New TV For The Bedroom

Circuit City offers a service where, for a fee, they’ll come to your home and set the TV up. Does anyone really need this? It was out of the box with the base screwed into place in two minutes.

element-lcd-tv.jpgWe went out today to buy a new TV for the bedroom. This is a set used by me when I wake up and by Helaine before she goes to bed.

Is it possible nowadays to not feel guilty when spending money? I definitely felt guilty. Isn’t that attitude going to take us farther into recession?

We decided we’d like something similarly sized to what we already have. Our old set is 27″, but it’s 4:3. All TVs today at 16:9. Have no fear there are websites that will calculate and compare. A 32″ TV is within 6% of a 27″ “old school” monitor in area with lots of extra real estate when the content is HDTV.

This was definitely a price based decision. We went with a Circuit City “Element” brand 32″ LCD TV at $399. It is a no-nonsense model with a single HDMI input, VGA and the other standard methods of moving video and audio.

Circuit City offers a service where, for a fee, they’ll come to your home and set the TV up. Does anyone really need this? It was out of the box with the base screwed into place in two minutes. I couldn’t believe there was a Phillips head screwdriver included!

I attached the coax and power cable turned it on and went to the menu to scan for channels. A few minutes later I was ready to go.

The analog channels are what I was expecting. The digital channels are a mish mash of repeats and weird channels with few things of interest. At least two digital channels don’t seem to be on my Comcast provided digital tuner in the family room. That’s some sort of screw up on Comcast’s part.

The digital companions to our local on-air stations are at their on-channel positions. So, though WCTX is usually Cable 9, WCTX-DT is on Channel 59. WTIC, the local Fox affiliate, is 61-1 squeezed between CNN Headline on 61 and CNN on 62. Now Homer Simpson is in the middle of a cluster of news outlets.

As I tuned I began to notice a lot of channels running HD programming on their SD channels but formatted 16:9 so it doesn’t fill the entire screen. What you get is a 16:9 picture on a 16:9 set but with loads of unused black on all four sides. I could hit a button an expand it, but it’s a manual job on each channel and the video will be pixelated as it’s stretched.

The tuner on this set reminds me of the tuner in an LG set at work. It probably is the same tuner. I assume there are mix and match modules used to build modern televisions. Companies like “Element” are more marketing than manufacturing.

The picture is bright and sharp and it’s an improvement over the old set. I’m looking forward to watching it.

Stef’s Laptop Dead And Gone

Unlike a desktop I can’t open this Dell 600m and replace components.

I would guess I worked 15-20 hours on Stef’s laptop. After being on for a while programs would randomly ramp up to 100% of the available CPU cycles. Everything would slow down to a crawl.

I ran every diagnostic program known to man (thanks for all your suggestions). No help. Then, this weekend, I wiped the hard drive clean and reloaded Windows XP. It ran fine… until Stef began to use it. Bam! It was redlining again.

My guess is, and it’s only a guess, there’s some hardware component that goes a little nuts after being stressed or heated. If that’s the case there’s nothing I can do. Unlike a desktop I can’t open this Dell 600m and replace components.

I checked the ads in Sunday’s paper and Stef headed out to Circuit City (one day prior to their bankruptcy) near her campus. She came home with a 15.4 inch HP with Vista, an AMD dual-core CPU and even hard disk space to last her a li9fetime. It will serve her well, though it’s a shame to be rushed like this.

The new laptop has Norton anti-virus software. Her school demands McAfee before it will allow her to log onto the on-campus network. These are programs that don’t like each other and don’t want to be removed. What a pain–and slow.

Before her old computer started acting funky I backed up her documents, photos and music. Tonight I’ll go in with Hamachi and move the files as if she was in the same room.

I really wish I knew what went wrong.

Putting A Webcam Online

One of my co-workers asked a favor tonight. Her brother is in Iraq and she just found out they could have video chats using Yahoo! Messenger (there are other ways, but he was already on Yahoo!).

She asked me what camera to get? I’m a bargain kinda guy, but she had that ‘tonight’ look. I sent her to Circuit City.

She came back with a little Creative camera that slipped over the display on her laptop. It set her back $60, which she viewed as a good value.

I took out the disk and installed the drivers. I can’t remember an install taking this long and installing this many inidividual pieces of software. You do what you can to hold back driver creep, but there’s stuff there we’ll never identify.

