Review of Dark Shadows

It’s always interesting to see how someone is going to handle a movie version of a television show, especially when that show played long enough in the past that the original actors are unavailable to participate in any significant way (especially in their original roles). Dark Shadows starring Johnny Depp (as Barnabas Collins) and Michelle Pfeiffer falls into this category. No matter how you play your part, the people who loved the original show will complain because it isn’t the original show. I remember watching the original Dark Shadows with my mom during lunch in the summer months.  I was somewhere around eight or nine at the time the show started in 1966 (I may not have started watching until 1967). There is only one word to describe the original series—Gothic. The brooding interiors, appearances of vampires and other creatures of the night, and overall pacing of the program made it something special even for an eight year old.

The movie is something similar, but also different, from the original Dark Shadows. Anyone who has become so fixated on the original show that they can’t be objective about any other treatment of the topic will absolutely hate this movie. Johnny Depp has taken the original show and made it his. Anyone familiar with Johnny Depp knows that he plays his parts in an unusual manner. The role he played in Pirates of the Caribbean says it all. When you combine Johnny Depp with director Tim Burton, you have to expect the unexpected.

Expect a little comedy in this movie. The comedy isn’t continuous, but it is there and it feels natural when you see it. The comedic element is what adds the true Depp touch to this movie. It isn’t meant to provide a raucous laugh, but more of a good chuckle. The tongue-in-cheek humor can be a little subtle at times and there was one case where I got the joke a few minutes after it appeared on screen. Even so, the humor keeps the movie from becoming a little too dark and possibly boring.

Overall, the movie does follow the same basic plot as the television show, but greatly speeds the plot up and doesn’t include many of the elements of the original show (there are no zombies and the werewolf only makes a cameo appearance). Of course, the original show had over 1,200 episodes in which to convey its content and Johnny Depp only had 113 minutes. I found the movie plot moved along at a nice pace and kept me entertained. There weren’t any places where I was bored and wished for something, anything else to happen. Care was taken to keep the plot coherent and I think most people will enjoy it.

Not to leave Michelle Pfeiffer out, she played something of an accountant. At least, that’s how I essentially viewed her role as the Collinwood family patriarch. I didn’t feel her acting was quite up to the standard of movies like Ladyhawke and Batman Returns. There was a little something missing that made her role feel a bit forced at times.

Eva Green, who plays the evil witch Angelique, does an outstanding job in her role. She plays against Johnny in a way that keeps the plot moving well and doesn’t feel a bit forced. Not having seen the script, I have no way of knowing whether any adlibbing took place, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The two worked together incredibly well. I only barely remember her acting in Casino Royale, a movie that failed to impress me much. I’ll remember her in this role.

Bella Heathcote plays Victoria Winters well. It isn’t an outstanding job, but technically proficient and she did seem to fit the role well enough. This is the first time I’ve seen her acting ability and I hope to see her in future roles because I think she’ll have a lot to offer.

The movie does include a few special effects—some of which you might not notice at first. As with the humor, many of the special effects are subtle and you only realize you’ve seen a special effect after you think about the impossibility of a sequence actually occurring (the physics are simply wrong in some cases). Some special effects are obvious, but not in the exploding car, action-oriented sort of way. A few are really quite amazing because I don’t think I’ve seen them done in any other movie. In short, the special effects work well with the movie and add to it, without being overly obvious in most cases (except when you’d expect them to be obvious).

This is one of Johnny Depp’s better roles. I wouldn’t quite put it on par with his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow, but certainly it’s nearly as good. I’ve talked with a few people since I watched the movie who actually do feel this is his best role to date, so what you feel about it will depend on the kind of Johnny Depp you like to watch. One thing is certain, this movie will be going into my library when it’s finally released. No, it’s not the original Dark Shadows, but it’s a fun treatment of the Dark Shadows plot that really does do a great job of entertaining.


Honoring Those Who Gave Their All

I decided to give all of the other posts that are running around in my head a break today to talk about Memorial Day. I would imagine that many people are already starting their holiday, or if they haven’t, they will soon. Time off from work is always a good thing and I would certainly never dissuade anyone from spending time with friends and family. However, along with whatever celebration you have in mind, I would encourage you to spend a little time thinking about the terrible price of our freedom—the price paid by our sailors, marines, soldiers, and airmen. You don’t have to make an event of it—a few moments will do.

The idea behind Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day because people decorated the tombs of the fallen) is to remember those who died in battle. The holiday began sometime around the Civil War as a means of remembering those who died in that war (both North and South) and to provide a time of healing for the country. After World War I, Memorial Day became a time to remember all those who died in service to our country and their fellow man in any war. There are many rituals associated with Memorial Day today, but really, all that anyone would ask is that you think on the cost of your freedom and who paid that price.

There is an official time to spend a moment thinking about Memorial Day.  President Bill Clinton created a memorandum asking all Americans to pause for a moment at 3:00 local time to commemorate those who died. There are some suggestions on how to do this (such as playing taps), but any act of reverence—even a moment of silence is more than sufficient. If you feel so inclined, you might want to participate in a Memorial Day activity of some sort. In fact, it’s especially important to teach your children about the day because these service members died for their freedom too.

I’ll also be taking a special personal day off on Tuesday, 29 May.  So, my next post will be on the 30th. See you then. In the meantime, thank you so much for taking the time to read my posts and to send comments on them.


Enjoying My Own Personal Flower Garden

My wife and I have always worked very hard on our garden. Every little addition we make, we think it through to ensure it will benefit the aesthetic of the space. We spent 6 whole months planning before we got Stamped Concrete MA Patios Walkways Contractors in to add a walkway and patio! That being said, I am so happy with the results and it was well worth the wait. You see, thanks to our lovely bifold patio doors, I can see all the way into our garden from the comfort of our living room. Honestly, investing in bifold doors has totally changed how bright and airy our living room feels. It is so nice to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside, and our patio always looks so pretty, particular since we decided to treat ourselves in some new patio paving (you can see some examples here if you are thinking about doing the same thing, and trust us it makes a huge difference to your patio). We actually only decided to get bifold doors after they were recommended to us by our neighbors. Nowadays, you can build your own bifold doors quite easily, but we decided to get some help from a team of home improvement experts as installing doors is not our strong suit! Anyway, as for our patio, there’s one tradition we have that I don’t have any say in – and I like it that way. Every year Rebecca works out a new arrangement and adds plants to her gift to me, a personal flower garden. Every morning I wake to the scene below our bedroom window of Rebecca’s hard work. I know it’s an effort because getting into that rock garden is hard. It’s on a slope that’s taxing even for me; I can’t even imagine how hard Rebecca must have to work to maintain it for me. I talked about my garden a little last year in the Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work post.

One of Rebecca’s goals is to make sure that something is always blooming in my rock garden. It’s a little difficult to accomplish, but I know that people in the past performed the same task to ensure that there would always be something pretty to see. I really respect her efforts to make the garden as pretty as possible and to keep it that way all summer. So, the pictures you see in this post are a mere snapshot of my rock garden. Later in the summer, the scene will change and then it will change again for fall.

A favorite new plant is a pincushion flower. The exquisite blue flowers are really hard to capture, but I managed to get a passable picture of them. The real world flower is even more beautiful than the one shown here.


One of the flowers that came back from last year is the blanket flower. It’s a favorite of mine because the colors change slightly over time and I love the fact that the flowers are bi-colored. This year the blanket flower is paired up with fiber-optic grass. As you can see from the following picture, the combination is really nice.


A few of the rock garden elements are edible. For example, the chives have some beautiful flowers that are also edible (as are the chives). I’ve always found chives to be a nice addition because they combine color and texture so well.


Some of the flowers are quite bright. One of the flowers in this category is the coreopsis. Rebecca has them placed where their profusion of bright flowers will show up best. This is another holdover from last year. Immediately below the coreopsis in this picture is bugleweed ‘metallica crispa’, which has already bloomed for the year, but will continue to add its deeply colored foliage to the garden.


Most of the pictures that I’ve found of wild strawberries online show white flowers. I’ve been assured that the plants in the rock garden are wild strawberries, but they have these dramatic pink flowers. As with many other plants, they’ve come up from last year.


Another bright pink flower in the garden is seathrift (armeria). This year the seathrift is nestled in with some ferns and a happy looking frog.


As I said last year, the view from our bedroom is for me alone. When I go out my back door though, I see some amazing beauty-the rock garden, our herb garden, the woods, and bushes surrounding our patio, we’ve been thinking about getting a fence to frame our garden, we want to choose the right fence to pull this beauty together and make it our own. Most importantly, I see the love my wife has for me in producing something so quiet and peaceful for me to enjoy.


