Perspective

View from my window this morning

I walked outside with the dog this morning onto a couple of inches of crunchy snow.  crunchcrunchcrunch.  From an aesthetic standpoint, this is practically perfect snow, powdery and glistening in the sunshine.  And we have lots of sunshine.

I love snow and it would have been nice, actually, to have a little more, given the holiday and all, but I’ll take it as is and be grateful.  As I also woke up this morning to see reports from friends and family around the country, many dealing with the dark side of winter, and I thought, surprising myself,

It could be worse.

I mean.  That’s not the way I think, normally, although I’m usually pretty grateful for the way things are, and I’m not unaware of the range of possibilities.  I’m just not incredibly interested in letting all sorts of scenarios play around with what passes for my brain.

So I think it’s just an end-of-the-year thing, my subconscious deciding I needed a motto and not willing to work at it.

It could be worse.

Alternatively

crunchcrunchcrunch

I can’t really decide.

I sent out that Christmas letter thing and got some interesting responses, mostly centering around Julie’s surgery and some focusing on that one hospital bed picture (which, I would point out, was a fun picture of a good moment).  It brought up scary memories for a couple of her friends, which I certainly understand but I couldn’t help thinking, whoo boy.  The hospital part was easy.  You should have been in this house for those couple of weeks after discharge, but then.  Perspective is everything.

I will grant myself a little leniency, then, if my mind wanders to what might have been here at the close of 2010, just a little.  It’s not a bad motto, all in all, maybe to keep me on my toes.  Again, I have absolutely no problems being grateful for the way things are, for the hurdles that were overcome and the manholes stepped over.

And I will be magnanimous here and extend my dumb snow-inspired feelings to everything, economy, weather, war.  It could all have been worse, I suppose.  If I have to think of the past and can’t help the cliche, I’ll go with that.

As for the future, I think I prefer imagining it as crunchy, with occasional sunshine.  I will try to keep my balance, and hope you do, too.

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But Will You Still Need Me

So. Obviously you’re here, creating a nice little empirical situation that allows me to skip a lot of stuff.

Just to maybe over-elaborate a little, for clarification: This is the exact same blog, just moved down the road a bit on my Web site. It was like all moving experiences; more work than it should have been, and the piano was a bitch, but we’re here.

And the reason was pretty much spouse-driven, but still made sense. Particularly this time of year, it’s nice to have one specific Web site, easy to remember, to point people toward who are interested in very specific things, probably books and links, and not ramblings about hot sauce. That’s the origin of all this, anyway.

I’d also mention that the new front page was pretty much designed by my son.  He surprises me all the time like that.

And, as mentioned, my wife is the one who started this, complained that the blog style was too minimal for her taste, that she wanted book pictures and other stuff, color and flash.  I tend toward the drab myself, which is why it’s a good thing I’m married.

Anyway.  This blog should stay the same, so really all you have to do is adjust your bookmarks or RSS feeds and Travis will not get any more early morning shocks.  We will be tweaking the main site, though, adding pages and probably some sort of “latest news” feature as the year progresses, so maybe keep that in mind.  Or keep your bookmark.

My apologies to Travis, then, and anyone else who woke up a little too fast.  I had my own experience with that, finding 3 inches of snow outside this morning when I took out the dog.  That’s the thing about surprises; you don’t know until you know, and it’s always a good idea to watch where you step, just on principle.

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The Heat of The Moment

My mother correctly pointed out, on this site, in front of God and everyone, that when I went down the list of Christmas gifts I received that seemed to have been the result of DNA testing I forgot to mention hers.

She wasn’t being petulant or sulking (not possible, not if you know my mom), just reminding me that she knows my quirks well, and one of them is heat.

My love affair with hot sauces (and hot anything) has been documented before, but I stopped mentioning it out of self preservation.  People tend to run wild with this sort of thing, arranging for all sorts of Scoville unit surprises.

It’s a preference, people, not a super power.  My mouth can blister as well as any other mere mortal.  I can get heartburn.  I can experience pain.

Really, it’s like someone who casually mentions that he likes pork and suddenly all his friends are entering him in hot dog-eating contests.

