Category Archives: Hardware

Working From Home – Permanently

Introduction

When the current COVID crisis hit, there were a lot of posts and questions about working from home. But of late I’m seeing an interesting trend of posts on social media from people who have been working from home, but were just told they’ll be working from home permanently. They will never return to the office, at least that of their current employer.

These folks have been “getting by” with temporary setups. Using a laptop on the kitchen table, or on a desk in the corner of the bedroom. Now that they’ve been told this will be a permanent situation, they are looking for suggestions and advice on how to setup a permanent home work area.

As someone who has worked from home for the majority of the last decade, I thought I’d share a few tips and tricks. Granted some of these may seem obvious, but since the questions are being asked I’m hopeful at least one or two of my suggestions may help the new breed of work-from-home people.

Some of these suggestions involve tech, but some also involve your daily workflow. Let’s get started!

Multiple Monitors

One of the best things you can do is have more than one monitor. Now granted, I went a bit over the top having a rack with six monitors, as you can see above.

In my case I do a lot of video recording and editing for all of my Pluralsight courses. In the big 32 inch monitor at the bottom center I hold the content I’m recording. In the lower right I put my notes that pertain to what I’m recording. The left side gets my recording software.

In the upper left I put my audio editing software. Upper right gets my web browser so I can quickly look things up that may arise as I record. Finally the upper middle is for miscellaneous stuff.

Having six monitors has increased my workflow as I don’t have to cycle through applications, everything is right there where I can see it.

I admit, most people don’t need this setup. However I would suggest at least two monitors, or even better three, as an ideal work setup.

If your main machine is a laptop you should have at least one external monitor port. You can get more through either an external GPU box (if your laptop supports it) or one of the many USB-to-Video adapters on the market.

Most monitors support multiple inputs, and you can use buttons on the monitor to swap between inputs (in my case, multiple laptops).

As an alternative to multiple monitors, I’m also seeing people using a 4K TV. The 4K resolution amounts to having four 1920×1080 monitors in a square. Using software like the Windows PowerToys you can easily snap an application to one of the four areas, or you can use the full area when you want to.

Racking Your Laptops

I use multiple laptops, as I work in multiple environments. I have a Lenovo P51 on the bottom, in the middle is my Apple MacBook. On top is another Lenovo that I am running Linux Kubuntu KDE Neon on.

My laptops are stacked on a wire shelf that I got from my local big box store. I like the wire rack as it helps with air flow around the computers.

I really like these shelves, they are affordable, easy to configure, and hold a lot of weight. My home office doubles as my “ham shack” (amateur radio), here’s a shot of the back wall and a little bit of the side.

The wire racks on the back wall hold my antique radios as well as some of my “antique” or classic computers like my Commodore 128 or the older “egg bowl” Mac. To the right of the Mac are my modern ham radios.

I use zip ties to hold each tower together so it winds up being a solid unit. Just be sure to have good, sturdy tables that hold a lot of weight.

Get A Good Keyboard

You are on your computer all day, and most laptop keyboards are not that great. (Although I do love the keyboard on my Lenovo P51). Using a bad keyboard can lead to many health issues with your hands. In addition, if you have multiple monitors using an external keyboard makes it much easier.

This keyboard is part of the Logitech line which (although it’s a bit hard to tell from my mediocre pic) does have a slight curve to it making it more ergonomic.

The big thing for me is the ability to Bluetooth connect it to multiple computers. This is connected to the three laptops you saw in a previous pic. I can just use the 1, 2, and 3 keys to quickly swap between computers (I use the buttons on the monitors buttons to swap inputs between the three laptops).

As someone who has suffered from hand issues, I find a regular mouse painful to use after a while. For years I’ve been a fan of the Logitech trackballs. I was amazed at how quickly I became used to them.

Pictured is a Logitech MX Ergo, which unfortunately can only pair to two computers so I have another older model trackball for use with the third machine.

You may wonder about the scrap of a yellow post it note over two of the keys. I work in PowerShell within VSCode a lot, and frequently use the F5 and F8 keys. I’m also one of those people who likes to work with the lights on very low, and with my old eyes distinguishing between the function keys can be difficult.

Using the little scrap of post it notes can make it easy for me to find my often used F5/F8 keys.

Use A Good Headset

Do you participate in online calls (Zoom, Skype, etc.) all day? Then for crying out loud, get a good headset!

It drives me nuts to be in meetings with people who use the built in mic and speakers on their laptop. These are NOT quality, and often sound like the person is in the bottom of a barrel. A very echo-ey barrel.

The wired earbuds some people use are a little better, but not by much. The microphone is tiny and comes across as very “tinny” for lack of a better word.

