Thursday, December 17, 2015

Filenames I Remember From Shareware Days

Karen and I were talking about how cool sounding the title Ombudsman is and that caused me to think about shareware back when I used DOS. Like many people, my first exposure to Unix was at university. When my parents thought about getting a computer for the house, the prospect of a $10,000 Sun workstation didn't really even get considered when dad's work was throwing out an old IBM PC.

So I used DOS early on. DOS was pretty boring by itself. It didn't do much and what it could do it didn't do fast. But that didn't stop me from collecting shareware programs from every corner I could find them.

Most shareware came packed up in some sort of archive or on a diskette. There were a standard assortment of files, usually including README.TXT. But there were others that popped up in shareware archives over time.

For example, there was almost always a statement from the Association of Shareware Professionals Ombudsman, complete with 5.25" floppy ASCII artwork. Remember this?

         ____|__     |               (R)
    --|       |    |-------------------
      |   ____|__  |  Association of
      |  |       |_|  Shareware
      |__|   o   |    Professionals
    -----|   |   |---------------------
         |___|___|    MEMBER


This program was written by a member of the Association of Shareware
Professionals (ASP). ASP wants to make sure that the shareware
principle works for you. If you are unable to resolve a
shareware-related problem with an ASP member by contacting the
member directly, ASP may be able to help. The ASP Ombudsman can
help you resolve a dispute or problem with an ASP member, but does
not provide technical support for members' products. Please write
to the ASP Ombudsman at 545 Grover Road, Muskegon, MI 49442 orsend
a CompuServe message via CompuServe Mail to ASP Ombudsman

My other favorite filenames of that time period were FILE_ID.DIZ and DESCRIPT.ION.  Oh, and shareware usually had an order form in a text file.  Maybe DESC.SDI.

When I started posting software I'd written online, I would get frustrated when people would email me with questions that were very clearly answered in the first few lines of the README file.  In one case I decided that instead of calling the file README, I would call it DONTREADME.  Assuming no one reads documentation, if I explicitly name it that way, would people read it and not ask me the question?  The answer turned out to be yes...mostly.  Everyone read the DONTREADME file, but then they emailed me anyway to tell me they read the DONTREADME file and found the answer to the question they were going to ask me, and maybe I should call it a README file instead because the information in DONTREADME is actually useful.  Ugh....users.

Any one remember other filenames that were common in shareware archives?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Never Try To Order Anything From IBM. Ever.

IBM has been around for a really long time and has so many different products and business units, it should come as no surprise that two people could work at IBM for 20 years and never meet or even know what they work on.  This is common in many large companies.  Sometimes it gets a little out of hand.

I am used to dealing with large companies.  Navigating the maze trying to get what you need.  My most frequent one to deal with is Motorola Solutions, makers of various two-way radios and related equipment.  I have an account and order parts from them on occasion.  Placing an order really relies on you know the Motorola part number and obtaining that is a challenge.  The same people that place your order are not the same people that can look up parts.  To make matters more difficult, the people who can look up parts do not know what to do if a part is discontinued.  Motorola thought it would be ok to just not indicate replacement part numbers when a particular part was discontinued.

OK, so that's sort of what it's like dealing with a big company when ordering parts.  My IBM story has to do with a system at work.  A POWER8 server of some variety.  Let's call it an 8247-21L just so we have a name for it.

Now, my company is an IBM partner and we have a process in place to order hardware, open warranty tickets, and generally deal with IBM.  It works well, except when you have an odd request.  Since we are developing operating system software, we tend to need specific addons for the hardware...not things that typical end customers would order.  IBM is not set up for this.  But, our awesome team in engineering operations is prepared for this and knows how to navigate the system.  Sadly, I gave them what amounted to an impossible request.  They really did try and I have to give them props for that.

The request?  I needed to order carriers (sleds, caddies, cages, brackets, whatever you want to call them) to add additional hard disks to this 8247-21L.