But Mom sent me a very nice collection of hot sauces, superior ones, several with the word “habanero” right on the label.  When I find a hot sauce in the local stores that I like, it seems I buy up their entire stock and that’s it; they never reorder, I guess, or they think it’s in my best interest, something, so I’m always on the look-out for new and exciting ones.  These are hard to find, since “hot” is a relative term and most people are wimps (some bottles think I’m going to be impressed by labels that say, “cayenne pepper.”  Seriously, cayenne?  Is that actually a pepper?  I think it’s something to put in baby formula to flavor it up a tad).

So I have heat for January, which probably will be a good thing.  As I’ve said before, I learned a few years ago that very hot food is therapeutic for me.  It persuades my brain that I’ve lit my mouth on fire, so chemistry takes over, endorphins are released, and I get a nice peaceful feeling to go with the back of my neck being soaking wet.  Works.

Meanwhile, we’re limping around here in the post-Christmas blahs.  The dog is particularly needy, which for various reasons pushed me past the deadline yesterday for catching up on missed sleep.  I’m either less tolerant of sleep deprivation as I age or else I’ve just forgotten, but it made me feel physically ill yesterday and I’m glad that’s over.

There’s been talk for over a week now of lowland snow here tomorrow, but it seems sort of iffy, just colder and probably not serious (although they said that before Thanksgiving too).

After all my chest-puffing the other day about keeping my personal computer clean and running smoothly, I now have issues I can’t quite get a handle on.  Hubris and humility are good things, and whatever is randomly gobbling my RAM and hanging up my system needs to be addressed.

Also, this here Web site is getting a mild makeover, at the urging of my wife, but more on that when I actually get around to it.

And my son had a close encounter the other day with an environment that reeked of serious weed smoking, something he was glad to get out of.

“It smelled like horseshit,” he said, which is an odd thing I guess for a suburban guy to reference but hey, I got it.  And then I nodded wisely and said, “Welcome to the real world,” and this socially-challenged young man wanted some clarification.

“What is it about my life that doesn’t resemble the real world?” he asked, seriously wanting to know, and I realized once again that getting older doesn’t mean I have to go around saying stupid stuff, although that’s probably going to be hard to avoid.

This is all the real world, dogs and klunky computers and lack of sleep and Christmas songs that have to wait another year, and remembering that, and the fact that some people have it realer than others, might take care of some self pity and keep me from saying and thinking things that sound suspiciously like horseshit.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Sticky: A Recap

I work all night on the weekends, although I use the verb loosely and only in an economic sense. The hardest part of my weekend gigs alternates between maintaining the correct caffeine level and being bored. I’m not building skyscrapers here.

So I was bound to the Internet between 7pm Christmas Eve and 6am Christmas morning, and then did the same thing 13 hours later. I didn’t see Santa but sometimes you won’t.

That’s the only negative, then. The calendar messed with my Christmas a bit, and my sleep cycle. There are worse things.

Our Christmases are quiet now. Part of that is a reflection of how busy my wife is, and then just our faraway family situation. We’re used to this now, and only occasionally does it cross my mind that it might be bleak to some. It’s not bleak. It’s quiet. There’s no voracious gifting, although we do listen to a lot of Christmas music and have Christmas dinner together.

And even though we don’t do presents old school, not like we used to, there are still plenty to open and the ones for me made me smile. Maybe I’m growing into myself, but it was fun to know that I’m loved and understood.

I dislike clutter and particularly cable clutter, and particularly on my desk, and I’d been grumbling about somehow having ended up with a wireless mouse and a keyboard from two different sets, with two different USB connections and some annoying electronic messiness. So John took care of that, thank you.

My whining about ripping a big hole in my one loose pair of jeans (although this time of year, they tend to move from “loose” into another category), so that need is patched thanks to my lovely wife.

And my daughter and son-in-law sent me a new food scale, replacing the Clinton-era one. I don’t bake nearly as often as I talk about it, but years ago I switched to recipes that gave measurements in mass, not volume (what is a cup of flour? How much does it weigh? Do you want to say 4 ounces? You’d be wrong, and also it depends upon the type of flour).

