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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Generation

This article written by Alonso Kramer.

Ive seen a lot of blogs popping up about the new show My Generation, so I decided that I was going to check into it and see what it is all about. From the looks of it, it looks like it is going to be an interesting new show on ABC about a group of high school friends and what their lives are like 10 years after graduating. From all of the reviews and the episode guides, I think that this show is going to be something that interests a lot of people. It seems to be taking on all of the stereotypes of people in high school and then showing how differently people can end up.

I always like seeing new shows succeed past the first season, and I think that My Generation has a good chance of doing that. The cast is mostly new, fresh actors who will hopefully be able to carry the show. The concept of the show is interesting enough to create many great story lines within one show. Just about everyone can relate to what its like to go through high school and then run into friends you haven't seen in years. I plan on tuning in to watch the first episode on my satellite tv near Detroit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

My Project Is Slipping - And Everyone Except Me Seems Surprised!

Well, what I have predicted since the time I started working on this project has started coming to pass. The project is getting mired in technical difficulties and has started slipping in its timelines. This is a very complex project, and is the first project of its kind in my company. Everybody is alarmed that their carefully drawn-up project plans are having to be modified as the project proceeds.

I am not at all surprised. Right from the beginning, I have been telling everyone who would listen that the project timelines were nothing more than guidelines. The problem is that the project uses a data source that nobody in the company uses. Nobody knows how complete and accurate the data is. We also rely on a bunch of data from the users, and the users have not been very diligent in giving us the data.

Moreover, the business problem is not as well-understood as other problems I have worked on. Some assumptions we made early on turned out to be bad, and the project had to be rejiggered to take the correct facts into account. The problem is that we are not the subject-matter experts, so we sometimes don't even know the right questions to ask the users to uncover such problems.

We are also using a data and system architecture that has not been used in the company before. We are programming in Java, which is a new language for my team and me. Given all these uncertainties and unknowns, I am quite pleased with where the project is. But my manager insisted on putting down a week-by-week timeline early this year that went out all the way to May of next year. Talk about a waste of time! I protested as loudly as I dared, but my department seems to be getting more and more anal when it comes to benefit estimates, timelines, project plans, etc., so I couldn't talk him out of the insanity.

Now, it is the end of September, and some things that should have been completed by the middle of this month are not yet done. The problem is that the underlying business problem has changed in significant ways, and this has necessitated reformulating the problem to be solved. This has added time to the project that was not anticipated in March of this year.

I have been telling my manager every chance I get that the project timeline is unrealistic for many reasons. This is not one of those projects where we have already completed a half dozen projects in this area, using the same data and this is just another flavor of an existing project. The area is new, the data is new and untested, and the formulation of the problem is unfamiliar to us. In spite of that, we have toiled on it, and made significant progress.

Our IT department cleverly found an excuse to just drop the project and head for the hills. They couched it in terms that were quite convenient and sounded genuine, but basically, they have decided to let us be the pioneers who work with the business area and data first, sanitize what needs to be sanitized and teach them what we learn. They can then jump in and do more stuff in record time, taking the credit for fast turnarounds. It is like people using a road to get through a swamp after it has been drained first. We are the swamp-drainers and everybody thinks we are making poor progress even though they are afraid of venturing into the swamp until it is drained by us!

They are giving us the infrastructure and access to the data, but they have given up on building us a good front-end for the project. Building the front-end requires a lot of access to the data, and the data may or may not be of good quality. So, they did the smart thing by leaving the data-checking and cleaning to us instead of being mired in the effort with us. Our management has decided the program we create can be run in an automated fashion without a lot of user involvement because user involvement would require a working front-end, which they are now not going to get.

But this abandonment by IT has not cooled my manager's fervor for the project. That is not bad by itself, because I do want to go through with the project. But I wish he would lose his fanatic grip on the project timeline and give us some breathing room to get things right the first time. I am pretty sure the modified timeline is not very realistic either. I had to put in very small time increments for significant portions of the project because my manager was getting quite shrill about "missing our deadlines" and "delaying the project".

Now, the next time we hit a road bump (and we will, I am absolutely certain of that), I have to decide whether to do the right thing and take a delay to work the problem out correctly, or to just go around it the quickest way possible, and leave it for somebody else to solve the problem the right way later on. The latter would undoubtedly involve a lot more effort, but I am sick of being the person who "delays the project", so I might just decide to deliver the project on time, even though it might be shoddy under the surface and require a lot of rework later on!

So, work has been quite a drag lately. Every day I go in, I have to wonder how much progress I am going to make, and how many new problems I am going to uncover. Then, I have to decide what to do about all the problems that come up: just ignore them, pretend they don't exist and continue with my work, or take time off from work to solve the problem the correct way. The risk with the second option is not only that the work gets delayed, but also that existing work may have to be torn up and redone to account for the problem correctly.

All this would be quite exciting, even pleasurable, when management appreciates what you do, and is willing to go to bat for you to defend your thoroughness in solving the problem the right way. Instead my management is more interested in blaming me for delays and wants me to adhere to the timelines and project plans rather than making sure the solution we get is correct. That is just postponing problems for later, when they will be harder to solve, but that is an inconvenient truth nobody is interested in hearing. So, I will ignore it, just like they do, and concentrate on getting something that looks like a plausible solution out on time. My sanity may depend on that!

My tax course is covering topics that are not as familiar to me as the topics we covered in the first couple of weeks. The material is still quite easy once the rules are understood. The actual filling of the forms, worksheets and schedules is not challenging, but requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail. We took a quiz in the class, and we have to take another test this week. The quiz was quite easy, and I hope the test is the same way too. We have not lost anybody from the class as of now, but that has more to do with the fact that everyone has paid money to take this class, and they don't want to lose that money by dropping out. I can see several students in the class already making quite rough weather of the topics so far, and I can't wait to see how long they can hang in there before they decide taxes are for the birds (and the pros).

But the homework for the class is taking quite a bit of time. I thought about 3 or 4 hours a week would be sufficient to take care of the homework and required preparation for the upcoming class, but I might have to make adjustments to my schedule going forward because of the increasing amount of time required to do the homework justice.

I added a couple more posts to my blog this week. The first was a celebratory post about completing half a million steps since I got my pedometer. The second was a review of a pair of two-way radios I bought this week. My blog was also visited by someone from a new country this week. The new country was Nicaragua, bringing my country total to 151.

Now, as usual, it is time for me to have dinner, complete my weekend chores, and get ready for work tomorrow. Maybe I will have better news to report next week about my project, but I am not getting my hopes up too far!

I Made The Right Choice With Glass Tiles

I wrote earlier about how my contractor suggested glass tiles to us when we redid the master bathroom and kitchen backsplash. The tiles were delivered on time, and my contractor and I unpacked the boxes with great anticipation. My contractor went to work right away, putting the tiles in the kitchen first.

The stained glass tiles we got for the kitchen have held up pretty well so far. The patterns are still as bright as they were when we originally bought the tiles. The fact that the patterns are on the other side of the transparent glass tiles, protected by the glass itself, helps. Cleaning agents, water, oil and other material that can damage patterns on a ceramic tile can not even get to the patterns on these glass tiles.

Glass is also a hard material, so it can not be scratched easily, even when abrasive agents are used to clean the surface of these tiles. The durability of these tiles is now no longer a mystery!

For the bathroom, we bought subway tiles which we wanted to assemble ourselves into an artistic pattern. We drew pictures for the contractor so that he could create the patterns according to what we had in mind. The bathroom tiles were easy to install, and the patterns looked pretty good after the installation. Obviously, a more artistic person could have put them together in more visually stunning ways, but I am reasonably satisfied with how it turned out.

It was a great experience, learning about and trying out these glass tiles in the kitchen and one of our bathrooms. When we redo the other bathrooms in the house, we will certainly be looking at glass tiles once again. Ceramic tiles were OK in their day and age, but that day and age has passed now! They can not hold a candle to the quality, durability and ease of maintenance of glass tiles. Glass tiles are the future of tiling, and I am glad I discovered them before spending a lot of money on ceramic tiles for my projects.

Specialty Travel Sites Cater To Travelers Looking For Something Unique

The internet has domocratized many aspects of life nowadays. Shopping sites have sprung up to cater to the shopping needs of every segment of society. Similarly, specialized travel sites have sprung up to take care of the travel needs of people who don't just want to travel to places like other people.

Many of the people who have special travel needs may be looking for advice on how to get vegetarian food where they are going, or how to indulge in extreme sports that are indigenous to where they are traveling. Another site I came across recently focuses on making travel easier for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gender travelers. It is called Gay Travel Buddy.