My headset of choice is the HyperX Cloud Stinger Core Wireless. You can get them from both Best Buy and Amazon, for about $80 (US currency). They have two big advantages over other headsets.

First, they are wireless. Drives me nuts to have a wire I can easily get tangled up in. Plus, and I admit this is a duh moment, I’ve stood up multiple times with the old wired headsets forgetting about the wire and jerking the headset off my head.

Second, and more important, is the muting. To mute my microphone, all I have to do is lift the boom up. That’s it, no having to fumble for a button on the headset. Just lift it up, it’s muted, lower it back down and people can hear me. It makes calls so much easier, I can hear people clearly, and they have clear audio of me.

They are so good I use them on a weekly Minecraft stream my friend Marc runs on YouTube. (I participate as ArcaneMining).

I will add, for recording my Pluralsight videos I use a Yeti podcaster microphone on a large boom arm. It gives excellent quality, however that is very much overkill (unless of course you are also recording Pluralsight videos).

Trust me, you will have a much better experience and the people you meet with will thank you. Plus they are at a price point that makes them affordable to most people.

Along with the headset also consider an external camera. While most laptop cameras are decent, I really get tired of looking up people’s noses during a call. You can place it on top of your external monitor for a much better view.

I’m fond of my Logitech C922, runs about $100 on Amazon, but there are many similar cameras of good quality.

Isolate Yourself

Now we’ll shift from tech to workflow related items. The first of these is to isolate yourself.

If you live alone this is easy, but if you have a bunch of people in your house it can be important to find a place you can isolate and have quiet time to think. Put your home office in a place where you can close the door, and make it understood when the door is closed to consider it a “do not disturb” sign.

I can understand there will be situations where you can’t isolate all day. But try to find set times where it’s clear to others in your household that you should be left alone. When the door is open, they are free to come in.

Not only will this make you more productive, but it will avoid embarrassing situations like a kid running through the background of a Zoom call in only their underwear.

Move

It’s important you take breaks through the day to move. To get up from your desk and walk around. I know personally I will get so focused on what I’m doing that time flies by, then I realize three hours have flown by without me moving from my chair. When I finally stand up, well my creaky old man body reminds me.

Use some kind of app or device to remind you on a regular basis to move. My Apple Watch will buzz every hour reminding me to stand up, and will even track how often I actually do it.

There are also apps for the various brands of smart phones, plus I’d imagine many freeware apps for your computer. If nothing else get a good old fashioned timer from the kitchen section of your favorite big box store.

Another advantage to the wireless headphones I mentioned earlier in this post is the ability to get up and move during an audio call.

Have Laptop Will Travel

An advantage of having a laptop for your main computer is it’s (surprise) portable!

Finding time to work at alternate locations can help keep work enjoyable. Perhaps once a week, take your laptop down to your local coffee shop (assuming it’s open), sit and work there with a cup of coffee for a bit. (Hint, good earbuds and music on your phone can help drown out the other noisy patrons.)

Go outside! I often carry my laptop onto my back porch to enjoy fresh air and sunshine while I work. There’s also a nice park nearby, I sometimes work from there using my phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Don’t think you need to stay all day. Sometimes just two or three hours can be energizing and very productive.

Of course this assumes you aren’t doing a meeting, but most of us have time in the day or week with no meetings scheduled.

And because you are the go doesn’t mean you have to give up multiple monitors. If you have an iPad, and a modern MacBook the sidecar feature will let you use the iPad as a second monitor.

If you are on Windows, or an older MacBook, there is a nice piece of software called Duet Display that will let you connect your iPad to your computer (via the USB cable) and use it as an external monitor.

If your tablet is Android based, Splashtop offers a free piece of software called Wired XDisplay for both Windows and Mac that enables your Android tablet as an external display.

Set Boundaries

Of all the pieces of advice I can offer, this by far is the most important.

First, set boundaries with others in your household. Make it clear when you are working from home, you are WORKING. Just because you are at the house doesn’t mean you can “go ahead and do some laundry”, cut the grass, dust, make dinner, or any of the other typical household chores.

This goes for you, as well. When you work, focus on your work. When you are not working is the time for the other chores.

It’s also important to set boundaries with coworkers. Make sure they understand when you are available for meetings and when you shouldn’t be disturbed. Use your company work calendar to indicate when you are available for meetings.

They also need to understand you can’t just hop up on a moments notice to come into the office for “a quick meeting”.

Don’t be afraid to say NO! Push back for phone / online meetings. I used to work for a company that let us work from home two days a week. Even though I had it on my work calendar I was constantly having project managers schedule two hour “in person” meetings on my work from home days.