First off, when you start talking to IBM about hard disks, they want you to buy a storage solution.  A big enterprise disk array.  Nope, back up.  Try again.  I'm just talking about local disk.  Or DASD.  OK, IBM gets that.  But they want to sell you the hard disk in a carrier.  Not just a naked carrier.  I mean, you might want to install a non-IBM approved part in the server.  Say, an engineering sample for something not yet released to the general public.  Believe it or not, this is quite common when working on operating systems.

Our eng-ops teams tried really hard and came close.  We almost managed to order very small disks just to get the carriers, but IBM wouldn't go for it.  They even tried CDW, but they couldn't do it either.  CDW suggested I call 1-800-388-7080 which is the number to order parts and addons from IBM.

This is where the fun began.

I called that number and began a 1 hour and nearly 5 second transfer chain across different continents, offices, and divisions at IBM all trying to order this mysterious carrier.  The number above was prepared to sell me the part if I had the part number.  They could not look it up.  OK, I know this game!  I have a Motorola account!  Transfer me to someone who can look up parts.

They transferred me to Lenovo technical support, who kindly asked me for the something something something number of the failing system.  No no, just need parts research.  OK, do you have a ThinkPad or ThinkCentre?  Neither, it's an IBM POWER system.  Ah, ok, you need to be transferred over to enterprise support.  Do it, let's go.

Enterprise support, like all previous operators started by asking for my name, company, address, city, state, county, ZIP code, country, area code, work number, mobile number, time zone, preferred language, character set encoding, Coke or Pepsi, window or aisle, and so on.  I get through all this and I give the system type and serial number.  It's not coming up.  Hmmm, that's odd.  Hold on a minute.  Type type type.  Hold more.  That's odd.  Repeat.  Eventually, "are you an IBM partner?"  Yes, I am.  "Oh, ok, well this needs to be handled by IBM Partner World, let me transfer you."

Hooray!  Repeat all of the above and get to what I want.  I want to order hard disk carriers for 8247-21L.  "Oh, for parts you need to contact technical support and they can place an order."  Really, even though I'm an IBM partner?  "Yes, they handle all parts orders."  OK, send me on over.

I'm back at Lenovo technical support in Atlanta, GA.  A woman who sounds like Paula Deen tells me to please pay close attention as the menu options have changed.  I ignore everything and just press zero.  Nothing happens.  I hit a bunch of random buttons.  I get someone.  We go through the personal history above and get to what I want.  But they can't help me.  What they can do is create a service ticket and dispatch a tech to our location so the system can be examined for what parts might be available for purchase.  Oh, and how would I like to be billed for that?  What?  The hell are you talking bout?  I ask if they can look up parts and they tell me know and suggest I go to and type in the word "parts" in the search field (I'm dead serious, they suggested this).

I ask for an escalation.  I talk to the manager for this office or division or continent.  Can't remember.  I explain what I'm trying to do and how we are a partner and I normally go through eng-ops at my company, but they hit dead ends and they told me to call 800-388-7080 and that started this entire process of how I am now talking to him.  And all I want to do is order this part.

The guy is nice and explains that this isn't the normal process they are used to.  I don't know, something about how usually people in suits are involved and purchase orders and so on.  I don't care about any of that.  But he does mention one thing.  The whole problem started with me not having the part number.  And what seems to be the trend here is that IBM has ABSOLUTELY NO WAY to look up systems it has sold and determine what parts go with it.  Like, they know they need to do this, but their computers just don't have that information.  If I had a part number, they could place the order.  Even Dell has this figured out with their service tags.  And everything has a service tag.  They know what you have and what should go in it.

So he again offers to dispatch a tech (no thanks) to help get the part number.  I pass on that and decide to have someone on my team turn the damn system off and yank an existing drive.  Pop the drive out of the carrier and their should be a part number, right?

Turns out there is.

After all of that, we obtained part number 00E7600.  IBM calls part numbers an "FRU" which stands for field replaceable unit or something like that.  The FRU number is the key to the castle.  If you have that, you can order all you want.

I come in today prepared for another hour or two on the phone with IBM and decide to try a different route.  What happens if I just Google for it.

Bingo.  Dino DNA.