This site is organized like a blog with tags on the right-hand side of the page to allow visitors to navigate the site in different ways. For instance, the site lists various categories of establishments that travelers may be interested in visiting. Some examples are gay bars, restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops. These establishments are not restricted to a single city, rather they list all posts tagged with the appropriate tags. The list is extensive, and covers gyms, nail salons and other types of establishments also.

The site also has detailed information about many cities in the US. There are several articles devoted to the Las Vegas area and New York city for instance. Some cities have entire neighborhoods that are considered more friendly to gays and lesbians. Examples are the San Francisco Castro Area, and the San Diego Hillcrest Area. These neighborhoods also have their own tags to make it easy to find attractions in these areas.

There are lots of photographs in the articles, giving the site some visual appeal. Articles are dated June and July of 2010, and there seems to be no activity after that date. The information is certainly useful and the list is by no means complete. So, expect more pages to be added to the site as the site gets established, and becomes an often-referred-to site that more gays and lesbians turn to for information.

Be An Astronomer In Your Own House With Beginner Telescopes!

The planet Jupiter recently passed closer to the earth than at any time since 1951. The giant ball of gas came within 368 million miles of the earth, making it a memorable event for many amateur astronomers. Until last week, I was not an astronomer, professional or amateur. But, I was invited to a Jupiter-viewing party at a colleague's house last week, and had a chance to use some of his amateur equipment. I have been bitten by the astronomy bug ever since, you might say.

My friend had gotten into amateur astronomy a few years back. He got his first telescopes and other optical equipment through Optics Planet. I was quite impressed with the quality of the telescopes we used during the party. One of them was a beginner dobsonian telescope that was extremely portable. We used it from the balcony of his home initially. Later, when we wanted to look at other things, we just carried it out to his yard and used it on his lawn.

My friend also has a Celestron PowerSeeker which comes with a tripod and a motorized drive. It is the perfect beginner telescope for budding astronomers who want a high-quality telescope to observe the heavens without burning a hole in their wallets. My friend has really gotten into astronomy over the years and had a lot more expensive equipment also.

But these beginner telescopes were very exciting for me because they convinced me that I don't have to take out a new home mortgage to convert my home into an observatory and install expensive gadgets to start observing and learning about the night skies! And the night skies are really worth observing more closely, there is so much you can't see with your naked eyes.

Online Education Helps You Advance Your Skills While Staying In The Workforce

In these uncertain times, when the economy is not doing all that great, it is very important to stay up to date on your job skills or acquire new skills that will make you more valuable to your current as well as future employers. Getting a college degree or higher degree is one way to make this happen.

But you don't want to leave your current job to pursue an education for a couple of reasons. First of all, it causes an interruption in your income and career. Secondly, it is quite unnecessary since there are online courses that allow you to earn a degree while still having a job.

The Chronicle of higher education is a good source of information about which college degrees are in demand in the work force. Gone are the days when a college degree was all that was required to get a good job. Now, you have to be more picky, and make sure your degree is in the right field to advance your career. The Chronicle can also be a good source of information about the quality of colleges and degrees, tuition and other costs, etc.

The department of Education can be another source of information about educational institutions, student aid available, etc. The site is also a good place to find out about accreditation standards.

One of the universities that makes the promise of higher education more accessible to people in the workforce is Walden University. Walden University is geared towards adult learners who take courses online while working in a full-time or part-time job at the same time. It is accredited, and has faculty that is devoted to teaching online with innovative methods that make the quality of the education equivalent to or better than what you would get in a classroom setting.

Walden has bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs in various fields such as Education, Management and Technology, Health Sciences and Social Sciences. Financial aid and loans are available to help qualified students attain their educational goals without letting finances stand in the way.

Given the importance of having a good education and the right credentials in this competitive job environment, it may be a good idea to look at an online university with fresh eyes. In a few years, you could have an education that qualifies you for better opportunities in your current workplace, or prepares you for opportunities at a better workplace. And you don't have to give up your current job or the income it brings in, in order to attain this qualification. That is a win-win situation!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review Of Cobra CX 105 Two-Way Radios

OK, I admit, it wasn't an especially bright idea picking one of these up, whatever the price. But let us not go there. What is done is done! They were on sale for $5 per pair after mail-in rebate at a local hardware store. I went to the store with instructions to pick two pairs up, but the store had almost sold out of them, and had only one pair, fortunately. They hadn't sold out completely unfortunately, though.

Even before buying these, I knew that they would be nothing more than pieces of junk. They did not disappoint in that regard! In fact they are outstanding pieces of garbage!! Why will become clear in a little bit.

The package the pair comes in is the epitome of a package that causes wrap-rage. A heavy pair of scissors was needed to cut through the hard plastic packaging. I then had to carefully reach inside the sharp plastic edges to grab the radios and pull them out. The user manual is a single sheet of paper folded and secreted into a compartment in the packaging behind the radios.

The radios themselves are tiny. Their antennas are not adjustable, so from the bottom to the tip of the antenna is the full height of each radio, and this is less than 6 inches. They are about two and a half to three inches across and about an inch thick.

The user manual, as I mentioned earlier, is just a single sheet of paper, printed on one side. It has pictures explaining the different parts of the radio, some short explanations of how the different buttons work and what functions they perform, and lots of regulatory information.

The radios are capable of using both the FRS and GMRS bands for communication. Using the GMRS channels requires an FCC license since that band is used for amateur radio service. So, even though the radio can use channels 1 through 22, for all practical purposes you are restricted to using channels 8 through 14 only (unless you have the appropriate licenses from the FCC).

Cobra CX 105 2-way radios
The radio need three AAA batteries (they don't come with any batteries). The user manual/sheet has pictures showing you how to take the belt clip off the back of the radio, then take the battery cover off, install the batteries, and then put the cover and clip back on. You are going to have a lot of trouble trying to put in new batteries if you don't know to take the belt clips off before such an attempt!

The radio has 4 buttons on the front. The right-most one is for switching on and off the radio as well as switching modes on the radio. You hold the button pressed down for a few seconds to turn on or off the radio. Once the radio is on, you press the button momentarily to put the radio in channel select mode. In this mode, you can use the next two buttons on the radio to adjust up and down the channel on which the radio will transmit and receive. In this mode, the channel number in the small LCD display blinks. When the channel number is not blinking, the radio is in volume select mode, and you use the next two buttons to adjust up and down the volume level of the radio.

The left-most button on the front of the radio is a call button you can use to ping other radios on the same channel within range. When pinged, the radio rings once like a phone.

On the left of the radio is the talk button, which you press and hold down when transmitting. When the button is not pressed, the radio is in receive mode. There is a headphone jack on top of the radio if you want to use one with it rather than letting everyone around you hear what is being said to you over the radio.

Once I installed the batteries, we switched to channel 12 on both radios and played around with them inside the house just to test them. They worked fine inside the house. They even worked between the front yard and back yard of the house without any problems.

Even before I bought the radios, I knew the advertised 16-mile range would be a complete joke. The only way to get that kind of range would be if one radio was on top of a mountain and the other was down in the valley, in a straight line of sight. Under most circumstances, I was expecting a range of between a mile and two miles.

And talk about a disappointment: the radio's range was much lower than even that. Depending on the obstacles between the two radios, the range was in the range of about half a mile. In a park or along a street where there were fewer obstacles, the range was slightly higher, but nowhere near even a mile. Even when the radios were within range, towards the outer edges of the range, the quality of reception was extremely poor. Most of the time, one could make out that something was transmitted because the receiver would make a lot of staticky noises, but you can't make out a single word of what was transmitted.

My wife was hoping that our kids could use these radios to communicate in an emergency between home and their schools. I took the radios out on one of my evening walks and demonstrated that the radio did not have enough range to use it that way reliably. The school is only about a third of a mile away as the crow flies, but the straight line cuts across several houses, so the radio did not work very well at all. Sometimes, I could make out what was being said, other times it was just static and nothing intelligible.

We left the radios on to test the battery life. The batteries lasted exactly 6 days with the radios left on. The quality of transmission and reception of the radios went down as the batteries aged, and after the 4th day, the radios were not usable for any kind of conversation even within the house, between adjacent rooms. These radios do not come with rechargeable batteries or a charging base, so it is important to remember to turn these radios off when they are not being used because of their poor battery life when left on. They are supposed to have battery-conserving circuitry in them, so I can only wonder what the battery life would have been if such circuitry was not present!

So, here is a quick rundown of the pros and cons. Pros: Very low cost, small size. Cons: Very low range, quite poor quality beyond an even smaller radius, battery-hungry. The radios also have pretty much no extra or enhanced features that I have not talked about in this review. I would say that these radios are OK as a curiosity if you want to have something to amuse a 3-year old. But if you are looking for something practical to communicate over short distances, look for something better (though two-way radios are probably never going to be the solution to that problem, regardless of the cost).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pioneer Trail

I appreciate the guest post, Jewel Rodgers

Now that I have a family I find it incredibly important to get outside and stay active. When the weather starts to change, I know that it is time for me and my kids to get outside and enjoy the beautiful scenery around our community. Luckily, we live very close to some amazing hiking trails that are perfect for a day outside with the family. We have been going to the Cumberland Mountain State Rustic Park for the last few years to hike and spend time outdoors and everyone has a great time. The hike is pretty easy and flat and there is some really amazing scenery to check out along the way.

Our family usually spends the entire day outdoors, eating a picnic and hiking different trails, so before we leave the house we set our ADT alarm system. One of the kids favorite part of the Pioneer Trail is the small footbridge that surrounds Byrd Lake. They love following the different streams and checking out all of the rock formations. We could all spend countless hours enjoying all of the different elements of nature found along this trail. We have met some great people during our hikes and look forward to going back each time we leave.

High Quality Address Plaques Are A Useful Addition To Any Home Or Business

Your address is as distinctive as your house is. There is nobody else in the world who has the exact same address as you do (unless they live in your house). A high-quality address plaque enables you to highlight this distinctive feature of your house.

JustAddressPlaques.com is a source of different varieties of address plaques, address signs, numbers, address posts, etc. All the products sold on the website are shipped free of charge to buyers. They all come with a satisfaction guarantee, and a 30-day return period.

Justaddressplaques.com stocks all the best brands in the address plaques and numbers market, and guarantees the lowest prices on its entire line-up of commercial and home address plaques. Their lineup of brands includes Blink Manufacturing, Salsbury Industries, Mailboss Mailboxes and Whitehall Address Plaques among several others.

Justaddressplaques.com also carries an impressive line of specialty plaques that include memorial plaques, informational plaques, two-sided address plaques, Disney-themed plaques, sports and hobby plaques, etc. They even have solar-powered lighted address plaques that will make your home or business shine!

Address signs and plaques make it easy for others to find your home or business. This is of great practical significance for many businesses. It can also be significant for homes if you have a home-based business (like a tax preparation service, for instance), or when service professionals (like plumbers, appliance installers, etc.) need to visit your home. Getting a professional-looking address plaque for your home or business can be a beautiful addition that is quite practical and useful too!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Vegas Revelations

Guest post written by Rob Whitehead

There are always a few things that I learn about myself when I go on a trip to Vegas, except normally I know them already but chose to forget them. For example, a lot of times I always try to tell myself that I'm better at gambling than I actually am. But then once I start losing more money than making it, I remember that I'm not as great at gambling as I convinced myself.

But that wasn't the only thing that I thought about this last time I went to Las Vegas about a month ago. I realized something new this time, tht I don't have very good hearing and should probably do something about it.

So I called and made an appointment for when I got home. Then once I went to the appointment I got fitted with some Miracle Ear hearing aids. I noticed a difference right away. Maybe that's where my bad luck with gambling comes from, not being able to hearing everything that's going on around me. I don't know though, we'll just have to see on my next trip to Las Vegas.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I Have Now Completed Half A Million Steps With My Pedometer!

Yesterday was 30 days after I got my pedometer as part of my employer's incentive to help employees exercise more. I have reviewed the pedometer in this earlier post. In these 30 days, I have now completed over half a million steps on this pedometer.

When I initially got the pedometer, I did not know what to expect on a daily basis in terms of number of steps. Some of the material that came with the pedometer classified people from "sedentary" to "active" based on the number of steps walked per day. And according to their definition, walking 10,000 steps per day made you active.

So, initially my goal was to walk at least 10,000 steps per day. I set that up as my goal in the Health Management Software that comes with the pedometer. But very soon, I found that I was doing a lot better than 10,000 steps per day. The goal just seemed too easy for me.

The Health Management software also allows one to set goals for aerobic steps, number of aerobic walking minutes, fat burned (in grams per day), and calories burned. Initially, I set goals only for steps, aerobic walking minutes and aerobic steps. I set them up as 10,000 steps, 60 minutes and 5,000 steps respectively.

As I regularly exceeeded these goals (some days by pretty hefty margins), I initially raised the total number of steps goal to 12,500 and the number of aerobic steps to 7,500. But, after a week or so, I found myself going past these numbers on too many days too. For a goal to be effective, it has to be difficult to reach. I wanted a goal that I would have to try to reach, and would sometimes miss if I was not careful about reaching the goal.

So, I decided to raise my goal of total number of steps to 15,000 per day. I left the aerobic walking time at 60 minutes and number of aerobic steps at 7,500. I also put in goals of 25 grams per day for fat burned, and 400 per day for calories burned.

Omron Health Management Software screenshotAnd yesterday, a month after I got the pedometer, my total number of steps went past 500,000! I decided it was time to celebrate by writing about it on my blog. The accompanying picture shows the total number of steps as recorded in the Health Management Software, as well as details of 5 days with the maximum number of steps so far. The pedometer calculates distance based on the stride length entered into it, so there is no separate goal-setting for it. The goal for it is automatically calculated by the software once you enter a goal for the number of steps. The data on the total number of steps includes about a 1,000 steps from today morning (8/21/10).

My maximum number of steps has been 24,417 while the maximum number of aerobic steps has been 17,201. The number of aerobic walking minutes has maxed out at 137 minutes, fat burn has reached a maximum of 42.8 grams and calorie burn has had a maximum of 678. My aim for the near future is to go past 25,000 steps some day. Perhaps, it is time to take a hiking trip somewhere!

The next thing I have to worry about is whether the goals require some adjustment upwards. On most days, I find myself doing about 20,000 steps. On some of my most active days, the number of aerobic steps has easily exceeded 15,000. And in recent days, the number aerobic walking minutes has been closer to 90 than 60. I am seriously considering making 20,000 and 12,500 my new goals for steps and aerobic steps, and 90 my goal for aerobic walking minutes.

But there is a danger to playing with the goals too much. I don't want to be tempted to cheat just to get to my goals. For instance, running a given distance gives me fewer steps than walking that same distance because my stride length goes up when I run. Similarly, my aerobic walking time will go down when I run rather than walk. I don't want these considerations to actually prevent me from running because running 3 miles (especially interval training) is still better for my cardiovascular and aerobic fitness than walking those same 3 miles. I don't want to adjust my goals to such a high level that I take shortcuts to achieve them rather than just exercising and taking care of my fitness.

But the pedometer has certainly been a great help in motivating me to stay with my exercise goals, and do exercise even on days when I might have decided not to otherwise. It is easy to skip exercise for a day or two when nobody is keeping close track of it. When you know that skipping exercise could cause you to fall way behind on your goals (that are not just in your mind, but are being actively tracked), it makes the voices of laziness that much weaker!

The Joy Of Decorating With Art

Guest written by our friend Gladys Fuentes

Home decorating doesn't have to be a chore. It can be a physically and mentally challenging endeavor that you make fun for the entire family. Adding pictures to their bedroom is great fun for my children and my husband and I enjoy coming up with ideas for new pictures to put in one of our many rooms. It's always fun just looking at the materials, pictures, and decorative ideas, and we can do this for many hours before deciding on a certain piece.

Nothing is quite as fun as the pictures. Wallpaper is nice and creating new ideas for flooring is fun, but adding art to the home has a special feel of its own. We got a driectv clear bundle deal and love to browse the many pictures available on Web sites across the Internet. There is such a large selection of beautiful pictures, both framed and unframed, affordable and unaffordable. We like looking at unaffordable art too, as it gives us something to hope for in the future. We can always dream before saving up and buying a certain artistic masterpiece.

Home decorating makes my entire family interested and happy in our environment. It also makes us incredibly thankful for the things that we have and the many important things that we hope to add to our home some day. It's a challenge that never gets old.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Homework Is Keeping Me Busier Than I Anticipated

So, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this tax preparation class. I knew that the material could be complicated and confusing, but given my experience preparing my own tax returns for the past 20 years, I did not anticipate too many problems.

Actually, the material in the class itself is not very challenging, to be totally frank. Yes, it is a lot of legalese and a lot of fine print. Something is true if something else is true, but ... . There is always the big but with everything in a tax class. The tax code is living proof that there is a rule for every exception and an exception to every rule!

The problem with the course is the amount of homework it requires. Last week, it took me a solid 6 hours to get through the 6 chapters of homework I had to do. Essentially, each exercise in the homework usually consists of either completing a full tax return, or filling out a certain schedule or worksheet based on material covered in that chapter.

I thought most of the exercises would be done and reviewed during the class, but it turns out students have to finish all the work at home, and the instructor just reads out the solution line by line in class. Most of the class is devoted to quizzes, and answering students' questions and concerns.

We did come across at least one or two cases for which the instructor did not have a clear answer and said she would have to research it during the week and get back to us the next week. I now have 3 more chapters for which I have to finish all the exercises before the coming Saturday. I hardly have time to do anything else suddenly!

I also came down with a nasty cold this past week. It always happens soon after the kids head back to school. It takes about a week for them to pick up something at school and bring it home. Then it makes the rounds at home. I am usually the last to be affected, but most times I don't escape, and I do get affected. So, I was not surprised when I got the cold, but it was sure inconvenient and annoying.

Between the sniffling and sneezing, and my heavy homework load, I did not have time to get a whole lot done on my blog this week either. I did put up a post explaining why hard disks never seem to be the same size as what the manufacturer claims them to be. I then published a review of my newly bought and installed external hard drive, which was delivered to me early this week.

My blog was visited by visitors from two new countries: Northern Mariana Islands, and Djibouti. With the addition of these 2 countries, my tally of countries stands at a nice and round 150. I was amazed when my tally reached 100. What can I say now that my tally has gone way beyond that and reached 150? Whoever knew that people from 150 different countries would be interested in what I rant about?!

The upcoming week promises to be as busy as the last week. I have to get an early start on the tax homework to have it comfortably done before my next class at the end of the week. Work will be hectic as usual. Time to finish this post up, and get ready for the upcoming week. There are chores to complete, books to finish reading, movies to finish watching, etc.

A Spice Rack Is A Spice Rack Is A Spice Rack - Right?

Wrong! Yes, all spice racks are designed and built to hold spices, but that is where the similarities end. You can make your own spice rack with a bunch of old bottles and/or cans and containers. But if you want a spice rack that you can show off to your friends, you need a real spice rack that can set it apart from run-of-the-mill competitors.

If you want such truly unique spice racks, www.spiceracksource.com is one of the best sources for them. They have a huge catalog of spice racks that a spice connoisseur would truly fall in love with. They stock and sell spice racks made of plastic, steel and wood. The spice racks come in capacities ranging from 12 all the way to spice racks that can hold several dozen spices.

A spice rack can be a stand alone rack that you can put on your counter top in the kitchen. On the other hand, you can get one that saves space by being mountable on cabinet doors. You can get a wall spice rack with multiple shelves and space for several different spices. You can even get innovative carousel style spice racks that have dispensers that can measure out spices to your needs.

SpiceRackSource sells several varieties of kitchen spice racks. It is difficult to imagine the need for a spice rack that they don't stock and sell. If you are looking to upgrade your spice storage solution in your kitchen, take a look at the SpiceRackSource catalog for something that catches your eye. All their spice racks come with a low-price guarantee, free shipping, a 30-day return period and an unconditional satisfaction guarantee. Make your spice rack the envy of your friends!

Ever Wonder Where Product Labels Come From?

Every product you buy probably comes with some kind of label on it. Most people don't notice these labels at all, but some, like me, do. These labels contain stuff like UPC bar codes, product serial numbers, information about where the item was manufactured and other types of information. Obviously, the label is an important part of the product itself even though most people do not even think about it or its importance.

One of the companies out there whose sole business is to make labels and name plates for others' products is a company called Data Graphics, Inc. This company produces custom labels for industrial and military applications. They are ISO 9001:2000 registered, and they also produce other products such as nameplates, warning decals, instruction labels, UPC barcode labels, thermal transfer labels and much more.

In addition to plain printed labels, Data Graphics can also produce labels out of metals like Aluminum, that contain engravings, machinings, die cuttings, etc. These can be affixed to products in places that are likely to be exposed to harsh conditions like immersion in water, exposure to high temperatures and/or steam, etc.

If you are thinking of producing a product and are looking for a good place to supply you a custom label for the product, Data Graphics just might be the solution to your problem. Data Graphics has been producing custom labels and other product information products for over 25 years. They guarantee on-time production and delivery of labels, nameplates and other products that meet your specifications.

A good label can sometimes be the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful product. You don't want to take chances with such a highly visible part of your product. That is why it is best to leave the label up to an expert in the business such as Data Graphics while you work on making your product better and more useful to your potential customers.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

First Impression Review Of Iomega Prestige 2TB USB 2.0 External Hard Drive

This hard disk was bought for $110 plus taxes. I ordered on the Amazon.com website, but the order was fulfilled and shipped by Dell. Because of that I was charged state taxes. Now, the hard drive is still available from Amazon.com, but at a higher price than I paid, and is being sold and fulfilled directly by Amazon.com. The disk is still available for $110 from Dell.com, so I don't know why Amazon.com is no longer offering the option of buying it for that price from Dell.com.

I had signed up to be notified by email when the order was shipped. I placed the order on the 8th of September, and I finally got an email, saying it had been shipped on the 9th, but that email was sent to me only on the 12th! In any case, the disk was delivered to me on the 13th. So, the order turnaround was quite fast, but the late sending of the email did make me wonder about the overall process.

It came in a brown cardboard box, inside which was the actual retail package in which the hard disk is normally sold. The outer box was about 1 or 2 inches bigger than the retail box in all three dimensions, and there was no padding around the retail box, so the smaller box must have rattled around quite a bit inside the bigger box. Sloppy packaging, for sure.

But the retail package had good padding where it mattered, so everything inside that package was in place and in good shape when I opened it up. Inside the box was a user manual, a power supply (a wallwart with 5 or 6 foot long power supply cord), a 3-foot long USB cord, a stand that allows you to put the disk up vertically, and the hard disk itself. The hard disk is quite sleek, and very heavy (over 3 lbs).

The wallwart can take in any input voltages from 100 to 240V, 50 or 60 Hz. So, you don't need any kind of transformer to use it in a foreign country if you travel with it. It produces an output of 12V at 1.5A.

Iomega Prestige 2TB USB 2.0 External Hard DriveThe contents of hard disk package. The hard disk itself, plus the user's manual, power supply and cord, USB cord and stand.

There is a small label on the hard disk that has the serial number of the disk on it. Note this down before you put the disk where it is hard to get to. You will need this to register the product on the Iomega website. Registration extends the warranty on the hard disk from 1 year to 3 years. The Iomega website also has the user's manual for download and allows you access to backup software (EMC's restrospect) and a choice of anti-virus software. I already have backup software I am used to, and free anti-virus software so I did not bother downloading these pieces of software through Iomega.

Iomega Prestige 2TB USB 2.0 External Hard DriveView of the hard disk mounted vertically in the stand. The label with the serial number is visible on the right hand side of the photo.

The warranty allows you to get a replacement if the hard disk fails during the warranty period, but the warranty does not include data recovery from the failed disk. Never keep a single copy of any data that is not replaceable, on this hard disk or any other hard disk. Always have at least one backup, and preferrably more than one backup in more than one physical location.

The user manual is about 25 pages long, but only because the instructions are repeated in two dozen languages. The actual instructions in English would barely cover a single A4 sheet of paper. It is very basic, and it does not have to be any more complicated because the disk comes preformatted (in NTFS). For Windows computers, it is completely plug and play. You can start using it as soon as you power it up and hook it up to the computer using the USB cord. If you own a Mac, there are instructions in the user manual on how to reformat the disk to make it fully compatible with Macs.

When you hook up the hard disk to your computer, your operating system will probably report the disk to be 1.81 TB in capacity. The discrepancy between the advertised size of 2 TB and the reported size of 1.81 TB is explained in this earlier post. The disk actually has a little over 2 trillion bytes in capacity.

Looking up the hard drive properties in the Windows XP file explorer revealed the disk model number to be ST320005 42AS. A little googling revealed this to be a Seagate Barracuda SATA2 hard drive. So, now, my laptop internally has a Fujitsu hard drive, my 500 GB external disk has a Samsung hard drive, my 160GB external drive has a Western Digital hard drive, and this latest acquisition of mine has a Seagate hard drive. None of my hard drives has ever failed on me (though one Fujitsu hard drive in an older laptop of mine developed a few read errors after a couple of years of use), so my basic theory that all of the hard drive manufacturers produce high quality drives has held up so far. Depending on the durability of this external hard drive, my opinion about Seagate might change!

