Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dial Up Internet

It is 2015 and you can still access the Internet by dialing in via a modem.  Find your nearest AOL access number here:


Yes, this is a real.

Remember, dial-up Internet is free when you call from work.

Monday, March 9, 2015

On Not So Old Computers

Maybe it really is an old system, but I still don't consider a system from 2005 to be that old.  In particular, the Power Mac G5.  The last workstation system from Apple that used the PowerPC line of processors.  Apple began a move to Intel processors in 2006.

A had a Power Mac G4 for about 3 years and used it as my workstation at home during that time.  It was a dual processor system and worked quite well.  I did not buy a G5, but always wanted one.  I moved away from PowerPC systems after the G4.

Recently I picked up a dual processor G5 on eBay and have been getting it up and running again.  These things sell for a couple hundred dollars on average and may or may not need some parts to get it going.  They can use USB keyboards, mice, and LCD monitors.  You may need a display adapter as the default graphics adapters spoke DVI.

As I have been working on this system, I have hit a number of hardware problems that I forgot that we used to deal with.  Maybe newer systems have spoiled me, but even just 10 years ago we had somewhat more irritable systems.  Granted, this is Apple-specific, but Apple is not uncommon.  Here is a list of now oddball things I have dealt with in this G5, each reminding me that computer hardware has improved and we don't have to deal with a lot of this stuff anymore:]
  • The battery died.  Macintosh computers from basically the beginning up until the switch to Intel processors used a half AA size 3.6V lithium ion battery, for a more technical name it's the ER14250.  It's called half AA because it's the same diameter as a AA battery, but about half the length.  These are common enough to be able to find at electronics stores and on Amazon, but not common enough to be able to buy amongst batteries at any major retail store.

    The battery is used to back the NVRAM which stores settings for the firmware. At least in the Power Mac G5, it sort of maybe controls the SMU which is the replacement for the PMU (power management unit) in previous models. I find the PMU interesting because it's an embedded computer based on a 6502 microprocessor and controls the NVRAM and ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) for on-board ADB peripherals. The 6502 was the same processor used in the Apple II line (but not the IIgs), but now in the Mac it's been reduced to a very small embedded computer to run stuff for a larger computer. Heh.

    Battery death on Macs was common before the Intel switchover. Owners of systems would be surprised to find the system not working properly after 5 or more years, only to call 1-800-SOS-APPLE and be told to order a $30 or so battery. I think Apple made the battery choice so it would provide enough power for all system types they might make and on the assumption that customers would be buying a new computer before the 5 year mark. Well, not when you charge Apple prices I guess.
    This size battery is still readily available for a few dollars. I bought a four pack on Amazon because it was the smallest quantity that was eligible for Prime.
  • The hardware clock recorded garbage. Related to the battery death problem. Once the battery was not useful, when the system tried to store the system time to the hardware clock (NVRAM), it failed. But that failure also wrote garbage to the NVRAM. Once I replaced the battery, restoring the clock caused it to reset to some time in 1978. Even the system clock was resetting automatically after I reset it using date(1) or ntpdate(8). It was incredibly strange, but I eventually got past this hurdle through various combinations of erasing NVRAM settings, resetting the SMU, unplugging the system, and using a more recent OS to force the hardware clock value back to something usable.
  • The SATA cable for a second drive was broken.  This was just an unfortunate side effect of it being a second hand system.  The drive connector appeared to have gunk stuck in it.  I can probably find a replacement at work or just order a new one.  At least this part is standard, though I have to thread it through the beautifully designed interior of the G5 tower and hope I don't break something.
  • My replacement SATA drive was not recognized.  Here is another gotcha for G5 owners.  The system will fail to recognize a SATA disk that is not forced to operate at 150 MB/s.  Now how do you force the disk to operate in that mode?  A jumper.  Yes, a jumper.  In 2015 it seems there are cases of jumpers still being required in some corner cases.  So corner, in fact, that the disk does not come with an unused jumper meaning I had to find one somewhere.

