Knitting for the Gentleman Farmer

The winters can get long here in the country; encouraging even the most determined person to eat to excess. From previous posts, you know that one of the things that I’ve accomplished is to lose a considerable amount of weight without dieting even one day. Part of my weight loss strategy is to find something to do that doesn’t involve excessive eating.

One of the crafts I’ve tried is knitting.  Unfortunately, I’ve found that knitting needles don’t work very well with larger hands (nor do crochet hooks it seems).  Fortunately, I’ve found a good substitute, the Knifty Knitter.  It’s a hoop or elongated loop with pegs sticking out of it.  I’ve found it very fast and easy to use.  There is an interesting history behind this device, but I’ll leave that for some other time.  I originally objected a four hoop set that can be used for a number of purposes such as hats.  However, with a little ingenuity, I’ve also been able to make slipper socks with it like these:

Socks

After a while, I also purchased several elongated looms.  I purchased the set, which works fine for garments such as scarves and blankets. In fact, just this weekend I finished this blanket for my wife:

Blanket

The blanket is made from four panels that I created with the longest (22″) loom.  It uses the double knit pattern, so it looks like it was knit on both sides and is quite thick.  My wife says it’s quite warm.  Because the blanket uses a double thread throughout, it’ll also wear quite well.

I’ve also made a number of sets for people. The biggest set I’ve made so far is a hat, scarf, and blanket set for my niece and her baby.  The set turned out quite nice and I was pleased that she seems to like it so much.  Here’s the set:

KnittedSet

Of course, this isn’t the only craft I’m involved with, but it’s the one that I can perform when I have just little bits of time here and there. Future posts will tell you about other sorts of crafts that I enjoy in an effort to keep the hands productively busy and the mouth free of food. Let me know about your crafts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Using the PTVS for a Simple Project

Well, I installed the PTVS I mentioned in yesterday’s post on my system and gave it a whirl. I must admit to being a little underwhelmed after the hype on the CodePlex site. However, the download does help and if you want to use Visual Studio for your development platform you should get it.  The process for creating a project is certainly easier than then one described in Chapter 2 of my book (although, that process still works fine for existing projects). The first thing you’ll notice after installation is that you get a new installed template as shown here.

PTVS01

As you can see, you do get all of the functionality that you’d normally get in a Visual Studio project, including the ability to add your application to source control, so this is a good start. After you configure your solution, the IDE creates it for you and you see a single file with some test code in it like this.

PTVS02

Don’t get the idea that you can simply click Start Debugging at this point and see something interesting. Before you can do anything, you have to configure the interpreter. Choose Tools > Options to display the Options dialog box. In the Options dialog box, select the Python\Interpreter Options folder. Here’s what the options look like; I’ve already configured mine for use on a 64-bit Windows 7 system.

PTVS03

I found that IntelliSense worked great. For example, when I typed raw_input(, I automatically received the proper help as shown here.

PTVS04

I played around with the IDE quite a lot more and was impressed with what the IDE does now that it didn’t do in the past. Of course, I’m going to have to play a lot more before I feel comfortable with everything this add-in can do.

So, where was the disappointment factor? Well, the first issue is that I was supposed to receive a total of four template types with IronPython according to the ReadMe.html file that comes with the product. I’m hoping there is a simple fix for this issue because I’d really like to tell you about the other templates that PTVS supports. The second issue is that the IDE didn’t automatically recognize my interpreter as it should. I’m assuming this is the reason why I didn’t receive the additional template. I’ll report back about these issues and show you more about PTVS as time permits. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts about PTVS at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

IronPython Finally Has Visual Studio Support

Months ago when I wrote Professional IronPython, I had to show you all kinds of workarounds for seemingly simple problems because the Visual Studio IDE didn’t provide the support required to do things like create an IronPython project.  For example, in Chapter 8 I have to show you how to create a Windows Forms application without using the visual designer.  That’s right, you need to write all of the component code manually, rather than rely on the GUI.  Microsoft’s decision not to support IronPython and IronRuby any longer seemed to put a nail in a great product’s coffin and I thought that perhaps the days of IronPython were numbered.

Fortunately, I was wrong. Microsoft has finally decided to release a beta add-in for Visual Studio 2010 that provides IDE support for both CPython and IronPython called Python Tools for Visual Studio (PTVS). You’re not getting any sort of new functionality from the language perspective.  The add-on relies on the underlying language features to perform its work.  The benefit to using this add-in is that it allows you to use the IDE to perform tasks such as creating an application using a template, rather than coding everything by hand.