The disk enclosure has a milky-white light that lights up when the disk is powered on, and blinks when the disk is being accessed for reading or writing. The enclosure also an on/off switch, which is very nice because I don't have to plug it into a power strip with a switch or resort to plugging and unplugging it from the wall to turn it on and off. Most other hard drive manufacturers have done away with on/off switches on their enclosures. This can be quite annoying if you don't want to leave the disk running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The disk can either be laid down horizontally, or you can mount it vertically in the provided stand. The enclosure has the power supply connection, USB connection and on/off switch at one end, and a grill at the other end. There is no fan in the enclosure, so there is no air being forced out of the grill, but I am sure the grill is there for ventilation. The user manual does not mention this, but I would be careful not to use the disk with this grill plugged up.

Iomega Prestige 2TB USB 2.0 External Hard DriveIomega Prestige 2TB USB 2.0 External Hard DriveViews of the two ends of the disk enclosure. The first photograph shows the grill with ventilation holes. The second photograph shows the other end of the enclosure which has the power supply and USB connections as well as the on/off switch.

The disk itself is completely silent when it is running, whether it is being accessed or not. You can hear the disk spinning if you put your ear next to the enclosure, but otherwise, there are no noises whatsoever. There is no vibration of the enclosure or the disk inside either.

The disk is quite fast in terms of read and write speeds. I was able to transfer files to it from my Windows XP computer at about 14 to 16 MB/second when transferring several gigabytes of data. This is fast enough to play media files like videos and music directly off the disk when connected to a computer rather than having to copy the files to the computer's hard drive before playing them. There are no lags or stutters when playing media files off the external hard drive.

I use the disk for my nightly backups, and I found that after a full backup that took over 8 hours, the hard disk was barely warm to the touch. I was surprised at the low levels of heat generated by the disk because most newer disks that run at high speeds get quite hot after continuous use. This disk did not get hot at all, indicating that the enclosure is well ventilated in spite of not having any active ventilation in the form of a fan or something like that in it. This is also very good news for the longevity of the disk because heat is one of the primary killers of hard disks over the long run. The wallwart does not get hot or even warm after prolonged use either.

Overall, I am very pleased with this hard disk. It is hooked up to my computer at night for backups and is in the same room as I sleep in. Its silence is good from that point of view. It has good ventilation and does not get hot even after continuous heavy use. That is good from the point of view of expected longevity of the disk. I also like it that the enclosure comes with an on/off switch that enables you to control the status of the disk without having to unplug it from the wall everytime you want to turn it off.

Moreover, the hard disk comes completely empty with no junkware installed on it. You don't have to reformat the disk just to get rid of annoying software that can sometimes not be uninstalled any other way. You can get access to backup and other software on the manufacturer's website after you register the hard disk, but the disk itself is completely uncluttered and pristine! In short, there is pretty much nothing to complain about as far as this disk is concerned. The value for the price paid is unbeatable at this time (only $55 for a terabyte of storage).

AllAboutMS.com Is Your One-Stop-Shop For Information On Multiple Sclerosis

Recently, a colleague of mine at work publicly announced that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I did not know this colleague very well, and I knew even less about multiple sclerosis. So, the next time I met her while I was walking around at work, I screwed up my courage and struck up a conversation with her.

I conveyed my sympathy to her, and then asked her what multiple sclerosis and what living with it entails. She explained briefly what she knew, then referred me to a website to get more detailed information if I was interested in finding out more. That website is allaboutms.com.

I went to allaboutms.com later that evening, and it truly is a vast collection of information about every aspect of this dreadful disease. Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system in which nerve cells start losing their insulating myelin sheaths. The loss of this shield causes difficulty in transmission of nerve impulses, making certain movements difficult or impossible.

MS is considered an autoimmune disorder in which the body's own immune system is responsible for the destruction of the myelin sheath of the nerve cells. No genetic trait has been isolated to account for the development of multiple sclerosis, but the disease does run in families. There is no known treatment for the disease. MS symptoms include depression, weakness and fatigue, spasms, diminishing of intellect, incontinence, sexual dysfunction and pain among others.

Allaboutms.com not only has a lot of information about the disease, but also about coping and living with it. There are sections of the website devoted to dealing with the mental effects of the disease, as well as the physical aspects. The website has articles that talk about relaxation and other stress reduction techniques. It gives suggestions about coping techniques for dealing with the neurological effects of the disease such as loss of coordination, memory loss, etc. There is even an article dealing with nutrition and the multiple sclerosis diet.

If you or a loved one suffer from this terrible disease, or if you are just curious and want to know and learn more about this disease, allaboutms.com is a good starting point. The site is comprehensive and covers all aspects of the disease from diagnosis to treatment and coping options. I wish nobody had to suffer from a dread disease like MS, but given that it is out there, it is a good thing sites like this are out there too, to support sufferers and their caregivers.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Can A Bulletin Board Preserve My Sanity?

As my kids grow up, the number of activities they are involved in has gone up steadily. They have dance lessons, singing lessons, violin lessons, gymnastics classes, volleyball games, karate classes, after-school club meetings, homework get-t0gethers with friends, and probably dozens of other activities that I don't even remember now!

How can one keep track of so much stuff. I found that it was easy to put all this in a calendar program, but not everyone in the house is as technologically oriented as I am. Things got forgotten because we forgot to check the computer often enough. Or because the computer was off when an appointment came due.

I then struck upon the idea of printing out each day's activities and putting it somewhere prominent. Initially, I thought I would put it up on the refrigerator, but that may not work. My kids sometimes take the sheet off its usual place and then misplace it where they can not find it. And then things get forgotten once again.

I am not gravitating towards a solution that will allow me to put a printed schedule for each day in a common place in the home, and nobody else except me or my wife can actually get at the schedule physically. I have decided to get an enclosed bulletin board!

I came upon this idea when I came across the website of a merchant who sells enclosed bulletin boards. This merchant has a low price guarantee on all their products, a 30-day return period, an unconditional satisfaction guarantee, and free shipping on all their products. They also have numerous styles for these bulletin boards, including some which will fit right at home without making it feel like a hotel lobby!

Similar to the large selection of styles, depending on your taste, you can get enclosed cork bulletin boards or enclosed fabric bulletin boards. They also have enclosed outdoor bulletin boards that can be used to leave messages for delivery people, mailmen and other people who visit your house.

Once I put this up in a good place, and make sure that only my wife and I have keys to it, we should be able to keep better track of our children's activities in the future. No more missed classes, no more disappointed groans or screams from the kids. As I get older, my grip on sanity is getting more and more tenuous, but hopefully this solution will enable me to hold onto what I have left a little tighter!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ugly Betty

Thanks for the post, Arthur Lawrence

I was devastated this past year when Ugly Betty went off the air. Ugly Betty was one of my favorite shows on television over the course of the last four years. The story line was quirky and fresh, which made it stand out from other shows in its genre. It's interesting and fun take on the fashion world kept me coming back week after week. The characters were all well developed and truly unique. It was one of the first shows to really bring attention to many different issues in a light hearted way. Ugly Betty focused on everything from gay teens to body image to immigration, making it a truly interesting fashion focused show.

My www.TVByDirect.com satellite tv was regularly tuned into this show over the course of its run on tv and I loved watching all of the interesting fashions on the show. The wardrobe was amazing and different, which is what made it so interesting. This show was the perfect combination of humor and whit, with an amazing cast that pulled off a truly intriguing story line.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Are Hard Disk Sizes Always Less Than Advertised?

If you read reviews of hard disks and other data storage products, or participate in a lot of online discussions about computers, such as in help forums, you are bound to run into this sooner or later. The wording may be different, the tone may be different, but the meaning is always the same: My hard disk is supposed to be xx GB in size, but my operating system says it is only yy GB in size. Is there something hiding on my hard disk? Did the hard disk maker cheat me?

Many of these people asking the question may be new to computers. Others may have noticed the discrepancies only now. The fact is that there is nothing hiding on hard disks (usually), and the hard disk makers are not really cheating. The problem is that the same unit names are being used to mean two different quantities.