    There is no error message here either or a failure to boot. It just doesn't see the disk. At all. So your first thought may be that the disk is dead.
The system is now up and running, though I am now experiencing the fun of figuring out the magic kernel boot parameters to make sure the ATI adapter works correctly. So far I've passed radeon.agpmode=-1 to the kernel and that at least gets me console support. X doesn't like that though. Oh well, it's an older system but one that I can get working eventually.  I am glad that current hardware is a little less picky about itself.

And some other notes I've collected:
  • If using a non-Apple keyboard, the Apple key is the same as the Windows logo key.  The Option key is the same as Alt.
  • If using a non-Apple mouse, the left button is the same as the single button on an Apple mouse.  Common mistake is to use the center button.
  • Hold down Option (Alt) to get a firmware boot menu.  It's graphical and presents icons of bootable volumes found.  It will scan for a while and display a wristwatch mouse pointer, but it is working.
  • Apple+Option+O+F gets you in to Open Firmware.  Hold this sequence down on boot up and don't let up until after the chime.  Or keep pressing it repeatedly like you're hitting a chord on a piano until you see the Open Firmware interface.
  • eject from an Open Firmware prompt ejects the optical drive.
  • mac-boot from the Open Firmware prompt boots the system in the Mac-specific way (i.e., searching for a bootable volume).
  • Pressing and holding the mouse button while the system boots up may eject the optical drive.  I dunno, doesn't seem to on my system though people online claim it works.  May be OS-specific, not firmware-specific.
  • Resetting the clock in Open Firmware is possible with the decimal dev rtc sec min hour day month year set-time command.  The values given need to be UTC.
 With the issues I've encountered with this system, I am glad I bought a tower rather than a Xserve G5 system.  It's at least a little easier to work in.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

LED Light Bulb Pricing Variance at Home Depot

For those unfamiliar with Home Depot, it is an American home improvement warehouse store that operates in North America.  Home Depot has had limited success expanding beyond North America.  The stores are very large warehouses.  Some people might refer to them as hardware stores, but that really isn't an appropriate name.  They carry far more than a traditional small hardware store.  They have a lumber area, a garden center, appliances, interior home stuff, lighting, tools, and so on.  As a new home owner, Home Depot is now a store that I frequent more than any other store.

Recently I decided to change out the various light bulbs in use in our house with LED light bulbs.  I researched different options and went to stores to see what they looked like.  I decided on Cree brand bulbs (currently exclusive to Home Depot).  I purchased 60-watt and 40-watt equivalent bulbs and a bunch of 65-watt equivalent flood light bulbs.

I found that Cree is a company that primarily manufactures the parts used by other bulb makers.  They decided to get in to the bulb and light making business to increase adoption of the technology and to lower the cost for consumers.  There is even a special page for the bulbs:  http://creebulb.com/

On the day I purchased my bulbs, I found that Home Depot sold the bulbs in packs of 4 as well as individually.  I had calculated my costs based on the individual pricing, but in the multi packs the bulbs were a bit cheaper.  I paid $4.25 per bulb before sales tax.  The individual price was $4.97 per bulb before sales tax.  That was for the Cree Model  #BA19-08027OMF-12DE26-2U100 (Internet #204592770, Store SKU #1000003071).  The description for the product is 60W Equivalent Soft White (2700K) A19 Dimmable LED Light Bulb.

Pleased with the outcome, I started recommending these bulbs to friends who were looking at LED bulbs.  In New Hampshire, a friend went to Home Depot to purchase the bulb and found it was $9.97 each.  But as a New Hampshire resident, the power company gives you a $3 per bulb instant rebate at the register, so now it's only $6.97 per bulb.  I was informed of the difference and thought that maybe I bought them on sale or something.