I finally started pushing back, saying I wouldn’t be in the office that day but give me a conference call line and I’d be on the call. Of course they’d say “we really want you here”.

I’d then ask “what value is provided from me being there versus on the phone”? “How will the meeting be different or less productive if I’m on a call?”

If they couldn’t provide a good answer, a really good answer, I’d tell them I’ll be there on the phone call talk to ya then. (Of course I also had a great boss who supported me, you may not be so lucky.)

Finally, set boundaries with your time. Designate the hours you will work each day. When you are working, make it clear to your family you aren’t available to do household tasks.

When it’s outside work hours, make it clear to your coworkers you are off. It is far too easy to wind up working far more hours than you normally would when working in an office. When (for example) 5 pm hits get up and walk away from your computer, and don’t go back until the next morning.

Conclusion

In this post I’ve shared some tips for people who are moving to a work from home situation based on my years of experience doing just that. I really love working from home, and I think you will as well if you setup a comfortable environment, with the right equipment, and having set boundaries with your family and co-workers.

Sharing a Drive Between Windows, macOS and Linux

I have a lot of computers, on which I use a variety of operating systems. Some run Windows 10, my Apple macBooks all run macOS, and on others I have a variety of Linux distros, primarily Ubuntu based.

I would like the ability to share external drives, such as thumb drives or external SSD drives, between them. To get that compatibility across OS’s, I need to format those drives in a file format called exFAT.

exFAT is a replacement for the older FAT32, but has the benefits of other file systems such as NTFS. I can have long file names, and store files bigger than four gigabytes in size to name a few.

Windows and macOS both support exFAT out of the box. I can just plug in an exFAT drive into them, and both will let me read and write to them. (Note that not all drives come formatted as exFAT, you may need to reformat them to the exFAT system). Linux, however is another story.

To allow Linux to read an exFAT drive you need to install the exfat-utils utility. On Ubuntu based distros it’s pretty easy, just open up a terminal and enter the following command, all on one line.

sudo apt-get install exfat-fuse exfat-utils

For other distros you can use their native installer, such as yum, to install the exfat-utils. After that you can simply plug an exFAT thumb drive or SSD into your Linux box and it will know how to read and write to the drive.

Tips for the Disorganized Laptop Traveler

Introduction

I realize with the current (as of the time I write this) COVID lockdown, people aren’t doing a lot of traveling. But things are beginning to open back up, and will continue to do so as the year progresses.

In a former job I traveled a LOT. In addition I frequented user groups and conferences, giving presentations. Over time I’ve picked up a few handy, and inexpensive tips and tricks for keeping your laptop bag organized. So I thought I’d do a bit something different with this post and share some of these tips with you.

Keeping It Together

I have a lot of laptops, I admit I’m a bit of a gear nerd. Most folks though, have at least one, along with a tablet of some type, plus various accessories. How do you keep the power supplies plus all the associated cords neat and together?

I use pencil bags available in my local big box store in the school supply area.

These bags are inexpensive, typically around $3, come in a variety of colors, and hold a lot. Each laptop I have has a bag associated with it, which holds the power supply plus any extra cables I use with it.

As you can see, this is the (after market) power brick for my Dell Inspiron, along with two USB cables (one Apple and one Micro-USB) that I often need with that computer. When I’m ready to go somewhere, I just reach into a box and grab the bag for the laptop I’m taking with me.

In addition, we all seem to have lots of spare cables. I’ve used these bags to organize my cables, one for Micro-USB, another for USB-C, and so on.

What’s In The Bag?

So how do I remember what’s in each bag? Well at first I bought the book “How To Be a Psychic for Fun and Profit”, so I could use my magical abilities to just discern what was in each pouch. But the book didn’t make much sense, until I realized what’d I had actually bought was “How to Be Psychotic for Fun and Profit”. So I abandoned that and went with an alternate solution.

I purchased small tags, these are typically sold as tags for keys. You’ll find them in the office supply section of stores. On each tag I write what’s in the bag, making it easy to identify.

They are inexpensive, so if I decide to reuse a bag for something else I can take off the tag, throw it away and put on a new one. They can also be used to identify other devices.

Here I’ve attached one to each of my USB keys, to let me quickly identify the size. For other keys in my collection I might also write down what’s on there, for example “Backup for XYZ Project”.

It Just Needs More Power

One of the first things I do after I get a new laptop is hop on Amazon or swing by my used computer store and purchase spare power supplies for my laptop. This lets me keep one on my desk, one in a bag, and sometimes I’ll get one more to put by my recliner.

When I get a power supply, I use a Sharpie to write which laptop the power supply goes with.

Now I don’t have to think about which laptop this supply goes with.

It’s gotten a bit easier these days as many laptops are now powered with USB-C. This makes it much easier to share supplies. Earlier I showed the power supply I travel with for my Dell Inspiron. I actually have two of these, one for my Dell, and a second for my 2017 Apple MacBook.

This model provides 87 Watts to the laptop, plenty to power not just the laptop but any accessories I want to plug into the laptop like a USB monitor, hard drives, and the like.

In addition this power supply also has four USB A ports which I can use to recharge my iPads, Android tablets, iPhone, etc. This is especially nice in places like coffee shops or hotels where plugs may be limited.

Power To The People

Another thing I do to help address the problem of limited plugs is carry a small extension cord.

These are two I had handy. One is setup for devices with three prongs, the other two, I pick the one to use depending on what equipment I’m bringing with me.

Both are 9 feet long, which may seem a bit excessive but I have learned from experience wall plugs are not always where they are convenient. I can’t tell you the number of hotel rooms I’ve been in where the desk was no where close to the plug.

There may also be competition for an available plug. The small coffee shop I frequent has very few plugs. I’ve found I can make new friends by using an extension cord and offering to share it.

Hold It Together

In order to manage the mess of wires that accompanies any electronic device, I use Velcro cable ties.

These things are great. EVERY cord that comes into my house gets one. As you would expect, all my cables, laptop power cords, etc get these.

But I also put them on the power cords for my TV, lamps, power tools, fans, all my ham radio gear, you name it if it’s a cord it gets one of these straps.

Rising to the Occasion

Hand issues seem to run rampant in the tech community, being on a keyboard all day can take a toll. Something you can do to help your hands is get a laptop riser.

These are two different types I have, but there are many others you can pick from. On the left is a pair of wedges, they seem similar to door stops. They are nice because you can spread them out for any size laptop, and raise the laptop to different heights.

On the right is a riser that folds up nice and small, but the legs can extend out for whatever size you want. The L shapes on the front (closest to the lower edge of the photo) keep the laptop from sliding off. Note, if you have an extremely thin laptop your wrists may brush against the tops of the Ls.

Either way, it can raise your keyboard up and make it much more comfortable and ergonomic for typing, especially for long periods of time.

Which End is Up?

Cables ends like USB-C or Apple’s lightning are a real blessing as you don’t have to figure out which end is up. Micro-USB however, is another story.

As I’m sure you are aware, Micro-USB has one edge longer than the other. As I’ve aged, with my poor old eyes it can be hard for me to tell which side is the longer one, especially in dim light. I’ve come up with a simple solution though.

I’ve taken a silver Sharpie marker, and drawn a line on the side of the cable that corresponds to the long side of the connector. For white cables, I use a black Sharpie.

For the devices I plug into, I draw a corresponding line where the long side plugs into.

Here you can see I’ve drawn a black line by the port where the long side of the Micro-USB goes. This makes it extremely easy to plug my Micro-USB cables into the various devices I use, I just align the two lines and away I go, quick and easy.

You could also decide to draw the line on the short side of the Micro-USB connector, rather than the long side. Just be consistent once you make the choice.

In addition to silver and black, I’ve found the orange and red Sharpie markers work pretty well too.

I’m a Big Fan

One last piece of gear I keep in my bag is a small fan.

This fan has a battery and can be recharged over Micro-USB. As a matter of fact the previous photo is the back of this fan.

I can’t tell you how many stuffy conference rooms I’ve been stuck in. At my local coffee shop, sometimes sitting in front of the window can get really hot when the afternoon sun starts coming in. Even a small fan like this can make a huge difference.

This fan is small, about the size of my hand (although I admit I’ve got big hands). I like this model, it has three speeds and can run even when the battery is being recharged.

These fans come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and prices, so pick one that fits your budget and laptop bag.

Conclusion

In this article I’ve laid out a few tips that I hope will make your life a bit easier, and help get your tech gear organized.

If you have tips and tricks you want to share do so in the comments below, or let me know if you’d like to see more blog posts like these.

CISCO VPN Error 442 and Windows 8.1

After upgrading to Windows 8.1 I had issues running Cisco VPN software. When attempting to run I got an error 442. (Note this applies to Cisco VPN, not Cisco AnyConnect.) As a first step in troubleshooting I ensured that I was on the latest version, 5.0.07.0440.