Pogoplug, Your Own Personal Cloud

Everyone is talking about the cloud it seems—the cloud being an Internet presence for offering services, storing data, or otherwise conducting business as if working on a network. However, one of the main concerns about using the cloud, especially for data storage, is the risks it poses. Of course, there are two kinds of clouds. There is the public sort that people use to communicate with just about anyone else, and then there is the private sort that companies used for internal communications or for data sharing with partners. The problem with the cloud is that it often requires a huge investment for anyone to get started. Well, that was true until Pogoplug.

There are actually three kinds of Pogoplug and each serves a specific need. All forms of Pogoplug provide a private cloud environment, but they vary in audience size.


  • Pogoplug PC: This option is for a single user who needs to access data on a PC from anywhere. The software is installed on your system and lets you do things like access any file on your system or stream data to any device. You’ll also be able to use this option to put data on public social media sites such as Facebook.
  • Pogoplug Devices: If you don’t want to expose your PC to possible damage from an online source, you can buy a Pogoplug device that provides everything needed to share data online. The Pogoplug Series 4 seems to be attracting the most attention. The point is that the device provides a safe way to create a personal, private cloud for accessing data through an Internet connection from anywhere. Essentially, using a Pogoplug device provides all of the advantages of personal cloud computing, with very few of the risks, and at a great price.
  • Pogoplug Team: Sometimes you need more than a personal private cloud solution. When you need to share data through a cloud connection with a number of people, you need Pogoplug Team. For a mere $45.00 per year service charge ($15.00 per person), three users can share data in a private cloud setup that relies on your equipment. All you really need is a cheap PC with lots of storage space to accomplish your goal. A number of media sources have discussed this form of Pogoplug, including ComputerWorld and IT World.

I find Pogoplug intriguing because it offers a low cost solution for cloud computing that gets rid of some of the more significant objections that I’ve heard about using the cloud. For me, the main risk factor that Pogoplug addresses is having your data controlled by someone else. You provide the equipment, so your data remains firmly in your possession. If Pogoplug is even moderately successful, you can expect to see others enter the field with similar solutions. What do you think about a solution like Pogoplug? Let me know at [email protected].


Enjoying the Flowered Woods

I always find the springtime woods inviting. All of the flowers are amazing! Unfortunately, I don’t know the names of every flower out there, even though I’m sure that someone has named them at some point. Every spring does bring back a few friends, such as the cranesbill geranium:


The berry brambles produce a riot of flowers too. The gooseberries, black caps (black raspberries), and red raspberries have already bloomed and set fruit. However, the blackberries are only now putting out blossoms and the initial burst of flowers portends a wonderful summer of berry picking.


I can taste the berries now. Our entire woods is packed with berry brambles. There are times when I can pick two or three gallons of berries in a single day. In fact, the limiting factor is usually the amount of time I have to pick, rather than the number of available berries. Everyone eats the berries during the summer months, including both birds and squirrels (oddly enough). There is no doubt in my mind that other forest creatures benefit from the berries too.

Sometimes the woods offers up something special. In times past, I’ve encountered bloodwort (bloodroot) and mayapples. Both plants were used for medicinal purposes in the past. The mayapple fruit is edible in small quantities as long as you know when to pick it. The fruit must ripen on the plant and must be completely yellow. The leaves can be used to make an effective insecticide when boiled, allowed to cool, and then sprayed.

This year we were treated to something special, a jack-in-the-pulpit. It showed up right above the rock garden at the very edge of the woods, so Rebecca was the first to spot it. I must admit that it’s a bit hard to see. We’re fortunate that this one came up so close that we can enjoy it each year. In fact, Rebecca plans to extend the rock garden to include our new addition.


Of course, there is a lot more to see in the woods and I hope to be able to take time to enjoy it all. Do you have a woods near to you? If so, do you ever get to enjoy all of the beauty it contains? Let me know at [email protected].


Adding Chickens to the Coop

The coop is essentially finished. You saw the finishing touches in the Covering and Completing the Chicken Coop post. However, there are still some things to do. For one thing, I need to level out the ground on the side of the coop to make it easier to get inside on winter days. The inside still needs to be wired and I have to paint the outside. Still, the coop is ready for occupancy.