The camera itself is sweet. The video is sharp and though all webcam video is jerky, this was no more jerky than any other.

I think this is a good thing, a loved one talking with their soldier halfway around the world. There’s also a potential downside. This technology can bringing unwanted stress or create conflict that snail mail can not.

When my dad was in the Navy, back in WWII, he and my mom traded letters back and forth. The conversation was disjointed, with questions and answers passing each other as he crossed the ocean. Now the conversation is realtime.

How does the military looks at this? Good for morale… or bad? Good for discipline or bad?

As I hooked up the camera, I wondered why this was technology I wasn’t using? I’ve got cameras and have hooked them up. Long term use never seems convenient or necessary.

Direct To The Door

So far Rudy (our mailman), Dale (DHL) and some blond guy (sorry – don’t know his name… where’s Victor?) in a UPS truck have been to our door today. Yes economy, we’re here for you!

When did this switchover to mail order take hold so deeply? Why don’t we have to touch to buy anymore?

Growing up in Apartment 5E, as I did, our mail box could barely hold a #10 envelope. I don’t even know what happened when we got packages, because I don’t remember ever getting any. I’m sure we did, but it was such a departure from the regular that I can be forgiven for forgetting it over the intervening 40 years.

Back to the big question. When did touch and feel become unimportant in purchasing… and how were we led to accept that?

Catalogs, websites and TV shopping channels show an altered reality as far as ‘real’ goods are concerned. I remember commenting how one TV shopping channel used enough lighting and filter tricks, they could make a pencil sparkle! Certainly, catalog and web shots can make merchandise look better than it would in ‘real life’.

Stores like Circuit City&#185 and Best Buy get the worst of all worlds. Shoppers go there to fondle the goods, then buy online. That seems unfair.

We’re even sparking relationships without physical proximity. That’s pretty much the same thing, right?

A friend in Atlanta met his wife (truly gorgeous) on the Internet. By the time they met, they already knew each other.

How far will this go? What haven’t we bought by mail, which some day we will? Maybe I don’t actually want to know.

&#185 – Have you heard about their upcoming layoffs, made on the basis of salary level? The better you are… the more experience and expertise… the more likely you are to be canned!

Bachelor Saturday

Helaine and Steffie had plans today. Actually, that worked out well. I don’t particularly think of myself as good company today. My cold’s still here, though I’m hoping it’s peaked (or at the worst, peaking).

It’s not tough to revert to that bachelor lifestyle. I just had left over lo mein… cold from the dish. I’ve got soup too. Even I won’t eat that cold.

I spent some time with my computers today. I bought a larger hard drive a few days ago with the thought of upping the capacity of my DVR. There was a crazy sale at Circuit City and 160 Gb went for $40. Now, I have close to 100 hours of storage available.

I also took a look at Steffie’s retired XBox, with thought of converting it to something more useful. Right now that looks out. Any conversions require soldering, which I can do, but don’t want to.

Later on I’ll try and repair the front panel media bay on this machine. Of course the fact that I’ve put it off for moths could mean it will continue to wait.

The window is open up here in my office. It’s been open all day. The weather is exceptionally nice. This is certainly the driest August day I can remember.

How Is My DVR doing?

I really wasn’t going to write about this, but a posting’s just gone up on Digg and I figured I’d better update. The Digg story referred to this article on building a homebrew DVR using SageTV software.

Paying $80 for software – that’s so not me.

I have chosen to use KnoppMyth, a Linux distribution based on Knoppix Linux and MythTV. For the un-geeky, “Linux distribution” refers to the operating system software that speaks directly to my computer’s chips. Windows XP is an example of an operating system.

What makes Linux so interesting as an operating system is, it’s free and it’s mainly supported by its own community of users.

MythTV is the actual suite of programs (also free) which turn my computer into a DVR.

What KnoppMyth does is make them play nicely together. Once you stick the KnoppMyth disk into your CD drive, most (not all) of the work has been done.

OK – enough of the technical stuff. How does it work and what have I discovered?

I’m pretty impressed with the quality. I haven’t played much with changing the capture parameters, but the way it’s set up now, recorded shows don’t look any different from what I’d expect to see on a TV screen.

The computer is currently in Steffie’s playroom. I thought it would stay there, but moving the video as packets across my network isn’t quite as simple as I thought. It will probably move into my office, on a shelf under the TV. I’ll unplug the computer monitor and move the video directly into a TV set.

