All Cooped Up

I normally let my chickens run free during the entire year. They get outside and play games outside while pecking around for things to eat. They really are quite funny at times. One of their favorite winter games is Queen of the Hill. I put a french fry or other treat on top of a snow hill and the chickens race to see how gets it first. The chickens knock each other off the hill and grab the french fry until it’s gone. Of course, the game continues as long as I have french fries to offer them. The outside time is important because it allows the chickens to exercise properly and to gain access to alternative food sources, such as bugs. In addition, getting out of the coop provides them with fresh air and time to interact with their environment.

After seeing my egg production (and subsequent sales) drop to nearly nothing this past winter, I decided to try something out. On truly cold days, I’ve been keeping the chickens in the coop. I’m not talking about a coop with the door open, but with the door closed so that the coop stays significantly warmer. On the coldest days, I’ve been putting a pot of hot water in the coop to partially heat it. As a result of this change, my chickens are laying more eggs—a lot more eggs. In fact, egg production has increased threefold over egg production last winter at this time. Mind you, I’m getting this increase without disturbing the chicken’s natural light cycle by using a heat lamp or other light source.

The results seem consistent. In addition, the only thing I’ve changed is the time the chickens spend in their coop. I did note that there is no increase after a certain point. Keeping the chickens in their coop six days a week didn’t provide an appreciable increase in production over four days. What seems to be the most important factor is choosing days that are especially cold. Right now I’m keeping the chickens in their coop when the temperature falls below 20. However, I plan to keep playing with the temperature to see what effects I can come up with. The chickens might actually do better if I keep them in the coop anytime it’s below freezing, but something tells me that they’ll begin fighting if I do.

What I’m trying to figure out now is how cold is too cold for the chickens. They survive just fine, even if I let them out in relatively cold weather. The thing that changes is the number of eggs they lay. The cold stresses the chickens just enough to stop laying almost completely. I’m still experimenting to find the trigger temperature for this effect. Figuring out the correct temperature is important because the chickens really do need the outside time to remain healthy.

Like many topics related to chickens, trying to find specific temperature guidelines online has proven impossible. However, there must be others who have experimented in figuring out just the right temperatures for letting chickens go outside to play. Let me know your thoughts on the topic at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering Our Future Cyber War

It’s not if a cyber war will happen, but when. Precisely what form such a war will take depends on the perpetrators and their goals. I’ve spend quite of time discussing the relative insecurity of the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems out there. However, I’m only assuming that SCADA is going to be targeted at some point because it’s such low hanging fruit and no one seems to have any interest at all in securing. Plus, the attack would be of the sort that we’d have a hard time defending against (and possibly identifying at first as the hospitals fill with victims of some mysterious problem).

I recently read an article by John Dvorak entitled, “What if Facebook Is Hacked Next?” John makes some excellent points, but probably doesn’t go far enough. Why would an attacker stop with just Facebook? Why not attack all of the sources of social media out there, including places like LinkedIn and Twitter? The confusion created by the loss of all social media would be amazing. It could easily act as a smokescreen for some other activity even more devastating than the loss of data. While everyone is scrambling to fix their social media issues, someone could work in the background to do something truly horrible.

Actually, the attacker might not even have to do anything other than disrupt all online activities. Think about the number of jobs lost, the hit to online commerce, and the other problems that such an attack would cause. Perhaps these people are simply waiting until more brick and mortar stores close that people no longer have local resources to help in such an emergency. For example, think about the problems that the loss of online stores would have to IT professionals who maintain huge networks of computer systems. The potential for truly terrifying results is amazing.