I was able to purchase 5 of these carriers from a vendor on eBay for $17.95 each.  Hopefully they fit and hold disks.  At this point I'm not sure I care.

Don't ever think you can order parts from IBM without knowing the part number.  What will be POWER's eventual downfall is not low market acceptance, but rather the impossible nature of dealing with IBM to actually buy anything.

Oh, and why was I wanting to add a special disk to this server?  Like most problems, we are solving bugs filed by customers and partner companies.  In this case, the bug that prompted this entire ordeal was filed by IBM.

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:

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
Hawaii (Oahu)17015.97
Hawaii (Maui)17035.47
Hawaii (Kauai)170510.47
Hawaii (Big Island)84535.47
New Hampshire34819.97
New Jersey9107.97
New Mexico35039.97
New York12639.97
New York City (Manhattan)617710.67
North Carolina36449.97
North Dakota37019.97
Puerto Rico640210.97
Rhode Island42854.97
South Carolina11109.97
South Dakota43019.97
US Virgin Islands862210.67
Washington, DC25833.98
West Virginia48026.97

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.


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!


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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Please Not Boston for the 2024 Olympics

In the news recently in Boston, Massachusetts we learned that the US Olympic Committee voted for Boston as the city to present to the IOC for the US bid to host the 2024 Olympics.  This is bad news all around.  Let me explain my position:

One thing that I have heard on some news segments as well as in some articles online is that these are the 2024 games.  That's so far away that we don't need to be worrying about it now.  But we do.  That's 9 years away, which is not very long.  This is exactly with the IOC is selecting a city to host it this year.  You need all that time to prepare.

Another thing I see a lot of complaining about is the transparency of the process.  I don't really care about that.  The US Olympic Committee is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.  The only way it can exist is through significant donations.  These organizations are not eligible for direct government funding.  Private donations and grants are the key to a non-profit organization's survival.

Because hosting the Olympics is a very expensive proposition, it makes sense that the proposals are on the order of billions of dollars and there are not many people that can do that.  So you need the backing with a lot of money to make a proposal to host.  Fine.  So how it usually works is developers (and I mean the term in the broadest definition, producers, marketing people, salesmen.....really anything) collaborate to put together a proposal.  The US Olympic Committee then has a few rounds of voting and the short list is produced for a final vote.

The short list for the 2024 Olympics had Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington (DC).  Boston was selected.

The vast majority of things needed to host the Olympics would be paid for through private investors.  A concern I see in the news is that the tax payers will have to be writing checks to build stadiums.  It doesn't really work that way.  It's complicated, yes, but you won't be getting a bill for your part of a stadium construction cost.

There are infrastructure improvement projects that have to be taken in to account as well.  Transportation is always something that cities have to consider and that may mean more transit stops or widening of roads or things like that.  While the money to pay for it comes from complicated sources and directly from taxes, it does require the involvement of the government to oversee and coordinate the work, which takes away from other projects that might be scheduled or needed.

Basically, hosting the Olympics is like asking to cut in line with your giant infrastructure improvement projects.

That's just part of the problem to me.  The other problem is the disruption to everything it will cause for years and for years after.  I went through this for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  Yes, everyone was very excited that Atlanta won the bid and a huge multiyear long set of constructions projects began.  And construction (and destruction) continues after the Olympics.  It's very annoying.