Being able to program the DVR over the Internet is amazing – very powerful. More than once I have scheduled a recording while I was away from home.

Internet programming might be a problem over the long run because Comcast changes my home IP address from time-to-time. Imagine going to work in the morning and having all your stuff moved to a secret location while you’re away.

Also on the list of impressive features is the use of a MySQL database to hold the programming information. Enter a name, title, subject – nearly anything, and the DVR will let you know when something that matches will air. If there’s a conflict, it will even figure out another time to record! That’s very cool.

I recorded a program and wanted it on a DVD. No sweat. MythTV does all the grunt work of setting that up.

The computer I’m using is from the 90s. Its hard drive is large enough to hold 30 hours of high quality video. That should be enough.

One of the advantages of this free software is my ability to play around with it and modify it. I’ve done a little. I plan on doing more.

At some point, this homebuilt DVR will make me cry. All my computer projects do at one time or another. I try and keep it all in perspective, but stuff you throw together on a kitchen table or the floor of a spare room just isn’t the same as what you buy at Circuit City or Best Buy.

I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Were we the last people in America to see The 40 Year Old Virgin&#185? We’ve seen it now!

Other than getting the newspaper and picking up the mail, I didn’t leave the house on Saturday. Helaine wasn’t far behind. Tonight, with little going on and both of us in pajamas, I asked if she wanted to see a movie?

We had never ordered a pay-per-view film before. I hit the big ‘money button’ on the remote control and scrolled through the titles. There’s a lot of garbage available. In fact, the percentage of crap is astounding, especially when coupled with the fact – someone wants you to pay for it!

We got to the “T”s before there was one movie we’d even consider watching. Helaine said “The 40 Year Old Virgin” was supposed to be funny, so we gave it a shot. The $3.99 we paid seems reasonable versus what it would cost to rent a DVD.

It was certainly a lot more convenient.

There’s plenty to like about this movie. The cast was excellent, starting with Steve Carrell and working down. But let me start where the credit belongs – the writing.

On many occassions Carrell and Judd Apatow’s script could have easily turned Andy, the title character, into a stereotype. Instead, at each fork in the road, Andy establishes himself as multidimensional and human. It’s a neat trick, and though some of his personality traits are unexpected, it works.

Andy, a stock clerk at a Circuit City type store, reveals his lack of sexual experience while playing cards with the guys. The movie is his journey out of virginity.

This is a real ensemble cast with five or six solid performances by characters that aren’t written paper thin. I particularly like Seth Rogen (the tattoos were ‘special effects’), Romany Malco and Paul Rudd as his co-workers and Catherine Keener as Trish.

Until last week I had no idea who Catherin Keener was. Then I saw Death To Smoochy, where she had a large supporting role opposite Edward Norton. She was very good last week and just as good this week.

If you were watching TV any time around the release of the movie, you probably saw a clip of the scene where Steve Carrell has his chest waxed. The word is, his pained expression… his pain actually… was real.

It was hysterical, but I am such a wimp I had to look away.

I enjoyed Carrell on The Daily Show and in Anchorman. This was far better and he is a fine comedic actor. I haven’t seen The Office, his show on NBC. I guess I have to now.

My guess is, in time this movie will be considered a classic. Honest. Is that too much to predict?

There is some nudity and explicit sexual content. If my daughter has seen this movie, I’d rather not know.

&#185 – Actually, no more than two minutes ago, my friend Farrell said he hadn’t see it either. He is in England at the moment, so we very well may be the only people in America not to have seen it.

TV Or Not TV – Is That Even A Question?

When I left you early this morning, I had just discovered the TV was a goner. And then the realization that TVs are now shaped differently – 16:9 rather than the old 4:3. That little change is a huge difference because our wall unit was built to accommodate a 4:3 TV.

We headed out to Circuit City to survey the candidates. The first thing we realized was, with the new aspect ratio anything that would fit in the space would have a smaller screen! Sure, we might be able to find a set as wide as the old one, but with 16:9 it wouldn’t be anywhere near as tall.

We searched and searched. Some models were too tall. Some models were to wide. Others were too big in both directions. We weren’t panic stricken, but we were concerned.

Next we headed to Target. I had been to the new Target in North Haven once and remembered it had an electronics section. They did – but no big TVs.

Steffie needed something small, so as she and Helaine checked out, I stood in front of the store watching seagulls fly into today’s howling wind. They weren’t very successful.

My pocket began to vibrate.

There was a call from an unknown number in an unknown location. I answered. It was the central monitoring station. Our burglar alarm had gone off. The police were on their way.

I rounded up Helaine and Stef and headed home. We got there 10-15 minutes later, with the alarm still yelping away. A window in Steffie’s room hadn’t been properly latched. In today’s wind it shifted enough to register a fault.

The police had come, but seeing everything locked up and in good shape, they left. Thank heavens there wasn’t a door ajar. They would have gone upstairs, seen Steffie’s room and called for reinforcements thinking the house had been ransacked!

As it is, I understand we’ll get a warning on the alarm. That means if it happens again, we’ll be fined for calling the police.

We re-measured the TV space and had out again. This time we went to BJ’s.

They don’t have a particularly large collection of big TVs, but unbelievably they had one that fit the bill. It was a Daewoo with a 47″ screen. I think it will fit in the space with less than an inch to spare on top. Even then it will have to be turned sideways and cajoled before it will fit in.

BJ’s doesn’t deliver.

I went to the car only to find the inevitable. It was bigger than the cargo space in the SUV! I couldn’t think of anyone with a pickup, which was what we needed.

I called my friend Kevin. He is truly the solver of all problems. Not this time. He had no access to anything large enough to haul a big TV.

Within the same strip mall as BJ’s is a Home Depot. They have a truck they rent out by the hour. Unfortunately, as I found out, they only rent it if you’re hauling goods of theirs.

Back to the drawing board.

We drove around and pondered. Finally, Helaine came up with a friend we though might have access to a pickup through her business. We called… and then, we hit paydirt.

Tomorrow morning… Mother’s Day morning… Rena and Albert and the kids will come over with their trailer and we’ll all go to BJ’s to get the TV.

Yes, this will leave me with the old one to dispose of. I can deal with that. On the other hand, if I’ve miscalculated… if there isn’t that fraction of an inch to spare… I might go “pfffft” just like the first TV.

Loose Ends

As vacation approaches there are always loose ends that need to be tied up. Stef got her hair cut. Helaine had errands to run. I went to see why we were getting a tax bill for a car that we got rid of in late 2003.

First a word to the out-of-staters reading this. Connecticut is unusual in what gets taxed and how. When I moved here in 1984, there was no income tax. Connecticut was a tax haven. Trust me – no more.

Along with the normal property taxes a homeowner pays, Connecticut goes one step further. You pay property tax on your car. Like real property taxes, it’s assessed at a ‘fair market value’ and then a percentage is lopped off that.

Why? I don’t know. It’s ridiculous because the next step is to apply the ‘mill rate’, making any adjustments somewhat arbitrary.

Here’s what I learned today. The Assessor’s Office is different that the Tax Collector’s Office. They’re both involved in the process, but sort of like opposite arms on a dysfunctional body.

This is not to say the people in both offices weren’t very nice. They were. Nor am I implying they weren’t very helpful. They were. It’s the system that’s somewhat out of whack.

It took a nice man in the Assessor’s Office the better part of twenty minutes to explain what this bill was about. Then we went through it step by step with a calculator. It was correct. It just didn’t make sense the first ten times he explained it, and I was really trying to understand.

You may ask, as I did (to myself, under my breath) why these calculations weren’t spelled out on the bill? How come an explicit explanation of what was being billed wasn’t included? Why did the bill imply it was all about a car I don’t have, when that’s a very small part of the whole story.

It’s not like my time with these town officers was free. Every moment I spend with them is time they can’t do something more important.

Anyway, tax bill under control. Check in the mail.

Back home we’re nearly ready for tomorrow’s getaway. The suitcases, each weighed for maximum stuffosity, line the upstairs hallway. If I can borrow one of those harnesses all the folks at Home Depot wear, I’ll run them down the stairs and into Helaine’s car for the trip to the airport.

I still have to take a quiz for my Thermodynamics class (I am doing anything I can to put this off… like writing this blog entry) and pack my electronics.

By the time my carry-on bag goes through security, the x-rays will imply I’m someone who just pulled off a huge heist at Circuit City. Taking off my shoes will be the least of my problems.

Current Connecticut temperature: 33&#176

Current Los Angeles temperature: 63&#176

Coming Home From Florida

On my way down to Florida I became a Song fan. On my way home, that feeling diminished.

My parents live 20 minutes from the airport so I thought leaving at 12:20 for a 3:05 flight would be fine… and it was. I had my doubts when we ran into bumper-to-bumper stop and go traffic in Lantana, two towns south of West Palm Beach.

After the traffic cleared, I took the new ramp directly from the highway into the airport. When I lived in West Palm 35 years ago this was a little airport where your bags were delivered to you outside the terminal. With all the tourist traffic, this airport is larger than what would conventionally be found in a market this size.

As you approach, a sign directs you to the red or blue terminal. Unfortunately, the signs are reversed! The first one ends with the words “all other airlines.” That’s strange.

An overly anxious skycap met our car at the curb and took my suitcase and golf bags. I carried my camera and computer into the building.

In this post 9/11 world, my carry on bags resemble the accessories counter at Circuit City. I have wires and adapters of all sorts. I also carry a laptop and digital camera. For some reason I usually escape the probing eye of the TSA. Not today.

After removing my sneakers and heading through the magnetometer, I glanced over to see the person running the X-ray machine saying something to the inspector at the end of the line. “Is this bag yours?” It was the computer bag.

My computer bag has lots of pockets, some zippered, others sealed with Velcro. He was going through every one. I offered up if he’d empty it, I’d be glad to put everything back. He looked at me with a scowl that could only be interpreted as, “Do you want to have to take your clothes off?” I took one step back and stared at the floor.

Finally he found his prey. He had been looking for a mini tripod, unidentifiable with X-ray. It was something I packed and never used.

The flight left from Gate C-1. Though that sounds convenient… and I guess it is… the first gate ends up thrusting lots of people who want to be on early, and don’t want to wait in a line, to move into the middle of the hall. That’s where everyone else is walking to the gate.

I should know. I was part of that throng.

Delta/Song uses a zone system. So your boarding pass has a designation of zone one through five. In was assigned row six on the plane and that meant zone two.

Our 757 boarded through a door somewhere around row 10. I turned left, toward the cockpit, while most people turned right.

I sat down and looked out the window. It’s good to leave when it’s gray and rainy. I also marveled at all the rolling stock airlines keep – mostly idle. I’ve never been to an airport that didn’t look like a used car lot for baggage carts, stubby tugs and flight stairs.

As the boarding progressed, a flight attendant on the PA system kept saying which side you could find seats A,B and C or D, E and F. She was right… except for those of us who had turned and walked toward the front!

What makes Song so much more enjoyable than a conventional flight is the satellite TV system. With 24 channels, there’s a lot to watch. The problems with the TV began as soon as it was turned on.

Before I get to the specifics, the system does have a few inherent faults. Song gives out earpieces that are so cheap, they literally tell you to take them home. They are the least comfortable things I have ever put in my ears.

Even with 24 channels, Song has coverage holes. They have NBC, but not ABC, CBS, PBS, or the other lesser over-the-air networks. I flew home with satellite TV during the Jets/Steelers NFL playoff game, but the game wasn’t available to me. NBC has no football.

As the satellite system came on, we were flying through a thick bank of clouds. Satellite TV suffers from rain fade and we were in the midst of clouds droplets. Reception problems were to be expected.

The picture would appear for a few seconds before tearing or distorting or just plain going to black. Sometimes an error message would pop up from the satellite receivers. Though the message buttons said to press for help or more info, and we had touch screens, they weren’t addressable from the seats, making them a source of frustration.

We cleared the clouds, but the TV system still didn’t lock in. The problems affected different channels differently – but affected them all.

After a while the flight attendant came on to tell us there was a continuing problem and she was going to reset the system. She did. It fixed nothing.

I tried to watch but it was tough to stay with a program when it would lock up. Digital lockup is worse that analog since there are no signs if things are getting better or worse.

This would be all I’d write about the TV system, except one more weird thing which happened just before the end of the flight.

I was doing something else, not paying attention to the screen, when it caught my eye. Text was scrolling across the seat back display. I was watching a computer reboot!

This did not happen with either of the two seats adjacent to me. I don’t know if there’s a computer for each display or individual computers for the different services you could be watching (there’s more than just TV to be seen).

Whatever it was, it was happening… and the computer was booting into Linux! I wish I knew which ‘flavor,’ though that scrolled by before I got my wits about me.

The rest of the flight was uneventful and I’d give Song a pass, but they did one thing at the airport that really upset me.

After around 10 minutes of waiting at the carousel, the buzzer buzzed, the carousel started moving and about a dozen bags came off. Then the carousel stopped.

There was no announcement, no excuse. We waited for another 20 minutes until the bags began to come out again.

I think I know what happened because it has happened to me before.

Airplanes don’t come and go, spread out over the day, but come and go in bunches. There were enough baggage handlers for all the flights, but not enough to keep up with the bunches. When it came time to make the decision: get an airplane out on time or get the passengers out on time – the plane won.

So, now I’m home. I’m rested. Later today I’m back to work.

As I write this, it’s snowing here in Connecticut. In Florida it will be in the upper 60s and low 70s this week. Reality never waits.

Just Killing Time

It was a slow night for me at work. The skies were speckled with clouds from the west. Temperatures had leveled off after a brutal, record breaking start this morning.

We now have two live teases in the 7 and 8 o’clock hours, so I can’t go far, but I did feel like getting out. I hopped in my car and headed north on I-91 toward North Haven. My final destination was Barnes and Noble.

I’m not sure why, but I could probably spend the entire day in a bookstore and never want for more.

The Barnes and Noble in North Haven is in a small strip shopping center in a busy commercial area. It’s across the street from BJ’s and Home Depot. Its parking lot is shared with Office Max. Down the block are Target, Circuit City and a few more large stores.

My first stop is always the computer section. The amount of room devoted to computers has gone down over the past few years. It’s probably because computers are mature and not just the province of hobbyists. The thickness, price and relatively short shelf life of computer books is mind boggling.

I took a look at a few books on digital photography – especially the concept of ‘work flow.’ There were a few books related to cameras and Photoshop, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger to buy.

There was also a section of $9.95 books on somewhat more arcane computer topics. I thumbed through a book on PHP and though I would have enjoyed having it, I wasn’t sure I’d ever use it (though I’d like to… right after I become organized).

After the computer books it was off to the magazine racks. I believe this B&N has four free standing two sided racks – each jam packed with titles on just about every subject you can think of. My favorites here are a series of British computer how-to magazines. They are oversized with lots of how to articles and a CD or two taped to the front cover. At $15 or so each, they’re the priciest magazines I look at.

I browsed for twenty minutes, looked at my watch and called it quits. My book store itch has not yet been scratched. I’ll be back.

Something For Nothing – Sometimes

Everyone likes to get something for nothing. I certainly do. That’s probably why I’m so enamored with rebates. I seek them out like crazy. I scour and searching for some elusive toy I’ve just got to have – as long as it’s free, or close to it!

Sunday’s are always fun. Before I read the newspaper, I check the ads. The biggest deals come from CompUSA, Staples, Circuit City and Office Max. Best Buy has the slickest ads – not the best prices.

I mention this, because I’ve just finished doing the paperwork for six separate rebates. That doesn’t mean six separate items, because often a single item will have two rebates.

Who’s kidding whom? Multiple rebates are there because it’s just one more way to discourage you from getting the rebate. That’s the sad truth. Rebates look a lot friendlier, easier and lucrative before you buy than after.

Each rebate form is a scavenger hunt with slightly different rules. Send a copy – no wait – send the original – no wait – circle the price – no wait … you understand. The idea is to make it as difficult as possible, as time consuming as possible, to regain your cash.

It is possible to make rebates easier to obtain, but that would fly in the face of what’s really happening. Rebates allow stores to advertise a lower price than the item will actually sell for.

I have a sneaky suspicion that some of the rebates I send in never produce a check. I keep receipts, but the whole process becomes so difficult and tedious that checking is nearly impossible.

Tonight’s paperwork should produce over $200 in cash and reduce my cost for these items to around $100. Not bad, if it works.

Building a New PC – Almost

Why would anyone want three PCs at home? I’m not talking about the machines shared with my family. These are my computers. Granted, two of them are discards; computers deemed too slow by others.

I have done most of what I could to optimize these older machines. They’re loaded with memory and unnecessary processes are shut down. You still can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can get a lot closer than most people expect.

The laptop, a Pentium II 300 MHz model, is my road machine. It’s got a wireless card and is often downstairs in the family room (especially if I’m watching TV and playing poker). It is sometimes sluggish, but never enough to be a bother.

The second desktop is also a P-II 300. Well, it was until a few days ago.

I wondered if it would be possible to bring this machine into the 21st century without spending much cash. TigerDirect was having a sale where the net cost (after rebates) of a motherboard, fast processor chip with fan, and memory was only $99.99. I decided to give it a try.

It took about three days for UPS to deliver my package. Looking in the box, everything was there, in its original packaging. So far, so good.

Fearing the 256MB RAM stick that came with the kit wasn’t enough, I went to Staples and bought another 256MB. It was $30, after rebate, bringing me to $130.

What is missing in a deal like this is a great deal of documentation. There were no instructions with either the CPU chip (an AMD XP 2400) or the fan. There was a sticky label on the chip’s packaging saying, in essence, “you break it, too bad.”

Instructions don’t seem like a big deal, but mounting the fan isn’t totally intuitive and a thermal compound paste (included) has to be applied between the fan and chip.

My first step was unplugging the old motherboard, unscrewing and removing it from the case. No problem. It came out really easily.

Since the computer industry standardized motherboard sizes, my new ATX board should fit exactly where the old board sat. It did. A new plate fit between the case and motherboard, allowing the external plugs for video, audio, mouse and keyboard to be accessible. So far, so good.

Each individual peripheral, like a disk drive, has to be wired for both data and power. It sounds tougher than it is. There are distinctly sized plugs for each operation. It’s tough to go wrong, though it is possible if you’re not looking, to put some plugs in backwards.

The manual for the Soyo motherboard was well illustrated and easily led me to the right sockets on the board for all these cables. I did have to call AMD to try and figure out how to set an on-board jumper. I was on and off the phone in two minutes.

AMD, if you’re listening, I’m impressed.

It took a bit over an hour on the kitchen table before I was ready to plug it in. I lugged the case upstairs and plugged it into my KVM switch. KVM stands for keyboard, video, mouse. All it means is I can run two computers from one set of devices. Hitting the scroll lock key twice toggles my keyboard, mouse and monitor from one machine to the other. It’s pretty simple, saves space and lots of money.

The system started to power up, but the normal beep as it’s getting ready to go was replaced by a continuous tone for a few seconds and then… silence. The machine shut itself down.

Uh oh. I took a look at everything under the hood. Something had to be wrong. I didn’t see anything out of place. So, I went to Soyo’s website and searched out my problem.

Someone had described a similar outcome for another motherboard. It hinged on the safety circuitry not sensing the cooling fan on the computer chip. Sure enough, my fan was plugged into the wrong socket.

Though the fan was spinning, keeping things cool, the motherboard’s circuitry though it was just an extra fan, not the one necessary to keep the chip operating. I moved the plug and bingo, it booted.

I spent the next few hours going through a bunch of different operating systems, trying to decide what I wanted. I loaded Windows XP and two different flavors of Linux.

Since I was aiming to keep the cost down, I went with Linux. Specifically, it’s “Mandrake Linux 10 Community,” a close-to-production release. It’s free! I actually downloaded the installation disks the night before and burned them onto Cd’s. Unless you play games or run some very specific applications, Linux is fine. There are browsers, email programs, graphic design software, etc. Most of it them are free.

I find it a little more difficult to get answers to Linux questions, because I know fewer people who run it than Windows. But, I am constantly ‘mitchering’ with my machine, and that brings up situations most users wouldn’t get into.

I went to bed a happy man. My machine was humming along. This ugly duckling was now the fastest machine in the house. Life was good. And then, I woke up.

Hitting the power button brought nothing. No noise, no lights, nothing.

I had built this system in an old case with an older, weaker power supply. I can’t be sure, but my best estimation is the power supply was stressed with this new configuration. As it cooled, it broke down. A digital multimeter across the power pins showed no voltage anywhere.

My goal here was to keep costs down. Now, with the extra RAM, I was already $30 over my original cost. I could have spent $60 at CompUSA or Circuit City to get a new supply, but decided to log onto eBay and see what was available.

For $20, including shipping, I bought a 420 watt supply to replace the 230 watt model I’ve surely fried. It’s coming from California, so I’ll be without this machine for most of – maybe all – of the next week. My $100 machine is now $150.

Still, if the power supply is the problem, and if it boots up right away, this will be a great investment. For $150, a computer someone wanted to throw away, will be a screamer. And, I did it myself. It’s no big deal.

My Camera Goes To The Hospital

I’ve written, on more than one occasion, about my camera and the obsession I have for taking pictures. I’ve taken over 6,000 since getting my Fujifilm Finepix S602Z. In fact, Sunday is the first anniversary of its purchase. Which brings us to today’s little quandry and journey.

