Test driving a second hand desktop

January 16, 2013

After 20130116-202002.jpg talking and reminding about them for several weeks, I finally took home two old desktop towers offered by a friend at work when he heard about my motherboard failure. I wasn’t sure if either of them would turn out to be much good for me, but wanted to at least take a look and find out. They’re both Dell models, and the cream-colored one was the older unit, so I haven’t tried to do anything with it yet.

I hooked the black tower up as soon as I got it home – connecting it to the flat-screen monitor, power outlet, PS/2 keyboard, USB mouse, and ethernet router. I was pleased that it booted up with Windows XP immediately – the antivirus started complaining, and the mouse took a little while to come online, but that didn’t seem too bad. I opened Internet Explorer to go to Windows Update.

No 20130116-202013.jpg Internet. I checked the network connections – there were several entries, most of them for the 56k phone line modem, and nothing for the Ethernet. Next, I checked Device Manager, and found out that the Ethernet adapter could not start.

It took a little while to sort that out. I went over to the netbook to google and sort through all of the links to ethernet adapter drivers, some of which were dead, and some of which were filled with garbage software that I didn’t want.

Eventually I didn’t even need new drivers. I uninstalled the existing driver, told Device Manager to scan for new Plug and Play hardware, and it more or less froze the system. But when I forced it to power off and then booted up again, the Ethernet installed itself very happily.

Overall, 20130116-202028.jpg I’m not really impressed with the system, though. The CPU is decent, but the hard drive none too big at 40 gigs or so, and the RAM is kinduv pitiful. Also, neither of the two USB ports, (both in the back of the tower,) support USB2.0, and they seemed flaky on top of that. I was trying to copy some of my friend’s family photos to a flash drive to give back to him tomorrow, but the drive just blanked out in the middle of the copy. Even after I unplugged it and plugged it back into the other port, it still showed 0 bytes free of 0. (It appears to still be fine when plugged into other computers though.)

All in all, I’m starting to think that I don’t need a desktop computer, not in the next few months at least. But test-driving this old tower has helped me to be sure of that. It’s making me appreciate the performance of my Toshiba laptop, even! 😉

My Boxing Day present arrived

December 27, 2012



For quite a few years, I’ve been in the habit of getting myself a Boxing Day present. I don’t always get it on Boxing Day, (the day after Christmas,) but it’s usually while the Boxing Week sales are still around, and often funded with gift cards, cash, cheques, or the promise of money given to me for Christmas. Two years ago, the Brother laser printer was a Boxing Day present, and a very good one that I’m still getting a lot of use out of.

Going back to September or so, I had my eye on a SmartTV, a flat screen television set that could connect to a wireless network and play digital video from internet sites or other devices on your home network running media streaming software. I asked my friends and family to get me Futureshop gift cards for my birthday and Christmas to help fund it – they didn’t actually, but my Mom gave me some cash and promised to write me a cheque for more, as she was giving away so much cash that she ran out of bills. When I got back home on Christmas Day, I researched smart TVs on a few websites and placed my order – a 32″ Samsung from Best Buy Canada, with free delivery.

And it arrived today!








At the moment, I’ve got it all hooked up, checked that I can watch from the LG DVR or the DVD player, browsed YouTube just a little, and experimented a little with Samsung’s own video library service, but I haven’t actually registered for it yet. My Netgear Stora NAS box is apparently already running a media streaming server that the SmartTV recognizes – but it doesn’t have any of my video files set up to stream. So I figured out how to browse to the NAS admin page – it told me that a software update was ready and I wanted to apply, so I figured, why not?


Sigh. It’s been stuck on ‘Applying update’ for half an hour now, and while it applies the update, the network share drives are offline, so I can’t even copy any videos to a flash drive and try playing that on the TV. But it’s good to be patient. While waiting, I’ve gone and read a fun ‘Six Sentence Sunday’ snippet, edited a few pages of ‘Won’t somebody think of the Children’ to reach my revision target for the day – and got this blog post up for y’all.