Of course, the add-in provides far more functionality than simply creating projects.  The fact that I now get IntelliSense support is amazing.  You don’t know how helpful an IDE feature is until you try to write code without it.  Over the years, I’ve become somewhat addicted to IntelliSense because it helps me “remember” what it is that I want to do next.  Otherwise, I have to sit there and think about how things are supposed to go together; not always an easy task when you regularly work with multiple languages.

The add-in must be striking a chord with everyone.  It was only released on the 7th and there have already been 1,380 downloads (as of yesterday when I downloaded my copy).  If you program with IronPython and you often use IronPython to overcome procedural language limitations, this is a must have add-in for Visual Studio.

I’ll be working with this add-in over the coming weeks and will report back on what I find.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your input on it at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Working with Low Level Code

Working with low level code is becoming less necessary as Microsoft continues to improve the .NET Framework, but you sometimes still need to resort to direct Win32 API access using P/Invoke.  My book, “.NET Framework Solutions: In Search of the Lost Win32 API,” is a great place to learn about P/Invoke and the significant number of ways you can use it to access Windows features that Microsoft hasn’t made available in the .NET Framework yet.  For example, you’ll find a thorough discussion of the Windows messaging system in Chapter 4.  However, the discussion is a bit lengthy because there is so much you can do with the Windows messaging system.

One of the questions I get asked quite often is whether there is a quick start sort of guide I can recommend for working with the Windows messaging system.  With that in mind, I wrote a series of four DevSource articles some time ago.  Here’s the complete article list:


These four articles provide quite a bit of information about Windows messages that you might not know from a .NET perspective.  Using these techniques can save you considerable time, especially when you need to interact with other applications.  In fact, the final article reveals secrets you can use to interact with applications when you don’t have the source code; a significant problem for most developers.  So, how do you use P/Invoke?  Have you had to resort to P/Invoke to work with Windows 7 features that haven’t been added to the .NET Framework yet?  Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Early Spring in the Woods

I’m sure many people are ready for spring. I know that I am. The ground is getting muddier by the second and the large drifts of snow have that decidedly tired and dirty look. Of course, winter will hang around for a while yet. We’re supposed to have another snow storm tonight. Just how much snow we get depends on the vagaries of nature. I don’t mind the snow; just don’t give me any ice.

Today was sunny and warm; well, warm for this time of year. I think the temperature got all the way up to 40 today, so there was more than a little melting underway. After checking my e-mail, getting all of my morning chores done, and making sure my wife didn’t need to go to town, I decided it would be a fine day to get up into the woods. I didn’t actually get there until afternoon, but I was still able to get quite a bit done. I keep cutting until the saw runs out of gas, then I start lugging the wood down the hill, 80 pounds at a time. Did I mention that my day in the woods normally involves walking six or seven miles (half of which involves lugging this 80 pound load)? It isn’t a bad workout for a 50+ year old man. This is the view from the hill where I’m cutting wood now.

WoodsToday

A day in the woods wouldn’t be complete though without some time spent looking at nature. I didn’t run into friend badger today. In fact, badger isn’t my friend and I try to give him a wide berth. I did see Woody though. Woody is the pileated woodpecker that hangs out in our woods. I tried to get a picture of him, but he’s shy. However, here’s a picture of his current favorite tree:

WoodysTree

Actually, Woody has a number of trees he attacks, most of which are snags like this one:

Snag

I have a personal rule that I don’t cut any trees that someone is using, so I’ll leave this snag in place. Eventually, someone will move into the holes that Woody has made. I’ve found all kinds of interesting things in trees over the years. We have several bee trees in the woods right now and I depend on the bees in them to help pollinate my garden and trees, so I definitely won’t cut the bee trees down.

One of the more interesting things I noticed in the woods today is that the buds on some of the trees are starting to swell. Of course, this is a sign that spring is near. The berry brambles are also turning quite red; another good sign. Here are some of the buds that I saw today:

SwellingBuds

I hope you enjoyed your tour of the woods today. I promise other trips as time allows. The woods is one of my favorite places to go. We not only get wood from there, but also a number of food items. I’ll show you some of them as I gather it this summer. Let me know about your favorite places in nature at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Dealing with Overabundance

Gardening is never a precise science. In fact, there isn’t any way to make it a precise science, despite the best efforts of growers worldwide to do so. There are too many variables to consider and each season is unique. A heavy snow winter can delay spring, which reduces the time in which you can plant some early season vegetables. A humid, cool summer favors some vegetables; a dry, hot summer others. The presence or lack of insects makes a difference too. Too many cloudy days changes the environmental landscape, as do myriad other environmental factors. Every season is unique and brings unique challenges.