But I also use the scale when the jeans lose their looseness, if you get my drift. I’m not as relentless a calorie counter as I used to be, but keeping track is the best defense and a scale is a great tool. I’ve thought on a couple of occasions that for someone trying to lose or maintain weight this way, it’d be cool if there were a scale that you could program for all types of food: Stick a piece of chicken or some broccoli on it, and it would tell you the calories and the fat and whatever else you wanted to know, and store it for you so you wouldn’t have to write it on the white board by the refrigerator that isn’t hard to do but sometimes you forget.

Turns out there is such a scale. And I now own one. This only would be a tool for someone who needs to keep track of things in an ongoing battle to fight off the chaos of an undisciplined life, someone with a tendency toward note-taking and maybe even a fussiness about logging and categorizing, after years of helter-skelter.

It is nice to be understood, as I said.

So this was Christmas, and Christmas was good. We have a pretty tree and still plenty of music, lots of turkey leftovers and a remarkable amount of bacon. There are movies to be watched and shirts to be worn, and we managed once again to stay a family, strong and secure and only a little crazy.

And about last night? I was just helping Julie slide the turkey carcass into a plastic bag, but Mr. Turkey took his revenge from beyond the grave. The pan full of turkey drippings dipped and then dripped seriously, down my shirt and pants and into my pocket, which contained my cell phone. Water is one thing; liquid fat is apparently another, and my phone immediately stopped working and hasn’t started since, although it still beeps and rings and it’s not likely to slip out of my hand if I hold it, which I’m not inclined to do.

A warning, then: Keep cell phones away from dead turkeys. Cherish your families, wallow in music, say goodbye to one year, welcome the next with hope, and weigh your flour, it’s more accurate, and I hope your Christmas was as good as mine.

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The Best Christmas Ever

I’m a Christmas Eve shopper, one of those desperate men you’ll see in the mall, darting in and out of stores with a panicked expression, arms full of bags containing things no one could possibly want. I hate crowds and I hate shopping, so logically I delay it until it can be as miserable an experience as possible.

This leads to errors in judgment, of course. These make great stories for my family. My wife has probably forgotten the diamond studs, new bathrobe, and stereo system I’ve given her in the past, but she’ll never forget the year I bought her a lovely sweater from apparently the Extremely Obese Ladies rack (the tag said “medium;” I just thought it was supposed to be big).

It was after one of these last-minute excursions, walking through the parking lot at Alderwood Mall on Christmas Eve 1990, when I noticed something in the air. It was cold and there were dark clouds in the sky, and I was in the process of trying to remember which car I had driven to the mall when a snowflake landed on my shoulder.

Snow is part of our Christmas liturgy. Scrooge shuffles through it and George Bailey runs through it, screaming for someone to recognize him. It’s Currier and Ives and Budweiser commercials. As a teenager I used to crawl on the roof of our house and stare at the sky on Christmas Eve, waiting for a sign of snow.

Considering I lived in Phoenix at the time, I had a better chance of getting hit by an asteroid, but hey. I’m a mystic at Christmas. I believe in miracles.

In 1990 I was justified. I opened my eyes Christmas morning and looked upward through the blinds on the window and saw snow. Lots of it, just streaming down. After all these years of waiting, it felt suddenly strange, almost an aberration. There were several inches on the ground when we got up, and it snowed all day long.

(If you don’t remember this White Christmas, I should note that it tends to snow in my neighborhood more than others. Seriously. You can ask my neighbors. Sometimes it only snows at my house. This is because we are God’s Favorites.)

Snow on Christmas seemed an appropriate ending to a good year for us. It was a happy, affluent time, with my business going well, my wife’s career blossoming, my daughter in kindergarten, and my 10-month-old son wandering around the house, finding all sorts of things and putting them in his mouth. I sometimes think of it as The Best Christmas Ever. And sometimes I wonder about that.

Seven years earlier, it was a different story. My wife and I had just moved to Seattle, and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill with no furniture except for a bed and a TV. We were cold all the time. We had no phone.

We also had no money, and it looked like a bleak Christmas. On Christmas Eve I walked up and down Broadway, wondering what I could get her for the few dollars I had. After I settled on a book I’d found for half price, I came back to our apartment and she was gone. An hour or so later, the intercom buzzed. I went outside and there she stood, next to our car…which had a Christmas tree strapped to the roof.