Since the time of the first computers, computer scientists have measured things in powers of 2 because computers are binary machines. Each bit (or binary digit) has a value of 0 or 1 (2 values, hence binary). A combination of 4 bits is called a nibble and a combination of 8 bits is called a byte (clever, huh?). Notice that 4 and 8 are powers of 2 too. Most CPU's today are 64-bit CPU's meaning that they can take in instructions that are 64 bits long in one processing cycle, and produce outputs that are 64 bits long. But before that there were 32-bit, 16-bit and 8-bit processores. 64, 32, and 16 are also powers of 2.

When memory became abundant enough to have reasonably large amounts of it on computers, higher units of memory than bits and bytes became necessary in order to avoid confusing everyone with long, unreadable numbers. Imagine there were no units of distance other than inches. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to express the distance between Los Angeles and Sydney, or the distance from the earth to the nearest star? That is why higher units of distance like miles, kilometers and light years were devised.

Similarly, computer scientists came up with kilobytes, and after that megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, and so on to express higher and higher amounts of bytes. Sticking to their original scheme of making all multipliers powers of 2 when it comes to dealing with bits and bytes, computer scientists also agreed to a convention in which a kilobyte is 1024 bytes, a megabyte is 1024 kilobytes, a gigabyte is 1024 megabytes, and so on.

Unfortunately, this is not strictly in compliance with the SI unit system which defines the prefixes kilo, mega, giga and tera in terms of powers of 10. Thus in the SI system of units, kilo means 1000 (thus a kilometer is 1000 meters), mega is 1,000,000 (thus a megaton is 1,000,000 tons), giga means 1,000,000,000 (1 billion), and tera means 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion). Note that 1000, 1,000,000, 1,000,000,000, etc. are not powers of 2).

This is the origin of the problem. At some point in the past, hard disk manufacturers decided to split with the computer scientists (either because of honest error or because it suited their purposes better). They started sticking to the SI system strictly, and made their definitions of kilobyte (KB), megabyte (MB), gigabyte, etc. different from that of computer scientists. In the hard drive makers' worlds, a kilobyte is 1000 bytes, a megabyte is 1000 KB, a gigabyte is 1000 MB and so on.

Operating systems are written by computer scientists, and they still measure memory using the computer scientists' units. Thus, when the operating system encounters a disk with 1,000,000 bytes (1 million bytes), it does not know that this was a disk designated by its manufacturer as having 1 MB in storage. Instead it sees it as having 1,000,000/(1024*1024) megabytes in storage. Obviously, this is lower than 1 MB, so the operating system reports the amount of space on the disk to be about 0.95 MB.

The problem is that as storage becomes more abundant, and disks become bigger and bigger, the discrepancy between advertised size and the size the operating system sees is going to get bigger and bigger. At every step of the way, hard drive manufacturers are multiplying the previous unit by 1000 to get to the next unit while computer scientists are multiplying the previous unit by 1024 to get to the next unit.

Hard drive size discrepancyThus the discrepancy between a hard drive maker's kilobyte and a computer scientist's kilobyte was only 1000/1024, or about 2.34%. The discrepancy between a hard drive maker's megabyte and a computer scientists megabyte is 1000*1000/(1024*1024), which is about 4.63%. Similarly, the discrepancy in gigabytes is about 6.87%, and in terabytes, it is about 9.05%. The accompanying chart illustrates the growing size of this dicrepancy as the units become bigger.

So, that is where the extra space is hiding. It is not holding some secret piece of software! And it is not sitting at the hard drive manufacturer's factory!! It is hidden in the obfuscation caused by the use of two different definitions for the same unit.

Some solutions have been proposed to get rid of this dual definition of units, but none has caught on so far. One of the simplest is to rename all binary prefixes with a "bi" at the end of the prefix to denote clearly that it is not an SI prefix, but a binary prefix. This scheme would make a computer scientists' kilobyte a kibibyte. Similarly the other computer scientists' units would become mebibyte, gibibyte, tebibyte and so on.

That still leaves open the confusion of what the short forms of those prefixes should be, and how they should be distinguished from the standard SI short forms for the prefixes, which are K for kilo, M for mega, G for giga, etc. One suggestion is to make the short forms for the binary suffixes two letters each, with the letter "b" appended to the standard SI short form. Thus hard drive manufacturers would have an MB, while computer scientists would have MbB. Hard drive makers would have GB and computer scientists we would have GbB, and so on.

I don't think these ideas are going to catch on quickly, if ever. In the meantime, we have to live with the discrepancy whenever we look too closely at hard disk sizes. Just remember that hard disk sizes as reported by the operating system will always be a few percent lower than the hard disk sizes claimed by the hard drive manufacturers. The discrepancy will be larger as the unit in which the hard disk size is expressed gets bigger. There is nothing nefarious about this discrepancy. There is nothing hidden on the hard drives. The discrepancy simply occurs because hard drive makers use a different definition of data storage units than software makers. Now you know!

Make Your Yard More Inviting With Yard Arbors

The summer is almost over. And through most of the country, that means yardwork is almost over too. Now is the time to take care of last minute yard beautification projects, or they have to wait till next spring.

One easy way to add a spot of peace and quiet to your yard is to install yard arbors. Arbors are a shady resting place in a yard, usually made of latticework, on which plants may be grown. And YardArbors.com is a good place to get an arbor (or a few) that suits your taste, whatever that taste may be.

If you have benches and other decorations in your yard, arbors allow you to enjoy their benefits more by enclosing them in a natural setting, and shading them against the harsh sunlight. Garden arbors can be used to grow shrubs, climbers, vines, and other plants so that the latticework of the arbor itself blends with the vegetation, making the arbor look quite natural.

If you are into bird-watching, arbors are a wonderful addition to your yard. The increased surface area that an arbor provides attracts more birds to them. If you grow flowering plants on the arbor, you can also expect butterflies and hummingbirds to visit the arbor during the day.

YardArbors.com sells arbors in numerous designs. The arbors are made of different materials, including metal, vinyl and wood. If you want a truly natural setting in your yard, you might prefer wooden arbors. You can get these in natural wood finish or painted in several different colors from YardArbors.com. All the arbors come with an unconditional satisfaction guarantee, 30-day return period, and free shipping.

You can even get companion arbors with swings under them. If you don't have a bench or other seating in your yard, and don't want to install one separately, this can be the perfect solution for your yard. You install one of these arbors, and you have a comfortable seat that comes with its own shaded area! Either way, arbors are a great way to add variety to a flat yard.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Have Homework For The Next 9 Weeks!

At the beginning of summer, sometime around May or June, somebody mentioned to me that they work in H&R Block during the tax season. I got interested in the idea, mainly because it involved making some extra money on a flexible schedule. I found out more details, and then after thinking about it for some time, I enrolled myself in an H&R Block tax preparation class in June.

The class was not supposed to start until the middle of September, so I forgot about it after some time. This past week, I got a call from H&R Block reminding me that my class starts at 9 AM on September 11th. It is a Saturdays-only class that takes place over 9 Saturdays. If you have more time over the weekdays, you can take classes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 9 weeks. Since I did not want to do that, I enrolled in this class that is just once a week.

But it combines three 3-hour sessions into a single day, so it is a 9-hour class. And I am stuck in it for the next 8 weeks! And this is not just a simple, formality of a class. It actually teaches you how to prepare taxes, so there is a lot of homework associated with each class. We are supposed to review the chapters that are going to be covered in each class, and complete all the exercises in those chapters before the session. The instructor will then go over them and answer any questions students have.

In the first class yesterday, we covered the first 3 chapters of our textbook, which is a 1000-page behemoth. It is paired with an equally large workbook with exercises. I have to find time in my busy weekday schedule to complete the next 3 chapters of the textbook and finish 3 chapters worth of exercises before next Saturday's class!

The students in this class ranged from 20 to 60 years of age. Some of them were already in the accounting field, and wanted to develop their skills a little more. Others were like me, professionals in other fields who want to broaden their horizons and possibly earn an extra income with H&R Block. The third set of people were people who seemingly had never done taxes in their lives, and thought it was some kind of black magic!

The instructor was not too impressive (she has been with H&R Block only for 3 years before this teaching stint), and just asked us to read the textbook in the class. She then worked on some of the exercises, and scored about an 80% in getting the answers right. The class was much more varied with some people following instructions correctly and getting the right answers while others seemed to have no idea what they were supposed to be doing.

The first three chapters are trivial as far as I was concerned. I am sure there will be challenging advanced topics in the future, but these three chapters were purely about doing basic arithmetic (transferring numbers from one box to another according to instructions, adding, subtracting and multiplying them with other numbers according to instructions, and then transferring the results to more boxes) according to simple English instructions. If you have trouble doing that, I have no idea how you can do anything advanced in tax preparation. I have a feeling about a third of the class will drop out within the next few weeks.