I also need to provide some sort of shelter for the chicken food, so that it doesn’t get wet. The food is currently in a 32 gallon trash can (which performs remarkably well). We’ve found that we need to use the brute strength trash cans to keep animals at bay. The domed lid works best in this case because it sheds the water really well. It’s a mistake to get a trash can with wheels because dumping the 100 pound bags of feed into them is nearly impossible without dumping at least some of it on the ground. (Even though our chickens will feast on grass, bugs, and other sources of food outside, we still need to provide a certain amount of feed consisting of oyster shell, grains, and grass hay.)

As I previously mentioned, we’ll get chicks for the coop on June 25th. Until then, it would still be nice to get something for our efforts, so we bought two laying hens from a friend of ours. Both produce nice brown eggs. The first is a Rhode Island Red (Rose) and the second is a Black Australorp (Violet). A rooster had picked at the two birds a bit before we got them, but except for missing a few feathers, they’re really nice birds.


Our chickens started laying eggs almost immediately. In fact, we received our first egg from Violet the first evening we had her.


Both of our ladies have been raised in the free-range manner, so we’re already receiving the benefits of free-range eggs. There is some discussion on precisely what these benefits are, but most of the places I’ve researched agree that you get these benefits over eggs raised using production methods (chickens in a cage):


  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • Two times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times more vitamin E
  • Seven times more beta carotene

Some sites also say there is a potential calcium and vitamin D benefit. Whether all of these benefits are real or not remains to be seen. However, the egg yolks are significantly more orange than the eggs we’ve purchased from the store and the eggs taste better, so there is some difference.

In addition to these two chickens, we’ll get a mix of chickens that we’ll raise from chicks. Our brood will include:


  • Four Buff Orpington (great meat birds, cold hearty, and produce copious large eggs)
  • Four Delaware (even better meat birds, cold hearty, lay well during the winter, and produce jumbo eggs)
  • Two Americana (smaller food requirement, extremely cold hearty, produce copious colorful medium size eggs)

We used a number of sources to make our decision on which chicken breeds to get, including Henderson’s Chicken Breed Chart. We also asked people who are actually raising these breeds of chickens whenever possible about how they fared.

You might wonder why we didn’t get any Leghorns. After all, the production places use this sort of chicken. The problem with the Leghorn is that its comb will freeze during the winter months and the small weight size makes it necessary to heat the coop. We were warned away from this particular breed by more than a few people who raise chickens in the same way that we intend to raise chickens. Sometimes too much help from technology isn’t a good thing.

You may also wonder why we didn’t get just one breed. There are several reasons. First, having multiple breeds makes the chickens more fun. We want a colorful coop. Second, each of the chicken breeds has different qualities to recommend it. For example, we don’t want all jumbo eggs, but we do want a few for eating purposes. In addition, we don’t like a mono-culture of anything, including animals. Mono-culture environments invite disease and other problems. So, we have a colorful coop that should serve us well. I’ll post updates as time permits to tell you how our new coop is doing. Please let me know if you have any questions at [email protected].


Alarming New Obesity Statistics

I monitor statistics related to the overall health of Americans because I’m concerned about how my fellow Americans are faring. It’s one of the reasons I include self-sufficiency posts in my blog—to help others gain insights into making their health better and to get paid for doing it. One article I read recently tells me outright that there is a long way to go. According to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of Americans will become obese by 2030. There is a price tag associated with this statistic—an increase in health care costs of $550 billion dollars—that’s billion, with a B.

The increase in weight will cause problems with diabetes, a particularly nasty disease that isn’t given nearly enough respect. Imagine the sugar in your bloodstream becoming akin to ground glass. That’s the effect of diabetes on your system. Diabetes slowly, mercilessly, destroys your heart, kidneys, nervous system, eyes, and other organs. Of course, there are other behaviors that can affect your heart, but of all of the things that can go wrong, diabetes is possibly the worst. So, losing weight isn’t about fitting into nicer clothes or impressing your friends—it’s about living a happier, more productive, life.