I checked online and they were still listed as $4.97 each individually.  If I changed my store to a New Hampshire store, the price on the bulb changed to $9.97 each.  What?  I began looking in other states and found prices were all over the place.  Here are the locations and stores I checked and the price advertised for the bulb mentioned above:

LocationStore NumberPrice of Bulb
Alabama85779.97
Alaska130210.97
Arizona4869.97
Arkansas14029.97
California6349.97
Colorado15056.97
Connecticut62104.97
Delaware16089.97
Florida2569.97
Georgia1449.97
Guam171011.47
Hawaii (Oahu)17015.97
Hawaii (Maui)17035.47
Hawaii (Kauai)170510.47
Hawaii (Big Island)84535.47
Idaho18066.97
Illinois19789.97
Indiana20126.97
Iowa21044.97
Kansas22029.97
Kentucky23159.97
Louisiana3679.97
Maine24149.97
Maryland25096.97
Massachusetts26674.97
Michigan27219.97
Minnesota28436.97
Mississippi29069.67
Missouri30216.97
Montana31019.97
Nebraska32029.97
Nevada33036.97
New Hampshire34819.97
New Jersey9107.97
New Mexico35039.97
New York12639.97
New York City (Manhattan)617710.67
North Carolina36449.97
North Dakota37019.97
Ohio68579.97
Oklahoma39069.97
Oregon40136.97
Pennsylvania41014.97
Puerto Rico640210.97
Rhode Island42854.97
South Carolina11109.97
South Dakota43019.97
Tennessee89169.97
Texas5778.98
Utah44035.97
US Virgin Islands862210.67
Vermont45014.98
Virginia46329.97
Washington47025.97
Washington, DC25833.98
West Virginia48026.97
Wisconsin49099.97
Wyoming60029.97

This list is only a sample of stores, but I tried to hit one in every state (sometimes more). The lowest price I found was a store in Washington, DC selling the bulb for $3.98. While the most expensive prices were found in New York City, Alaska, Kauai, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Actually, Guam wins here by offering the bulb at $11.47.  You're probably better off buying your bulbs at the world's largest K-Mart if you are in Guam.  A number of states offer the bulb at the price I paid, including 3 more states in New England. The standard price for the item appears to be $9.97 and special pricing adjusts from that. $6.97 and $5.97 appear to be common discounted rates. The majority of the states in the southeastern United States (where Home Depot is from) carry no discounts on these bulbs. Hawaii is a special case given its non-contiguous nature. Oahu has the bulb for $5.97, Maui and the Big Island have the bulb for $5.47, and Kauai carries the bulb at a whopping $10.47.

Home Depot clarified the pricing differences for me. In this case, the differences are related to power company and state incentives. Right now it is a common trend to reduce energy usage. LED bulbs are a cheap way to do that and some states and power companies are making deals with Home Depot to offer the bulbs at lower prices in those states. In Hawaii's case, the power companies are unique per island which explains the pricing differences there. Certain cases like New York City indicate a market difference being more likely.  And some states, such as New Hampshire, have discounts for state residents.  Those apply at the time of purchase meaning the store cannot advertise a lower price.

If you are looking at buying bulbs at Home Depot, I encourage you to look at stores near you in other states if that's possible.  Border cities expose you to multiple markets.  Kansas residents can save money buying bulbs in Missouri, for instance.  Virginia and Maryland residents should buy bulbs in DC.  New England residents should buy bulbs in one of the $4.97 states.

This is just one product at one store.  Market differences always affect pricing, but I find this difference odd because it's really driven by government incentives and/or power company incentives.  We had federal regulation mandating the phase out of incandescent bulbs, yet we have state regulations and state power companies that affect the pricing of replacement bulbs.

I guess my point is, avoid paying the $9.97 price if you can.

Monday, January 26, 2015

OMG! Expanded Polystyrene Foam Food Containers!

A McDonald's in the 1980s would proudly serve you a Quarter Pounder in an expanded polystyrene foam container.  We, the lay people of the general public, would call this container styrofoam whenever we were asked what it was made of.  We were technically incorrect, but no one cared.