It’s hardly surprising then that some seasons tend to produce an overabundance of certain vegetables. For example, last year was an especially good year for okra. I don’t think I’ve ever seen our okra plants get that tall or produce such an abundance. That has partially meant having a lot of gumbo this past winter. Rebecca also made pickled okra for me, a delicacy I seldom get.

In many cases, overabundance means having leftovers at the end of the year. In fact, we usually try to plant with a three-year plan in mind. The tomatoes that grew so well this year, very likely won’t grow all that well next year. (Tomatoes are one of the few vegetables that you can count on producing something every year, even if they don’t produce enough to meet your annual needs.) So, during a good year, we can the excess because canned foods have a longer shelf life than frozen and once canned, they require no electricity to keep them fresh. According to eHow you can store high-acid foods for a year and low-acid foods for two to five years without any problem.  Practical experience shows that canned goods will keep longer than that when stored properly, but we throw anything over five years old into the compost heap to become new vegetables.

Try canning your food in various ways. For example, tomatoes are easily canned as whole peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, tomato juice, tomato jam, ketchup, and in many other forms. Rather than buy these items from the store, make them up in advance during canning season so they’re ready whenever you need them. Now, whenever you need a quick meal, you already have it stored in your larder; making that trip to the fast food restaurant unnecessary.

Some food items won’t can properly or the loss of vitamins is so exorbitant that canning makes the result less desirable nutritionally. Anything that’s high in vitamins A or C, thiamin, or riboflavin is less desirable canned than frozen. Consequently, we try to freeze these foods more often than not to preserve their nutritional value. However, this choice has consequences too. Freezing incurs a constant storage cost and there is limited space for freezing in the typical home. Frozen food also has a significantly shorter shelf life than canned food. We try to empty the freezer by the end of each season and will can some remaining foods just to keep from losing them.

This is where many people end their efforts to store excess food. There are many other techniques you can use, however. One of the techniques we use is dehydrating the food. zucchini cans terribly and the frozen result isn’t much better. However, zucchini plants typically produce very well and they’re quite nutritional when you choose larger plants (rather than the baby zucchini favored by stores, which aren’t much better than drinking water). I’ve found over the years that much of the food value in squash is in the seeds. Dehydrated zucchini served in place of potato chips is an exceptionally nutritious (and tasty) snack food that I love and it provides an outstanding way to preserve excess zucchini. Eggplant also preserves well this way, as do many other plants. We dehydrate them and eat them as a low calorie snack food during the winter months.

Another interesting way to use excess vegetables is to make wine. I tried my hand at tomato wine this year for the first time and the results were amazing. Each gallon of tomato wine requires an entire quart of tomato juice, so it’s possible to preserve quite a few tomatoes using this technique. I’ve also made wine from excess pumpkin, along with all of the usual (and a few unusual) fruits. I understand many people use other vegetables to make wine. A friend of mine makes turnip wine.

You can always give your excess to other people. It’s interesting to note that not everyone in a particular area will have your success in a given year with a given vegetable. Last year was a horrible year for tomatoes and zucchini for us. Yes, we received some of each, but not nearly enough to meet the year’s requirement, much less enough to put away for the future. We were able to trade extra food such as potatoes with other people for extra food they had gotten from their gardens. The result is that everyone ended up with a more balanced larder.

These are just a few of my ideas for dealing with overabundance. What are the techniques you use? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Is E-mail Dead?

I keep reading articles that tell me that e-mail is dead. In fact, there was one today on ComputerWorld that describes a company that is moving from e-mail to social media as an exclusive option. Currently, I don’t use any of the options mentioned in the article and don’t have time (or the inclination) to start using them. Don’t get me wrong, social media probably solves problems for some part of the population, it just hasn’t worked out well for me. I can’t see myself outputting tweets about my daily activities and some of the articled I read about Facebook are just plain scary.

My main problem with most modern communication solutions is that they’re overly intrusive. I was in the bathroom the other day and a guy was engaging in business while sitting on the commode; he just couldn’t be bothered to turn his cellphone off to take care of personal matters. That’s just one of many scenarios I’d prefer to avoid. There is strong evidence to conclude that our society has become preoccupied with communication, to the detriment of all. Just how many people died last year from texting accidents? According to the Washington Post, 28 percent of accidents now occur while people are texting or talking on a cellphone. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to talk with someone that badly.