As I was already on the latest version, I began to do some web searching. Likely you, as I did, found many blog posts referring to a fix for the registry. In case you haven’t seen it, the basic instructions are:

1. Open RegEdit.

2. Navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\CVirtA

3. If the DisplayName does not already read:

Cisco Systems VPN Adapter for 64 bit Windows

Change it so matches what you see above. Some installs have some “gibberish” on the front, this should be removed. In my case it was already set to what you see above, so it was on to the next step. After some more searching and experimentation, I finally came upon a solution that worked for me.

Open Windows Explorer, and navigate to C:\Program Files (x86)\Cisco Systems\VPN Client. Right click on the first .exe you find, in my case cisco_cert_mgr.exe and pick Properties from the menu. Switch to the Compatibility page.

Check on “Run this program in compatibility mode for:” and pick Windows 7. Then at the bottom, check on “Run this program as an administrator. Then click on OK.

image

 

Repeat this for every exe in the folder.

image

Unfortunately you can’t apply these in mass, you have to do these one at a time. There’s only a handful though so it shouldn’t take long.

After you are done, reboot. Before you run the VPN software, verify the Cisco network connector is not active by going to Control Panel, Network and Internet, Network Connections and validate the Cisco Systems VPN Adapter for 64 bit Windows is Disabled.

Note after you connect this will become Enabled, you just want to be sure it is disabled before you connect. If you see multiple connections for the Cisco adapter, you will need to delete the excess ones, I’ve also seen suggestions to uninstall the Cisco VPN, make sure all the Cisco connections are deleted, then reinstall. I didn’t have to go through this though, so your mileage may vary.

Also note that after you reboot, you may see a prompt asking if you want to run the Cisco service as Administrator, naturally you’ll say Yes. Then go run the Cisco VPN client again, confirming you want to run as an Admin, and you should be good to go!

Windows 7 and the Asus Eee PC 1000HE

I’ve had my eye on a netbook for some time, while I like my 17 inch laptop for all day developing, it’s a bit large for lugging to code camps. In addition the battery life has slowly been dwindling over the years, so I wanted something with long battery life.

image After some consideration, I picked the Asus PC 1000HE. It has a 10 inch display, it’s keyboard is 92% size and surprisingly comfortable even for my huge hands. The battery life so far has been phenomenal. Running on the mid level power setting with the back light at almost full bright and all the wireless turned on I still get over six hours. I imagine if I ran it in power saving mode, and doing the tweaks I could easily achieve the 9.5 hours of advertised battery life.

I did opt for the extra chip to expand to 2 gig, replacing the 1 gig chip with the 2 took me all of 10 minutes.

The unit came with XP Home, but I’ve been using Windows 7 since the public beta and couldn’t face going back to XP. Thus the first thing I did was install Windows 7 on the Asus.

So far, the only thing I have found that Windows 7 did not recognize was the hard wired Ethernet jack. This was easily remedied. I went to the downloads section of the Asus website and picked out my machine, with the XP Home system. I quickly found the LAN driver and downloaded it.

Since it was a Zip all I had to do was expand it, then I went into Windows 7 device manager and found the "unrecognized" Ethernet jack. I told Windows 7 to look for a new driver, pointed it to the folder where I had unzipped it to and boom it worked.

I have not had the opportunity to test the built in camera or microphones, but Windows device manager shows them as being present and fully functional.

So far I’ve installed what I call the Office "basics", Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Visio Viewer and all of them work. I installed Virtual PC 2007, and while it ran my virtual machines it was just a tad on the slow side. Not to be unusable, but a slow experience.

In addition I didn’t want to always have to lug around an external drive with my VPCs on it, so I went ahead and installed Visual Studio 2008 (with SP1) and SQL Server 2008 Developer (with the GDR extensions). So far both seem to run fine, although I haven’t put them to anything extensive as of yet.

In the short time I’ve had the machine, there are a few tips I’ve picked up that I would like to pass along.

F11
Get used to the F11 (the typical shortcut), or "Full Screen" mode for your web browser. It makes browsing a very nice experience. Without it the tabs, url bar and window title bar, plus any of the extra tool bars that get installed will easily suck up 1/3 to 1/2 of the 600 vertical pixels. Full Screen mode makes this pretty much irrelevant. I can easily see everything I need to on a website in full 1024×600 mode.

Hide the Ribbon
In Office, you can hide the ribbon toolbar by simply double clicking on one of the ribbon tabs. When you hover over the tab the ribbon will appear. This saves a lot of real estate, but makes it quite easy to still use the ribbon. In addition you can easily toggle the hidden mode by double clicking a tab again to unhide the ribbon. 

Hide the Taskbar
Right click on Windows 7’s taskbar, select properties, then check the "Auto-hide the Taskbar". While the Taskbar doesn’t seem to take up much room, you’d be surprised how nice having that little bit of extra real estate can be.