More than a few people have asked me why I’m so concerned (other than the monetary amounts involved). At one point in time, I
looked at myself in the mirror and decided that there really was too
much of me to love. Not only that, but I was starting to suffer some of
the health problems associated with being overweight and decided I
really couldn’t live like that anymore—I was right, I really couldn’t
live like that. It’s not that I’m even sort of skinny today, but I have
lost 165 pounds since Rebecca and I started our drive to become
self-sufficient (all without dieting). That means I’ve gone from being morbidly obese to simply overweight. I feel better now, but I remember how I felt with the additional weight and I know that it wasn’t the nicest way to feel. For many people, it seems as if there is no way out, but the approach I’ve taken does help.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to say that someone should do something because it’s good for them. Doctors do it all the time (because we pay them to do it). It’s quite another thing to admit to yourself that your quality of life has diminished and you really need to do something about it. However, even after you decide to do something about it, succeeding is harder still because there are so many conflicting sources of information online. I’m not going to say that my method will work for you. In fact, I imagine that many people would find my approach outrageously difficult. However, I followed these principles to lose the weight that I have.


  • Exercise every day by growing my own food and cutting my own wood. Workouts at the gym are boring and non-productive. Growing my own food is interesting and nothing beats the heat from a wood stove.
  • Eat a higher quality of food. Growing my own food means that I can avoid pesticides and other contaminants more often. I can also pick my food at the right time, rather than when it’s best for marketing purposes. Plus, growing my own food pays me to spend time to grow the food, rather than buy it from the store where it costs quite a bit.
  • Eat a wide variety of food. Rebecca and I don’t eat just meat and potatoes. It seems as if we’re always trying something different. During a typical week we’ll eat broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, corn, kohlrabi, cabbage, beets, spinach, tomatoes, okra, carrots, apples, pears, cherries, plums, and many other items—all grown in our garden and orchard. For meat, we eat rabbit and chicken we raise, deer that a friend shoots for us, and fish we catch at a local lake.
  • Reduce my stress level. Living as I do helps me deal with stress better. If I’m having a stressful day, I get rid of the stress by chopping wood. Believe me, after a few hours in the woods, there is no more stress.
  • Eat smaller meals more often. I replaced my plate with a smaller plate. The rule is that if it doesn’t fit on the plate, it doesn’t go in my mouth. There are no seconds and since I’ve been eating better, I seldom crave them.

Nowhere do I mention doing anything weird or uncomfortable in this list. I tried more than a few diets and none of them worked because none of them are lifestyle changes. They’re all cheats designed to lose a little weight, fast. The only way to effectively lose weight and keep it off is to make some sort of lifestyle change. You need to decide that you’re tired of your old self and that you want something better before any change you try will work. Let me know your thoughts about the plight of the American waistline at [email protected].


Covering and Completing the Chicken Coop

In the previous post, Bending Corrugated Roofing, you saw how to bend the corrugated roofing material. We’re actually using this material to cover every part of the chicken coop because its strong and, in this case, free. The material will eventually require painting, but for the moment, it provides a durable covering that should withstand just about anything. The covering process begins with the roof as shown here.


The roof sections overlap by one ridge and valley pair to provide continuous protection. You use special corrugated roofing screws to secure the corrugated roofing in place. Each screw is self-tapping. In addition, there is a rubber washer to seal the hole made by the screw. It’s important to put the screws into the ridges, not the valleys, of the corrugated roofing to allow unimpeded water flow. Notice that the roof part overhangs. This addition provides some protection for the window, just in case it’s left open during a storm.

The back section pieces are all bent to provide coverage for the fascia. They provide a slight overhang as well because they need to cover the soffit pieces that are installed later. Here’s how the back looks. Notice the window that I mentioned earlier. It’s near the top of the coop to provide good ventilation during the summer months. The window seals tightly to keep the heat in during the winter months.


We worked on the sides next. When it came time to complete a corner, we made the piece a bit long and bent it around the corner. That way, the two pieces of corrugated roofing overlap and provide good protection as shown here.


We worked around the building, overlapping the roofing material on the sides and then we realized that all sides were also in need of corrugated roof sheets to prevent the water from getting inside the building. Besides general hardware stores, these roof sheets can also be purchased online from Foregale or other related e-shops. .

The bottom pieces came first, and then those above, so that water flowing down the sides won’t get under the roofing. The soffit pieces came last. Working around the windows was time consuming, but we eventually got the task done.


The next step was to install the nest box assembly. It’s the same nest box assembly used in the original coop. There are 15 nest boxes. Outside each nest box is a roost for the chickens to get in and out of the nest box easily.


On the other side of the coop are places to put the feeder, waterer, and oyster shell feeder, along with a small roost. Your chickens will need the oyster shells or some other source of calcium carbonate, especially if you plan to let them forage outside, as we will. Chickens don’t naturally eat layer mash; they naturally eat bugs, grass, and other odd assorted natural items that don’t contain the calcium carbonate they need. Because we want to let the chickens eat as many natural items as they’d like, we provided space for both layer mash and calcium carbonate, which gives the chickens choice of what they want to eat. The result should be better quality eggs (with dark orange yolks) with strong shells.


Notice the door at the side of the coop. This door leads to the chicken run outside. The last part of the building process is to fence in the chicken run. The chicken run has a ramp to make it easy for the chickens to get out of and into the coop as needed. There is also a large roost outside so that the chickens can rest off of the ground and still enjoy the sunshine. The ramp has little bars on it to provide a foothold for the chickens.


In order to make the chickens comfortable and ensure they have plenty of interesting things to eat, we allocated 20 square feet per chicken in the run. That may not prove large enough. I’ll track how the ground cover does after a month or two and may increase that to 30 square feet per chicken. The point is that the chickens will have plenty of space in which to run around. We’ll keep the run shoveled in the winter so that the chickens can come out unless the weather truly is horrible.

The coop is finally finished and ready for occupancy. We were originally going to raise all of our layers from chicks. However, I decided to surprise my wife with a couple of hens so we can start enjoying the fruits of our labors now. Next week we’ll talk about the inhabitants and the chicks that will arrive on June 25th to complete our coop. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions at [email protected].


Retiring Windows XP

A number of readers have written me recently to ask about Windows XP and its impending retirement. The same questions occurred when Microsoft decided to retire Windows 98 and many of the same conditions remain true. Whether you have a good personal reason to switch or not depends on what you’re doing with your computers. I imagine a lot of people are still running Windows XP because it continues to meet their needs. After all, one of the older versions of Office probably works fine for most home users (truth be told, I don’t use the vast majority of the new features in Office myself). Your games will continue to run, just as they always have. If the system is meeting your personal needs, there probably isn’t a good reason to upgrade it from a personal perspective.

That said, mainstream support for Windows XP ended April 14, 2009 and extended support will end on April 8, 2014. From a management perspective, Windows XP is becoming a liability in some situations. You’re already not getting any sort of bug updates for Windows XP.  When extended (paid) support ends, you won’t get any security fixes either. That could be a problem if your systems are attached to the Internet and someone finds a way to exploit the security problems in Windows XP (and believe me, they will). Let’s just say you want to have a newer OS in place before the support situation gets too bad if you’re planning to remain connected to the Internet.

Nothing says that you ever have to upgrade if you don’t want to. I still run a copy of Windows 98 for some older applications I have and love. That system has no connections to anything else—it’s a standalone system and there is no chance whatsoever of contamination from it. I don’t care about upgrades because I’m not running any new software on it. Basically, it’s a working museum piece. So, if you’re willing to use these older operating systems in a safe environment—go for it, but I wouldn’t recommend continuing to use Windows XP for much longer on a system connected to the Internet—time for an upgrade.

The other problem you’ll eventually encounter is hardware-related. I currently have three machine’s worth of spare parts for my Windows 98 museum piece. As long as I have spare parts, I can continue running that system and enjoying my old software on it, but there is going to come a time when the spares run out. At that point, using a new part in the old system doesn’t make sense. For one thing, the new part may not run at all because I won’t have drivers for it. In fact, the old motherboard may not even provide connectors for it. So, you may eventually have a need to upgrade your system simply because you no longer have working parts for the old one.

After I share my views on Windows XP, the next question that readers are asking is which operating system I recommend as an upgrade. My personal preference now is Windows 7 because it seems to be stable and offers improved security over Windows XP, without some of the issues presented by Windows Vista. I haven’t worked enough yet with Windows 8 to recommend it, but I feel that the new Metro Interface is likely to cause problems for people who have worked with Windows XP for a long time. The Windows 7 interface changes will be enough of a shock.

For me, the bottom line is that you’ll have to retire Windows XP eventually. Whether you retire it now or wait until later is up to you, but eventually you won’t have the hardware required to make the operating system perform well anymore. I ran into this problem at one point with Windows 3.1 and had to stop supporting any books that relied on that operating system. (As an interesting side note, I do maintain a DOS system and haven’t encountered any hardware so far that won’t run the ancient operating system.) I imagine that my Windows 98 museum piece will eventually fail too, never to rise again. If you truly enjoy using Windows XP, you shouldn’t let Microsoft dictate an upgrade to you. Then again, you have to consider the risks and eventual loss of ability to run the operating system. Let me know your thoughts about running museum piece systems at [email protected].