I have to wonder how well social media will work for business needs. Social media assumes a level of connectivity that I’m simply not willing to allow. E-mail works better because someone can send me a message and I can handle it later; at my convenience. More importantly, I can handle the e-mail at a time when I’m not distracted by something else. In addition, I can provide a thoughtful answer; one that I’ve researched and thought through carefully. E-mail also provides me with a permanent written record that I can reference later when I have questions about the discussion.

There is some evidence to say that social media is actually costing business big dollars. For example, the BBC claims that social media is costing business £1.4bn. Other articles are equally certain that social media can save businesses money. I’d say it would be pretty tough to come up with a precise statement either pro or con when it comes to social media’s cost to business, but I know the personal cost. I tried a few solutions as an experiment and found that I was considerably less productive using them than turning it all off and using e-mail. Of course, that’s me, you may very well find that using social media makes you more productive; each person is different.

Personally, I don’t see e-mail as a dead communication technology. If anything, it’s becoming more important to me as I age and my memory becomes less dependable. As far as I’m concerned, the always connected nature of most social media today simply isn’t a good solution if you want to be productive. So, what’s your take on social media? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Quotas Revisited for Windows XP

The other day I provided a post about quotas that contained a simple three step process for turning quota monitoring on and logging quota events, without actually enforcing the quota. It turns out that the process works just fine with Vista and Windows 7, but it doesn’t quite work with Windows XP. Microsoft made a fix between operating systems and didn’t mention the change to anyone. Of course, this is an old story with Microsoft. You have to watch carefully because you might miss a fix and find that your perfectly functioning batch file or script suddenly stops working.

It turns out that Windows XP does things a little differently. When you execute the FSUtil Quota Track C: command, you get the expected result; tracking is enabled. The next step is to turn on exception logging using the WMIC QuotaSetting Where Caption=”C:” Set ExceededNotification=True command, which also works as expected. However, when you execute the WMIC QuotaSetting Where Caption=”C:” Set WarningExceededNotification=True command to turn on warning logging, suddenly, the exception logging is turned off. Likewise, if you were to reverse the order of the two WMIC commands, you’d find that warning logging is turned off.

Fortunately, there is a fix to this problem and it’s a very odd fix indeed. In order to enable tracking and turn on both levels of logging, you need to follow this order in Windows XP:

  1. FSUtil Quota Track C:
  2. WMIC QuotaSetting Where Caption=”C:” Set ExceededNotification=True
  3. WMIC QuotaSetting Where Caption=”C:” Set ExceededNotification=True

That’s right, you issue the exception logging command twice and you’ll find that both logging check boxes are checked. Microsoft fixed this particular error between Windows XP and Vista, but I can’t find any source that tells me about the fix. If you find one, feel free to contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

A Potential Eye Gaze System Replacement

I view the computer as a great equalizer. People who have special needs can rely on a computer to give them access to the world at large and make them productive citizens. In fact, I’m often amazed at what a computer can do in the right hands. People who used to be locked away in institutions are now living independently with help from their computer. That’s why I read a ComputerWorld article today, “Look, no hands! G.tec uses brain interface to tweet” with great interest. I don’t think this system could replace eye gaze systems for those who need them today, but the system holds great potential as an eye gaze system replacement in the future.

So, just what is an eye gaze system? Imagine you have two cameras mounted on either side of a monitor. The cameras are focused on someone’s eye position. As the person moves their eyes to look at a letter on a card above the monitor, the cameras record the position and use the information to tell the computer what letter to type. Of course, eye gaze systems can be used for more than simply typing letters. Some of these systems are extremely complex and can record the viewer’s gaze at any position on the monitor. Check out the LC Technologies setup as a modern example of what an eye gaze system can do.

The problem with eye gaze systems is that they can be slow, error prone, and tiring to use. Unless the system is properly calibrated, using eye gaze to interact with a computer can become frustrating and time consuming. This brain computer interface is exciting because it promises higher speed (0.9 seconds once trained) and the potential for errors is greatly reduced. However, this system is still in its infancy, so eye gaze systems will continue to be important for people with special needs well into the future. You can read more about accessibility topics in my book, “Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements.” Let me know what you think of this new technology at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Calculating an Hourly Wage

Yes, I know that most people work in the garden for the sheer joy of doing so. In fact, many gardens do really end up as places to putter around; there are a few of this and a few of that, but not a lot of anything. However, when you begin looking at your garden as a means to feed your family all year round, it takes on added importance. The garden is suddenly larger and consumes a great deal more time. It’s entirely possible to get sucked into a black hole of activity and to begin wondering what you’re really getting from your efforts.