TouchCursor
The one thing I don’t like about the design of the 1000HE’s keyboard is that the Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys are not their own keys. Instead you have to press the blue Fn key, then the left, right, up or down arrows to access these often used keys.

Instead I use a little app called TouchCursor. With it I can setup alternate key combos for these and other keys so that I never have to move my hands off the "home" keys on the letters. By default the spacebar is the toggle key, so SpaceBar + I moves the cursor up one row, SpaceBar + K moves it back down.

(Note, if you are a fan of CodeRush, you’ll know it too wants to use the space bar. Fortunately TouchCursor is configurable, so I changed the toggle from the SpaceBar to the letter A. Now on my system A+I is up, A+K is down, etc. )

That’s all I have on the Asus for now, but I’ll soon be putting it through it’s paces. Thursday night I will be speaking at the BSDA, then Saturday I will be at the Atlanta Code Camp giving a 9 am presentation on SQL Server Full Text Searching. After that I’ll be sure to blog and let you know how having the small form factor laptop worked for doing presentations.

If you have any handy tips for using the small netbooks, please leave a comment with your tip or suggestion. I’d love to hear about them!

LifeCam VX-5000

livecamvx5000 I decided to extend my web presence by getting a web camera. This will add to what I can post, plus let me start doing more video conferencing using tools like Live Messenger and Skype. After looking I decided on the Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000. I’ve only had it a few days but I have been really impressed. It does really great at very low light. It also has a built in microphone, so for travel I don’t have to lug around a separate headset or microphone to use with it.

So far I have tested with both Windows Live Messenger and Skype, and had no issues. I’m looking forward to doing some more experiments, and seeing what else I can do with it. I might try some vidoes on 12seconds.tv (if I can get in), or try using with with Camtasia.

I selected the VX-5000 for several reasons.

  1. The size. It’s quite small, for someone who moves around it’s nice and compact, doesn’t take up a lot of space in my backpack.
  2. Low light. I read it did well in low light, that was an understatement. This thing is great even in very dim light.
  3. Built in mic. As I mentioned, it has a built in mic, so I don’t have to use an external one (although I can). That’s great in travel situations where space is at a premium in my already over stuffed backpack.
  4. Price. This was less than 40 bucks, so it was a really good deal.

Well, don’t want to come off like an advertisement, I just had a cool new geek toy and thought I’d share. Hope to have some videos up in the future as I work with the product and learn it’s ins and outs.

Productivity and Toilet Seats

Recently I bought a new toilet seat. It’s freed up my time to do more productive things. Now, before you hit the speed dial to have the old Arcane Coder hauled off in a pretty white jacket with straps and shiny buckles on the back, bear with me.

You average toilet seat takes about 4 seconds to put down, assuming you do it gently and don’t slam it. I recently spent a few extra dollars to get a spring loaded toilet seat. All I have to do is nudge it and it gently lowers itself to the lowered position. 1 second of my time to nudge, versus 4 seconds. Not to get too personal, but we’ll say I need to lower the seat 4 times a day on average. That means I’ve saved 12 seconds a day. Doesn’t sound like much, but count that up over a year, it winds up saving me 73 minutes a year. What can I do with that 73 minutes a year I’m not spending on doing something as mundane as lowering toilet seat? Play XBox with my kids, read a book, listen to a podcast, or even write blog posts.

I’m always looking for ways to save time, as time is the one thing we all have the same amount of. Do you have a laptop you regularly take between home and work? Get a second power supply and mouse, leave one at home and one at work. You save a lot of time and effort by just unhooking your laptop and dropping it in your bag versus having to fiddle with all the cords, plugging and unplugging.

My Zune is another productivity gadget. Using it I can keep up my education via podcasts while doing things like driving, cutting the grass, or even shopping. Likewise my PDA keeps a lot of information at my fingertips, which saves me from running back and forth to my PC several times a day.

Time is the one equalizer, the one thing we all have the same amount of. In my mind then, any sort of gadget which gives us back time to do other things is a worthwhile investment.

So what kind of tools do you use to gain productive time in your life?

Bug.Net, Zune TV, and My Sony MiniDV Handycam

Tonight’s Bug.Net meeting was sort of weird, when I got there I was the only one there. Not sure where everyone got to, but 3 other guys showed up while I was there, so we had an impromptu meeting. I wound up giving my “Developer Experience” presentation for the small group. I want to thank the three for hanging in there with me during the hastily put on demonstration. It was fun to do something for a small group.