Which brings me to my list.  I've seen lots of lists posted about why Boston should not host the 2024 Olympics.  I agree, and here's my list:
  • It will cost the Greater Boston area a lot of money.  Money we don't need to spend for an event that takes place over a few weeks.  Businesses and governments will either directly or indirectly pay for hosting the Olympics and there will be no return on it except to say that Boston got to host the 2024 Olympics.  WOW!  COOL!  Can you tell me who hosted the 1988 games1?  Or the 1956 games2?  Maybe?  Who cares?  It's a pointless claim to fame.
  • It will build structures we don't need.  Stadiums that are used for the opening and closing ceremonies.  A velodrome?  An aquatics center?
  • No matter what Boston does to host the Olympics, the city will be the punchline of jokes for years to come.  It always happens.  Does Boston really want to sign up for that?  It gets old and tiring.  Do you think residents of Sochi still get amused at people asking if their hotels have working plumbing (when, in actuality, it was likely just a few reporters who got some shitty rooms)?
  • The Greater Boston transit infrastructure will be pushed to its limits and and it will fail.  The Green Line, especially.  Sorry, I love the Green Line and I think the MBTA does a great job keeping it running, but it will not be able to handle Olympic throughput.
  • Security costs.  The 1996 Olympics had a bombing and the Boston Marathon was bombed two years ago.  It follows that security for the Olympics would be above and beyond whatever is usually done for any existing Boston events.  And we will pay for that.
A common claim is that hosting the Olympics is good for a city or region's economy.  In Atlanta we were told that.  It didn't really help out like people thought.  There was some impact, but not nearly enough to recoup the cost of construction and inconvenience.  Here are the things I remember from the 1996 Olympic construction and what the current status is:

1996 Olympic VenueCurrent Status
Centennial Olympic StadiumImmediately altered after the games concluded, became the new home of the Atlanta Braves. The Atlanta Braves are in the process of constructing a new venue outside of the city of Atlanta. Plans for this venue are up in the air, but it will likely be demolished.
Georgia Tech Aquatic CenterBuilt next to the existing Student Athletic Complex, it became part of that after the Olympics. Underwent major renovation in 2001, then again in 2003, and continues to be part of the current Campus Recreation Center at Georgia Tech, though much less in its Olympic form.
The Omni ColiseumThis was not built for the Olympics. It was an old Atlanta venue and was where the Atlanta Hawks played. It hosted volleyball for the Olympics, but it really should have been demolished before the games. It was demolished in 1999 to build Phillips Arena where the Hawks and the Thrashers played (until the Thrashers moved to Canada).
Stone Mountain Tennis CenterTurned over to the Stone Mountain Park after the games and used for tennis by guests. Not maintained and basically started falling apart so they closed it in 2007. Plans to renovate it exists, though it hasn't happened yet.
Velodrome and Archery RangeBuilt at Stone Mountain Park, these were demolished in 2003 to turn it back in to a park.
Centennial Olympic ParkHosted all kinds of events and activities for visitors. Immediately vacated and returned to undesirable part of city after the games. Area changing in the past ten years. The Georgia Aquarium and The World of Coca Cola have moved to this area. Phillips Arena and the CNN Center are also here. And some hotels. You can buy a Coke on every corner.

And that's just the few I can remember.  The 1996 games were held all over.  Alabama, Florida, but not Tennessee (sorry, Tennessee).  I have no idea what happened with venues in those locations.  They also built a lot of stuff along the Ocoee River in North Georgia and some stuff at Lake Lanier for events held there, but I don't know what happened to any of it.

None of the things above had a lasting impact on the economy.  Maybe the stadium which became the new home for the Braves and perhaps boosted sales.  But the Braves were already doing better before the Olympics having had their "worst to first" years in the Atlanta-Fulton County Municipal Stadium.

Boston will end up with junk like this.  We don't need speciality venues.  I have read in some articles that the idea of temporary venues could be a possibility.  I'm not opposed to that, but I'm not sure how temporary a venue can be.  It's more like you're just planning to tear it down immediately after construction.

What about transporation overhaul?  Comparing to the 1996 Olympic games, Atlanta added 2000 buses just for the Olympics.  MARTA expanded the rail system with Buckhead, Medical Center, and Dunwoody stations creating their North Line.  That opened just before the Olympics (I think, it's been a long time).  They operated over 200 rail cars 24 hours a day for the entire Olympics.  That's pretty common for cities that host, but can the MBTA hold up to that.  Again, I'm thinking the Green Line.

I hope that Boston is ultimately passed over by the IOC.  The region does not need to host the Olympics.  It's a huge financial commitment and the money can be better spent on other things.

Hey, I found this:

1 Seoul, South Korea (which I did actually know because a friend in elementary school was from South Korea and they went back for the games and brought us back a gift)
2 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia