Learning Geography for Jeopardy!

You know what makes me feel dumb?  Watching Jeopardy!  Jeopardy!, the classic TV game show is now in its 30th season, and since I retired I’ve been watching it daily.  I used to watch it as a kid starting back in 1964, the year it first came on, when I got to skip school, or in the summer time.  I’m not sure why it’s only in its 30th season when it’s 50 years old – I guess they only count the Alex Trebek years, and forgot old Art Fleming.  Watching Jeopardy! makes me feel dumb because often it has contestants who look and act completely mundane, yet who just bubble over as fountains of knowledge.  Even when I know what to ask, I often can’t pronounce the names and words right.  I’d crash and burn at the game.  Still one can dream.

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The other day my friend Mike was telling me about his research in geography teaching programs for the iPad and I wondered if I studied them if I’d be better at playing along with Jeopardy!  Geography comes up pretty often and usually I don’t know what to ask.  By the way, the contestants on Jeopardy! must formulate the proper question to the answer provided.  It’s one of the reasons why it was so hard for IBM to program Watson to play the game.  To get some idea of how to play, take this practice test.

Mike likes Maps of our World, an app for iOS by Trilliarden.  There’s a free version, which you can buy additional maps, or buy the complete collection for $8.99.   MooW tests users on finding countries and capitals, and has training sessions to help you learn first.

Marianne Wartoft has written a program called Seterra that can be downloaded or played online.  Check out the online version, it gives a good idea what the Maps of our World app is like.  For me, it quickly shows how little I know.  I’m not bad, but I’m far from Jeopardy! material.

Mike and I wondered which platform produced the best programs:  desktop, mobile or online?  I’d bet a multi-gigabyte game, sold on a DVD, designed for large high-resolution monitors, would be the stunning platform for this kind of program.  But except for the cheesy old educational games, I don’t see anything offered.  Most of the software gold rushes these days are in the mobile app territories.  That’s a shame.  Mobile apps make me think of how MP3 music is low-fi compared to FLAC files.   Who wants to study geography on tiny screens?

Sheppard Software has a nice online page of Geography Games, that include voice pronunciation of names.  For $36 a year you can get an ad free version, and if I played it a lot I would opt for that because most online applications are butt-ugly with all the ads.  In fact, with this site, some of the colorful looking controls are really ads.  Thankful, once in the game, the ads are left out.  The program could spread out to fit my 1080p screen, but it doesn’t.   Although this Sheppard Software site is homely, it does offer more features than the the two programs above, requiring a lot more learning – just look at all the content it covers just for Mexico.  And I really like it pronounces the names for me.

When Mike brought up the idea of geography learning software I pictured a program with beautiful maps and a gee-whiz dazzling interface, and none of these programs have that.  Plus, Jeopardy! often requires knowledge of rivers, seas, oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, and other natural geographical features not related to man-made features.

Ultimately, it comes down to how many facts do I want to learn.  There’s 196 countries in the world at the moment.  I wouldn’t mind knowing how to spot them on an unlabeled map.  But do I want to take the time to learn 196 capitals?  There are 457 cities around the world with over a million people.  We’re approaching a 1,000 pieces of information to learn. That’s more than I want to stuff in my head, although it seems surprisingly ignorant not to know where a million people live.

I wonder if software is even the best way to learn about geography.  Would studying an atlas or almanac be a better way to learn?  And like a sixth grader, I’m asking myself, “Why do I need to learn this?  Will I use it when I grow up?”  Evidently, except at 3:30pm M-F, when Jeopardy! is on, I might not need it at all.  Like algebra and chemistry, avoiding geography in life is pretty easy, except being geographically challenged makes you look more like a dumbass to average person, than not knowing algebra and chemistry, which most people don’t know anyway.

I think the ideal way to learn geography is by reading books set in other countries.  Eva over at A Striped Armchair has a list of the books she’s read by country.  Since Jeopardy! covers a lot of book and authors, that might kill several birds at once.  But how long would it take to read just one book for each country?

Still, I grave an interactive program that would be teach me about the world, and constantly quiz me.  There’s a reason why educational software never caught on – it’s damn hard to program slick interfaces that can compete with video games for artistry. 

When it comes to a slick geography program, Google Earth is the one to beat.  It would be neat if it had an educational component with testing.  It would be cool to click on any country and see information about that country, like what movies and novels are set there, what kind of music and art come from its cities and citizens, what are links to the web that feature the best news about the country, what are some great blogs from its citizens, and so on.

If you think about it, the potential of software and learning really hasn’t been tapped yet.  Hell, we’ve probably haven’t even reached the Model-T stage of development yet.

JWH – 4/17/14

Will I Be Left in the Tech Dust If I Don’t Own A Smartphone?

I’ve been using computers since 1971.  Mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers – labels that have long since disappeared.  I got my first personal computer in 1979.  I used FTP, Usenet, Gopher, email, years before the web, and remember being blown away when Mosaic came out in 1993.  I spent a lot of money on computer and gadgets over the years, but for some reason I don’t want to buy a smartphone.  Oh, I’d love to have a smartphone – I just don’t want the monthly bill.  And since nearly everyone else is becoming a smartphone user, will this leave me in the tech dust?

I have a poor man’s smartphone, the iPod touch and a pay-as-you-go dumbphone.  It essentially does most of what a smartphone does, and I only spend $50 every six months for 500 minutes.  I also have an iPad 2 and a Nexus 5.  I’m not totally out of it, but when I read Engadget I feel like I’m at a black tie party wearing a sports jacket and jeans, and even those are getting threadbare and moth eaten.

gsmarena_004

Now I’m reading about smart watches.  Pass.  Google glasses.  Pass.  Have I gotten too old to compute?

I am cheap, but then I’m retired.  I now spend about 99% of my time at home, so mobile devices just don’t have a compelling sell to me.  Yet, all the tech glamor is now in mobile devices.  I do use mobile apps on my Nexus 7, but I’d much prefer using most of them on my 23” monitor.

Is the bleeding edge of tech savvy now limited to on-the-go computing?  Am I joining the ranks of the cyber-Amish by not owning a smartphone.  Am I less of a geek for not wanting the latest smartphone every year?

Getting old is getting old, so I must accept that young people are going to do and know things I don’t.  BFD.  I’m not whining, but since I’ve retired I realized, more and more, I’m cutting myself off from the mainstream of people.  I’ve always done this.  Being a gluten-free vegetarian atheist has a way of isolating me from normal life.  Being a computer geek is something I’ve always identified with, so is choosing not to follow the cutting edge of tech another way to isolate myself?  (I can hear my friend Annie growling at me, “Hell yes, you moron.”) 

This reminds me of a friend who died about twenty years ago.  He had become so negative about life that he only like two things, Duane Allman’s guitar playing, and Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing.  Luckily I still love hundreds of things, but I’m starting to realize that list is shrinking.  Is that another way of defining aging – that you list of likes shrinks?

There another way of looking at though.  One I feel is more positive!  As we get older we juggle more balls, or spin more plates.  Remember those guys on Ed Sullivan that would keep plates spinning on sticks?  Back then, we called life “the 9 to 5 rat race.”  As we grew up we learned to spin more plates.  At some point in your life you realize that keeping all those plates spinning is a lot of damn work.  Then you go all Zen dog and start spinning fewer plates.  Retiring is moving into those years when you spin fewer and fewer plates.  And the positive spin I mentioned?  Well, you enjoy life more because you just keep the things you love most in motion.

JWH – 2/25/14

Visual Inspiration

Usually I am excited by words and concepts.  I am a lifelong bookworm, so I’m obsessed with black marks on white backgrounds.  Living in my head is my constant way of life, thinking wordy thoughts, even to the point of neglecting the colorful details of the external world around me.  But during the day I’m often startled by something visual that inspires me.  I love looking at the trees outside my window, which sets just above my computer monitor that I am typing at now.  I have two windows, the one looking into the internet and the other out onto the world.  The world is full of color, but because of my neglect of noticing it, I’m all the more moved by art.  And maybe, I prefer seeing reality though art rather than viewing reality directly. 

I love catching something visually fascinating as I drive to work each day – the structure of a church steeple, the outline of tree branches against the sky, the way shadows and glare affect my sight.  I wish I could turn what I see into art. I wish I was the kind of guy that hiked in nature and captured it artistically.  Because I spend so much time indoors, most of my visual stimulation comes from the computer screen or the television.

Every once in a while I see art that blows my mind, and generates a flood of thoughts.  The other day I found this computer animation that set my neurons on fire.

Be sure and play this in full screen mode at the highest resolution your computer can handle.  I’ve watched it many times now and it just gets better and better.  This visuals makes me think of mathematics and musical harmony.  This video is like seeing music.  This video is like seeing mathematics as if math wasn’t an abstraction of nature.  “Oscillate” was created by Daniel Sierra for his MFA Computer Art thesis, and you can see more about this work here.

What I find so inspiring about “Oscillate” is that it’s a visual abstraction that makes me see science.  All paintings, no matter how realistic, are an abstraction, in the same way that words and concepts are an abstraction about reality.  Art mimics the world.  “Oscillate” mimics abstract thoughts.  Daniel Sierra imagined seeing animated sine waves much like how classical Greeks imagined mathematics, but instead of putting his thoughts into words, he created a computer animation.

On one hand this video is like abstract art, it doesn’t look like the real world.  But I see it as a realistic painting of an actual abstraction in the real world.

JWH – 6/26/13

When Will Computers Stop Transforming Our Lives?

There is a before and after photo going around the Internet that beautifully illustrates how much we’ve transformed between two Popes.

2005-2013-apple

Change is inevitable, but this is getting ridiculous.  And what if Google Glass catches on?

mark-twin-with-google-glass

How soon until we all become Borgs?

wearablecomputing

And at some point, will we become more machine than human?

kate_moss_cyborg1

JWH – 3/15/13

Dropbox and BoxCryptor: The Dangers of Encrypting Your Digital Life

In my never ending quest to get organized, I’ve been forced to explore the world of encryption.  I set up Dropbox to use as my primary drive for all my digital document filing.  Because my Dropbox files are replicated to all my machines at home and work this has caused a security problem at work.  We’re not allowed to store sensitive data on our local drives, and my own files will set off their security scanner.  So I’m being forced to encrypt my own documents.  Normally Dropbox encrypts your files for transfer over the net and at their storage site, and I’ve considered that good enough security.  However, I started thinking what would happen if someone came into my office when I just had stepped out.  Before Windows times out and locks my machine, people could see my home files in Dropbox, so I felt it was the time to study encryption programs.

We’re being forced to use TrueCrypt and BitLocker at work, so I was having to learn about this topic anyway.  It’s a scary subject because if you’re not careful you’ll lock all your critical files into an encrypted volume and you won’t be able to open it again. 

At first I thought I just set up a TrueCrypt volume inside of Dropbox, but I read there were some issues with that.  Dropbox sees TrueCrypt as a single file, so if you have a gigabyte of data locked down, that’s a lot for Dropbox to handle over the internet.  Doing some Google research I discovered BoxCryptor.  BoxCryptor encrypts file by file, so the overhead for Dropbox is much lighter.

BoxCryptor

BoxCryptor is free for personal use as long as you only create one virtual drive.  BoxCryptor creates virtual drives.  Save something to its drives and it’s automatically encrypted.  It works with Dropbox, SkyDrive and other cloud drive services, as well as regular drives.   After you install BoxCryptor you mount the drive and use this access point to see the files unencrypted. If you don’t mount the drive and browse to the BoxCryptor folder within Dropbox you’ll see your files, but they won’t open.  And evidently, with the free version, you’ll see the filenames unencrypted, they just won’t open.  It appears if you buy the full version ($44.99), it will encrypt the filenames too, if you want.

Encrypting your files can be dangerous.  If you forget your password, kiss those precious documents goodbye.  Unless you’re a master NSA hacker, you’ll have no chance of ever opening them again.  Also, there’s a file listing in your BoxCryptor folder called .encfs6.xml.  Delete it and access to your files are long gone too.  Wow-wee – just thinking about all this makes me nervous.

Using encryption is not for the unfocused mind or scatterbrain user.

Here’s the thing.  We’re moving into an age where all our personal information is digital.  It’s our responsibility to back up our digital life.  Dropbox is a good way to do that, but Dropbox stores your files in the Cloud.  If you’re paranoid about who can see your files you’ll need to think about encryption. 

Encryption takes extra work, extra precautions and can be a very risky endeavor if you’re careless.

Some people encrypt files because they worry that Cloud storage sites might peak at the good bits in their private files.  Other people encrypt their documents because they’re afraid their computers will be stolen and bad guys will steal their identity.  Still other people encrypt files because they don’t want people at home or at the office to mess with their stuff.  Criminals encrypt files because they don’t want the police or FBI use them as evidence.  There are many reasons to encrypt files.  You have to decide if its worth the effort.

When you encrypted a folder with BoxCryptor or TrueCrypt you’ll have to create a strong password that you must not forget, and you’ll be required to save a configuration key file that you should backup carefully.   If something happens to your machine and you want to recover your files from a backup to a new machine, you’ll need that configuration key file.

If you encrypt your life its very important how you handle the password and configuration key.  If your documents are very important you might want to put your passwords and keys into your will.  If a husband encrypts all his financial records and then dies, his wife won’t be able to see them.  If you’re an author and you last manuscript is encrypted, it won’t get published unless you’ve made provisions for your heirs to unlock it.

And it’s important how you configure BoxCryptor.  If you want to just hide your files from Dropbox, just use the defaults.  If you want to hide files from people that can access to your computers (either at home, work or at the thieves hideout), then don’t configure the mount drive to automatically remember the passwords.

JWH – 2/3/13

Windows 8 Nightmare

My old friend Connell called me up tonight to update me on his saga of getting a new laptop with Windows 8.  From the last installment I had thought everything was great.  Connell is not a computer guy.  He’s been using Windows XP for years and never went to Vista or Windows 7.  Both Connell and my wife Susan bought a new laptop with Windows 8 the same week.  Susan wanted Windows 7, but none of the stores had a machine that came with it, and she didn’t want to custom order one from Dell or HP.  Both Susan and Connell bought their machines and set them up without my help.  I thought that was a good sign.  I did help Susan by giving her a Windows Easy Transfer cable and telling her how to use it.

Connell was quite angry when he called tonight.  Susan’s initial calls claimed Windows 8 wasn’t too bad, but since then she’s been running into some problems, mainly frustrated that some of her games aren’t Windows 8 compatible.  It’s frozen up a couple of times and she had to hold the power button down until it shut off.  But she loves her new machine anyway, especially that it doesn’t run hot like her old laptop.

Connell’s biggest frustration has been with the Charms bar.  He can’t get it to open when he wants it, and it opens when he doesn’t, driving him crazy.  Neither know how to go deep and configure their machine, or find options when they need them.

I’ve set Windows 8 up three times now on test machines at work.  I can use it, but it’s a pain in the ass, and it’s butt ugly.  I really, really, really dislike Windows 8.  Windows 7 is my all time favorite operating system, and I have OS X on an iMac at work.  I’m worried what will happen if I want to buy a new machine and my only choice for a PC is Windows 8.  I guess I’ll have to choose between Linux and OS X, and since I’m too cheap to buy a Mac, it will be Linux.  By the way, I put Ubuntu on my iMac as a dual boot and I really think Ubuntu looks great on an iMac.  But I won’t spend $1200 for that either.

Connell is planning on taking his laptop back and getting a Chromebook.  I’m curious how that will work out.  Susan is adapting to Windows 8, but she mainly plays Farmville and GameHouse games.  She’s going to give me her old laptop and I’m going to buy a SSD drive for it and put Ubuntu on it.  I wonder if she’ll want it back?

I’m also thinking about buying Android on a stick for my television and experimenting with it.

What’s happening is Windows 8 is forcing people to consider alternative OSes.  At work I’ve decided not to roll out Windows 8.  We can still get Windows 7 from Dell.  Many of our professors are now wanting Macs.  The iPhone and iPad have convinced many of our Windows users to try iMacs and MacBooks.  We were 95% PC, but that’s changing.  I still push Windows 7, but the tide might be turning.  Windows 8 will only inspire more switching.  I’ve already gotten several calls from people buying Windows 8 for their home machines.  Some have asked how can they put Windows 7 on their new machines.  Luckily I don’t have to support home machines, but I tell them they need to get used to Windows 8, because going back to Windows 7 is costly and time consuming.  Microsoft should make a Revert to 7 disc and give it away.  Connell was told he could pay $60 to have Windows 7 put on his machine from the store where he bought his new laptop, but he thought that was insulting and a ripoff.  You shouldn’t have to pay $60 to fix a new machine.

Microsoft, I think you need to pull a Coke Classic and bring back Windows 7.

JWH – 11/14/13

The Syncing Nightmare of Too Many Computers, Backups and Cloud Drives!

The Problems:

  • I have three home computers, three work computers, four external hard drives, and six cloud drive accounts, with tens of thousands of original files that are multiplied into hundreds of thousands stored on backup and cloud drives.
  • I have personal files and work files but often I want access to both kinds no matter where I’m at.
  • If I delete a file from the computer I’m working on, it’s not deleted from all the backed up copies.
  • Every time I look at a different drive I have to constantly decide again if I want to keep or delete a file.
  • Because I have 4 PCs, 1 Mac and 1 Linux machine I really don’t have a primary My Documents folder.
  • I have copied files in so many locations that I’m not sure which is the primary backup anymore.
  • I had a 1.5 TB drive fail and lost 200+ documentaries I was saving.
  • I have too many files from using personal computers for over 30 years.

thematrix

The Goals:

  • I want two perfectly organized Master Filing Systems, one personal, one work.
  • I want the easiest system possible for maintaining order and security.
  • I want to get rid of the external hard drives.
  • I want the fewest copies that equals the maximum security.
  • I want each of my Master Filing Systems to be backed up.
  • I want the files to have an organization structure that makes it obvious where everything is and belongs.
  • I want this to be my last file reorganization that will last me the rest of my life.
  • I want to clean out all the clutter and ancient files I no longer need.

Questions to Consider:

  • Can I trust a cloud drive like Dropbox or SkyDrive to be my Master Filing System?   This certainly would make using six computers and my mobile devices the easiest to use.
  • Would it be practical to use a cloud drive as my Master Filing System, and then use software to mirror the  cloud to local computers as backups?
  • Which cloud drive service is worthy of being my Master File Location?
  • How do I handle deleted files so the deleted files are removed from all the backups, but yet stored somewhere for long term recovery?
  • Do I need to worry about music files now that I have Amazon Cloud Player, Google Music, Rdio, and Rhapsody?
  • How do I keep my photos organized in my Master File Location and in-sync with gallery sites like Picasa?
  • What’s the best place to store emails?
  • Should I have a Master Deleted File System?
  • Does any cloud drive service offer a journaling file system?
  • When I create a Master Filing System, what folder structure should I use?
  • Are some file types too large to save permanently?
  • Can Dropbox or SkyDrive work like a roaming profile/home drive on a Windows Server?

Some Answers to Help Decide:

  • Dropbox offers it’s Packrat feature of unlimited undeletes for $39/yr. 
  • Using Dropbox means spending $139 a year minimum – the price of an external drive, but external drives take power, eventually, die, fill full of clutter, and take work to move from computer to computer.
  • Dropbox and SkyDrive have virtual drives making them easier to use than Amazon Cloud Drive, and allowing software like Second Copy to access them.
  • Dropbox virtual drives are available for all my my computers and devices.
  • Second Copy would let me replicate files from cloud drives to my PCs, thus making them the backups and not the cloud drives.
  • I could buy Dropbox for my personal Master File System and use SkyDrive for my work Master File System.  (I have a 25gb SkyDrive account because of work).
  • I have a 50gb Amazon Cloud Drive account that I could use as a cloud backup.
  • If I use Dropbox as my Master Filing System I could go around to all my computers, backups and other cloud drives and re-file all the files I want into it.  That might be the easiest way to create a Master Filing System.
  • For $25 a year Amazon keeps up to 250,000 songs for me in their Cloud Player and a copy in the Cloud Drive.  They also give me 50 GB of cloud space for other files.  Is this secure enough for maintaining my music library?

Are Some Files Too Big To Store Permanently?

When I lost the 1.5 TB of documentaries from my HTPC I began to wonder if some files are too large to save permanently.  At Dropbox’s rates, I’d have to spend $1500 a year to have maintained my documentary collection online.  I’m not going to do that.  Nor do I want to run a home server with backups to support such a library.  Maintaining 140 GB of music files is annoying enough, with copies on my main computer, two other computers, two external drives and at Amazon and Google.  But keeping a perfect copy of my music library in sync is a nightmare.  Then I have a large library of audiobook files scattered across several computers to worry about.  Are they even worth the worry when I spend 99.9% of time listening to books from Audible.com?

The solution here is just to live with what Netflix, Audible and Rdio provides to me, and not try to own my own library of movies, music and audiobooks.  This would certainly simplify a good deal of file management.

Conclusions:

Writing all of this helped me to think things through.  I’ve decided to make Dropbox my Master Filing System for personal files.  Currently I have 13 GB of free space, but I might have to up it to 100 GB ($99/year).  I haven’t decided if I want to spring for the $39/year Packrat feature, but it’s tempting.  It will probably take me months of going through all my file locations and filing what I want to save into my new Master Filing System.  I certainly hope that Dropbox doesn’t go out of business.

I’ve been using Dropbox for a while now, but as a test, I’ll start using it as my primary My Documents folder for all my devices to see what happens.

For a backup to my Master Filing System, I’ll use Second Copy to replicate Dropbox to a folder on my local hard drive.  I haven’t decided if I’ll replicate to two different machines or not.

I might reduce my home computers from three to two and get rid of all the external hard drives.  Since I’d run Windows Media Center on both of them, I might mirror my recorded shows to both machines, but this means maintaining 2 TB drives on both machines, and I’m not sure I like that.  I’m awful tempted to give up trying to save recorded video or even collecting DVDs.

If I succeed with using Dropbox as my Master Filing System and I get a new computer, it will be very easy to set up and start working.  Just install Dropbox client and my software.  Then create a backup folder and start replicating Dropbox files to it as the new primary backup.

Settling on Dropbox means my home files will be available at work, but also on my iPad and iPod touch or even any computer I sit down to use as long as it’s on the internet.  Let’s hope this works out.

JWH – 8/3/12

The Dangers of Building Your Own HTPC and Living Without Cable TV

As I reported earlier in FYI: DIY-FIY (Do-It-Yourself, Fix-It-Youself), my HTPC started crashing intermittently, the worse kind of electronic failure to troubleshoot.  I tried everything to fix it.  Eventually I decided it must be something wrong with the motherboard, so I bought a new motherboard and new CPU, one of those new AMD A6-3500 CPU/GPU combos.  For a few weeks it worked beautifully, much better than the old machine, but then it started acting up.  This time something different, it just wouldn’t boot.  In the rebuild I used a new, but old hard drive for the boot drive so I could save my recordings off the old boot drive, and use it as a second drive.  The only parts from the original machine was the case, 2nd power supply and the original memory.  I had two theories.  One, the used hard drive was bad, or two, the original memory was my problem all along and it had gotten worse.

Now all of this is very aggravating.  I had gotten used to having a home theater PC connected to my den television and now I’m making do with off the air broadcasts, Netflix discs and streaming, and a Roku box.  This still provides more TV than I have time to watch, but it doesn’t let me record shows.  However, this time around I have a backup DVR.

I bought a HD HomeRun Dual network TV tuner.  It was a snap to install.  Just plug in the over-the-air antenna, Ethernet cable and power cable and run a small install program on each of my PCs.  Now I can bring up Windows Media Center on any computer in my house and watch live TV, or record TV from two tuners.  Very slick.  So I can still record shows while my HTPC is broken but now I have to watch them on this computer.  This also simplifies my HTPC setup because it no longer has a TV tuner card in it.  And because I bought the new A6 with Radeon HD 6530D graphics it doesn’t have a video card either.  The new HTPC worked much better and drew less power.  Great until it started crashing.

I was so happy when I got the HTPC going again.  I thought I’d have years of worry free service, but dang, I must have jinxed myself, because the new HTPC is completely dead now.

The other day I ordered some new memory and just tried it out, but it wasn’t the fix.  I’m now hoping it’s the old hard drive, and not other bad motherboard.  So sometime in the future I’ll have to take everything apart again and start troubleshooting all over again.  Another troubling idea is the HTPC is being damaged by electrical spikes.  But this is a long shot.  However, the 2nd hard drive went out just before the machine started crashing.  I’ve bought a UPS to protect it in the future.  It already had a good APC surge protector.   

But I’m putting off fixing the HTPC off for awhile.  I want to get some other things done this weekend.

This is a real lesson in building your own computers.  Normally you buy a computer and it comes with a 1 year warranty.  You can even buy extended warranties.  If something goes wrong you take it back and someone else fixes the machine or gives you another one.  When you build your own machine and it stops working you’re the one that’s got to fix it.

More than that, this whole affair of giving up cable TV has taught me a number of things.  Comcast got me addicted to DVRs, so giving up cable means learning to live with live TV or building your own DVRs.  I’ve starting to wonder if DRVs are worth all the trouble.  I love the simplicity of only having 5 channels I care about, instead of over 200.  But even then, how much do I even care about those 5 channels?  The absolute gem is PBS. 

When my HTPC died I had 200 documentaries I had recorded from PBS that I wanted to watch.  This is very revealing.  Why hadn’t I just watched those shows when they aired?  TV documentaries are like the books I buy but don’t read.  I keep thinking I’m going to watch those shows or read those books, but my to-be-watch and to-be-read lists just get longer and longer.

Last night my friend Janis was over and we were just going through the Netflix menu on my Roku.  I’ve got 196 shows in my queue waiting to be watched, and we found dozens of foreign movies we wanted to watch in the suggestion lists.  There is no shortage of TV to watch.  Then why do I want to hoard TV shows on a DVR?   Isn’t this like going to a restaurant and buying a meal with the intention of eating sometime in the future?

I have a hang-up about controlling time.  My DVR infected me with a time control disease.  I think hoarding books is a time control disease.

I am tempted to simplify my TV watching yet again and give up the DRV and HTPC.  I’d miss playing Rdio and Rhapsody through the den stereo, but I’ve also rediscovered the greatness of just listening to a CD again.  CDs sound so much better than streaming music and MP3s.  I’ve been going retro in the last several weeks.  I’ve been buying DVDs of old westerns and watching one every night before I go to bed.  It shows I can live without cable TV, or even HTPC TV, or even broadcast TV or even Netflix.

Which makes me ask:  Does it matter what’s on TV?

JWH – 7/21/12

FYI: DIY–FIY (Do-It-Yourself, Fix-It-Yourself)

This tale is for people who are thinking about building their own PC.   I’ve built my last three PCs, so this is the story of the first one I’ve had to fix.

My HTPC is crashing intermittently.  As anyone who fixes electronic doodads knows, intermittent problems are the most annoying.

I use my Home Theater PC to record TV shows from over the air broadcasts because I gave up cable TV a couple years ago.  Basically, a HTPC is a computer customized with a TV tuner card that acts like a DVR, but runs under Windows 7, so it can serve many useful functions while connected to a high definition TV.  Think of it as a desktop with a 56” screen.

If I was a Comcast or U-verse subscriber and my DVR went wonky, I’d just have them replace it.  As it is, I’m the repairman.  And since I also built the computer myself from component parts, there’s no warranty but me.  That’s the thing about a Do-It-Yourselfer, you have to be a Fix-It-Yourselfer.

The first time the HTPC crashed I thought the power supply had just gone out, so I replaced it.  $39.95 plus shipping.  Even with a new power supply I discovered my machine was just as dead.  That indicated one of the essential components was keeping the machine from booting up.  I reseated the memory, pulled the TV tuner, audio card and video card and the machine started working again.  I added back the TV tuner and video card and it still worked.  The sound card was a recent purchase so I thought maybe it had flaked out.  I reconnected everything back to the TV and it worked for a day.

Next I pulled the add-on video card and it worked for two weeks.

I let it sit a week turned off.  I didn’t feel like messing with it.  But going a week without a DVR is annoying.  But it’s also instructional.  I can go a week without recording TV, without watching the 5:30 NBC Nightly News delayed to 7:12pm (or 9:32pm, or 8:05pm) while eating dinner.  If I miss the news the world seems to go on just as fine, or poorly, without my conscious observation.

Today I pulled the HTPC from my entertainment center and reorganized my remaining components.  I brought the HTPC and antenna back to my man cave.  It’s now running again without me doing anything other than switching from HDMI cable to TV, to DVI cable to computer monitor.  But I don’t trust it.  However, I’m going to keep it back in my room until I can figure out what’s the actual problem.  And while I do that, I’ll see what life is like without a DVR in the den.

A home built computer is merely a computer assembled from component parts:

  1. CPU
  2. heat sink
  3. motherboard
  4. memory
  5. power supply
  6. hard drive
  7. TV tuner
  8. optical drive
  9. add-on video card

The first seven are required, the last two optional because I have on-board video.  The computer crashes by freezing up, with the power light still on, but with a screen dark, and the TV saying no video signal.  Those are my clues.  Some possible failure points:

  • CPU glitch
  • heat sink is failing and computer overheats
  • something is flaking out on mother board
  • memory failure
  • TV tuner failure

Now the normal electronic detective work requires swapping each of those components with a known working replacement and test until I found the part that’s failing.  That however, would require having working extras of each, and I don’t.  I have two other computers, but not with matching parts.

Because a HTPC is powered on 24×7, I have wondered if power fluctuation could be causing the problem, but my system has been running for two years without failure, so that sounds iffy.  Since I’ve moved my machine to another room, I’ve changed a couple of factors.  I’m using a different power outlet, and I’m not using the HDMI port.  I now have to wait until it fails again.  When or if it does, I’ll move the TV tuner card to my regular desktop.  If TV tuner card fails in the other machine, then I need to buy a new TV tuner card.  If it doesn’t, I’ve got to come up with the next theory.  It could take weeks to track down this problem.

However, the next stage might get expensive.  At work I have a pretty good intuition for efficiently solving computer crashes, but 95% of the time, the snafus are obvious, or within a few guesses.  To solve problems in a timely manner requires guessing the right choice quickly.  My problem with the HTPC has been the exception.  With an intermittent failure, detecting the problem can take a very long time.  And I’m not even sure there’s not more than one problem.  Pulling the add-on video card might have solved the original problem and I’m now seeing another problem.  Or it could have been a minor glitch in one system causing a bigger glitch in a second.

For many people, this kind of fix-it-yourself sleuthing is aggravating.  I’m calm about it because I’ve learned to be calm with this kind of work.  I’ve got my HTPC in my room, and I’ve been playing back recorded shows, recording shows with the DVR and everything has been working fine.  I just have to wait for another crash to tell me something.  By the way, watching TV close up is very enjoyable.  I see a lot more details.  I’ve got the HTPC monitor next to my desktop monitor so I’m just an arm’s length in front of the screen.

Dealing with the problem is teaching me something else.  I’m wondering if I need so many computers in my life.  I’ve got over 200 shows recorded on my DVR, mostly PBS documentaries.  I record far more than I watch – maybe that’s telling me something:  Do I watch enough TV to need a DVR?  When I gave up cable I missed the onscreen guide and the DVR.  I just hate missing something I want to see.  If I have a DVR recorder, I record everything I want to see, but probably only watch as much as I would if I didn’t have a DVR.  We think we’re addicted to convenience and our gadgets, but are we?

In terms of actually watching TV I actually enjoy streaming Netflix the most.  I love having a compelling series like Breaking Bad or Survivors (1975) to look forward to watching each evening after I’m too tired to do anything else.  I use live TV for news and PBS documentaries.  If I had other sources for those shows I wouldn’t need a DVR.  (I also use the HTPC to play streaming music on my big stereo in the den – but that’s another story.)

I could solve my current problem by just putting my TV tuner into my desktop computer.  But I won’t make that decision until after I fix the HTPC.  I don’t want to give up solving this puzzle.

JWH – 6/3/12

Turning Your Desktop Into a SF Cover Art Gallery

This is how my desktop of the moment looks (click on all images for 1920×1080 versions):

powers-screen

This is a painting by Richard M. Powers for a 1974 paperback book, The Mountains of the Sun by Christian Leourier from Berkley Medallion Books.  Powers’ art visually defined science fiction for many fans in the 1950s and 1960s because of his book covers for Ballantine Books.

Now I don’t know if this is legal by copyright standards, but I like to find images from science fiction book and magazine covers, and format them for my computer desktop background.  I’m going to provide some basic instructions on how to do this, but they’re specific for Windows 7.  Max OS X and Linux users can also have desktop backgrounds, but you’ll need to know your system to customize these instructions.

All computers, tablets and smartphones come with a method of changing the desktop background. Most devices have built-in programs for cycling these images. And you can install programs with various levels of sophistication that take folders of photos and cycle your desktop images and use the photos for a screensaver.

Finding the Photos

When I discover a book cover I like I go to Google and click Images and search on the book title.  Usually somebody has already scanned it for the web.  Google will show you an array of images.  Here’s what a Google Images search looks like for “Richard Powers Art.” 

google-image-search

Look for the highest resolution with the sharpest scan.  I right-click on potential images and select “Open link in a new window” and then click on “Full-Size Image.”   That gives me the image in a browser page by itself.  You want the largest possible version you can get, because unless the image is the same size as your desktop it will be blown up to fit your screen and small images can become very blurry.  When you find one you like, right click and select, “Save image as” and save it into a folder for collecting your desktop SF art.

[FYI, IE will shrink an image to fit within the browser window.  If it does, you’ll see a little magnifier with a + in it.  Click the image and you’ll see the full size version.  It will be bigger than the browser window sometimes.  Sometimes much bigger.  Right click and save that version to get the absolute best results.]

Repeat this procedure until you have a little collection of art.

