Christmas, a Time for Family

It was about this same time last year that I was preparing to shut down for the holiday season. Every year I look forward to this time of unplugging myself from all of the technology that entangles me the rest of the year. In fact, I wrote about it last year in Learning to Unplug. Taking time off provides a change of pace, makes life more enjoyable, and gives you purpose.

I was also looking over the poetry I’ve published in my blog in the past. I hope that you’re able to take time to read Christmas Remembrances and that you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Christmas truly is a time of remembrance—a time to think of what is past, what is today, and what may come tomorrow.

For the first time in a long time, Rebecca and I will actually be able to travel a bit this holiday (day trips, but travel anyway) and we plan to see some of our family during the holiday season. It’s my sincere hope that during this time of Christmas that you’re able to spend time with family and friends—that you take time to reflect a bit and unwind from your work. If you’re traveling, as we are, please travel safely and don’t be in rush to get wherever you’re going. Your family will wait and will most definitely want you to arrive safely, even if it means arriving late.

I’ll be back online on January 3rd this year, which is a bit sooner than normal. If you send me any e-mail, please be assured that I’ll answer it as quickly as possible when I return. In the meantime, please be patient and check out the blog posts for your book. It may be that my blog already has the answer you need.

Thank you, one and all, for the support you’ve lent me this past year. Writing technical books wouldn’t be very enjoyable without caring readers. You’re the reason I continue to work as hard as I do. I look forward to working with you on some amazing new ideas this upcoming year!

 

Help for Quadriplegics One Step Closer

One of the main themes in my writing has been helping people with special needs in every way that I can. I encourage developers to add as many accessibility features as possible into applications. In fact, I wrote Accessibility for Everybody with that specific goal in mind. It shouldn’t surprise you that I keep track of developments in robotics that could potentially help those with special needs. My last post on the topic, The Bionic Person, One Step Closer, discussed the use of new technology to give sight to those without it. I recently read an article on an entirely different plane of the topic, those who can’t move their own bodies much, if at all, quadriplegics.

The article, “Paralyzed Mom Controls Robotic Arm Using Her Thoughts,” tells of a mother who would just love to be able to feed herself a bar of chocolate. A new robotic setup can read the required movements directly from her brain and direct a robotic arm to perform them. I find this amazing! Imagine not being able to do anything for yourself one day and then being able to perform little tasks that we all take for granted the next. Can you imagine what this woman goes through every time her nose itches? The thought has entered my mind more than once.

This technology has been in the works for quite some time. However, engineers are steadily getting closer to making the technology more natural to work with. Before now, people who could master the techniques and had the money could use voice controlled robotic arms. However, these devices are incredibly clumsy and difficult to work with. You can even try one out yourself for the low cost of $55.00 (check out “How to make a voice-controlled robot arm for $55“). This particular device is limited when compared to robotic arms used by those with special needs, but it would be enough to give you the idea.

The most important part of this new technology is that it keeps the user involved. Even when robotic arms of the past achieved their goals, they often left the user feeling out of control or possibly out of the picture entirely. The article, “Quadriplegics Prefer Robot Arms on Manual, not Automatic” explains the issue. These older technologies are advanced enough to get a glass of water, feed the user, and even scratch that itchy nose, but the user needs to be involved. Mind controlled robots can keep the user involved in his/her own life.

We’re living in an incredibly exciting time. It’s a time when it’s becoming possible for everyone to participate in life more fully. People who would have lived diminished lives in the past are now starting to become engaged to activities that everyone else performs. The playing field of life is becoming more level, which helps humanity as a whole. Let me know your thoughts on robotic technologies at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Proliferation of Start Menus

I’ve received a number of emails about my Controlling Windows 8 Support Costs post some time ago. That post highlighted a concern that many managers have about the training cost for Windows 8 and brought up the point that the new menu system would slow adoption in the enterprise. I also talked about an article I wrote on ways to reduce training costs entitled, “8 Ways to Reduce User Training Costs for Windows 8“. The email has been interesting because there don’t seem to be many people who are viewing Windows 8 from a middle ground—they either like it quite a bit or really hate everything about it.

I have noted a few things about Windows 8 since its release. All of the advertising I see on television is directed toward the consumer market and you never see the old desktop. The commercials are glitzy and focus on interesting things you can do with Windows 8, but most of these things have nothing to do with business. One commercial shows a cute little girl creating art and then sharing it with her dad later. It’s interesting, but hardly a business use. I have to wonder whether the Microsoft marketing machine has forgotten about business and has decided instead to focus on the consumer market.

So far, the number of people who tell me they can survive without the Start menu is extremely small compared to those who wonder what Microsoft was thinking. The thing is, most of my readers are business users. Obviously, a lot of other people have noticed that business users aren’t happy about the lack of a Start menu because I’m also seeing articles such as the one in InfoWorld entitled, “9 Windows Start menus for Windows 8.” What I’m wondering is how Microsoft researched the whole issue of removing the Start menu.

One of the issues for me is that I need to know how to support my latest book, Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference. When I wrote the book, I saw a definite consumer-oriented slant in Windows 8, so I’ve included some material for that need in the book. However, I had originally felt that there would be a lot of business users as well. How are you seeing Windows 8? Has it become much more of a consumer product? Will businesses wait for Windows 9 before upgrading? Will these addons make Windows 8 an option for businesses? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Little Things Matter

Our holiday season is in full swing now. On Friday evening we went to town to see Living Windows. Each of the shops in the downtown area has a Christmas scene depicted in its window using people. You’re actually watching these people perform various Christmas task. Of course, there are the obvious depictions, such as decorating the tree and baking cookies. One store had something a bit unusual in that there were three children ice fishing. They were fishing from one of those large indoor fountain displays, which was decorated to look icy. Each child had his/her fishing pole with fish duly attached to the end of the line. Many of the scenes were of old fashioned Christmas seasons. A scene showing people stringing popcorn to decorate the tree brought back some pleasant childhood memories for me. It was complete with paper chains of the sort I remember making in school to decorate our tree.

The scenes in the window weren’t the only attraction. There were Christmas carolers in several locations. Rebecca and I just had to stop and listen for a bit. Some street vendors were selling items like hot chocolate and apple cider. There were many treats to eat as well. One of the shop owners was creating a long pine bough, complete with ribbons, to string across the street. There were two horse drawn wagons you could get on to take a ride. On at least one corner was a burn barrel you could use to warm yourself. Overall, it was an interesting feel of Christmas past, but also different and quite entertaining. Except for gas, we spent precisely nothing for two hours of fun.

Saturday morning found me in the kitchen with Rebecca. I had donned my cookie apron and we spent the day making sugar cookies. Of course, they all had to be decorated and no one stocks the wide array of sanding sugars, candies, jimmies, and other odd assorted decorations that Rebecca does. I made a number of reindeer, Christmas trees, wreaths, angels, bells, and gingerbread people (amongst other items). Some of the more unusual cookies included frogs and motorcycles (yes, we actually found a motorcycle-shaped cookie cutter). By Saturday afternoon the cookies were baked and packed away as gifts for various friends. I’m not sure who will receive the cookies, but I do plan to be a little bad and nibble a few. I imagine we made Christmas cookies for around twenty people for less than $20.00, but really didn’t bother to keep track—we were having far too much fun to do that.

Saturday evening was the children’s program at out church. It’s something we look forward to seeing every year. The children did especially well this year. The church was packed to standing room only status and they finally set up closed circuit television in the dining room below the main church. We’ve been told that there were well over 800 people in attendance. Even with the tightly packed crowd, everything was orderly. We could clearly hear the cherub tones coming from the front of the church, even if we couldn’t always see the cherubs themselves.

These traditions may seem like little things, but they really do matter. They help us keep focused on the meaning of Christmas. More importantly, they help keep us sane in an increasingly hostile world. We read the news, just like everyone else, but these little traditions that cost little, but mean so much, really do help keep things in perspective. I hope that you have your traditions too. Let me know about some of the things you do to keep your sanity during the holiday season at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Mystery Rabbits

We recently had something of a mystery. Actually, we haven’t figured it out yet and probably never will. We bred our doe and then waited the usual 31 days for her to have her kits (babies). The nest box was empty at that time, but given that the weather had turned cool, we kept checking up to day 35, at which time we decided that she hadn’t been bred and that we’d need to wait for spring to try again. Even though our rabbits could have babies at any time, the temperatures need to be above freezing to ensure the kits will survive, so we never breed them in the winter.

Imagine our surprise when day 40 arrived and we looked inside the nest box again in order to clean it out. Suddenly there were babies in there! We were so surprised by the arrival. Given that this is the mother’s first time, we decided to close the nest box and leave it completely alone until the babies were a bit bigger. The other day I noticed the first popper, a baby who has jumped out of the next box for the first time. So, I decided it might be acceptable to look inside. Moonglow, the mother, has had a lovely litter of seven babies.