StyrofoamTM is a registered trademark of Dow Chemical.  Yes, the Dow with all the trademarks but not the Dow that tracks Wall Street. It found a primary use among new home construction, being a really good insulation product.  You may have seen homes built this way and damaged sections of Styrofoam brand insulation flying around in the air at a construction site.  Yes, Styrofoam is brittle and lightweight.  New homes that I see every now and then appear wrapped in Tyvek.  I guess move over Dow and make way for Dupont.

Styrofoam has a boring technical name called extruded polystyrene foam.  Extruded and expanded sure sound similar to me, the general public, but it's important to note they are different.  Extruded polystyrene foam is also the kind of Styrofoam used for crafts.  If you put extruded (XPS) and expanded (EPS) polystyrene foams next to each other, you would notice some differences.

OK, so that's Styrofoam.  What about the other stuff.  Expanded Polystyrene Foam lacks a fun name, which is probably why we all call it Styrofoam (but it's not).  EPS is the foam used for takeout food containers, coffee cups at Dunkin Donuts, and the little trays that you buy meat on at the grocery store (sometimes).  And this is the product that small cities and towns all over the country are deciding to ban in an effort to reduce landfill usage and make us healthier.

I recently encountered this ban in Somerville, Massachusetts.  Somerville is a very small slice of a city wedged in between Cambridge, Medford, Everett, Boston, and maybe some other places maybe.  I don't know.  It lacks any discernable shape, lacks adequate transit coverage, and has the world's worst parking regulations in metro Boston.  On top of all that, they have decided to ban food containers that actually work.  Thanks!

Why the ban?  In an effort to protect us from ourselves, Somerville has decided that it will shield us from the evils of expanded polystyrene foam.  It's evil because it's dangerous for your body and it can't be recycled.  It just goes in to landfills or storm drains and chokes fish and ducks.  That happens while you suffer unknown effects on your health.  It's really the worst stuff around.

Really?

The health claim is a bit of an overreaction, much like the BPA thing in plastic containers was.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that microwaving food in one of these containers will deform the container.  Probably some of that ends up in your hot and sour soup.  This is why they tell you to not use it in a microwave oven.  More importantly, expanded polystyrene foam should not be consumed.  So don't eat it.  Both of these acts will let expanded polystyrene foam wreck your system.

There are claims that scary chemicals from EPS will leak in to your food.  This is probably true to some degree, which is also why the containers are single use.  Don't save them and use them over and over again.  For a takeout container or cup of coffee, the product works really well at keeping heat in and not adding much weight at all.  Dunkin Donuts has used EPS cups for a very long time because it actually keeps the coffee warm and you can still hold the cup.  It's so much a part of Dunkin Donuts that the EPS cup is in their logo!

BUT THEY CAN'T BE RECYCLED!

If they are single use containers, aren't we just filling up a landfill somewhere?  If you throw them away, yes.  But guess what, EPS can be recycled.  A lot of grocery stores collect foam meat trays (same material in some cases) for recycling.  They can do this because they just batch them all up and send them back to the manufacturer.  Single stream curbside recycling has not caught up to EPS packaging, but I have hope that it will one day.  Remember at one point we all had to take recycling to special centers.  There is not an easy way right now to sort EPS in a single stream system.

So how is it recycled?  Five minutes on Google will turn up a lot of results, but one that I found interesting is a company based here in Massachusetts called ReFoamIt.  This company takes EPS packaging, cleans it, compresses it, and sends it to a company in Rhode Island that then turns it in to very small plastic pellets that are used in the manufacturing of injection molded plastic products.  It's hard to get more recycley than that.

What would have been nice to see Somerville do if they are committed to protecting us from IKEA and scary food containers, is a partnership with a company like ReFoamIt to ensure containers collected in the city are recycled.  Offer incentives to businesses who choose to use alternative products, but let the business continue to choose the product they feel is best for them.