A cyber war is coming. Just when it will arrive is the topic of much speculation, but my feeling is that it’ll come sometime soon. What sorts of security measures do you have in place? Have you done anything else to prepare? Let me know about your thoughts on cyber war at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Understanding the Continuing Need for C++

I maintain statistics on all my books, including C++ All-In-One for Dummies, 3rd Edition. These statistics are based on reader e-mail and other sources of input that I get. I even take the comments on Amazon.com into account. One of the most common C++ questions I get (not the most common, but it’s up there) is why someone would want to use the language in the first place. It’s true, C++ isn’t the language to use if you’re creating a database application. However, it is the language to use if you’re writing low-level code that has to run fast. C++ also sees use in a vast number of libraries because library code has to be fast. For example, check out the Python libraries at some point and you’ll find C++ staring back at you. In fact, part of the Python documentation discusses how to use C++ to create extensions.

I decided to look through some of my past notes to see if there was some succinct discussion of just why C++ is a useful language for the average developer to know. That’s when I ran across an InfoWorld article entitled, “Stroustrup: Why the 35-year-old C++ still dominates ‘real’ dev.” Given that the guy being interviewed is Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of C++, it’s a great source of information. The interview is revealing because it’s obvious that Bjarne is taking a measured view of C++ and not simply telling everyone to use it for every occasion (quite the contrary, in fact).

The bottom line in C++ development is speed. Along with speed, you also get flexibility and great access to the hardware. As with anything, you pay a price for getting these features. In the case of C++, you’ll experience increased development time, greater complexity, and more difficulty in locating bugs. Some people are taking a new route to C++ speed though and that’s to write their code in one language and move it to C++ from there. For example, some Python developers are now cross-compiling their code into C++ to gain a speed advantage. You can read about it in the InfoWorld article entitled, “Python-to-C++ compiler promises speedier execution.”

A lot of readers will close a message to me asking whether there is a single language they can learn to do everything well. Unfortunately, there isn’t any such language and given the nature of computer languages, I doubt there ever will be. Every language has a niche for which it’s indispensable. The smart developer has a toolbox full of languages suited for every job the developer intends to tackle.

Do you find that you really don’t understand how the languages in my books can help you? Let me know your book-specific language questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. It’s always my goal that you understand how the material you’ve learned while reading one of my books will eventually help you in the long run. After all, what’s the point of reading a book that doesn’t help you in some material way? Thanks, as always, for your staunch support of my writing efforts!

 

Radio Shack, We Knew Thee Well

I’m dating myself here, but the first time I entered a Radio Shack was in 1972. I had just finished reading The Radio Amateur’s Handbook and was absolutely fascinated by the whole thought of working with electronics. The combination of reading science fiction and electronics books of various sorts, convinced me to go to a technical high school. I graduated with all the necessary knowledge to become an apprentice electrician. However, entering the Navy moved me into computers, where I remain today. (I started out as a hardware guy and moved into programming later.) Radio Shack was filled with all sorts of cool looking gizmos. It was akin to entering my science fiction books and experiencing what “could be” first hand. The day I finished designing and building my first power supply and amplifier was an absolute thrill. I still have the plans for it somewhere. The mono output of 20 watts seemed fantastic. I’m not the only one with fond memories—authors such as PC Magazine’s Jamie Lendino and John Dvorak have them as well.

Over the years I watched Radio Shack change from this absolutely fascinating place I had to visit every time I passed it to something less. Eventually, it became just a common store—the aisles filled with televisions, radios, and consumer gizmos of all sorts. It got to the point where I could buy the same type of goods just about anywhere for a much lower price. For me, the death spiral was just sad to watch. As a country, we really need stores that encourage people to invent—to think outside the box. Unfortunately, Radio Shack is no longer that store. I visited a Radio Shack in a mall the other day and there were only a few items left for sale at high discount. I helped a friend buy a mouse. It was an odd feeling to leave the store one last time knowing that I’d never see the store I knew and loved in the 70s and 80s again.

Even the salespeople changed over time. During the early 70s when I first started going to Radio Shack, I could hear salespeople talking the talk with any customer that came in. One of them even convinced me to use a different transistor for my amplifier and to rely on a full bridge rectifier to make the output cleaner. If these terms seem foreign, they do, in fact, belong to a different time. The surge of creativity I experienced during that phase in my life is gone—replaced by something totally different today. The young lad I talked with the other day was a salesperson and just barely knew his trade. Gone are the salespeople who really made Radio Shack special.