Methods of Learning

More than a few readers write me about the best way to learn. Many of them are asking about the best way to learn how to become a programmer-a topic I discuss in my Becoming a Programmer post. However, more and more often, readers are asking me about learning in general. The fact is that I can point you to different techniques for learning, but I can’t determine what will work best for you. You’re the only person who can make that determination and you won’t know until you try a number of techniques. In a society ever more devoted to success at all costs, learning requires that you fail in order to make gains. When you fail, you learn what doesn’t work and possibly why it doesn’t work. So, trying various techniques is the only way to discover what works best for you and that process involves some level of failure. This is a philosophy that educational providers like Venture Lessons embody, interactive lessons that you can fail in will teach you so much more than lecturers.

I imagine that my answer frustrates a lot of people because they don’t want to fail at something, so they ask what works best for me. Mind you, what works for me probably won’t work for you. I personally learn best by working through examples written by other people. When it comes to programming, I rely on application examples written by other developers and scrutinize them intensely using the debugger so that I can see precisely how they work. Then I create applications of my own that use those techniques to ensure I actually do understand how things work. Likewise, I use examples from other woodworkers, gardeners, or other professionals as a basis for my own hands on learning experiences. In addition to these hands on techniques, I also read a large number of books and articles every year. Often, all I really need to learn a new technique, is a good explanation of it. I read books and magazines in every area that interests me-everything from application development and computer hardware to new gardening techniques and animal husbandry. In some cases, I also attend lectures and seminars to augment my learning, but given that lectures and seminars tend to be expensive, I focus on my primary means of learning new things whenever possible.

Don’t limit yourself to what I use though. There are many other ways of learning that are just as viable and just as important. The only requirements of learning is comprehension (the ability to understand what you’ve learned) and retention (the ability to remember what you have learned). How you achieve your goal is up to you. Here are a few other methods you might consider trying in addition to those that I commonly use.


  • Instructor Led Training: There is a good reason that children go to school. An instructor (teacher) can answer questions about a particular skill immediately and fully. The interactive communication that occurs helps the student learn faster and with fewer problems.
  • Tutorials: A tutorial is essentially a set of precisely written procedures meant to guide the student along a particular learning path. It’s a combination of reading and doing that helps someone develop a skill quickly.
  • Interactive Media: This is a newer form of the tutorial that relies on sight and sound to convey meaning. Interactive media includes animations and graphics that help a viewer visualize the content better. Hands on exercises included with the interactive media help the student know when a particular training goal is achieved.
  • Observation: The subtle art of observation isn’t mentioned very often anymore-probably because people are too busy or impatient to use it. I know that I’ve learned more than one new task though simply by watching someone else do it. Observing someone means watching and thinking about what they’re doing. You don’t necessarily ask any questions (and may annoy the person you’re observing when you do).
  • Experimentation: Of all of the methods used to learn, this method provides the highest gains when successful, but also incurs the greatest amount of failure. It’s a matter of asking a question, deciding on how best to answer that question, and then creating an environment in which to determine the answer. In order to ensure that the question is answered correctly, you often have to repeat the experiment a number of times in various environments. Experimenters often discover new knowledge or rediscover lost knowledge, but at the cost of failing a lot.
  • Cooperation: A cooperative learning environment is one in which two peers have part of an answer and choose to share their part with someone who has another part of the answer. The exchange benefits both parties because both now have two parts of the answer. Of course, a cooperative learning environment requires trust on the part of both people.
  • Dissection: When I was younger, I couldn’t be bothered to keep anything in one piece. I dissected everything in an attempt to discover how it worked. Often, that meant not putting the item back together because the dissection process is destructive. Even so, you’d be amazed at how many things you can learn by dissecting an object to see how it’s put together.

This list is incredibly short. Over the years I’ve seen people learn an amazing array of knowledge using all sorts of techniques that boggle the mind. In every case, the successful learner has experimented with various techniques until he or she finds the techniques that work best. These techniques won’t work best for someone else, but they work best for you. I encourage you to fail in order to learn. Don’t be afraid of trying something and then discovering it doesn’t work because that’s the only real way to learn anything. Let me know about your favorite learning technique at [email protected].