When I got home I decided to give hooking my Zune up to my TV a try and see how it handled video. I don’t have my official Zune cable for hooking up the TV (yet), but I do have a cable that I got with my Sony Mini-DV Handicam. The two looked identical, at least from what I could see of the Zune cable on the web, so I decided to give it a try. Hooked up the various colors correctly, plugged the other end into the Zune and… nuthin. Butkis. Squat. Static filled the display. My first thought was “oh well I’ll need to wait”, but then some of the things I’d studied getting my ham radio license kicked in. Hmm, the cables LOOKED identical, and electrons flow the same, so perhaps the problem wasn’t with the cable exactly, maybe the Zune just used a different output than the Sony to carry the video signal.

So I unhooked the 3 RCA plugs, and this time plugged the red end of the Sony cable into the Yellow video In port of my TV. Eureka! I hooked up the other two to the audio and now I’m watching the Mix keynote on my small office TV, from the Zune. Sweet. My moral is if you have a spare cable from a Sony or other manufacturer, give it a try (at your own risk of course) and if it’s not working right off the bat, try swapping the ends as I suggested until you get some output.

Speaking of video, I already mentioned Doug Turnure will be speaking Thursday night (March 13) at the BSDA. We’re planning to record the session and make it available via the Silverlight Live site. Be patient with me, will likely be next week before I get the editing worked out and get it uploaded.

Arcane Hardware Hint

Not too long ago I picked up a Targus ACP50US Universal Docking Port. This nifty contraption makes it easy for me to connect all my gizmos to my laptop when I get home every day. All I have to do is plug in one USB connection and I’ve got my network, speakers, microphone, and through the USB ports my external hard disk, mouse, keyboard, external DVD drive, PDA docking station, and more. What’s really handy is the video port. Using it, as well as the video port already built into the laptop gives me the ability to have three monitors hooked up. (The internal laptop, the laptops external monitor, and the monitor hooked up to the Targus).

I’ve discovered a really interesting quirk regarding the video port in the Targus. It advertises a maximum resolution of 1024×768. Not great considering the resolution of most modern monitors, but I thought it would be useful enough for my e-mail program. I will add the refresh rate is really really jerky. I have to move my mouse slow. Still, for information that is fairly static such as a reference manual or e-mail it is OK.

Not too long ago though I found something odd. I had booted my laptop but neglected to plug in the Targus. So I plugged it in, and was amazed when the Targus’ video came up to a full 1600×1200 resolution! Maybe it’s just some odd quirk in my system, or perhaps the driver in Vista is over-riding the Targus driver. For the record, I have an HP Pavilion dv8000 (the 8195 if I recall the model correctly) laptop running Vista. The external monitor hooked to the Targus is a 20 inch ViewSonic G800. (The other monitor, the one hooked directly to the laptop is also a ViewSonic, a 21 inch G220f.)

Now when I boot my laptop, I wait until I’ve logged into Vista before plugging in the Targus docking port. The video displays flicker then I get my third monitor with 1600×1200 resolution. The refresh rate still stinks, but it’s no worse than it was at 1024×768 but I get a nice big screen. As I said it’s just fine for fairly static info such as electronic books (pdfs or chms), web pages, word documents, database diagrams or other types of data that I’m only reading, not trying to work with intensively.

If you happen to own one of these docking stations, I’m curious to see if anyone else experiences this phenomenon. Next time you power up, wait until after you’ve logged in to see if you get bigger video out of it, then leave a comment here for us all to know!

Feng Shui and the Art of Development

I’m not a big proponent of Feng Shui. For those unfamiliar with it, Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophy that essentially says that the placement of your furniture can have a big affect on your health and prosperity. Like a lot of things, something that starts off as a good idea seems to me to be carried too far. I do however firmly believe that your physical environment can have a dramatic effect on your mental environment. I saw a blog posting by Scott Hanselman describing his new home office layout. It was then that I realized something important: my own home office no longer worked for me.

I’ve been in my house eight years now. Like a lot of folks, I accumulate a lot of things related to my work / hobby. Books, computers, CDs/DVDs, and gadgets galore. It probably doesn’t help that my home office is also my ham radio “shack”, the place that contains all my radios, books and associated gear. For some time now I’ve been pretty unhappy with my basement office, having problems concentrating, etc. It had even gotten to the point where I had no place to even lay a book and reference it while working. After reading Scott’s post I immediately realized what my problem was: my environment.

Unfortunately December and early January were a bit hectic, what with my wife’s health problems and work, I haven’t had much spare time. Well, this weekend good luck finally arrived. My wife is healing very nicely and is much more self sufficient. We had snow, which made going out impractical, so it was the perfect opportunity. I pulled nearly everything out of my office, placed a lot of my “junk” into storage and relaid out the tables I use for working.