She’d found this tree for five dollars. It wasn’t a pathetic Charlie Brown one, either; it was lush and full. We set it up in our empty living room and decorated it with the few ornaments we had. It was our first Christmas together, and we knew there would be others. We listened to Christmas music on the radio and danced around our tree, waiting for the future to happen.

So now I wonder about the best Christmas ever. We could fit that first apartment in our basement now, and there are dozens of ornaments and lots of furniture and, at last count, eight phones. There are packages under the tree. I wouldn’t want to go back to 1983. But still.

“Somehow Tim gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant for them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

There is something about the memory of two people, alone and poor in a strange city, that makes me think we somehow touched the soul of Christmas that year. It makes me think of a manger. It makes me think of waiting for miracles.

It’ll probably rain this Christmas. It’ll still be Christmas. George Bailey will get his life back and Clarence will get his wings. The Grinch’s small heart will grow three sizes. And Tiny Tim will not die.

And I will be reminded that miracles do happen, and are worth waiting for. That family is more important than furniture. That hope abounds in the human heart, that service to others is our greatest calling, that peace is worth praying for, and that, through half-closed eyes, the rain can sort of look like snow.

————-
(First published Dec. 2002)

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Part Two (Tech Tips)

So, software. Everybody likes it, we all need it and use it, and from time to time we actually pay for it.

It’s individual, too, and what software you have depends a lot on what you like to do. So I’m not getting into that. The following, then, feel more like utilities to me, pieces of code that make my computing experience easier, safer or more enjoyable, but general enough that some of it might conceivably interest you.

I’ve mentioned Dropbox a few times but neglected to note one of its nicer aspects: It’s a quick and easy way to sync stuff between computers. You can work on a file at home and pick up where you left off at the office, or move from your laptop to your desktop without losing ground. This isn’t a situation I experience, although I do like being able to skim through documents I’m working on from my iPod (with the Dropbox app, of course).

Anyway, I’m still a big believer in Dropbox (and you can still sign up for a free 2 GB of space and toss me 250 MB more by using this link , if you’re interested. And thanks to Bill and Phil for doing this).

There are other online backup services; MozyHome is one I’ve used and also offers 2 GB of free space (although you might have to dig through their various plans to find the free one, so I’m not linking).

And for most of us, 2 GB won’t even come close to storing our music and photos; for that stuff, you either have to spread them out, pay for more online space, or just make sure you’re doing regular backups. For me, the files I would most seriously miss if lost don’t amount to much in terms of memory, since they’re mostly word processing and spreadsheets. My music is easily replaceable, actually. And pictures?


For my photos, I use Picasa. A free product from Google, I’ve been using Picasa for years and I’m still impressed. Not only does it have some surprisingly robust photo editing tools, but there’s a lot of fun to be found in Picasa features, with their newest tagging and face recognition tools guaranteeing a lot of hours of figuring out who is who and wondering why you have pictures of them.

But Picasa also provides you a fair amount of online space to store albums, another backup option. If I were smart I’d just combine Picasa and Flickr and have all my pictures online, but for the moment Picasa is all I need (or have time for).

As for more advanced photo editing, obviously Photoshop is the gold standard but then you might need some gold to buy it. I’m nowhere near that interested, but even though there’s a nice OpenSource alternative in GIMP, it’s pretty geeky and you’d better know what you’re doing.


For the more advanced stuff, I use Paint.net, also OpenSource and amazing, really. It’s got a bit of a learning curve and you’ll have to dig around through forums to find plug-ins and such if you’re looking for serious tweaks, but if you want to do some semi-fancy tricks with layers but don’t feel like digging deep to pay for Photoshop, I can’t recommend Paint.net enough.

So that’s the fun stuff. But we were talking about keeping the computer clean, and here we are adding software. No worries; there is a solution.

And here’s my personal bias, right up front: You’re going to see and hear lots of suggestions about cleaning your registry. You don’t know what a registry is, but you think cleaning it is a good idea, why not? Get rid of the clutter.

My bias? YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING. And probably neither does the cleaning software.

But clutter is one reason Windows computers tend to sloooooow way down after a while, so my solution for years has been Revo Uninstaller. Revo not only runs the uninstaller program that comes with most software, but then it digs down, finds all the registry entries and other crap that’s crawled onto your hard drive.