Happy Boxing Week!


A Christmas gift of battery power

December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays again, friends and followers. December the 25th is almost over in this time zone, and I hope you had a great Christmas, (or an alright day, if you don’t celebrate Christmas today.)

I went up to Kitchener to celebrate with my family, and had a great time – catching up, exchanging presents, throwing things at each other in the traditional Christmas wrapping paper fight, then a great turkey dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, and dessert after.

But the present that I’m thinking about wasn’t something that anybody in my family set out to buy for me, but just a simple favor of a moment’s time that was given without hesitation.

As I’ve probably mentioned several times, my Alphasmart Dana has been having some issues for several months now. I think I first  noticed it in the spring, with little things – it was taking more time to respond after powering on and showing weird screens occasionally. Over the months, as I used it to work on short stories, to do Block Revision and start the first draft of “The Witches of Arion,” it became clear that the battery was no longer as strong as it once was, and all of the other issues might relate to insufficient power.

During November, I got to the point where I was nervous about losing my words on the Dana in the middle of a write-in, so I started taking the netbook instead, and I backed up frantically after every screen when doing the Block Revision for “Storm Mirror.”

Now, the Dana comes with a rechargeable Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack, and on my particular unit, the battery compartment was screwed shut with a tiny screw that I’d never been able to loosen. Today, I packed Dana along with my Christmas cards and wrapped presents, and asked my brother-in-law for his help. He’s an engineer, a generally handy guy, and I was pretty sure he owned more screwdrivers than I did.

Quickly the two of us and Dana were down in his basement, and after trying half a dozen screwdrivers he found one that worked. Together we figured out how to pry the rechargeable battery pack out of the compartment, and unclip it from the power cable. He even had some AA batteries sitting around, and we were able to use them as a replacement power source, (which is an option listed in the Alphasmart manual.)





I’m not sure where I go next with my Dana. Probably it’ll be worth using it with the AA batteries for a while to see how much they last, and I’ll look around to see where I can get a replacement recharge pack here in Canada, and how much it’ll cost. But I feel blessed just to know that this wonderful writing tool has more life left in it, that I wasn’t going to see it fade further and further away until it couldn’t even write a single word for me.

I also got eight lessons in Holly Lisle’s ‘How to Think Sideways’ course from my sister! Not quite sure when I’m going to be able to focus on these, especially since I haven’t finished ‘How to Revise your Novel’ yet, but I’m sure I’ll have fun when I get to them. Oh, and here’s a picture of the Christmas tree, just because it’s nice.



How can so many computers be one too few? ;)

December 14, 2012

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I collect digital devices of many kinds. Before my Medion Desktop tower blew up her motherboard on Monday evening, she was one of three working computers in the apartment running Windows XP home – along with the widescreen Toshiba Satellite laptop and the Acer Aspire One netbook. I also have a 4 gig Surf eeePC running Xubuntu, the Alphasmart Dana, and so on down through the smartphones and PDAs.

I don’t tend to anthropomorphise the computers much or treat them as if they had will and intent of their own – they’re sophisticated tools with their own eccentricities of design. But it’s kind of funny how since Serena died, the two windows laptops have been assigned new responsibilities – which mean that they’re not available for writing and other creative work.

I’m hoping that that’s temporary and will get sorted out soon. The Toshiba has been on video conversion duty, but there’s no new videos coming in from my LG DVR, because I cancelled my cable TV service and that got turned off yesterday. There’s still at least a half dozen files to get converted, but there’s more than enough time overnight to get them sorted, especially since I’m now certain I have the right settings for AnyVideoConverterFree.

The netbook has mostly been dispatching data recovery – I’ve been using it to connect to the hard drives recovered from Serena, copying the files either to the netbook hard drive or to my terabyte NAS box. Again, I’ve been making good progress there and most of it should be done by tomorrow morning.

