Woody

Woody my friend,
has met his end,
amidst leaves and briars so cold.

Never to pound,
the woods to resound,
looking for his next luscious meal.

He’ll never again spy,
as I pass him by,
to cut down a tree or two.

Our talks I’ll so miss,
as he filled me with bliss,
just seeing that red head of his.

While others do fly,
away in the sky,
as I invade their sanctum so rude.

Woody was there,
as near as my chair,
cut from a tree stump I hewed.

So goodbye my friend,
my heart you do rend,
I’ll think of you each morning dew.

Dedicated to Woody the pileated woodpecker.
Copyright 2012, John Paul Mueller

Okra Pollination Problems (Part 2)

Last year I noted in my Okra Pollination Problems post that our okra had serious pollination problems—that the flowers were simply drying and falling off. What a difference a year makes! This year we moved the okra completely away from the tomatoes. Suddenly, there are all kinds of ants on the plants and the flowers are opening up as they should. In fact, we’ve already picked quite a bit of okra, which is one of the few bright spots in our drought impacted garden this year.

After talking with quite a few people about the issue, I’m becoming convinced that the okra flowers must have some sort of wax on them, much as other flowers such as peonies do. The ants are necessary to eat the wax off and help open the flowers. In addition, the ants must act as the pollinators. I haven’t seen much in the way of bee or other flying insect activity around these flowers to date and I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching. If someone else has an opinion about pollinators for okra, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

The okra plants also seem to be responding well to heat. We’ve had to water them, but the plants are growing normally despite the heat (as contrasted to our tomatoes that don’t appear to want to grow much at all). I’d be interested in hearing other experiences with okra when it comes to summer heat. Given that this has been a hotter than normal summer (breaking all sorts of records), it’s a good test of what will happen when climate change starts to take a fuller effect. Okra seems to be on our list of items to maintain despite the heat.

The one thing we have noticed is that we’re having to be a little more diligent than normal in monitoring the okra. The individual spears are growing faster than normal and it’s possible to see a smallish okra one day that turns into something a bit too large the next. When okra get too large, they also get woody. You don’t want to pick them too small, but too large definitely presents problems. We normally pick the okra when it reaches 2 inches in length. That size seems to provide a good tradeoff between getting enough value for the time invested and not having a woody result.

How is your okra growing this year? For that matter, how is your garden doing as a whole? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Using Appropriate Application Testers

It doesn’t matter what sort of application you’re creating—every application requires testing by an appropriate audience. Even VBA applications, such as those described in VBA for Dummies, require testing. I wrote about this topic in C# Design and Development, but it applies to all developers equally. The application stakeholders need to be involved in every phase of application development, but most especially in the testing phase. You may obtain stellar results when testing your application using a select group of users, but the real world is much harsher. Users come in all shapes and sizes and your application must accommodate them all.

One of the most critical groups to include in your testing environment are those with special needs. I wrote about this group in Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements. It’s important to understand that our aging population makes testing for this group critical. I think that Microsoft’s statistics are low, but you can read about how Microsoft has improved the accessibility features in Windows 8 in Enabling Accessibility to accommodate all groups, especially the elderly. However, you also need to include less skilled users, those with a lot of skills, but little computer knowledge, and those who are quite technically savvy, but want to get their work done quickly. In short, your stakeholders should include someone from each group of users in your organization. (The smart development team creates a list of these groups before the application is underway in order to start obtaining input from them as early as possible.)

Someone recently wrote me to say that he applauds my efforts to encourage developers to write better applications. The reader went on to say that I didn’t have any idea of just how hard the real world could be though and that actually implementing even a subset of my ideas would be incredibly hard. In short, the idea of accommodating everyone who will use an application is simply not possible in today’s environment. The problem with this attitude is that not accommodating user needs actually ends up costing an organization more in the long run.

It’s essential to understand that applications can be well-written and yet not serve the needs of the people using them. You can create a fabulous application that no one uses quite easily. When I say that testing must involved appropriate application testers, it means that these testers must represent all groups who will actually use the application and that you must accept all sorts of input from these users. The input may require that you rework the user interface or that you fix certain bugs. In some cases, you may even need to remove features because the stakeholders will never use it and the feature simply ends up confusing everyone. Applications that don’t address the needs of the users will cost your organization time and money in the following ways.

 

  • Users have a choice about applications today and they will simply ignore your application to use something that meets their needs better.
  • Whenever users become confused, they call support, which ends up costing your company both time and money.
  • Support calls take time and your user isn’t being productive while talking with support.
  • Even when the user is able to use the application, the accumulation of errors tends to slow the user down and increase the time required to perform a task.
  • Confused users tend to try combinations of things in frustration, which often results in data loss and other unfortunate consequences.


Part of the problem with the corporate atmosphere today is that management applies considerable pressure to get an application in production as quickly as possible. A developer can become quite tempted to use a group of “yes man” testers to show management that the application is ready for use, when it really isn’t even close. The theory is that it’s much easier to ask forgiveness for a poor design later, than to ask for additional time today. However, savvy developers know that it’s easier to change an application design than to apply fixes to an application that’s already hosted on a production system. The bottom line is that you always need to test with the appropriate group and create an application that really will do the job.

What are your worst experiences with application testing environments? How do you choose the testers you rely on to check your applications? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

VBA and Office 2013

First, the good news about Office 2013. Despite Microsoft’s best efforts to kill VBA off, it still hasn’t managed to do so. In running the various examples supplied with VBA for Dummies, I find that they all apparently run the same as they do for Office 2010. Consequently, you should still be able to follow the examples in my book without too much trouble. The Ribbon definitely will cause the same amount of trouble as it always has and you should read the posts in the VBA for Dummies category of this blog when working through the book. Remember that these assumptions are based on the current Office 2013 Customer Preview and not on a released product. I also tested the examples on Windows 7, rather than Windows 8. If anyone encounters issues working through the VBA for Dummies examples, I’d very much like to hear about them at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Second, the bad news (isn’t there always some bad news). I’ve been reading about some of the experiences other people have had with Office 2013. In fact, I’ve been trying to test some of these concerns as I work with Office 2013 because I’m almost certain that some of you will write me about them. Most of the issues seem to run on the esoteric side. For example, a number of people are reporting that Office 2013 has problems with animations that are supplied as part of a VBA macro. The issue seems to be one of timing, which is probably one of the more difficult aspects of a VBA macro to troubleshoot. My advice with these sorts of issues is to focus on the macro output for right now. When the inputs and outputs work as expected, the user is generally happy. Yes, features such as animations add pizzazz, but they don’t necessarily help users perform useful work. Even so, Microsoft will probably fix a few of these issues before product release. To obtain the best help with your particular question, check out the Microsoft Office forum.

Third, the surprise news is that Microsoft is even mentioning VBA in some of the Office 2013 documentation for developers. You can find an overview of developer information at What’s new for Office 2013 developers. Many of the changes you’ll find are quite technical (such as working with the new DataModel object model). I was also quite happy to see that there is a new user interface (a task pane) for creating the XML mappings required for content controls, so you don’t have to resort to using any of those weird file manipulation methods of the past. Once Office 2013 is released, I’ll cover a few of these topics in my blog. Make sure you check out the pages for the individual applications as well:


It’ll be interesting to see how users react to the modified Office interface. My thought is that Microsoft is trying to reduce the power consumption of its applications by reducing the complexity of the user interface. However, no one at Microsoft is really saying much except that the older Aero interface looks dated and cheesy.

You’ll also want to remember that Microsoft is maintaining VBA, not really enriching it in any significant way. If Microsoft had its way, VBA would disappear with the flash of a magician’s hand. Unfortunately for Microsoft, far too many people still use VBA to create productive applications. The Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) add-on has attracted a lot of attention from professional developers, but it’s far too complex for the typical office manager to use. The new focus is on something called Apps for Office. The overview for this new technology doesn’t fill me with a lot of hope that it’ll replace VBA anytime soon, but I’d love to hear your opinion about it.