Along with doing the ordinary cleaning up you should be doing (usually under Accessories and then System Tools you’ll find Disk Cleanup), use Revo to run through the programs on your PC and get rid of the stuff you don’t use, need or want. It can take a while (five minutes at least, usually, per program), so if you have a lot either set aside some time for cleaning or do a little each day, but believe me: Knowing I’ve got Revo makes trying out new software a lot more comfortable, knowing I can wipe it out afterwards (like a lot of software, Revo has a Pro, i.e., paid, version, but I’ve found the free one works just fine for me).

And finally, more in terms of safety than maintenance, a note about passwords. You might have noticed that Gawker Media recently got hacked, and lots of passwords were retrieved by said hackers (mostly by people who log in to comment on their sites). You know what the most common password was? 1234567. Second? Password.

Sure, this is just for making a comment on Gizmodo or Lifehacker, who cares, but it makes you wonder. And you should wonder.

I get it completely. Everybody wants a password. How do you remember? So you use the same one, pretty much, for everything, and it’s one you can remember easily; you’re not alone, trust me. And maybe it’s a combination of a name and a birthdate, letters and numbers, and who can guess that?

Here’s the thing: It’s not a “who” that’s trying to guess. It’s an algorithm, running through combinations of letters and numbers. And if it clicks into your password, and that happens to be the same password you use for your email, and of course there’s a lot of stuff in your email, including passwords sent to you from sites…

How serious this is depends on how active you are online, but most of us don’t work too hard on passwords and most of us are vulnerable, risking at the least annoyance (someone hacks your Facebook account) and at worst some serious identity theft.

There are several excellent password generators/storage programs. I use Roboform, and of all the software I’ve mentioned this is the one I’ve paid for (the free version lets you store up to 10 passwords; I spent 30 bucks for unlimited, and there are various versions, licenses, etc.).

With Roboform, I know only one master password, a very long mnemonic-based combination of special characters, letters and numbers in various cases. It’s easy to remember since I need to use it at least once a day (Roboform resets at regular intervals and requests it, but usually only once a day). The rest I leave to the software. New site? It generates a password that would take an algorithm a couple of billion years to unlock, and one I never know. It automatically fills in log-in forms with one click.

And if I’m on another computer and I need to access password-protected sites, I just go to Roboform.com, plug in my master password and I’m set (I wouldn’t do this on a public computer, of course, but then I wouldn’t do much of anything on a public computer).

I have no idea what the odds are of your password for a particular site being stolen; probably long. But it only takes once, and using Roboform or another program improves the odds.

OK, one last thing before I forget. PDF files? Portable Document Format? The kind you can read anywhere, Mac or PC? And Adobe Reader, the default program most of us have?

Aack. Probably the most popular software for hackers to attack, because of its use of JavaScript and its ubiquity. Get rid of it, dump it, use Revo Uninstaller and wipe it out.

I use Foxit Reader, a free (again, there are paid versions) piece of software that not only is safer, but has WAY less bloat; it usually pops right open (you might have to tweak it a bit with your browser to open online PDF files, but it’s worth it to me).

There you go. For what it’s worth, this is what I do and use, and as I said I’m going on four years with this laptop and it works like new. That doesn’t keep me from dreaming of a new one, but unlike most of the past 20 years, I can’t really imagine what I’d do with one if I had it.

Now an iPad? That would be fun.

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Chuck's Tech Tips For Christmas (Part One)

I woke up my computer this morning gently, the way I do every day (nudge it, go make coffee, come back), and there on my screen was a polite message informing me that the battery in my wireless mouse was CRITICALLY LOW!

This is a fairly new message for me, probably a Windows 7 thing, and every time I see it I get a little thrill of amazement that takes me back to the old days of computing. Obviously my mouse has a driver and sensors, etc., but still. It’s as if my computer just reminded me to empty the dishwasher or told me the oil in my car was low. Magic.

