Random Ramblings

September 1, 2009

Rock and Roll: Apple Car Stereo

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — camotop @ 1:43 pm

How cool would it be to have a car stereo that nicely integrates with an iPhone. No cables, FM transmitters or any non-sense. Just slide the iPhone or iPod Touch into the cradle, and it hooks into your car’s stereo. You can give voice commands, and take calls (music automatically pauses).

Please do not text/SMS while driving.

August 28, 2009

Gateway FX6800-01E

Filed under: Computer — Tags: , — camotop @ 9:41 am

I broke down and bought the new (well, refurbished) Gateway Core i7 desktop.  This computer is Fast!

Recovery Disks

At the advice of a colleague (and a note in the box), the first thing I did was create Recovery Disks. It took quite a bit of time, and burned 3 DVDs (there was an option to use 16 CDs as well). While I was doing that, Windows Vista was downloading many updates and installing them.

Anti-virus

My next job was installing (free) anti-virus software. I chose AntiVir. Filehippo, by the way, is a great site for free software. I use the Filter feature top right to show only Free software.

BIOS Update

I went to Gateway’s support site, and downloaded the latest BIOS update. To get this to work I unzipped the file, started a Command Prompt in Administrator Mode (by right-clicking the Command Prompt icon in the Start menu), and ran flash.bat.  Took a few minutes and rebooted the machine. I don’t think anything actually got updated, but it all worked, and I’m up to date.

Partitioning

I run Kubuntu Linux most of the time, switching to Windows only for gaming. Hence, I needed to create a dual-boot setup. The machine was setup with a 10 GB recovery partition, and the remaining 740 GB was for Vista, as one big NTFS partition. Vista comes with a built-in Shrink function. This worked fast, but has a limitation: it could only shrink the partition in about half — 370 GB, while I really only wanted 150 GB for Vista. After much searching, and trying defraggers like the built-in Defrag and freeware MyDefrag, shrink still wouldn’t let me make the partition any smaller.  MyDefrag shows a visual representation of the drive and indicated that some file was sitting at the very end of the drive, blocking the resize. At first I thought this was $MFT — an NTFS system file, that normally cannot be moved. I was wrong, and the file really was $bitmap, also a system file. The only program that I found could move this was Perfect Disk.  I tried many others, because I didn’t want to get into Trial versions, but none worked. Perfect Disk has a feature to run on bootup, and in that mode can move system files when optimizing free space.  This worked flawlessly. After the run, Vista’s partition Shrink worked again, bring the size to again half, or about 170 GB. This sufficed for my needs, and I left it at that.

Dual-boot Vista and Kubuntu

I downloaded Kubuntu 9.04 AMD64 version (since I wanted to run in 64-bit mode, and AMD64 means “for AMD CPUs and for AMD/Intel 64 bit CPUs). I inserted the CD and booted the computer. I had to press F10 on startup to get a Boot Menu and select the CD. The Kubuntu install was smooth, although the formatting of the 500 GB partition took a while.  In the partition section I chose to use up all free space. After installation completed, I rebooted, and the Grub Boot Loader let me boot into Linux, the Recovery Partition, or into Vista — very nice that this worked out of the box!

KDE 4.3

After booting Kubuntu a KDM login screen greeted me. I didn’t log in though, as I didn’t want to get my home directory cluttered with new config files for the old KDE version. Instead, I pressed CTRL-F1 to switch to a console. I went into super user mode, and updated /etc/apt/sources.list to point to the latest KDE 4.3. An apt-get update && apt-get dist-upgrade (which took some time), I rebooted and logged into a fresh KDE 4.3 install. Everything worked, including high-resolution video. In the system tray I clicked the Hardware manager and enabled the proprietary ATI drivers (FGLRX). After another reboot Compositing, Wobbly windows, etc. all worked.

64-bit Firefox

Next I wanted to install Firefox. The download from Mozilla didn’t work — gave me library not found errors (looking for libgtk). I also ran into some ELFCLASS64 errors. Turns out that on 64 bit linux there are three lib directories — /usr/lib32, /usr/lib and /usr/lib64 (symlink to /usr/lib). The Mozilla download was 32 bit, hence looked in /usr/lib32 and didn not find the libraries it needed. After a couple of dead-ends, I learned that I should have just done it the Kubuntu way: apt-get install firefox-3.5!  That worked wonderfully.

Flash

The standard flash plugin installer worked fine. I tried the 64-bit alpha from Adobe Labs, but it hung the browser, so I went back to the stable version. Flash worked, but no sound!   Other sounds in KDE worked, just not in Firefox / Flash movies. Once again internet forums helped, and after I followed the advice to turn the PCM volume in ‘alsamixer’ up, I had sound.

Conclusion

I’m pretty happy with the setup after 1 day. The Vista partition resizing took the most time and frustration of trial and error.  The machine is nice and fast, KDE 4.3 looks great, and just flies on it.

June 27, 2009

Intel Core i7 desire

Filed under: Computer — camotop @ 1:24 pm

One of my colleagues recently purchased a new Core i7-based desktop computer from TigerDirect. He’s been raving about the machine ever since. “It’s so fast”, “It shows up as 8 processors”, “I’m ripping a DVD, watching a movie, and running 3 VirtualBox instances and I still cannot slow down the thing”.  My frugal self dismissed those comments at first, though I was happy that he was happy. My old machine stills runs fine for what I do most of the time.

But then I started dreaming — what could I do with a newer, faster computer ?  For one, I wouldn’t have to put all of my Kongregate flash games to Lowest Quality.  I’d be able to play some of my older games at their highest resolution. JAlbum would be a lot faster generating my photo albums. Manipulating photos in Gimp would be a lot smoother.  And I would also be able to run some things in VirtualBox, so as to not mess up my host system to try something out.

Having not been on the market for several years, I had no idea of what is out there. I soon learned that I should stay away from AMD, that Intel’s Core i7 is the fastest by a mile, and that Intel’s Core 2 Duo and Quad are coming down in price nicely.  I’d want at least 4 GB RAM, which puts me in 64-bit Operating System territory, but it seems that Kubuntu support is pretty much there. So I’ll take that risk. If I do come across a critical program that I need that is only 32 bits binary, then I’ll run it in a VirtualBox VM, on a 32-bit Kubuntu install.

For Core 2 Duo, I decided that I need and x8200 or greater, for a Quad Q9xxx, or any Core i7. I based this on features in the processor listed in http://www.intel.com/products/processor_number/chart/core2duo.htm

With Core i7 performance so far ahead of the rest, I may go with the i7, but I’ll of course be paying for it. Especially since there is no competition at the moment (AMD has not matched it yet). The cheapest i7 goes for around $750 at the moment from Dell. http://www.dell.com/home/desktops#subcats=&navla=&a=55103~0~2869930

Between $750 and $900 there are several options from Dell, NewEgg,  HP, and TigerDirect.

I’ve set a maximum price for myself of $600. This means I’ll have to wait out the summer at least, or get lucky and find a good Mail In Rebate or special for a certain configuration.  I’m checking several deal sites almost daily now to see how close those prices get to my level. Some sites:

http://www.dealsofamerica.com/desktop_deals.php

http://dealnews.com/categories/Computer/PC-Computers/PC-Desktop/48.html?filter=c:48;&e=0

It’ll be worth it. I purchased my current, 5-year old machine for about $300, cheap even at the time. I figure that $600 may not last me 10 years, but at least it will last 5 years, and it will give me truly top line performance. I’ll enjoy that. Note also that this is still only a fraction of the cost of a Mac!  I have no Mac envy, since Kubuntu looks so nice, and KDE 4.3 appears to be just that much easier to use.

Also, my current computer can be re-purposed. I haven’t decided if it should be a dedicated computer for my children, or if I should use it as Media Center (perhaps running MythBuntu ?).

June 8, 2009

mp3 ID3 tags with Kubuntu Linux

Filed under: Computer — Tags: , — camotop @ 10:18 pm

Finally. After years of dinging around with EasyTag, a manually patched AlbumArt-qt, and lots of trouble, I finally have a working setup. With KID3’s support for album covers in its April release, I finally have one tool to do the job.
My workflow for organizing music files:

  1. start with a directory of mp3 files
  2. directory is named “artist – album”
  3. each song is named “track title”, where track is always 2 digits (meaning leading zero’s for those under 10).
  4. After the Naming step, I tag each file with KID3. I usually do several directories (albums) at once.  With KID3 now, I can search for album covers from the File menu. In the dialog that follows I typically pick Google, but sometimes Amazon gives a better result. Clicking Browse in that window opens a Konqueror browser, with the search results. I pick the imagine I like, view it at full size (I usually go for around 500×500 for album cover, not sure why), and drag the image in the drop zone in KID3. Make sure all files in the directory are selected, and the image is applied to each. If you make a mistake, simple click the picture tag in the ID3V2 section, and click the Delete button on the right.
  5. Once done, I save the files, which tends to take some time on my old computer.
  6. Now it is validation time. I’ve tried to get Amarok to see the covers, but no luck. I think they still do not support the APIC ID3 tag, or perhaps not with an empty description. Although I generally like what Amarok is about, this is a showstopper. Luckily Songbird has come of age, and proves to be a great album cover browser, especially with its MediaFlow add-on.  To view my newly tagged files I copy them to Songbird’s library directory, and view them in Songbird. If all looks good, I move the files to the “Done” directory that contains all my neatly organized music.
  7. I haven’t done any genre or year population. Not sure if I would use that, and it seems more hassle than it’s worth. Automated download of the info is available, but sometimes overwrite other tags incorrectly.

So check out KID3 and Songbird!  Both work great on Kubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty).

March 6, 2009

Window effects on old desktop

Filed under: Computer — Tags: — camotop @ 11:44 pm

My desktop computer is about 5 years old. It has an old AGP graphics card slot. Years ago I upgraded the card to an expensive ATI AGP card because I wanted better performance for Need For Speed: Most Wanted.
On Linux I never really got the card to work to its full potential — X never seemed to want to do all the acceleration and after many hours of fiddling (at several different occasions) I gave up on it.
Then I got a new machine at work. Any new computer that replaces a five year old one seems fast. And it had a good graphics card. So I have KDE 4.2.1 with all the nice wobbly windows, shadows, transparency effects, desktop cube and so on.
Of course at home I was envious. And I realized that I never tried installing the latest ATI driver after upgrading to Kubuntu 8.10 and KDE 4.2.1. There’s now a cool “Hardware Drivers” program under Applications->System. It lists proprietary drivers that previously were tedious to install, even for a seasoned Linux user.
After backing up important data to the external drives, I clicked “Activate” in the Hardware Drivers program. It said it downloaded and installed the driver and asked for a reboot. I rebooted, and it worked! That’s been the least painful install ever. Surprisingly the effects are very smooth. Sometimes they take up to a second to kick (when moving a large window), but it all feels great. So I’m actually smiling and happy again with my old desktop that feels new again. Thanks Kubuntu!

1TB external disk under $100

Filed under: Computer — Tags: — camotop @ 4:07 pm

New digital cameras have 10+ megapixels and high definition video capabilities. With exotic trips and young children there is always ample opportunity to capture those moments.
But the back-end of photo and video taking is that there is a growing need of digital storage. With a large digital music collection and 12 years of digital photo’s and videos we needed more space.
I already owned a 500GB MyBook, that works well, but filled up quickly. I looked for the 1TB drives to drop below the $100 mark. When the Fantom drive did (after mail in rebate) I bought it from Buy.com. I was worried about the brand, as I had not heard of Fantom. It turns out they just make the casing, and there’s a Western Digital drive inside.
It is well made, feels very solid, is quiet and as fast as needed.

Some deal sites helped me find this deal (and many others):
SlickDeals, DealsOfAmerica, Deals2Buy, DealMac.

Bottom line – I love the drive, and deal sites are a great tool to find a good price.

Free Online City Building Game

Filed under: entertainment — Tags: — camotop @ 2:38 am

After an open Beta (test version) since October 2008, Nile Online 1.0 has been released. The game is a city builder like Caesar III, Pharaoh, Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, and Children of the Nile.

You start with a small palace and a small amount of resources. You produce goods and resources and build out your kingdom by upgrading your palace. The game is a social one where trade with other players is a big part of the fun. Still, trade or other player interaction is not required to have fun. There’s very little military action, and it’s optional at that.
This is a browser based game meaning no downloads needed (not even flash). Firefox of course works best, but other browsers are known to work as well. Since it is online, the game can be played from any computer.
When you have a busy life and cannot afford to spend hours on a game, Nile Online is perfect. You can play even just 5 minutes a day to keep things running. Further into the game upgrades of the Palace and Shops take longer and longer, with the final level upgrades taking 50+ hours. Yet by optimizing resources and perfecting labor allocation, scheduling lucrative trades and timing things right you can advance ahead of other players and make the top 100.
The game can be played for free up to a certain level, and depending on strategy anywhere from 1 to 4 cities can be founded. Tokens (called Scarabs) can be purchased for relatively low cost and spent on upgrades, new cities, enabling pyramids, or fun things like dancing monkeys to liven up the scene.
I joined the Beta at the end of October and I have been playing almost every day since — so the game is entertaining for several months. Great fun for great value.
With the game going live only hours ago, there already are over 400 players, I suspect mostly Beta players, but it looks like the new round is starting off in all earnest. It is going to be a fun ride.

Check out the game!

February 9, 2009

Same computer, faster, cleaner desktop

Filed under: Uncategorized — camotop @ 2:21 am

For while my computer has been slowing down. Simple tasks like copying photos from an SD card over to the computer seemed to take forever.  Starting applications like Firefox would be slow too.  Not only that, even if I didn’t do anything, and leave the computer on overnight, the next day, it would barely do anything, until I logged out, and logged back in again. Now my computer is about 5 years old, so of course I started dreaming about a new, fast computer. But with the economy as it is, we’re really keeping our spending in check, so a new computer (unless the old one really breaks) is not in the budget.

Then KDE 4.2 was released. Not only was the install supersmooth, this version really makes my computer fly!   File operations are smooth again, applications start faster, and the computer doesn’t come to a crawl overnight. The desktop looks clean, yet tasteful. I have flexibility in move widgets from the taskbar to the desktop depending on if I want a smaller or larger version of it.

Bottom line: KDE 4.2 on Kubuntu 8.10 rocks, allowing me to get some more mileage on my old computer.

August 8, 2008

Internet, TV, Phone, Mobile bill

Filed under: finance — Tags: , — camotop @ 5:39 pm

We pay a ridiculous amount for our telecom services each month. And it seems we pay more for services we use less ! A break down:

  • Phone: $199/year or $17/month. Needed because cell phone signals do not reach into our house. We use a VoIP provider and love it.
  • TV: $20 for the most basic package. We hardly ever watch TV. Considering turning this off and just using the $1.50/movie/day Red Box in our grocery store. It does give us a $10 discount on our internet access.
  • Internet: $40 for the second cheapest package. Internet is vital, especially because we also need it for our VoIP phone. I think it is reasonable.
  • Wireless: $75 for two mobile phone plans (family plan). We have more rollover minutes than we know what to do with. Hardly ever SMS/Text. No data plan. Cheaper plans are very hard to find, and even the pay as you go is not all that cheap (they hit you with $1/day if you use your phone that day).

This adds up to some $150/month. That’s a lot of money, yet I cannot seem to find a way to lower these. Verizon recently put FIOS in our neighborhood and I expected some sweet deals (that I would have used to negotiate lower rates on our current providers), but it turns out that their initial offers are actually more expensive than our current plans, plus having been burned by Verizon in the past, I expect them to raise their fees in a year or so.

The only thing I can think of is to go to a lower (slower) tier for our internet. Perhaps we’ll try that out and see how it affects our phone quality and streaming of TV shows.

Of course, if we have good ATT reception, and streaming internet radio and shows was good enough, we could just get an iPhone and hook that up to our big screen TV  🙂  We could do all our browsing on the device, and cut out our phone, internet and cable TV costs for a data plan increase on the mobile service (for one of us).  I wonder, could I hook an iPhone (or other 3G smart phone) up to a wireless access point in our house as the provider of internet access ?

Investment strategies for company stock

Filed under: finance — Tags: — camotop @ 4:11 pm

I am way overinvested in stock of the company that I work for. The knee-jerk reaction is that that is a bad thing. But there’s more to it.

  • ESPP: For years I maxed out in ESPP contributions, getting company stock at a nice discount. I’m a buy and hold person, so I never sold any of it. The stock has been up and down since I started working, but right now selling would mean selling at a loss.
  • Stock Options: For the first several years employees annually received stock options in addition to a cash bonus. We sometimes also received options when we got a promotion. Options of course are a mixed blessing — if they are underwater (as most of mine are today), they are worthless. But they also pose no risk, and since I got them for free, as a bonus, I really have nothing to lose. They vest over 4 years, and expire at 10, and my first batch of options still has several years before expiring.
  • RSU: As part of an incentive bonus we sometimes receive Restricted Stock Units. They vest over 3 and 4 years, buy pay out dividend even before they vest. It’s a great incentive to stay with the company, because unlike options even with the lower stock price, my take when I sell is 100% (minus taxes, etc).
  • 401k: many of the funds in the 401k portfolio available to us have our company in their portfolio as well — so I have some exposure there as well.

I’m optimistic about the company’s future (and I really should take emotion out of investing!), so see no reason to sell these shares or execute the options, but I am trying to come up with an exit strategy. Part of me says to just hold everything. It’s easy, and I hope to ride the market’s recovery in a year or two, just like I’ve been riding it down with this stock.

The other part of me feels the exposure as a great risk. I could start by selling of the ESPP account, perhaps in a piece-by-piece basis, (like my previous post on automatic investing). Automatic sales would be a wonderful thing, I wonder if ShareBuilder does that too ?  Ie. each month, sell a certain number of shares, or a certain dollar amount. That would cost me the $10 fee for the sale each month ($120/year), but it would get me out of my position at lower risk than selling everything in one shot.

Of course I could then use the proceeds for an automatic investing plan, so it almost becomes and automatic diversification plan. How cool would that be — to put in maximum exposures and let the system diversify for you.

Since we’re in a down market right now (and my company’s stock pretty much followed the indexes up and down the past few years), this might not be the smartest time to start this sales cycle. Not trying to time the market, but I could set a lower limit that would first have to be reached before I kick of this plan. And I feel no rush — I can wait two years and see how things look at that time.

Once I do start selling, the question becomes when to stop ? Let’s say I dump all of the ESSP shares (is that a bad idea?), I cannot do much with the options, but I could sell the RSU as soon as they vest. I could also reshuffle the 401k into different funds, but the funds are doing fine, so I don’t feel as strong a need to do anything in that area.

How much exposure to the company I work for is too much ?  Another way to ask the question: how much exposure to any single company is too much ? 10% of my portfolio ?  I do not want to get spread too thin either.

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