It won’t help that many people won’t understand the obsession to produce the majority of your own food. Some people will make snide remarks about how much it must cost to garden in the first place and how you could better spend your time working a second job. A lot more people won’t make any comment except a halfhearted, “Wow” and think something completely different. So just how do you handle the naysayers?

Well, there is always the argument that food from the garden is significantly fresher than the food purchased in the store and therefore more nutritious. It’s almost certain that someone will rebut your argument with the latest article saying there is no significant nutritional difference between the food you grow and the food in the store. Of course, you can break out your equally compelling article, but fail to convince the other party of anything except that you must be a fanatic. The truth likely is that there are instances where your garden grown food is indeed superior, but that the effort in growing it will eclipse any benefit for most people. In short, they really don’t want to hear that your food tastes better or is better for you.

You could also make the argument that the food grown in your garden is pesticide free. Whether such an argument holds any weight with the person you’re talking with depends on their knowledge of the adverse effects of pesticides. Many people are of the opinion that the media has done a good job of denigrating pesticides and that they can’t possibly be as harmful as many people seem to think; some people simply don’t care.

The only argument that appears to hold weight with many people is how much you make when working in the garden. So, just how do you figure it out? The best approach is to start by weighing the food you bring in from the garden. For example, one year we brought in about 50 pounds of green beans from our garden. At the time, green beans sold for $1.50 a pound in the store (they’re over $3.00 a pound now, but that’s not an appropriate comparison; I don’t have any fresh green beans now either). So, it would have cost me $75.00 to purchase the green beans in the store.

Of course, I have costs when raising the green beans. The seed packet was $2.00. I also had to water the green beans. Computing the value of the water is a little harder when you have a well; you need to approximate the amount of time the water is used to water the green beans, multiply by the flow rate of your hose, and multiply by the electrical rate for your area. I estimated that I spent another $5.00 on water (mulching significantly reduces the cost of the water). I didn’t have any cost for fertilizer; my rabbits supply all I need free of charge. (Well, not precisely, but where else would I use it?) We also don’t use any pesticides on the green beans, so there is no cost there. The profit from our green beans then is $68.00.

My wife and I worked about ten hours total on the green beans. So, you take your profit and divide it by ten to come up with an hourly rate of $6.80. That’s below minimum wage, but you’re definitely not working free of charge. Now, you need to consider the supplementary benefits of gardening. For example, the cheapest gym membership in our area is approximately $43.00 a month. Because we were in the garden, there was no need for a gym membership and we can add that cost to our hourly rate. By working in the garden, I’ve also reduced my weight, which has reduced my blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Instead of four pills each day for my diabetes, I now take one; another cost savings I can add to my hourly rate. There are also fewer runs to town, which means a cost savings in gas. By the time I added everything up, I figured that I had earned about $8.00 an hour gardening.

Just how is it that I can say that I earned $8.00 an hour growing green beans though? After all, there isn’t any additional money in my pocket. The gain comes from not spending money. By making the money you have now go farther, you don’t have to spend as much time worrying about where to get more. In short, the benefit is real. By saving the money I did, I was able to use the money I earned for other things that I can’t produce myself.

There are some pitfalls when your self-sufficient and you need to consider them as well. For example, when you only grow food for the summer, you don’t need to worry about storage. If you’re like me and grow food to last all year, you need to consider the storage costs as part of the cost of the food. Many people turn to the freezer for storage. Some foods do require freezing if you want to keep them (some foods don’t store well at all). However, you need to consider other means of storage. The lowest cost long term storage method is canning. When you can your food, all you need to consider is the cost of the electricity or gas used to can the food, the partial cost of jars (they last nearly forever), and the cost of lids (around $2.50 for ten of them). However, don’t overlook techniques such as drying. My wife dries a number of vegetables in the form of chips. For example, nothing tastes better than a bag of zucchini or egg plant chips in winter; it’s a taste of summer from vegetables that don’t store particularly well in any other way.

I’ll discuss storage techniques in a future article. In the meantime, think about how much you make each hour growing your own food. You might be surprised at how much profit there is in having fun!