I yearn for the resurgence of creativity and of stores that promote it. This is one case where brick and mortar stores have a definite advantage over their online cousins. When you go into a brick and mortar store, you can talk with real people, see real demonstrations, touch real hardware, and get that special ethereal feeling of entering the zone of the tinkerer and the definer of dreams. Radio Shack, we knew thee well, and we really need something like you back.

 

Update on Guardline Wireless Driveway Alarm

A number of months ago I posted Review of Guardline Wireless Driveway Alarm. Since that time, I’ve had a number of reader queries for additional information. Many people want to know what sort of environment I’m using the Guardline Wireless Driveway Alarm in. I live in a rural setting in a cold weather climate. Yes, I do have to deal with some amount of traffic, but nothing like a busy street in the city. However, my road does see a fair number of trucks, along with tractors and even Amish buggies. As far as I know, none of the animals in this area seem to be attracted to the sensor and there isn’t any evidence of attack on them.

I can’t really tell you how long the batteries last in the sensors yet. I’m still waiting for the first set of batteries to fail. So, the batteries will last at least seven months. If the batteries are still good in July, I plan to replace them anyway, just to keep trouble at bay. Replacing the batteries in summer seems like it would be easier than in the frigid winter. Let’s just say that the batteries last a long time if you use good batteries. I used Duracell batteries in my setup—your battery life will likely differ from mine.

About the only maintenance issue I’ve had so far is that the sensor near the road requires adjustment from time-to-time. I’m not sure whether the wind, the traffic, or some combination of both is to blame, but the sensor does require occasional adjustment. So far, I’ve needed to adjust the sensor twice, so it’s not all that often. The sensor mounted near my house hasn’t ever required adjustment. If you start noticing a number of false alarms, the problem could rest solely with a needed sensor adjustment.

I do get an occasional false alarm. Sometimes birds will fly just right and trip the sensor. A deer once stood at the right spot to trip the sensor. The snow plow has tripped the sensor once or twice. I’m still seeing just one or two false alarms per week. Some weeks go by and I don’t receive any false alarms at all. It all seems dependent on just what’s in the area and the weather conditions at the time. Higher winds seem to make it more likely that I’ll get a false alarm.

This product still seems to work better than any unit I tried in the past. Even with the degradation that will occur over time, I imagine I’ll get a long lifespan from it and plan to buy additional sensors at some point. I still stand by the statements that I mad in my earlier product review. Thank you so much for the input you’ve provided to date!

 

Perfect Love (Reposted)

I had a number of requests to post this poem again for Valentine’s Day. It’s my hope that you find perfect love during this Valentine’s Day celebration.

Perfect love casts out my fear.
Keep your perfect love so near
that I never fear again.
Perfect love for you attain,
‘til my heart with love is filled
and my spirit never chilled.

All around the world I see,
how a perfect love could be,
an answer for mankind’s woes,
when hatred and evil flows,
fueled by fires of doubt and fear,
no one lets the other near.

Open eyes to perfect love,
gift of wonder from above.
A love that gives, never takes,
love that grants others mistakes,
that counts no loss and no gain,
that makes our hearts young again.

Copyright 2012, John Paul Mueller

 

Central Clearing House for Book Contacts

A reader wrote to me the other day with an idea for creating a central place where any reader could contact any author with book-related questions. It would be a social media type idea along the lines of Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, but with a book focus. The way this idea works is that a reader could leave a question on the central site and then the author would receive a notification through e-mail about the question. The question and its answer would remain public. That way, other readers with the same question would see the answer and not have to ask the author about it again.

This blog fulfills the idea that the reader has to a certain extent. When I receive e-mails from readers, I determine whether the question has enough interest to affect a large number of readers. When the question is better answered publicly, I put an answer up here, rather than answer it privately. Of course, there are times when a reader question needs and deserves a private answer. Using the blog approach does make it easier for me to handle some questions discretely, but nothing would keep me from including an e-mail address for that purpose in the book. The problem with this blog is that reader need to know to look here for answers. Even though I publish the URL for this blog in all of my books, readers still managed to miss it somehow and I get queries in e-mail about the availability of such a central knowledge store.