Sometime in the last month, my camera developed a very small problem. One pixel, the smallest photo element it resolves, became stuck in the on mode. So, in every picture, there is one miniscule red spot. If I didn’t tell you about, you would never see it within a picture. Since I post process nearly every picture in Photoshop anyway, it was easy to work around. Still, once I noticed it, it was tough to dismiss.

I discovered the problem is February, and since the camera has a one year warranty, I wasn’t too worried. That is, until I couldn’t find my receipt.

I called Bangalore, India (I didn’t know that’s where I was calling at the time) to speak to Circuit City’s support folks. About 10 days later the receipt appeared in the mail, having been mailed from an office in the states.

I wanted the camera for my Chicago trip. Unfortunately, after I returned, I forgot all about the camera’s illness. Yesterday Helaine asked when I was sending it in, and I got a box to prepare it for shipping today.

When I went to finish the project I noticed the one year anniversary of the purchase is Sunday. I couldn’t get it to the repair depot before Monday! A quick phone call verified my concern… If it wasn’t in today, forget the warranty.

So, early this afternoon, I hopped in the car and drove to Enfield. Connecticut is a very small state, but I live in the far south and Enfield is all the way north – over 60 miles in each direction.

I found Precision Camera Repair without too much trouble (only one wrong turn). It is in a low slung building in an office park, across from Enrico Fermi High School. I parked at the end of the lot and walked past one glass door with an arrow pointing to another glass door. Looking inside the first, I saw men, sitting at work benches, working on cameras. Curled tubes on each bench probably supplied compressed air. This is demanding work where dust… and bad eyesight, aren’t very helpful.

Once inside the lobby, I looked into an office with four women sitting in separate cubicles. The cubicles met at a center point – sort of like the spot where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. A young woman in the back section saw me and stood up to walk my way. She was pretty, and was made more so by the fact that she was wearing a formal dress… as if she were going to some nighttime affair.

It would later turn out that she worked a second job, as a deejay. She was at job number one, but dressed for job number two.

She took my camera, typed a few pertinent notes into a computer, and gave me receipt. She said they’d mail it back to me.

Meanwhile, for the next 15-20 business days (why can’t they just say 3-4 weeks?) I will be without my camera. I still have an older Casio QV-2000UX – but it’s just not the same.

There is a way to check the status of my repair, using their toll free number. Like a sick friend in the hospital, I will call to see how my camera is doing.

I Love My Camera… But

My Fuji S602z is the best camera I’ve ever owned. It is versatile, and with the help of Photoshop, the pictures can be stunning.

Between Steffie and me (and it’s mostly the obsessive me) nearly 6,000 photos have been snapped with the camera. She mostly takes ‘in concert’ pictures, while I will snap anything moving… or stationary.

My photo gallery now has nearly 1,000 shots online.

It has amazed me to see how much I’ve learned about photography by shooting, and shooting, and shooting. The nearly instantaneous feedback of the camera helps reinforce what will and won’t work. For the first time ever, I can visualize how my shot will look as I’m taking it.

Yes, I’m a royal pain to those around me as I pause and point. Yes, Helaine has said, “All right Ansel, enough already.”

All this is meant as setup to the problem you see on the left. There is a red pixel which is constantly on. I noticed it first when Steffie returned from the Rick Springfield show this weekend. Looking back at pictures, it’s been there for a while.

Each picture is made up of a grid of 6,026,496 pixels. There are 2832 columns and 2128 rows. So, this one pixel is .000016599% of the total in the picture. Yet it’s driving me crazy.

Once you become conscious of it, it shines like a beacon. It’s low and toward the right of the frame, where you wouldn’t normally place subject matter. It makes no difference – it’s driving me crazy.

I went to Circuit City last night, where I bought the camera. They said I purchased it on March 14, 2003. I believe it has a one year warranty, so I’m in luck.

Of course they couldn’t print a duplicate receipt at the store. For that I called Circuit City, which means calling India (where the call center is located).

When I told Helaine I had spoken to someone in India, she said “How cool.” And the technology to do that is very cool. But, that’s a job that used to be performed here in the states. In fact, my dad used to supervise that type of operation right here in Connecticut.

I’m going to Chicago in a few weeks. By that time the receipt should be here. On my return I’ll send the camera to Enfield, CT and wait the 15-20 business days it will take.

Then, it’s bye bye red pixel.