Maybe I am just bitter that Somerville is why I have to drive 30 miles to get to IKEA, but damn it, I would like my Dunkin coffee in the traditional EPS cup please.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Water Alarms

On January 2, 2015 we had an unfortunate incident with our oil burner.  Late that night the pressure relief valve failed and water started leaking out of the system.  The system continued working, choosing to just refill itself as water continued to leak out.  Due to the slope of the floor, all of the water headed in the opposite direction of our sump pump.  In the morning I went down to the basement for whatever reason and stepped on to soaking wet carpet.  Awesome.

On January 3, I was able to get our plumber/electrician there quickly to shut off the relief valve.  He also angled the drain pipe in such a way so I could cram a bucket under it in case it leaked again.  He had to go to another emergency call and sent another one of his guys over a few hours later to fix things up.  We got a new relief valve installed and a pipe extension and elbow joint so it's easier to keep an emergency relief bucket in place under the emergency relief valve.

Over the course of the next week, I had RestorePro work on the damage repair.  The drywall was wet and baseboard ruined and carpet soaked.  RestorePro did a great job removing water and setting up everything to dry out.  About a week after everything dried out, they came back to install new baseboard and fix up the flooring and stuff (patch holes and so on).  It looks like it did before the flood, which is nice.

We have not even been in this house a year and we've had two floods in the basement.  A suggestion from RestorePro and my plumber was to get a few water alarms and install them in various places in the basement.  Water alarm?

It's similar to a smoke alarm or a carbon monoxide alarm, except the warning is for unexpected or unwanted water.  The device is really simple.  There are two sensors and when water makes contact with both, the alarm sounds.  These devices come in various shapes and sizes.  I found these:


From Glentronics. The Basement Watchdog has sort of a silly name, but it does the trick. The alarm is very loud, so if you have it in your basement and you sleep two floors above that, you can hopefully hear it if it goes off.

I bought three Basement Watchdog alarms, but I also bought two LeakFrog alarms.  These are much quieter and a good option for under sinks or behind a washing machine.  The LeakFrog feels like a less reliable or quality product, but from a decorative standpoint it is not as utilitarian as the Basement Watchdog.  I put the LeakFrog alarms under sinks.

I think combined I spent about $50 on water alarms.  What does this get me?  My objective is early detection of water leaks.  A Basement Watchdog next to the relief valve of the oil burner should give me enough time to get down to the basement and shut off the system before the bucket fills up (oh, I also put a bucket there just in case).  The alarms do not protect you from damage, but they alert you to take action before too much damage occurs.  $50 is a very small price to pay for this piece of mind.  Considering I just spent $2256 and change to repair water damage in the basement and another $856 to fix the damaged walls and baseboard and flooring, I think this is a reasonable addition to our early warning system at home.

Now, an important thing to note about the water alarms.  You need to put the sensor where water will collect or pass under it early in the leak.  For our recent incident, I know the direction the water travels.  For the sinks, I was just guessing.  There are other types of alarms that include a long wire you can cover a large area with and if water hits it anywhere, the alarm goes off.  I have not used this type of alarm.

Both the Basement Watchdog and the LeakFrog run on batteries.  The Basement Watchdog uses a single 9V and the LeakFrog uses 3 AA batteries.  The alarms should be tested annually and batteries changed annually.  Use new high quality batteries.  IKEA batteries do not last that long.  You have been warned.

But what if the alarm goes off and I'm not at home?

Yeah, that could happen.  Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do if you are not home.  But the same is true if your smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector goes off.  If you are regularly dealing with floods and water leaks, consider a water dialer.  Here is one from Home Depot.  This is a step up from the type of alarm that just makes a loud sound.  If it detects water, it makes a phone call.  If you are going out of town, I'd advise setting this to a number of someone who can get to your house quickly.  Otherwise the water dialer would just let the house keep calling you to tell you it's flooding.