MysteryRabbits

All of the babies are solid white with pink eyes. The bottom line for us is that nature constantly teaches us not to place any schedules on our animals. In this case, mom obviously chose a time to have her babies that would work best for them. The babies are all doing exceptionally well and will be able to survive the cold now that they have a full covering of fur. We’ll move them to less crowded conditions once we’re certain that they’ll do well in the cooler weather (for now, they’re keeping each other warm).

What surprise had nature presented you with lately? Do you find yourself being amazed at all of the wonders that nature presents? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Computers as (Non-)Appliances

I’m in a rare category of computer user—a category that gets smaller with each day. I actually enjoy building my own systems, mixing and matching parts to obtain the results I want, and repairing my systems as needed. In fact, I started out as a hardware guy in the Navy 36 years ago. At that time, you really needed to know about the hardware in order to do anything practical with a computer. I still build and maintain my own PCs. However, the day of the home computer builder is ending. I don’t actually see myself enjoying a computer I can’t fiddle with, but I know that I eventually will end up with one.

The computer as a non-appliance is becoming a reality. In fact, I daresay that most people would never consider opening their computer to look inside, much less do anything with it. All that they want to do is start the computer, do some work on it, and then shut it down. As far as they’re concerned, the computer is like any other device they own—a television, refrigerator, or toaster. The problem is that a computer can’t be an appliance like any other appliance you own. One of the more useful opinions on the topic comes from John Dvorak in his “The Computer Appliance Myth” post. As small as they have become, computers are still complex multiuse devices that fulfill myriad tasks for the owner.

Even so, the days of repairing computers are coming to a close. For example, the most recent version of the iMac is pretty much unrepairable, even by a guy with my skills. This actually makes computers different from appliances. When my wife’s steam vacuum fails, I go to MarBeck.com and buy the parts to repair it. Over the past 25 years, I’ve bought about $60 in parts and managed to keep the machine operating without problem. The fact that I can do the work myself means that it’s more economical for me to repair the unit, than it is to buy a new one. I’ve made repairs to most of the other appliances in our home at one time or another. Even the VCR has a belt I can replace and I recently swapped the VCR in one machine with the VCR in another machine to build one complete VCR/DVD unit.

In my mind, an appliance is a single purpose device that is easy to operate and repairable for someone with the required skills. Computers don’t fit this definition and with the loss of the ability to repair them, they won’t ever fit the definition of an appliance. No, computers are becoming something different. Perhaps we’ll have to coin a new word to define them because I’m sure we’ll have a host of other devices in the same category. Actually, when you think about it, we already have a few other devices in this category. A smartphone isn’t actually a computer, but it’s definitely not an appliance either.

I do have limits when it comes to appliance repair. When our water heater went out, we decided not to repair it because calculations showed that we’d pay for a new water heater with savings on propane in just three years and after that, we’d actually earn money (in reduced expenses) by having the new unit. I’m also not inclined to repair the furnace—failure could cost us our lives. However, these devices are still repairable by someone with the proper skills. When I have a problem with these devices, I make a call and an expert arrives to turn a non-working unit into something that’s useful again.

With the release of computers, smartphones, and other devices that aren’t repairable by a skilled home user under any circumstances, we need to come up with a new term to describe them. There isn’t any way you can convince me that computers have become appliances, especially not now that they’re unrepairable. Let me know your thoughts on computers as unrepairable multiuse devices at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Pullet Eggs

You may have wondered what happened to the laying hens that I talked about in Sunday Surprise! They have grown up and have become pullets. Of course, the question now is what a pullet is and why you should want to know about it. A pullet is a young chicken. Think about it as a teenager—not quite a chick anymore, but also not an adult. A pullet is a chicken that is just starting to experience life and still has more growing to do before becoming a full-fledged chicken.

A female chick becomes a pullet when she lays her first egg. She remains a pullet until she is fully grown, which is usually after her first complete moult after she starts laying eggs. The first egg is a lot smaller than a regular egg. Our chickens will lay large to jumbo eggs. However, the pullet eggs are only about half that size as shown here.

PulletEggs

On the left is a large egg from Violet, our Black Australorp. On the right is a pullet egg from Rose, our Delaware. Rose’s eggs will stay the color you see here—an extremely pleasing dark brown. The actual egg looks a bit polka-dotted, which is a characteristic of Delaware eggs. As Rose matures, her eggs will become larger. In fact, her eggs will eventually become larger than the ones that Violet lays.

Now, here’s why you want to know about pullets. Pullet eggs often sell for considerably less at farmer’s markets. In fact, a local farmer sells them for as little as $0.60 a dozen, which is considerably less than the $1.75 a dozen we pay for a dozen factory-produced jumbo eggs in the store (cage free eggs sell for almost $4.00 a dozen and pasture-fed eggs aren’t even available). You never see pullet eggs sold in stores because people think they’re simply too small to eat or that there is possibly something wrong with them.

You do need to know that a pullet egg may not have a yolk—although, all of our pullet eggs so far have had a yolk in them. There is absolutely no difference in taste. However, because pullet eggs always come from a farmer and are likely not from a factory environment, you may actually find that you receive a higher quality product. The statistics quoted for pasture fed chicken eggs, the kind you’ll most likely encounter at a farmer’s market, do differ, but most experts agree that they are better for you.

Our coop has entered a new phase with the addition of pullet eggs. It won’t be long now and we’ll have full-sized eggs to meet all of our needs. The eggs will be significantly better for us than anything we could buy at the store. Now that many cities let people raise chickens, have you ever considered producing your own eggs? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fun is Where You Find It (Part 6)

Part of being self-sufficient is finding ways to enjoy the holidays without spending a lot of money doing it. All of the Fun is Where You Find It posts have one thing in common—they all discuss methods of having a lot of fun during the holidays (even personal holidays) without incurring a lot of debt. The Christmas holidays are often associated with spending boatloads of cash in an effort to get enough glitter to make the day special. Christmas is special all by itself and truly doesn’t require any help from the bank.

Of course, there is the act of decorating both tree and house. Some people have turned what should be a joyful occasion into a chore of extreme drudgery. In fact, I sometimes hear people ask why they should even bother, which misses the point of decorating entirely. Turning the event into a family affair where everyone has a bit of fun with the decorating is the way to have fun without spending much at all. Afterward, you can bask in the glow of a home made cheery and special for the holiday. OK, you do need to buy the tree, unless you like the artificial variety that you can stow away each year, but that should be the extent of your spending for the most part. We do buy a new ornament each year.

One of the ways to have fun is to tell the story behind ornaments as you put them on the tree. We do that each year. Some of our ornaments come from when we were first married and we’ll talk about them in light of our youth and dreams. We have ornaments we bought with pet names on them and putting the ornament on the tree brings the pet to mind. We’ll talk about the pet’s odd behavior or the time he/she turned the tree over. The point is that putting the ornaments on becomes a time of remembrance—a time of telling stories about Christmas past.

Decorating comes with special music (as most of our special events do). For us, listening to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas is an absolute must. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Holiday Celebration is another favorite. In fact, we have a nice stack of special Christmas music, including a few oddities, such a Jingle Cats, that some would consider more annoying than joyful. The point is that listening to music as you decorate and tell stories is low cost atmosphere that helps keep things jolly.

A celebration isn’t complete without special food and we have ours. After I get the tree set up, put on the lights, and add a few ornaments, it’s off to the kitchen to make oyster stew. I only make this particular kind of oyster stew for our one day of decorating of each year, which means we really look forward to it. The fact that the food is unique to that particular day makes it quite special. I have to admit that I do spend a little more than usual to make my oyster stew, but I checked this year and the items were well under $15.00—far less than we’d spend at the restaurant.

Our all day event costs well under $70.00 and we feel the effects of it during the entire Christmas season. Yes, this is the most expensive Fun is Where You Find It post to date, but even so, given that we keep the tree up until January 6th (Epiphany, the traditional end of the Christmas holiday), the cost per day is quite low (about $1.90 per day this year) and we have a lot of fun doing it. Christmas is a time of sharing, of love, and of renewal. Put the joy back in your Christmas by taking the money back out.

What are ways that you can think of to turn the Christmas holiday chores into fun events? Do you have special keepsake traditions that you share with your family? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Virus Scares and Hoaxes Galore

It seems as if the holiday season can bring out the worst in some people for whatever reason—I have never figured out why. My inbox is sometimes packed with e-mail from concerned readers about this hoax or that virus. I read about viruses and hoaxes galore online as well. It seems as if there is an upsurge every year in the number, variety, and severity of these complete wastes of time. In my book, the people who perpetuate these sorts of things are either ill-informed or simply sad. If all of the energy that goes into creating these scares would go instead into some productive use, I can’t even begin to imagine the benefit to mankind as a whole. Instead, we have readers running about like Chicken Little exclaiming that the sky is falling.

John Dvorak ran an article in his blog the other day entitled, “Did You Fall for the Facebook Hoax?” I’m not too thrilled about some of the language he used, but the information he provides is right on the mark. You can probably sum it up as, “Anything that sounds too good, weird, or evil to be true, probably isn’t.” Of course, most of us want to be sure that something really is a hoax, so it pays to check out Hoax Busters, VMyths, or Snopes.com, just to be certain. These sites track all of the current myths and hoaxes out there, so you can see the basis for that hoax that arrived in your e-mail this afternoon. The point is that hoaxes aren’t real and you shouldn’t believe them, even a little.

When it comes to viruses, you can be sure that the Internet is plagued with them. Tomorrow I fully expect to see an article about the next major virus that will take down the Internet after emptying every bank in the world of funds. Yes, civilization will cease to exist with the next virus created by the cracker (a black hat hacker who uses his/her skills for ill, rather than good) who works only at midnight in a darkened room above a garage.

The fact is that viruses are real, but crackers often attack the least prepared Web surfers just as any other thief attacks the unsuspecting person on the street. There are enough people who are ill prepared to work on the Internet that crackers really don’t have to worry about creating a truly devastating virus that will invade every network on the planet. For one thing, it’s a waste of the cracker’s time—for another, must viruses have a relatively short active life before someone comes along with a fix that prevents them from spreading. Crackers know this, so they create viruses that work well enough for the time they expect the virus to be active, and then the cracker moves on to something else.

In general, a computer system can be invaded by a virus at any time—just as you can get a cold at any time. You tend to catch colds when your bodily defenses are down. The same holds true for your computer. When you let your computer defenses down, it has a better chance of getting a virus. However, even with the best defenses, there is a small chance you could still get a virus, but being prepared significantly reduces the risks. Here are five things you can do to ensure you’re prepared for a virus attack.

 

  1. Keep your virus protection updated.
  2. Install all of the required patches for your operating system and applications.
  3. Don’t open an e-mail from someone you don’t know, no matter how tempting the message might be (remember Pandora’s Box).
  4. Don’t go to sites you don’t trust.
  5. Keep your browser locked down so that it doesn’t automatically execute code when you visit a site.  This means setting your browser to disable both JavaScript and Java support.  Most browsers have an exception list you can create for sites you trust, so these sites will continue to work as they always have.


When you follow these five guidelines, you have a very good chance of avoiding viruses on your computer. The next time you see an e-mail message containing a hoax or trying to get you excited about the latest virus that will take down the Internet, consider the fact that these sorts of messages have been going around the Internet for quite a long time now and we have yet to see a major Internet down time. Let me know your thoughts about viruses and hoaxes at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Exercise Care When Synching to External Time Sources

I read with interest an article by Mary Jo Foley recently entitled, “Microsoft offers guidance on Windows Server Year 2000 time-rollback issue.” It seems that the time source at USNO.NAVY.MIL experienced a problem and rolled back the clocks on a number of servers to the year 2000 during the evening of November 19th. I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the administrators who had to fix that problem, especially if there were time-sensitive processes running at the time. Can you imagine the effect on applications such as billing? Of course, the effects are devastating for time-sensitive server features such as Active Directory.

If your organization has a single server that relies on a single time source for synching purposes, it probably isn’t possible to detect this sort of problem immediately, unless you have a human being observing the synching process. Given that administrators love automation, having someone physically sync the server won’t happen in most cases. However, good advice in this case is not to sync to the time server every day—sync only on days when someone will be there to monitor the servers. At least the administrator can quickly react to errant updates of the sort mentioned in the article.

Larger installations with multiple servers could possibly set up multiple time servers and use an application to monitor them. When the servers are out of sync, the application can notify the administrator about the issue. It’s also possible to use the W32Tm utility to perform time monitoring or to compare the time settings of two systems using a strip chart.

Actually, it’s a bad idea to sync to the time server at times when an administrator isn’t available to monitor the system, such as during the middle of the night or a holiday. The best option is to sync the server immediately before the staff arrives in the morning or immediately after they leave at night, when an administrator is available to quickly fix the problem. My personal preference is to include the W32Tm utility in a batch file that runs when I start my system in the morning. This batch file syncs all of the systems on the network at a time when I’m specifically watching to see the results. Both Administering Windows Server 2008 Server Core and Windows Command-Line Administration Instant Reference provide information on how to use this utility to perform a wide variety of time-related tasks.

If you happened to be affected by this issue, make sure you read the Microsoft blog post entitled, “Fixing When Your Domain Traveled Back In Time, the Great System Time Rollback to the Year 2000.” Even if you have already fixed the problem, the information in the article is useful because it helps define the problem and provides some useful information for avoiding the problem in the future. The vast majority of servers affected by this problem have Windows 2003 installed without time jump protection enabled. I’d actually like to hear if someone has encountered something odd in this particular circumstance so that I get a better feel how this problem manifested itself in the real world.

How do you work through time-related issues in your organization? Have you ever encountered a problem of this sort with your system? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.