For better or for worse, you’ll soon be finding yourself supporting another version of Office. In this case, you’ll likely find that VBA takes a few more hits in the compatibility zone. Microsoft is pushing hard to get developers to use anything other than VBA and developers seem equally convinced that VBA is still the right choice. I support using the right tool for the job. As long as VBA provides a simple environment for creating macros that perform useful work with a minimum of headaches, I’ll continue supporting it. In that regard, count on my continued support for VBA in Office 2013.

Technology Addiction

Whether a tool is an asset or a hindrance often hinges on how the tool is used. A recent Baseline slideshow added to my perception that addition really is becoming an issue with many technology users today. For example, the slideshow pointed out that 65 percent of iPhone users can’t get along without their iPhone, while only one percent said they can’t get along without Facebook. The issue from my perspective is that it should be possible to get by without either of these technologies for some period of time—they’re simply tools and not needs essential for life. How does a technology become so important that 65 percent of its users would feel some sort of withdrawal symptom without it?

The slides went on and I’ll spare you the crudity of some of the questions the author asked of the respondents. However, as you read through the slides, it becomes apparent that the respondents would willingly give up contact with loved ones in order to maintain a grip on their iPhone. There was one statistic that really got to me though. If you have personal business in the bathroom, please complete it before you call me. I’m more than happy to wait.

That this phenomenon truly is an addiction is no secret. A recent article in the Telegraph talks about students having withdrawal symptoms akin to drugs when denied access to their technology. The LA Times reported that technology addiction is more extreme than addictions to chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol. Even Web MD has gotten into the act and provided articles about the symptoms of technology addiction. Psychology Today recently provided an article that helps explain the underlying metal and physiological basis of the addition. My experiences with addiction tell me that it won’t be long and Americans will start seeing the rise of centers devoted to helping people overcome their technology addictions. At some point, people will be forced to do without their technology in order to save their lives. In fact, I’m already seeing articles such as the on The Guardian that describe how others have beat their technology addictions.

I’m often asked why I’m not using Twitter and Facebook (amongst other social media products). I do have a LinkedIn account that I visit it once every week or so, but I don’t devote a lot of time to it. In fact, I don’t carry a cellphone either and I perform all of my work using a desktop system. For many people, the lack of technology on my person is a bit puzzling. After all, I write about technology and I’m obviously familiar with it at a significant level. However, for me, computers are a tool and will remain so. I use my computer to write books, create applications, perform research, and do other sorts of useful work. However, when I’m done for the day, I gratefully shut my system down, turn off my office light, and close the office door. I go out and do something different for a while in order to actually enjoy my life. I’ve also written about how the technology is turned off during vacations—I really do need time to unwind.

The topic of just how much technology useful will take a long time to work out. The whole idea of a personal computer isn’t that old and the older systems weren’t user friendly. People haven’t had time to build up any sort of knowledge level about them. I imagine that the conversation about how much technology one can enjoy without becoming addicted will be a long one, with many professionals taking part. In the meantime, take time to enjoy life. Shut the cellphone off for a while. Better yet, just leave it at home. You really don’t need to be connected to the thing 24 hours a day.

What is your experience with technology addiction? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Power Management and Computers

I have written more than a few times about power management issues. For example, my CFLs for Free and More on CFL Usage look at the benefits of using Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) in the home. Over the years, readers have asked me time and again about power management on computer systems. Microsoft and other vendors have come up with all sorts of automation for turning hard drives, monitors, and even processors off in an attempt to use less power. In many cases, these strategies start with laptop devices and quickly move to desktop computers as well. The strategies often sound good in theory, but do they work in practice? In addition, does a practice that works well on a laptop translate into equal savings on a desktop system?

The main annoyance issue is one of turning off parts of the computer after the system sits idle for a while. I can’t tell you the number of times where I stopped to read something and suddenly found myself without a monitor. In some cases, I needed to wait until the hard drive powered up before I could continue working. There are even some situations where the system powered down other components that didn’t power back up correctly, causing me to reboot the system in order to restore stability. Does turning off parts of the computer for a few moments actually save money in the long run? I think you have to weigh the cost savings against several other factors:

 

  • The cost of asking the user to wait while the components power back up.
  • The cost of powering the component off, rather than have it simply sit idle (start up power is normally higher than idle power).
  • Wear and tear on the equipment (although, most computer components never serve their entire lifetimes).
  • Support requirements for users who don’t understand the power saving features.


I admit to using power saving features to an extent with laptops because battery life suffers otherwise. It’s worth a little of my time to extend the life of the battery. However, some users with laptops plug them in wherever they go anyway, so battery life isn’t such a big deal for them. In short, you need to also consider how the user works with the computer. A laptop that is normally plugged in doesn’t really need a long battery life.

On my desktop system, I normally run in high performance mode. My time is more precious than the part of a cent that I would save by turning the monitor off for five minutes while the system waits for me. This strategy seems to run counter to other posts I’ve made, but devices are there for the convenience of the user, not the other way around. Saving power when it makes sense to do so is one thing—having the monitor turn itself off while you’re in the midst of reading something is quite another.

I never put my system in hibernate mode. When I’m finished for the day, I turn my system off. There are a lot of reasons for this strategy:

 

  • The system doesn’t use any power when it’s off, so turning the system off consumes less power than hibernate mode.
  • The system doesn’t produce any heat when it’s off, so I also save money on cooling bills.
  • Restarting the system each morning clears memory, so I encounter fewer memory corruption issues.
  • Because I get a cup of coffee after starting my system, it doesn’t cost me any time to turn it off at night.
  • Turning the system off reduces noise in the house.
  • Even though my system is protected by an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), turning the system off reduces the risk of damage to the system during the evening hours.
  • Powering the system down reduces the risk of fire from the computer system components overheating while I’m not there to watch them.


I realize that corporations often perform maintenance during the evening hours, so placing the system in hibernate mode means that any automated updates can wake the system long enough to get the maintenance done. Still, I can’t help but think that leaving the system on during one night of the week would be sufficient to accommodate updates. The organization would realize significantly more cost savings by turning systems off at night.

What is your take on power management with computer systems? I’m currently exploring this issue as part of one of the books I’m writing and would love to hear what you think. Is there a good reason to turn that monitor off after a short interval of inactivity? How do you normally configure your system? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Review of Weather Proof Rubber Pan

In my post entitled, “Working with Chicken Tractors,” I discuss some of the requirements for helping meat chickens grow quickly, but also in a healthy environment. It’s important to treat the chickens with respect—no animal should have to live in substandard conditions. With this in mind, we’ve been using short metal pans to provide the chickens with food and water. There are a number of reasons to use this sort of pan:

  • Ease of access for the chickens
  • Easily recycled
  • Low cost
  • Readily available


However, the pans do rust out quickly. We normally start using the pan for water, but after two years, the bottoms rust enough that the pan won’t hold water any longer and then we use it for food for another two or three years before we have to recycle it.

We recently tried a new type of rubber pan. The Little Giant 3 gallon rubber pan is made of 100 percent reclaimed rubber using recovered energy sources. This means that the pan uses resources that would normally be wasted. However, it does cost about twice as much as the metal pans we’ve used in the past. You’d need some good reasons to trade up to these pans:

  • Lasts a lot longer
  • Chickens are less likely to get hurt
  • Chickens are far less likely to suffocate under one
  • Fewer contaminants used in construction
  • Easier to clean


I’ve talked with a number of people who use these pans and haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t received a lot more usage out of one than the metal pans. The fact that these pans don’t corrode means that you won’t be replacing them due to rust.  I’ll report back when one of them wears out.

One of the problems with the metal pans is that they’re rigid. The chickens have a tendency to trip over them or get partially caught under one while the other chickens are stomping about. The result is a broken limb or other, more serious, injury. These rubber pans are flexible to an extent, which means that the chickens don’t get hurt as easily when using them.