So hopefully I can get to bed early, get a fresh start tomorrow, and do some writing and editing in between cooking and shopping for Christmas presents. 😉 What are your weekend plans?

In Memoriam – Medion Tower

December 11, 2012

I was just about to print out a sheet of Holly Lisle’s “Contract with your Readers” when I found out. I jogged the mouse on my desktop computer, and nothing happened. The fan was on, and the power light was on, but nothing else would come to life.

Quick aside – despite worrying about my beloved machine, the Short Story Shrine went great. I was able to print out the sheet by connecting the netbook to the printer, and I really like the 13-scene outline that I got.

But the bad news about Serena came today, at a little computer repair store along Brant Street. Her motherboard was dead, which means it’s pretty much pointless to try and rebuild her. For the time being, my two laptops will be doing their best to fill in.

I got Serena back in the winter of 2005, and named her, as I named a lot of my machines, on a character in the TV show ‘Roswell’ – actually, an enigmatic reference to a person from the future who was never shown on screen.

I’ve been through a lot with Serena. I learned to do video conversions with that machine, and made fan videos, and wrote crazy programs to spider the internet. She ran Windows XP Home, but I used a hack to install IIS from windows 2000 server and host little private websites on my home network. She had a dual-threaded 3 Gigahertz Intel processor. Last winter I installed extra RAM and a Sapphire video card for gaming, but I never got around to much other than the introductory setting of ‘Dragon Age Origins.’ The guy from the store on Brant Street extracted the video card, saying that I could transplant it into another desktop

Serena’s heart may have given out yesterday sometime between 5:30 and 6pm, but her memories are still with me as well – in two hard drives that I’ll be recovering over the next few days.

And perhaps her soul is on its way to Silicon Heaven.

Trying to glide through the Crash

December 3, 2012

On the walk to the downtown bus stop tonight, I was catching up on some of the last Storywonk Nano podcasts that I didn’t listen to during November, (I can never be prompt with podcasts,) and in one of them, Lani and Alastair were warning about the post-Nano Crash.

I think I hit the Crash over the weekend. On Saturday it wasn’t too bad – I was still high on sugar from Waffle-palooza, I did some grocery shopping, had some chicken schnitzel, and went into Toronto for a Browncoats shindig. Yesterday was a bit tougher. I felt as if I had a headache for most of the day, tried to nap but couldn’t stay in bed long, and didn’t get much done except for catching up on a few episodes of ‘Suburgatory.’

Lani said that you have to respect the Crash, that if you try to run from the Crash it will come get you. Now, even before I heard this, I wasn’t feeling particularly Crashed today – I did watch some videos on the bus to Burlington instead of diving back into ‘How to Revise your Novel’ or anything, but I felt fairly full of energy at work. On the bus ride home, I pulled out the eeePC and surfed through old word count tracking spreadsheets, trying to find promising short stories to rewrite for my workshop submissions, even though I think I have two strong candidates. Looking for other options is part of what helps me feel more confident in the choices that I already had.

So, I don’t think I’m going to just sit through my crash. I’ll take the December goals a bit on the easy side until I’m sure that I’m through the stormy weather, but a little gliding doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

What about you? Have you hit the Crash yet? What are your plans?

PS: I also want to mention, I’m kinduv liking the new National Novel Writing Month iPhone case that I got at the Night of Writing Dangerously. It’s a rigid case, with a bit less coverage than the big bulky Otter case I’ve been using, which means I can plug in the headphones with the ear guards, which means that I can listen to podcasts (or music, or audiobooks) on the iPhone while walking. With the Otter case, I had to use the apple ear buds, and they’d come loose if I was moving around. I think I’ll also be able to dock the phone on my little iPod speaker unit in this case.

The downside is that it seems like it wouldn’t give as much impact protection as the Otter, so I may switch back and forth – using the Nano case when I want to show it off, or use the attachments, and go back to the Otter – when I’m feeling clumsy, which is often.

My Dana Alphasmart software is now in open Beta!