Formatting for the Desktop

Most pictures you collect won’t have the same aspect ratio as your screen.  If you want to preserve the original image do nothing.  This is especially true if you are collecting book and magazine covers.  However, your screen will end up looking like this:

eye-in-the-sky-cover-formatted

But sometimes it’s fun to crop part of the art to fit the screen to really show off the art.  Like this:

eye-in-the-sky-cropped

If you click on this image to look at the full size image you’ll see that my blow-up looks a bit fuzzy.  However, it’s within my acceptance range, but I’d prefer a sharper image.  If I see a better scan someday I’ll grab it.

[FYI, I was inspired to grab this cover by Joachim Boaz’s Adventures in Science Fiction Cover Art: Eye(s) in the Sky.]

Cropping for the exact desktop size is a bit tricky.  It helps to have Photoshop or some other program that let’s you crop by pixel height and width.  Luckily, there’s a free online Photoshop clone you can use at http://pixlr.com.  Go to that link and click on –> Open photo editor <-.   Then click on “Open image from computer.”  Browse to your art folder and select an image to edit.

Then click on the crop tool, under Constraint at the top, a small pull-down menu, select “Output size” and in the Width and Height text boxes put in the dimensions of your monitor.  Mine are 1920×1080.  Then click on the upper-left corner of the area you want to crop and drag down the mouse to the bottom right.  Let go.  You’ll see a frame outline that you can reposition.  Double click on the crop to finalize.  Anything you crop will be in the exact dimensions of your monitor.  Then in the Pixlr File menu, select Save and put the picture back on your computer.  I usually renamed crops so they have the dimensions as part of the name.   For example, eye-in-the-sky-1920×1080.png.

pixlr 

You can also use pixlr to punch up the color, brightness, contrast, and other image variables, and even fix bad spots.  

Basic Manual Setup

Now that you have some images ready, we can turn them into backgrounds.  If you aren’t running a background changer, meaning the image on your desktop never changes, we’ll install one of your new images manually.  Go to your SF Cover Art folder and find an image you want to use.  Right click on the image filename and select “Set as desktop background.”  Your image should now be the desktop background.  Minimize all windows and admire.  [There is a button at the far right of the Windows 7 Taskbar that will close all windows on the desktop so you can see your art unhindered. Clicking it again brings back your windows as they were.]

Automatic Desktop Changer

If you right click on your desktop background and select “Personalize” you’ll see something like this:

Personalize

At the bottom is a link to “Desktop Background” – select it.  You’ll then see:

choose-desktop-background

I normally use another program for switching backgrounds, but Windows 7, and most other OS systems, have a simple desktop changer built in.  You can select the built-in program for Windows 7 up at the top of this screen, it’s called “Windows Desktop Backgrounds.”  Then hit browse and find the folder with your art.  Set the “Picture Position” to Fill, and “Change picture every” to 30 seconds.  You can change this to a real time interval later, for now this will quickly show your images to you for testing.

For years I used a program called Webshots, and it’s wonderful, but it wants to show pictures in its file format.  You can add your pictures to its format, but that’s extra work.  Recently I’ve discovered John’s  Background Switcher.  Gizmo’s Freeware has a whole list of Wallpaper Changers.  I like John’s Background Switcher because it can handle many sources for pictures, including online galleries, and even images from my Webshots folder.

Other Galleries

I have other galleries other than SF Cover Art, like astronomy photos and copies of famous paintings.  If you search around for Desktop Art or Background Art, you’ll find a myriad of images to collect.  Here’s an astronomy desktop.

horse-head-nebula

I’m also fascinated by historical photographs, like this street scene.

street-scene

Having photos, or copies of artwork blown up and randomly shown is very stimulating.  Photos induce interesting contemplative states of mind for me.  I’m very inspired by visuals.  At my work office, visitors often sit across from me and stop talking because they get mesmerized by images on my computer screens.  I have a dual monitor setup at work.

I’ve always loved book, magazine and album cover art.  I’ve collected art books for decades.  I hated when LP covers shrank to the size of CD covers.  Paperbacks are naturally small to begin with.  So putting this kind of artwork on a 23” 1080p screen really showcases the art.  If you have a HTPC, you can also use the same techniques for putting art on your large high definition television screen.

My art books seldom get looked at, but stuff on my desktop gallery gets looked at every day.  It’s a visual reminder of how big the universe is when I’m sitting in front of a 23” monitor all day long.

One reason I switched from Webshots to John’s Background Switcher is that program makes it easy to add new photos to my desktop galleries.  Whenever I find something good on the net I just do a right click, save image as, and put it on of my desktop background folders.  I also have a folder in Dropbox so I can save images from any computer I use.

Back in the early 1970s my roommate Greg and I would use macro lenses and photograph covers of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Astounding & Analog, Galaxy & If, as well as book covers and show them at our SF Book Club meetings.  People loved seeing the SF/F art blown up big.  Putting covers on your desktop is much easier and you get to see them everyday.

JWH 5/26/12

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