I’m typing now from my reconstructed office. A lot of the spare parts I had accumulated are gone, boxed up and placed in the storage area under the stairs. A lot of old catalogs and magazines hit the trash, many of the books I seldom reference were moved to another area of the house that had space. I now have plenty of space for my computer and can finally have all three monitors laid out side by side. I have a workspace now, somewhere to put the book I’m using for learning or reference. In addition, the moving of old books gave me space to put away my new books. I was able to do a little shuffling so the books I currently reference the most were on the lower shelf within arm’s reach, instead of piled on the floor.

Once again my office feels like a safe place to learn. When it comes to your office, whether it be your desk at your employer or your desk at home, don’t overlook your environment. Everyone has their own style. Look around your office right now. Is it comfortable? Quiet? Can you think effectively? Are the tools you need close at hand? If you answered any of these “no”, then start thinking about what you can do to make your home office a refuge, a safe place to work and learn. Then go do it.

Arcane Fun Fridays – Broadcast your Podcast

A little fun tip for today’s post. As long time readers know I love podcasts. They are a great way to capitalize on time, learning while doing other activities. As I was puttering around the house, I wished I had an easy way to listen to my podcasts without having to use my headphones, and also be portable. Then it occurred to me, I did.

When I drive back and forth to work, I use a cassette adapter to plug into my cheapy mp3 player into the my old car’s stereo and listen to my podcasts. Sometimes I travel on business, and these days it’s seldom I get a rental car with a cassette, so I picked up an inexpensive radio transmitter, similar to this one but a heck of a lot cheaper. Well, being an amateur radio operator (often called “ham radio”) I have a wide variety of power supplies lying around. I dug into my box and found one kind of like this. I mated them up, found an unused frequency, and plugged the other end of the transmitter into the speaker jack of my computer and boom I was listening to my podcasts through my various radios. Very nice, and I can see a lot of use.

I was pleased too with the range, I can hear it all over my house and even into my yard a bit. I could probably get a bit more range moving it out of my office basement.

One last hint for today, next time you go to various stores keep an eye out for a “clearance” area. They are usually tucked away in the back corner of the store, often near the restrooms. I know I’ve seen them in Staples, Radio Shack, Office Max and Office Depot to name a few. You can get some really good deals, for example I picked up my transmitter for 10 dollars, marked down from the original 49 bucks. Also check out sites like woot for “deal of the day” specials.

Happy Anniversary Commodore 64!

According to a report in CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/ptech/12/07/c64/index.html ), folks are gathering today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64 computer. Those of you under 30 may not remember this gem of a machine. It wasn’t my first computer, but it was probably my favorite. The amount of hacking and modding you could do with these things was incredible. I cut my teeth on BBS’s (Bulletin Board Systems) using my 300 baud modem. Yes, 300 baud, if you happen to recall what a baud is. For comparison, 56,000 baud (56k) is about the fastest dial in you can get today, and then it jumps to broadband.

I remember way back when I was the third person in my area to upgrade to a 1200 baud modem. And would you believe at first I didn’t like it? With my old 300 I could easily read my e-mail as it scrolled onto the screen. With the 1200 it zipped by so fast I had to go learn all the message scrolling commands for the various BBS’s I dialed into.

I’m something of a packrat; I still have a lot of “ancient” computers in my home-office closet. TRS-80’s, Radio Shack Color Computers, parts of a Timex Sinclair, and a Commodore Amiga. But the one that’s still setup on my desk is a Commodore 128, with a stack of drives, software, and even a Commodore 1702 monitor. I find it relaxing to fire it up every so often and play some old fashioned arcade games, or play some of that old midi music.

Happy Anniversary Commodore 64!

Thanks for the Memory

I don’t normally do thinks like this, especially when I’m not making any money off of it, but I have to pass along a “hot deal” tip. As we all know, developers computers crave lots of memory, especially running Vista. Staples has memory on sale, including one specific type of PNY notebook memory. A 1 Gig PC2700 DDR333 is going for the out the door cost of 59.99 (US Dollars). That is a savings of well over one hundred (of those same US) dollars. I took advantage to upgrade my HP 8195 Laptop to 2 full Gig, maxing it out.  They also have several types of desktop ram on sale, check your paper. These are on sale until close of business Saturday 10/13.

Let me be clear, I am not making any money, kickbacks, or am in any way affiliated with Staples (other than shelling out my sixty bucks to them). I just wanted to pass along a good deal to my readers who may not have picked up the sale papers.