October 26, 2012

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about my Dana programs other than that vague notion of ‘Gee, I said I was going to do an open release on those before Nano started this year, huh?’ Well, this morning I’m finally doing something about it.

I’ve written two programs for the Alphasmart Dana portable word processor, that have been very helpful to me, especially during Nano or similar challenges, so I’ve done my best to pretty them up, write some useful manuals and basic freeware licences for them. If you have a Dana device and are interested in trying them out, please feel free to download, redistribute to other Dana people, (but please keep the packaged files together!) and let me know if you’re having problems or can think of more improvements.

Multicounter: This is my on-the-go word count tool for Dana. It works in conjunction with Alphaword or any other word processor program that will give you an overall word count for a file – most PalmOS programs running on a Dana device don’t support word count for selected text, because it’s hard to select long ranges of text anyway. So Multicounter lets you type in the starting and ending word count for a writing session and does the math to tell you how much you wrote – it’ll also total up multiple writing sessions on a single scratchpad, (along with the date, chapter, and comment for each session,) supports daily quota targets, (50,000 words in 30 days, anybody?), 8 different scratchpads, and export to .CSV format on SD cards. If you’re doing Nanowrimo with a Dana, I really believe that this is the tool you need to keep track of your word count progress. Click here to download Multicounter.

Alphafiles: This program might not fit everybody’s writing process on a Dana; I started writing it because I wanted to move my Alphaword files back and forth on SD flash cards, and found that neither the Alphaword ‘open from card/save to card’ or the various generic file managers were convenient for letting me do this quickly. Alphafiles uses a ‘back and forth listboxes’ interface to show the Alphaword files on your Dana and the .pdb files in a single SD card folder, to easily copy or move them around. You can switch to a different card or different folder, rename, copy, or delete your files. It works really great in conjunction with the WSCONV utility on your laptop or desktop computer, so that you can quickly transfer your writing from the Dana to Windows without needing to hotsync or send – or transfer a file the other way without hotsync. Click here to download Alphafiles.

On a sadder note, my own Alphasmart Dana is having battery problems. I haven’t used it in a while, and I think that I’ll probably have to be careful to plug it in every night if I want to be using it the next day for Nano, as opposed to letting it run for weeks between charges. Maybe I should look into replacing the rechargeable battery pack or switching it out for alkalines soon. But I don’t think I’m going to futz with that before November.

Sansa view player – a tale of two protocols

September 18, 2012

I’ve had my Sansa View video/mp3 player for well over four years at this point. I don’t actually use it that much anymore, but keep it loaded with content, especially for long trips – mostly as an alternate to the iPod and iPhone, to be honest. It’s very similar to my iPod Nano, actually – a bit bigger, including a slightly bigger screen, but it’s slightly easier to fast-forward on the Nano.

Anyway, I was adjusting the content I had on the View yesterday evening, and that got me fooling around with the two different USB protocols that you can use with it. At first, the View only supported MTP – Media Transport Protocol. Now, the important thing with any data transfer protocol for a slave device, like a media player, is which microprocessor is directly responsible for talking to the device storage. You can’t have both the desktop and the player’s microprocessor reading from and writing to the onboard memory at the same time, because bad things happen if they try to access the same cluster at the same moment.

MTP protocol is the delegation approach – like if the Sansa View is a warehouse, the onboard microprocessor is the stock boy, and the desktop processor is the guy from head office. Here, head office tells the stock boy, “I need you to store A, B, C, give me a copy of D, give me F and not keep a copy, and throw G in the dumpster. Don’t bother me with the details.” And the stock boy does all that.

For whatever reasons, MTP support on the Sansa View was always a little buggy for me – I might copy a bunch of video files over, and one of them would fail. Sandisk released a firmware upgrade that offered the ability to switch into MSC protocol: Mass Storage Class. This is the same protocol that’s used by flash drives, though they don’t really have an onboard processor to worry about. In MSC protocol, the guy from head office tells the stock boy that he’s going to take care of everything and the stock boy doesn’t need to know the details; “just stay in the break room so you’re out of the way.” 🙂

Read the rest of this entry »

Tech geeky update

August 17, 2012

Well, I’ve been indulging in some geeky stuff lately, so I thought I’d share just a bit of it with you.