I have always prepared my own taxes ever since I came to this country more than 20 years ago. For a person with just a W-2, and simple deductions like home mortgage interest, and a few stock transactions to report capital gains on, preparing taxes can be boring, but not challenging. I don't have much respect for people who are too lazy or stupid to even do something that simple. But, I am reminded of a wise man who said, never call someone a fool, borrow money from them. I think I have found a better way to take advantage of a fool: I am going to prepare his taxes!

Anyways, that is about the only excitement in my life this week. Work returned to normal after the excitement of last week. Because of the relative calm and quiet, I was able to get some work done in my project instead of being forced to chase after ghosts, bugs and ghosts of bugs.

I also concluded my hunt for a better computer this year by buying a large external hard drive instead of a computer. I wrote a post about how computer prices stay resolutely and illogically high while component prices like those for hard disks are very low. Since my computer works fine apart from having run out of hard disk space, I decided to buy an external disk that will help me move some material that I seldom use off my laptop's internal disk to this external disk. I think I can extract a few more years of use out of my laptop that way.

My blog was not visited by anybody from any new country. Disappointing to some extent, but not very surprising at all. As for the upcoming week, whether there are posts will depend on whether I have any time left after getting my tax homework for next week squared away. In the meantime, it is time for me to do some chores around the house, and then start preparing for another week of work.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Take Charge Of Your Credit Report And Get Mistakes Removed

Thanks to guest blogger, Yain Uribe Valle, for this post.

Recently, my application for a credit card got rejected. I have never had a credit card application denied before, so this was quite shocking. Along with the rejection letter, I got a letter saying I could look at my credit reports based on this rejection.

When I requested and received my credit reports, I found that they had information that was not true. Credit cards with late payments that were never paid. Accounts written off as uncollectable that were never opened by me. Maybe somebody had used my information to commit credit fraud, and my credit report looked awful because of that.

A bad credit report is not a good thing. It can not only get you turned down for credit card applications like I was, it can also hinder you from getting a good job, or renting or buying a good house. I decided that the bad information in my credit report had to be cleaned out. But this is a time-consuming job that is best left to professionals.

So, I hired a company that offers credit repair services, and explained my problem to them. They got to work right away and started producing results from day one. They started getting negative items deleted from my credit reports not just from one credit agency, but from all three credit agencies.

My credit score started going up steadily once I put CCRC to work on my credit reports. Within a few weeks, I had gone from mediocre to solidly credit-worthy. Once they were able to establish that my credit reports had been marred by fraud, the process was quite smooth, and they were able to get all the false negative information removed from my credit report. Based on my experience with them, I would rate them one of the best credit repair services out there.

If you are having problems buying a house or car, or if your credit card applications are rejected, the reason could very well be in your credit report. You should definitely take a look at the credit reports, not just from one agency, but from all three credit reporting agencies. If there is negative information in the report, that may be holding you back from the credit you deserve.

Fighting with credit reporting agencies requires patience, perseverance, and knowledge of procedures and processes that most common people do not have. It is best to hire a company that offers credit repair services, and have them battle the bureaucracies at the credit reporting agencies on your behalf. A company like CCRC has the manpower and expertise to make a difference to your credit report in a short amount of time. The results are well worth the expense, so don't put off the restoration of your good credit and good reputation. It is not good to be worrying about a bad credit report when you are in an emergency and need credit urgently!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hard Disk Costs Are Very Low, But Computer Prices Are Too High

Early last month, I wrote about how computer prices have behaved somewhat unintuitively over the past couple of years, making it uneconomical for me to consider replacing my computer right now. I paid less than $500 for the laptop computer I bought in February of 2008. It is a good computer with an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU running at 1.40 GHz, 2 GB of RAM, 250 GB hard drive, DVD-RW drive, 1280x800 15.6" wide-screen, etc. It also came with a high-capacity 9-cell Li-Ion battery that still lasts more than 5 hours on a full charge.

My only problem with the computer has been that over the last two and a half years, I have filled up the hard disk of the computer. Photos, videos, music, ebooks and various programs acquired over the life of the computer have filled up the hard disk to the point where I have only about 15 GB left over.

My initial thought was to replace the computer with a new one this summer. I initially thought I could get a decent computer with a much bigger hard disk for about the same price as I paid for this computer two and a half years back: about $500. Boy, was I disappointed when I started shopping around.

Most computers under $500 that I looked at during my recent computer-shopping, were based on Intel Celeron or worse processors, and had only 160 GB or 250 GB hard disks. If I wanted a decent dual core processor, 4 GB of RAM and at least 500 to 640 GB of hard disk capacity, I was looking at an outlay of about $700. Computer prices are supposed to drop with time while their capabilities go up over time. But, apparently, not in this case. Moore's law seems to have had a bad hiccup over the past 2 years!

Since the only thing wrong with my current computer is the hard disk capacity, I changed my focus from looking for a replacement computer to looking for a replacement hard drive. That was when I found that portable hard drives based on 2.5" hard drives were less expensive than just the hard drives bought as replacement laptop hard drives. Once again, unintuitive economics that forced me to change my plans once again.

I started looking for regular external hard drives based on 3.5" disks to serve as overflow storage for files that were clogging up my laptop's hard drive. I am happy to report that, finally, I have been successful in this quest. I was checking hard disk prices for some time and following trends for the past couple of weeks. I was tempted to buy some stuff earlier, but I held on, and my patience finally paid off.

Iomega Prestige 2 TB USB 2.0 Desktop External Hard Drive 34926 (Charcoal)I found a good 2 TB hard drive on sale today for under $110. Now, that is a price point that is difficult to pass up. It is on sale at Amazon.com for about 25% off right now, and I was afraid the price was going to go up pretty soon. Pretty much all the 2 TB drives I looked at apart from this one were in the $150 price range. In fact, most 1 TB drives are only about $10 cheaper than this drive. And the drive is made by Iomega, a pretty reputable company. So, I decided to take the plunge and ordered the drive today. I should get it in about a week or so.

The actual hard drive disk inside is supposed to be a Seagate product, but I will know more only when I get the disk and take a peek at the specifications after hooking it up to my computer.

Given that I am quite happy with my computer except for the hard drive capacity, and I am willing to live with some of the files on it being stored on an external overflow hard drive, the economics of this drive are difficult to pass up. It costs only about a fifth of what I would spend on a new computer. I already have a 160 GB and a 500 GB external hard drive at home. I use them for nightly backups of my laptop's hard drive. I will now be able to use these hard drives as overflow hard drives and use the new 2 TB hard drive as my nightly backup hard drive.

Now, given the low cost of this hard drive, and the low cost I found earlier on portable hard drives, I am wondering if computer manufacturers are making a killing selling computers for a much higher price than what it is costing them to make them from the individual components. Maybe I should buy some Dell stock instead of buying a Dell computer!

Pilgrimage to the Grand Old Opry

Guest post written by Ken Bryant

I grew up on country music and even though my musical interests have expanded as I've grown older, I always come back to country as my favorite music genre and the one that means the most to me consistently. So I've been wanting to go to Nashville for a long time. But before I went I knew that I needed to take care of my hearing problems. So I went and got a free hearing test and examined hearing aid cost before I finally bought one.

That made me even more excited to go and see the birth place of country music and the Grand Old Opry! They have shows there almost every night and I went and saw Randy Travis play there, who I'd followed for a long time. It was amazing, the only complaint I have is the seating is like long benches without any backs, which can get a little old while you're sitting there enjoying a show. I've already decided to go back next year and take my grandchildren!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

All Is Well That Ends Well!

This week, I encountered an unexpected problem at work. A data analysis program that I am partly in charge of supporting started producing meaningless results, and nobody could figure out what was going on. This was an old model that was written sometime in the latter half of the 90's (the comments in the program indicated that the program was started sometime in 1997, but there were comments from much later also).

The program had been validated and tested, and around 2001 or 2002, it was basically in pure support mode. The program consisted of a SAS part that produced a forecast of some sort and then a C program that used these forecasts to do some optimization. I am in charge of supporting the C program, and one of my colleagues is in charge of the SAS programs. Neither of us have delved deep into the program because we took over support of the programs long after the program was in pure support mode.