Wrox provides a centralized location for readers to exchange information of the sort that the reader mentioned, but it’s not as well known as the social media sites and I didn’t think to include the URL for it in my book (the publisher does include it as part of the Introduction). My experiences with Professional IronPython, Professional Windows 7 Development Guide, and C# Design and Development tell me that the concept is good, but reader participating is often poor. I actually get a lot more input on my blog.

I like the idea this reader has because it provides a social media type approach to a pressing need authors have to service reader requests for information. The problems are figuring out how to present the idea publicly, implement the idea in software, and then to make the site popular enough that it actually does what it’s supposed to do.

Of course, I’m always looking for input from you on making things work in a way that’s easy for you. What do you think about this concept? Is it possible to create such a site and have it become a success? Would you even frequent such a site? Let me know your thoughts on the matter at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Art of Observation and Writing

People watching is a favorite activity of mine. No, I don’t sit at the bench at the mall and make snide remarks about people’s attire. I’m also not too interested in the exceptions to the rule—someone doing something so absurd that it falls well outside the range of normal human activity. (Although, I must admit that the guy who ended up in a fountain because he wasn’t looking as he was texting, was sort of funny.) No, I’m more interested in how normal people react in normal ways to normal situations. Observation is a key tool for any author because seeing how people act and react is an essential part of communicating thoughts and ideas to them. I can’t see my reader during the reading of one of my books, so observation helps inform me outside of that environment.

On one particular day, I was watching a young couple argue. The precise reason for the argument isn’t known to me and it’s immaterial anyway. The two of them argued for quite some time, each insisting the other wasn’t listening. Both went off in a huff. I’ve always hoped that they made up. The things that struck me was that the two people communicated differently. The wife’s communication was both vocal and emotional. However, it was her body language that said the most. The husband was stiff as a board and you could tell that he had built defenses against any encroaching information that might conflict with his preconceived ideas of how the communication should go. However, he did use his hands quite a lot and did make really good eye contact. His choice of words was the key ingredient in his communication. Two people, communicating two completely different ways, and neither of them hearing the other.

Books are like that sometimes. I get e-mail from my readers that makes it obvious that I didn’t choose the correct manner of communication. Yes, the information they’re requesting is most definitely in the book, but they didn’t see it because the information didn’t appear in a form that attracted attention. In some cases, the reader did see the information, but couldn’t understand it. In a worst case scenario, the reader saw the information, read it, thought it was understandable, and then didn’t apply it correctly. In many cases, I find that the reader really didn’t understand the information after all.

Another couple, on another day, showed me something else. Nuance is often part of communication. The precise formulation of interaction is important. In this case, the husband was following his wife shopping, but I could tell that his interest lay in his wife, not in what she was buying. She picked a particular item up, looked it over, and put it on the shelf. A little while later, they came back. She picked up the same item, looked at it intently, and then put it back on the self. I was surprised to see the man come back sometime later. He bought the item and almost passed me by while wearing a magnificent grin. When asked what was up, he explained that by observing his wife, he found the perfect gift for her—something she really wanted, but didn’t buy because it was too expensive.

The communication between author and reader is often nuanced in ways that defy simple explanations. Yet, when they’re understood, they seem absurdly simple. It’s the reason I employ beta readers, ask questions on this blog, and maintain statistics for my books. All of these observation techniques tell me how you’d like to receive information from me without my having to ask the question directly. I can provide you with the perfect presentation without saying anything at all.