We’ve also had a number of chickens suffocate under a pan when it gets flipped over. The problem again is the rigidity of the pan. It makes it impossible for the chicken to get out from under the pan. I’ve already seen chickens easily get out from under these pans when they get flipped.

The metal pans are galvanized, which means that they’re coated with zinc. The zinc provides protection from rust for some period of time. However, the chemicals used in the galvanization process, along with the protective oils used on the pan, are hard to get off. They add to the toxins the chickens ingest (and that you eventually ingest). So far, I’m not finding any contaminants associated with these rubber pans and would certainly like to hear about any you find.

One of the biggest issues in maintaining healthy chickens is keeping their environment reasonably clean. This means moving the chickens so that fecal matter doesn’t pile up. It also means washing their pans daily (or more often for water pans on hot days). So far, these rubber pans are proving incredibly easy to clean. Knock out the big dirt and shower them down with a bit of soap and water. The metal pans usually require scrubbing to get them clean.

Overall, these new rubber pans are a better deal long term than using similar metal pans. About the only area in which you might find fault is that the flexible rubber sides do allow more water to escape, so you’ll end up watering the chickens a little more often. Even so, this is a minor point that most people will find that the rubber pans save time and money, and end up producing better chickens because it’s easier to keep things clean.

Equipment Failures and Local Backups

I had originally thought to provide a post today on the TimeCheck application. Friday is normally series day on the blog. Unfortunately, my computer had other ideas. Yesterday morning it decided not to work any longer. I heard a pop and then the screen went black—no helpful error message, no blue screen of death—nothing at all. Replacing the power supply with my ready backup brought no joy. I’m sure I’ll find the cause of my woes eventually, but for now, I need to get up and running so I can meet my deadlines (and write this blog).

Fortunately, I had already decided to upgrade my computer and have all of the parts on hand to build my new dream machine (at least, what I can afford of that dream machine). In addition, I had made a local backup of my system the day before, so I’ll lose one day’s worth of work at most. What all this means is that I’ll be back online soon with a newer system that will provide me with everything needed to complete my work for the next while.

Using my emergency online e-mail will help keep me in contact with the few people who absolutely must contact me. Others are relying on the phone to contact me. If you’ve sent me e-mail about a book issue, I apologize in advance for not addressing your question in a timely manner. I hope that you’ll understand that it wasn’t my idea to have a  system failure (it’s never my idea—the computer apparently has a mind of its own).

The one thought that has come to mind during this current crisis is that I’m extremely happy that I don’t rely on an online backup service. In order to get some things working on my new system, I needed the backup files, but I didn’t have access to the Internet. If I had relied on an online backup service, things would have gotten extremely interesting. Fortunately, my local backup is easily accessed despite the lack of connectivity, so everything is fine. I mention this in passing because I know that online backups have become quite popular. They have their place, but don’t neglect local backups because you never know when you’ll run into a situation like mine where online access is impossible.

As far as the TimeCheck application is concerned, we’ll restart the series as soon as is possible on Fridays. I appreciate your patience while I get things sorted out. In the meantime, let me hear about your dream machine at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Subscribing to this Blog

Sometimes the simplest things cause problems for people, even those of us who have been working with computers for a long time. When Really Simple Syndication (RSS) first came out, it took me a while to figure out that I could subscribe to news stories or other items of interest online by clicking a link. Because Outlook was behind the technology curve, it took even longer for me to find, install, and learn how to use a third party RSS feed reader add-on. The feed reader makes it possible for Outlook to receive and use RSS posts (something that Outlook 2010 provides by default). Once I understood how RSS worked, it seemed so simple, but getting to the point of actually using RSS was daunting in a way because it was something new.

That’s one reason why I think this post is important. I imagine that there are many people out there who are just like I was—they don’t understand that RSS makes it possible to read this blog every day by having it automatically delivered to their e-mail application’s inbox or to their browser. So, just how do you subscribe to my blog? Look at the left side of my blog and you’ll see a category called Syndicate as shown here.