I’ve been personally computing for over 20 years, and most of that has been of the intense, most-of-the-day variety. I’ve learned and forgotten and learned all over again, developed bad habits and then better ones. I’m interested in technology but I’m not sure where I fit in: Less than a hobbyist, more than just functional. There are big gaps in what I know (working at home, I’m not the guy to ask if you have a network issue at work), and a lot I do just to fight boredom, but I’ve learned some stuff over the years.

So I decided to share.

Some of this is just being pleased that, after nearly four years, I have a computer that runs like new. A lot of this is due to the nature of our computing world, and that processor and memory evolution has slowed in comparison to cloud computing and connection speeds (for one thing). I have a decent processor, a decent video card, plenty of RAM and no need for more hard drive (as below).

The rest is maintenance. And tricks. And stuff.

————

I’ll start with what I consider the most basic fixes/prophylaxes to keeping my PC running smoothly (obviously Mac users can move on to other bloggers now), and it’s something I see with friends and family and their computers.
You get a new PC. You’ve got a LOT of hard drive now, gigs and gigs. Giggle gigs. Oh, The Things You Will Store!

STOP.

This is counterintuitive, I know. You’ve got the room. You’ve got the stuff. You’ve got the time.

So, maybe just take it from a guy with a big basement and a lot of years in the same house. It’s nice to have a place to put all the junk until you decide to try to find that Christmas DVD you put in that box in that corner at some point in the distant past. That’s what your computer has to do when your hard drive is jam packed.

Answer? External drive. It’s a good idea to have at least one anyway, for backup, and memory is cheap now; you can get a 1 TB external drive for $60 if you look hard enough (I just saw a Seagate 2 TB for $100). I have a moderate hard drive of 220 GB and I have currently 180 GB free. And no intention of using them. It’s like a clear walkway in the basement.

***

Second on the basic list is heat. Computers generate heat, sometimes a lot. If you’re a serious gamer or render a lot of video, you’re in another ballpark and probably already deal with this, but for the casual user it’s still crucial to keep the PC as cool as possible.


And the simplest way, something I do several times a year, is buy a can of compressed air and hit the vents in the back (and bottom sometimes) of your PC, laptop or desktop. A few minutes of dust bunny clearing might amaze you with the results.

If you want to check your running temperature, you can dig into the BIOS if you’re comfortable, or you can use software to do it for you. I use HWMonitor, but SpeedFan is also popular and there are others. They’re simple utilities, easy on the CPU and can tell you as little or as much as you want usually. Just know that a sustained temperature of much more than 60 C (most of them measure in centigrade, although they’ll also give you Fahrenheit equivalents) is not a good sign. Start creeping into the 80s and you’re running the risk of significantly shortening the lifespan of your computer. Obviously your PC will run hotter when you’re doing something that requires a lot of energy (streaming video is just one), but keeping an eye on that resting temp is an easy way to stretch your computer out over the years, and you might be surprised at how well a cooler CPU works.

***

Finally (for this segment, anyway), we can’t talk about maintenance without talking security. I’m not an expert, and don’t ask me about firewalls; there are levels and levels you can dig around with here, but Windows Firewall generally gets high marks for most users and that’s what I do.

As far as the rest? I can only repeat what you’ll read from far smarter people: You’re probably as safe as your habits. Over these past couple of decades, I can think of two minor viruses, mostly nuisances, and a couple of spyware things, again minor, that have crept onto my (many) computers. That’s a lot of nastiness I’ve avoided, but how?

Dunno. Maybe I’m suspicious, cynical and skeptical by nature. I do tend to doubt anything I see or read that creeps off the scale in one direction or the other, too good to be true, surprising, alarming. I also tend to trust institutions (e.g., banks) not to ask me sensitive questions in emails.

And honestly, there have been periods when I’ve dumped antivirus software completely and been fine. Who needs the drag and the drain and the updates?

But the quick and easy solution popped up a few years ago, and (surprise!) it came from Microsoft, not until then being in the antivirus business (and it’s a big business). This is Windows Security Essentials, your one-stop shopping for virus AND other malware protection, and it’s free. It gets rave reviews across the board and it’s got an easy footprint. Real-time protection, routine scans, quiet background updates: This is your baby. You can pay whatever you want for peace of mind, and probably a lot of you do, but on this one I’m not hesitating. This is what you want.

(Tomorrow: Software I could live without but prefer not to.)

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