How do you employ the art of observation? Do you find that it provides an effective means of communicating thoughts that might not receive proper treatment when spoken. Send your ideas on the topic to John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Wood Stove Cleaning Day

It’s February and the wood stove has seen a lot of use this season. It’s easy to forget that the wood stove needs maintenance while you use it. I discussed annual and regular maintenance of a wood stove in my Care and Feeding of a Wood Stove post. However, a wood stove requires more maintenance to continue to work properly. A reader was asking me the other day just how much maintenance I recommend and that’s a really hard question to answer. It depends on how much you use your wood stove and what sort of wood you burn in it. You also need to consider the wood stove type and its age.

I actually do maintenance twice weekly during the heaviest usage portion of the season. During the twice weekly cleanup, I make sure the wood stove is completely out and empty the ashes. The ashes actually work quite well when spread on icy areas. The grit in the ash keeps you from slipping. It’s a bad idea to put the ashes where they could cause a fire, such as your compost heap, unless you’re absolutely certain that they’re out. Even then, you must exercise extreme care.

As part of my maintenance, I sweep down the outside of the wood stove using a foxtail broom. This includes the stove pipe and any other surfaces that could become encrusted with dirt, dust, or cobwebs. Not only does such cleaning enhance the appearance of your stove, it can also help (slightly) with its efficiency and potentially reduce any fire hazard.

Cleaning any glass on the front doors is helpful. You can’t manage the fire as well if you can’t see it. I’ve tried a number of cleaners. Mr. Clean is my current choice. It seems to do a better job with the buildup on the glass. If someone else comes up with a good selection, please let me know (but please try Mr. Clean first for comparison purposes).

Chimney fires are something to avoid at all costs. Burning hardwoods that are completely dry help quite a lot. A little creosote can still build up through and you really do want to get rid of it. All the chimney sweep should find in your chimney is a little ash. To help keep things clean, I spray Anti-Creo-Soot into the stove once a week. Make sure you follow the instructions on the bottle precisely.

Keeping things clean will help you enjoy your wood stove longer and to use it safely. A few minutes spent cleaning your wood stove may save you a lot of grief later. Let me know about your cleaning tips at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Where is Python 3?

A number of readers have been sending me e-mail about Beginning Programming with Python For Dummies and why I chose to use Python 3.3 instead of one of the Python 2.x versions. In general, I believe in using the most up-to-date version of a language product available because that’s the future of programming for that language. So, it wasn’t too surprising to me that I noted in a recent InfoWorld article that Fedora 22 will have Python 3 installed by default. I’ve started noticing that Python 3 will be the default with other products and in other environments too. Choosing Python 3.3 for this particular book looks like a really good choice because anyone reading it will be equipped to work with the latest version as it becomes adopted in a wider range of environments.

I do talk about standard Python in Professional IronPython. Of course, this book is targeted toward IronPython users, not Python users, but talking about standard Python and how you can use both libraries and utilities from it seemed like a good idea when I wrote the book. You need to remember that a solid version of Python 3 wasn’t available at the time I wrote this book and that Python 2 was really popular at the time. If there are readers of this book who would like me to create a series of posts that discuss using Python 3 libraries and tools with IronPython (assuming it’s possible), you need to let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. I try to accommodate reader needs whenever I can, as long as there is an interest in my doing so. At this point, I haven’t had a single reader request for such support, which is why I’m making a direct request for your input.

This leaves my current book project, Python for Data Science for Dummies. It turns out that the Data Science community is heavily involved with Python 2. My coauthor, Luca, and I have discussed the issue in depth and have decided to use Python 2 for this particular book. The limitation is that the libraries used for Data Science haven’t been moved to Python 3 completely and the entire Data Science community still uses Python 2 exclusively. If it later turns out that things change, I can certainly post some updates for the book here so that it remains as current as possible.

Python is an exception to the rule when it comes to languages. There are currently two viable versions of the language, so I can understand that some readers are completely confused. I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts, ideas, and concerns regarding the use of specific Python versions in my books. I want you to feel comfortable with the decisions that I made in putting the books together. More importantly, your input helps me decide on content for future books, articles, and blog posts. Unless I know what you need, it’s really hard to write good content, so please keep those e-mails coming!