BlogSubscription01

Within this category you see links for subscribing to my posts, comments people make about my posts, and any podcasts I upload. Clicking these links subscribes you to various portions of my blog using either Atom or RSS. Atom is simply an alternative to RSS, but both technologies work essentially the same way. You click the link, your feed reader receives a request to make a new subscription, and then you subscribe to the content. Once subscribed, you receive updates about content on the site automatically through the feed reader. Feed readers are normally part of a browser or e-mail application.

In order to choose the right link, you need to know what sort of post notifications your feed reader supports. The help that comes with the application should provide the information you need. In addition, you need to decide whether you want to see posts, comments, or both. I don’t currently provide podcasts, so even though there is an option for them, you won’t receive any notifications at this point.

What happens after you click a link depends on which feed reader you’re using. For example, I use Outlook 2010 as my feed reader. When I click on an RSS link, I see a copy of Outlook 2010 open and a dialog box telling me about the feed like this one.

BlogSubscription02

When I click Yes, Outlook adds a subscription to the RSS feed for me. Every time I check for updates from that point on, I also receive any RSS feeds that I’ve subscribed to and can read the posts they contain. In my case, the RSS feeds appear in a site-specific subfolder of the RSS Feeds folder in Outlook. It really is that simple.

Many RSS feed readers support additional features. For example, clicking Advanced displays other information about the feed in Outlook as shown here.

BlogSubscription03

I can use the options on this dialog box to tell Outlook to download articles, rather than just headers. I can also automatically download any enclosures supplied with the post, such as source code. The point is that you can use your RSS feed reader settings to modify how your system works with RSS. Downloading complete articles makes sense only when you intend to read entire articles most of the time—headings make more sense when working with sites that you read some of the time.

This is a brief introduction to RSS that should make it easier for you to subscribe to my blog and enjoy it on a daily basis. Please let me know if you have any questions about subscribing or if you encounter any difficulties at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Loving that Lovage!

This is the time of year when our lovage plant soars and develops seed heads (ours is about 6 feet tall this year). We use the stems and leaves in place of celery. The celery taste is quite strong, so you use less lovage than you do celery in a soup or salad. Even though you can use every part of the plant, we only use the seeds, leaves, and stems. Because the celery taste is so strong and the lovage cell walls don’t lose the volatile oils that give it its taste easily, you can dry lovage and use it as an herb all winter long.

Lovage01

You don’t use all of the stems on the plant. The larger stems that form the stalks for the seeds are tough. What you want to dry are the tender stems and the leaves, especially those near the bottom of the plant (shown here with our rabbit gardener).

Lovage02

The plant gets so tall that the wind tends to knock it over before the seeds mature. To overcome this problem, we place the plant in a tomato cage. You can just barely see the tomato cage peaking out in this picture. Even with the tomato cage in place, a really strong wind can still knock the plant over, ruining the seeds.

One of the things that most people don’t realize is that when you buy celery seed in the store, what you’re actually getting is lovage seed. The seeds have a strong celery taste and are used in a many of ways (none of which we’ve ever tried). One of the uses that we’ve thought about is creating dye from a tincture of the seeds. A number of sources say that you can create both permanent red and blue dyes using lovage seed, which would make it quite versatile indeed. The lovage flowers are quite pretty and the bees seem to love them.

Lovage03

Lovage is a perennial and it’s nearly impossible to kill. It even survives Wisconsin winters without a problem. Every spring the lovage plant comes back up. The plant will continue to grow in circumference year-by-year. Eventually, you can break the plant apart into sections and propagate it much as you would rhubarb.

Unlike mint, lovage won’t run amok in your garden. It stays put. So you don’t need to worry about growing it in a container or digging out invasive chunks of it each year. Lovage is extremely long lived. This particular plant is 15 years old and shows no sign of giving up yet (it gets stronger year-by-year, in fact). We planted it in a location that gets full sun from around early morning (but not at sunrise) to early evening.

Have you ever tried lovage? If so, how do you use it? If not, I highly recommend this herb for everyone who likes the taste of celery. Let me know your thoughts about lovage at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.