Droid grocery list update. Had a breakthrough since the last time I mentioned this – I think I talked about the approach of trying to take the App Studio iMenu control, taking away its absolute position, and putting it inside a classic HTML table layout. This turned out to be easier than I thought – the iMenu control doesn’t have absolute position hard-wired into it, it’s just a couple of css directives. I love my new droid grocery list and have been using it instead of the iPhone version ever since:

I’m looking forward to doing something else with this hybrid approach to developing for Droid, but not just yet. Part of the problem is that the Eclypse’s keyboard isn’t as spiffy as it looks. It’s great for text entry, but there’s no navigation buttons, so you still have to tap on the screen to work with the GUI. Very quiet sigh.

My new geek project has to do with my old Toshiba Satellite M70 notebook computer that I got back in 2006; soon after I started doing Nanowriye writing. It’s been bogging down more and more, and I’ve been using the Acer Aspire One notebook more and more as an everyday around-the-house laptop, but I didn’t want to consign the Satellite to tech oblivion, especially since it has a few good features – great big comfy keyboard, wide bright screen, S-video out port. On the con side, the hard drive is none too roomy, (58 gigs,) the onboard RAM is limited to 512 megs, and 1.6 gigahertz Intel CPU.

So, I’d been thinking about what I wanted to do with it. I copied all the important personal data off the hard drive, figuring that I’d want to pave over the hard drive and reinstall something fresh, be careful about installing anything that could slow it down. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to stick with windows XP or try Xubuntu.

And then inspiration hit – I’d try both! Dual-boot that puppy.

Getting started was the hardest part. I found the Toshiba restore DVD, and spent hours fooling around with USB sticks and BIOS settings because I thought the optical drive wasn’t up to booting off. And the BIOS was somehow stuck in some weird display mode that showed up neither on the attached LCD or the S-video out. (I’m wondering if my S-video cable might need to get replaced, actually.) Once I got the display stuff sorted out, it became clear that the BIOS wouldn’t support booting off USB – even after I tried a BIOS update, which made it almost impossible to hit the setup key in time. But booting off the optical drive didn’t turn out to be a problem.

I’ve got the basic Ubuntu install done, though I’ll need to go and upload patches and software updates to both OSes soon. The hard drive is partitioned more or less like this:

20 gigs – windows C drive, NTFS, (co-mounted on Ubuntu as /windows/c)
10 gigs – Ubuntu file system root, EXT4
2 gigs – Ubuntu swap partition
26 gigs – FAT32 partition, E drive on windows, /share on Ubuntu. All documents and media files, particularly those that can be used on both operating systems.


The Droid Groceries saga so far…

August 7, 2012

Warning, this post gets kinda geeky and technical in places. 🙂

I shared with you guys a few details about my first few forays into iPhone programming with NS Basic App Studio. It looks like I never told you about my favorite iPhone ‘app’ that I made myself: a simple grocery list program that I use all the time. There are other to-do lists and grocery story management apps available for free, but I love this one because it’s streamlined to exactly what I need – it’s easy to add new things to the list, and to mark them off when I’m shopping.

A few months back, I got a Droid LG Eclypse from work, to replace the ancient Blackberry I was issued years and years ago. NSBasic App Studio is supposed to work with all versions of Droid as well, so I was excited to get the Grocery app working on the Eclypse. This didn’t turn out to be so easy. The screen is slightly smaller, and I really wanted to be able to use the slide-out keyboard when typing into the list, which means showing the screen in landscape view. So I played around with a few different layouts, and thought I had a version that would work great in portrait view. Here’s what it looked like in Chrome on my desktop: Read the rest of this entry »

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