinating dialog. Like this one, which takes place at a party hosted by the Rearden's wife:

Scudder: "...Property rights are a superstition. One holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it. The people can seize it at any moment. If they can, why shouldn't they?"

Slagenhop: "They should. They need it. Need is the only consideration. If people are in need, we've got to seize things first and talk about it afterwards."

And then there's this:
d'Anconia: "Did you want to see it [Rearden's invention] used by whining rotters who never rouse themselves to any effort, who do not possess the ability of a filing clerk, but demand the income of a company president, who drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills, who hold their wishing as an equivalent of your work and their need as a higher claim to reward than your effort, who demand that you serve them..."

It's hard watching the evening news.

Deja book.

Whose Job Is It Anyway?

A few days ago I saw a tweet from somebody who was essentially inviting people to post tweets ragging on their employers. Bad idea, it seems to me. I looked at a few more of his posts and saw other tweets decrying employers' "power" over their employees, and so on.

An employer has something of value--cash for example, and is in need of something of value--a skill, a task to be performed. An employee has something of value--a skill, and is in need of something of value--cash for instance.

The employer cannot hold a gun to the employee's head and demand his skill: that would be slavery. Likewise, the employee cannot hold a gun to the employer's head and demand his money: that would be robbery. An arrangement that works to their mutual benefit is for them to trade: the employer's cash for the employee's skill.

The employer and employee both come to terms when they agree that the cost of giving up the valuable thing they possess is worth the benefit of receiving the thing of value the other possesses. Nobody is forcing anybody to do anything. If, to the employee, the cost of trading his skill is not worth the value of the cash he receives, he's free to walk away from the arrangement; if to the employer, the cost of trading his cash is not worth the value of the skill he receives, he is free to break the arrangement as well.

If the employee thinks he cannot break the arrangement, the truth is simply that he believes the cost of giving the employer his skill is still worth the benefit of the cash he receives. When the benefit is no longer worth the cost, he should leave. By staying and contributing little more than gripes and complaints, the employee risks raising the employer's cost of continuing the agreement.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Pressing charges when there's a crime

I don't understand the debate over whether SC should press charges against Michael Phelps. If he committed a crime, the state should press charges.

If it "costs too much" for society to gain its expected benefit from enforcing a law, perhaps the law should be removed from the books.

We have too many people in this country to whom the law doesn't apply on account of particular fame, fortune, or family.