By that time, all the original authors of the program had left the company. We had had a little bit of "technology transfer" from the authors telling us the basics, and since the programs developed no problems most of the time, we never had reason to dig into the source code that much. Given that we were busy with other projects, etc., these programs were pretty much forgotten, with the assumption that they would continue working with no problems going forward.

Well, the program decided to break down this week. Initially, the results from the optimization program became nonsensical, so the users assumed something was wrong with the optimization part of the problem. We dug into it a little, and quickly found out that the reason the optimization program was producing nonsense was because it was being fed nonsense by the forecasting program. Garbage in, garbage out!

The forecasting program, as I mentioned earlier, was written in SAS. Neither I, nor my colleague who is actually "in charge" of the forecasting program is a SAS expert. She knows a little bit of SAS whereas I know pretty much nothing. I am good at SQL and other components used in SAS, but in general, I find the syntax of SAS quite off-putting. I am used to procedural languages like C, and the SAS way of doing things with tables was not very intuitive to me.

Moreover, the program was not very well written. Because of space constraints, memory constraints, or out of plain malice, this SAS program took spaghetti code to new heights. Tables were dropped and recreated at will instead of different datasets being in tables of different names. Variable names were reused all over the place, and dozens of external SAS macros were called from within the program. Tracing the working of this program was a bear.

The problem started out on Monday, and nothing we did solved the problem for the next few days. We were getting desperate, and our lack of deep SAS knowledge was hampering our debugging also. We were getting resigned to the seemingly inevitable fact that we would have to leave the problem unsolved over the long weekend, and come back and work on it the next week.

I hate doing that because I know that I will worry about the problem incessantly when I leave it open over a long weekend. Already, every day when we left the problem for the next day, I found it hard to let go of the problem, and on a couple of days, I had dreams about the program and its problems! I could only imagine what havoc an open problem like that would wreak on my peace of mind over the long weekend. The user had to produce results for our company's CFO from the program, and he said he needed the results yesterday, but no pressure!

Fortunately, at about 4 PM on Friday, as we toiled over another table printed out from the program in our attempt to trace the data backward all the way to its source, I subconsciously noticed that something was off with the numbers in one of the columns. At first, I couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. Nowadays, because of old age or whatever, thoughts take a lot longer to crystallize in my conscious brain after they register with the subconscious.

I was pacing back and forth outside the cubicle of my colleague who was following some other lead, when finally it hit me. We quickly checked in the source code and found the calculation that was causing the problem. It was quite subtle and it was easy to miss. In fact, the calculation in the code had worked for several years without problems, but it would fail when the data was just so. And in this case, the data was just so, triggering the bug, and causing the program to spew out nonsense.

We quickly put a fix in place to cause the program to treat the data correctly, and the results miraculously became well-behaved. We could not believe our good luck. The user had already left his office for the long weekend. But we wrote him an email explaining that the problem had been fixed in development and he could get his numbers whenever he came back to the office out of the development system. We would arrange to put the fix in production later next week.

We heaved a big sigh of relief, and left for the long weekend at about 6 PM on Friday. It took us a while to test the fix and make absolutely sure that we had fixed it for good. We certainly did not want to be confronted with a fix that needed a fix on Tuesday. Our manager was also very relieved, and we all left for the long weekend in much higher spirits than we would have if we had not had the good fortune of finding and fixing the bug. It took us most of a week, and we would have preferred it if we had found and fixed the bug on Monday, but better late than never, I guess. So, all is well that ends well as far as this rude intrusion into my work week was concerned.

The weekend has been quite relaxed and peaceful, partly because of this good outcome. Yesterday, we had a family outing to a nut store where we were able to sample all kinds of nuts, candy made out of nuts, etc. The stuff on sale there turned out to be not of very good quality (the good quality stuff was not on sale, and it was no cheaper than buying it in a regular grocery store), but at least it was something out of the ordinary for us.

Later yesterday evening, I took my kids on a walk through the neighborhood. I have been going on long walks in the evenings the past several days, and I wanted to take them on one such walk. It turned out to be not such a good idea. They hardly interacted with me, instead choosing to yak amongst themselves endlessly and chasing after butterflies and moths they encountered along the way. I had to keep shouting after them to keep them from running too far ahead or falling too far back. All in all, it was like taking a couple of cats on a walk without leashes on them!

It is not like that when I take just one of them on a walk because then they have nothing else to do except listen to my bad jokes and interact with me. So, I have decided that perhaps I should take them on walks individually, alternating between the two of them rather than taking both of them out together.

I published a couple of post on my blog this week. Both of them were about my Peru vacation, which is now almost a month old. Accounts of day 8 and day 9 both went out this week, concluding something that had just hung there unfinished for the longest time. Now, I just need to get back to my regular publishing about other subjects until I do something exciting, such as taking my next vacation.

There were visitors from two new countries to my blog this week. They were from Montenegro and Mali. With that, the number of countries from which I have had visitors stands at 148. The chart below shows the breakout of visitors from the top few countries in terms of visitors to my blog.

It is amazing to me that my blog gets more visitors from Bhutan than from 140 other countries (Bhutan contributes the 8th most visitors to my blog according to this chart below)! Bhutan has a population of less than 700,000!! It is ranked 163rd in the world in terms of population, yet it is ranked 8th in terms of visitors to my blog!!! Wonders never cease . . .

Breakdown of visitors by country
But it did pique my curiosity, so I started doing some research into Bhutan. I had only seen photographs in the past, and knew it was a beautiful, mountainous place. But I never cared to find out more about it, such as its history, culture, etc. It is a fascinating country with a very unique distinction: the highest point in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum, which has the distinction of being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, at 7,570 metres (24,840 ft). I hadn't even realized that there are unclimbed mountains in the world!

I am no mountaineer, but given the successful assaults on much higher mountains, I started wondering what was so special about this mountain that it would remain unclimbed. It turns out that mountaineering in Bhutan has been prohibited since 2003. Between 1994 and 2003, climbing to peaks higher than 6000 meters (20,000 feet) was prohibited out of respect for local spiritual beliefs. Bhutan was open to mountaineering only in 1983, and only 4 attempts were made on this mountain between 1983 and 1994. The first expedition never even found the mountain because of bad maps!

Bhutan is also the first country to advance the concept of Gross National Happiness, a measure of the quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than gross domestic product (GDP). Bhutan's central planning process revolves around the GNH measure rather than around the country's GDP and other measures of economic development. Maybe, one day, when I get out of the rat race I am trapped in, I will settle down in Bhutan or some place like that which actually values the happiness of its citizens!

If it were any other week, I would be scrambling around this time to get all set for another week of work. But this being the labor day weekend, I have one more day to spend at home before I have to head back to work. So, happy labor day to everyone out there, and to myself!

Trust Your Skin's Health To Skincare Products Created By A Dermatologist

When you have problems with your car, you wouldn't think of taking the car to your dentist. You would take it to a professional who is trained to take care of cars rather than caries and cavities. But when it comes to their skin, most people don't follow the same path. When they have skin problems or conditions, they get advice from pharmacy checkout clerks about products they can use to help solve the problem. Many of these people don't have the expertise to treat skin problems. And many of the products they recommend are little more than placebos, created by non-experts with no scientific basis.

When it comes to skin, there is one brand that stands out, and that is Murad. Dr. Howard Murad, the founder and CEO of Murad, is an MD and a world authority on skin care. He is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical professor of medicine at UCLA. His research and experience guide the creation of Murad skin care products.

Murad has solutions for most common skin care problems faced by many people in different stages of their lives. For most people, skin problems start in their teens with acne. Murad's acne products range from cleansers and moisturizers to supplements and toners that have garnered rave reviews from users.

At the other end of the spectrum, as people grow older, the skin shows symptoms of abuse through the years in the form of age spots. Murad's age spot treatment gel works, and works better than any other over-the-counter medication that purports to treat age spots. The user reviews of this gel reveal that 95% of users would recommend the product to others.

And if you have good skin now, and would like to keep it healthy for years to come, Murad has products geared towards maintaining skin health also. Murad produces pore cleansers that keep skin firm and healthy by reducing the possibility of bacterial infections in clogged pores. Murad also makes anti-aging treatments, oil-free sun-protection products, and and a revolutionary cellulite solution regimen that fights cellulite from the inside and outside.

And lest you think that Murad is all about catering to the vanities of women, Murad's men's shaving products should convince you otherwise. The Murad Man Regimen includes Cleansing Shave, Razor Burn Rescue and Face Defense SPF 15. All of Murad's products work for both men and women, but this regimen is specifically formulated to reduce razor burns, ingrown hairs and bumps, and irritation and redness.

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