I prefer the simple approach.  There are a lot of things that could go wrong with a water dialer.  If you use one, I think I'd also keep a Basement Watchdog installed too.  And a much cheaper solution may be to get a friend to housesit or at least come over daily to check for water.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How Much Do Sites Know About Me?

Information about you on the Internet is extremely valuable to companies.  They want to know everything about what you do online and how they might exploit that for money.  I do not really have a problem with this because companies have been doing this forever.  It's really the nature of how business works.  Learn what potential customers want, then try to get them to buy it from you.  With the Internet, we just make it easier for businesses to learn about us.

Last night I had two things that happened that were either a coincidence or clever systems that are tied deeply in to my online life.

First, I visited the Jordan's Furniture site to look up the address of one of their stores.  About 30 minutes later, my phone vibrated to indicate a new email had just arrived.  It was a message from Jordan's Furniture.  Some special offer if I spend a certain amount of money in the next week.  Hmmm....  Now, we have bought from Jordan's before and from time to time we get email advertisements, but the timing on this one made me a little curious.

Second, a few hours later I was looking up store locations from EMS on their web site.  Also, I was looking at snowshoes.  About an hour after that I got am email from EMS offering 20% off Techwick.  Now come on.  This can't just be a coincidence.

Private browsing and things like Tor can help keep you slightly more anonymous online.  It's something I need to dig in to a bit more.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Know Your Fireplace!

We used our fireplace for the first time last night.  I've never lived in a place with a usable fireplace except the house where I grew up.  Our new house has a fireplace, which we were both looking forward to using.

Our fireplace is exactly that, a place for fire.  We do not have natural gas service or propane at the house, so there are no gas logs or a gas starter.  I did find out that we have an ash dump.  It goes to the basement where there's a covered up door that we could, in theory, open and remove ash.  I'm not sure I want to do that and get ash all over the finished basement.  I will stick with the shovel and bucket.


Be sure to know the parts of your fireplace.  The mantle is the shelf above the fireplace.  Do not build a fire on the mantle.  This is where you put your Aim n' Flame or matches (but probably shouldn't).  The hearth is the brick that extends out in to the room from the fireplace.  It has a stupid name.  The firebox is the unnecessary name given to the area where you actually build the fire.  The damper is the name of the door that opens up in to the flue that no one can remember the name of.  It's how you "open the chimney."  The flue is how smoke gets out.  Honestly I don't know why we have both the words chimney and flue, but whatever.  Smoke shelf and smoke chamber are unnecessary terms that you can ignore...that's all part of the flue.  Anything that's inside the chimney that's above the damper is the flue.

Now, before building a fire make sure you have a fireplace grate.  They're great.  Get a good quality one, not some piece of junk at Home Depot for $9.  Google around for various techniques on stacking wood and starting it.  But don't start it yet.  You should prime your chimney first.

What, now?  The air in the chimney is cold, unless you are in Florida, in which case why do you have a fireplace anyway?  Cold air will prevent smoke from getting out so it'll enter the room where the fireplace is.  And no one wants that.  So grab some paper (junk mail, whatever) and make a large comically sized ice cream cone looking thing with the paper.  Smash the end tightly together so you can hold it with the paper above your hand haphazardly fanning out.  Open the damper all the way.  Light the paper while holding it and then hold it up in the firebox near the damper.  You can watch the smoke fall and then as the air warms up, it'll start to go up in to the chimney.  Let the paper burn until you can't hold it anymore and you're done.

Now light your fire.  I cheated and used a small firestarter log, but you could get creative with stacking the wood so it lights up differently.  Whatever works for you.  Make sure you have a screen in front of the firebox to keep hot embers from jumping out of the fire as well as to keep little ones from trying to touch the fire.

After you've had your fun, close the damper.  Wait for the ashes to cool down, then remove them with the small fireplace shovel.  Place them in a galvanized bucket.  Do not use plastic.  Even with cool ashes.  Don't be stupid.