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Gadget Review–Thinkpad X220

This is my third Thinkpad – first from IBM and now Lenovo. They have been my laptop of choice for as long as I can remember. An X40, then an X60s and now this new baby. Not as stylish as those unibody Macs that almost everyone I know uses these days, but I’ll take function over form any day (well, mostly – although my kids strongly disagree, I’m not entirely without style). These computers have been rock solid over the years and I’ve been able to continuously extend their lives, upgrading batteries, disks, memory and versions of Windows – eeking out more from these machines than IBM and Lenovo probably ever intended. They have been no-muss, no-fuss workhorses and I fully expect the same from the X220.

The configuration I purchased isn’t even all decked out. I selected the options that best met my needs – Sandy Bridge i5, 2.5GHz, 6GB of memory, 128GB SSD, 1366X768 IPS 16X9 12.5” display and Windows 7 64-Bit (oh yeah, baby). While that’s still a formidable laptop setup, faster processors, more memory and bigger disks are available to drive this thing faster and further.

CPU-Z-X220

The system boots fast and resumes from standby instantly. The screen is really sharp and the computer executes everything quickly. Best of all, battery life is completely outstanding. I can pound on this things for 5-6 hours without refueling. If I’m just watching videos, it’s a couple hours more than that – excellent for long plane rides.  I’ve stopped carrying my iPad. At 1.0” thick (there is another 0.25” bump where the battery is) and weighing in at about 3 pounds, it’s light and goes almost anywhere my iPad went and I like the keyboard way better.

As with most things, not all is perfect. The machine comes with IBM/Lenovo’s classic TrackPoint device, which I’ve always loved. It also comes with a touchpad. You can set the machine to recognize one or the other or both. Problem is, the touchpad sorta sucks. It doesn’t track consistently and trying to use it alongside the TrackPoint requires manual dexterity that genetics hasn’t quite yet refined. So, I have the touch pad turned off. The other problem is with the display. While it’s bright and sharp and colors are superbly reproduced, 768 pixels filling the, roughly, 6.25” screen height just doesn’t cut it. As much as media wants to go widescreen, productivity apps still long for good ol’ 4:3. Or, at least a physically taller display so that what’s displayed is easier to read. There’s just not enough vertical information displayed when trying to get real work done or even just browsing the web.

Do these problems detract from the experience? Perhaps. Everyone needs to decide for themselves. For me, the screen height thing keeps this from being a perfect, do-everything computing device, but it’s just not enough of an issue to spoil all the advantages that it offers. I suggest you take a look at one before buying to judge for yourself, though. It may be a more substantial issue for you.

The battery life on its own makes this computer terrific. Add to that the speed, great keyboard, bright display, Windows 7 and upgradeability and I think this will be my laptop for many years to come. Even if I have to do a lot of vertical scrolling.

No PMC For Me This Year

PMC-Logo-2011-180x157After seven years of riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge, a 2-day charity bike ride across Massachusetts, I’m going to have to bail out of this year’s event. The ride is a big deal for me each year because it supports a truly meaningful cause – cancer research – and the supporters of it, most of whom have been touched by cancer, really work to make it a rewarding experience. It’s a tough ride, but a total blast. I’m skipping this year because my knee, which I had surgery on in March, has not healed LIKE I WAS PROMISED! The surgeon said I’d be back in four months and now is saying it’ll be at least six. The physical therapist isn’t even that optimistic. As it turns out, the fine print in the surgery contract doesn’t say anything about commitments by a medical professional being legally binding (yes, I’m kidding).

While I’m not going to be able to do any actually pedaling in the event, I can still do some peddling (get it? pedaling vs. peddling? funny, right?). I’m still going to try and raise some money for The Jimmy Fund. To do that, I’m going to be a “virtual rider” for the PMC. It’s just what it sounds like, I’m afraid. I pretend to ride so that I can pimp the cause.

If you have the desire and ability to donate, I’d appreciate your support of the efforts at Dana Farber. I have raised $35,920 over the last 7 years and already have $4,840 committed for this year. I suppose it’s a bit lame to be seeking donations when I’ll be sitting on my butt during the 2-day ride, but if by making it a bit easier to donate I can convince a few more people to throw in with the cause, it’s worth it.

Thanks in advance!

Gadget Review–Windows Phone 7

Yeah, I’m pretty late to the game here. That said, I bet I’ve played with this (thanks Shawn!) before most of the people I know or who read this blog. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of the people I know never intend to ever giving it a try (so why are you still reading?). Well, if you’re one of those people, you owe it to yourself to at least give Windows Phone 7 fifteen minutes of playtime at your favorite phone store or, even better, a 15-30 day trial from your favorite carrier. It’s still a 1.x phone and, therefore, is missing some of the polish and completeness of it’s iPhone and Android competition, but I think it’s a fresh, cool approach to the smartphone category.

As a current Android user and a former (reformed?) iPhone user, I have a pretty good feel for what I use the phone for and what’s most important to me. I don’t play games on my phone. It’s a communication device primarily, a synced data access device (think Evernote and Smugphoto) secondarily and web browsing device tertiarily (did I just make that up?). I run a handful of apps that don’t fit into these categories, but they’re icing on the cake rather than the cake itself. In that light, I found Windows Phone 7 surprisingly satisfying and quite a bit different from the other platforms.

The first thing you notice is how fast the UI is. Everything runs smoothly without pause. Even on mediocre hardware, the OS feels quick. Add to that the constant visual feedback and animation in transitions and the experience is just cool. Also out of the shoot, Microsoft’s choices of fonts and font sizes make the display clear and easy on the eye – almost playful. The tiled, mosaic home page makes getting to what you want quick and painless. Since I use just a few apps, most of those being native to all leading phones, I can always get to what I want fast. That seems to be the goal of phone and one which it achieves . . . in a 1.x sorta way.

Email is my primary app when using a smartphone. Setting up the stock email program to work with my Gmail account (including contacts and calendar) was as easy as setting things up on Android. I’m still a bit unsure if Windows Phone uses all the correct labels from Gmail for spam, trash, etc. There’s also no basic “Archive” button, which I have become quite used to in Gmail. Also missing is threaded messaging. For some, that’ll be enough of a deal killer. Apparently, MS is going to add it in a later rev of the software. Moving between messages is easy and reading them even easier. With threaded messaging and a little more Gmail integration, this email app could blow away the stock Android app. For example, it’s much easier to move a message to a folder (change its label in Gmail-speak) than on the Android Gmail app.

Contacts get a little weird. If you’re big into email like me, your contact list is critical. Windows Phone sucks down your contacts from Facebook and merges them with your other contacts. I don’t like that at all. Segregation of contacts is important to me. I have Facebook “friends” who shouldn’t be allowed to mingle with my real friends, if you know what I mean. Apparently, there’s a way to sorta separate them, but there’s still bussing between the lists. Funny enough, Twitter followers or followees are not allowed to participate here – at all. Word on the street that this will be addressed in the next version.

As you’d expect, there aren’t many apps available. Important ones like Evernote are, but other basic ones aren’t yet there. One gets the idea that they’re coming. Just very slowly. If you’re an app hound, the list may never be long enough on this OS for you. For me, I think the key apps will be there shortly.

Perhaps the biggest current failing of the phone is no multi-tasking. Actually, I shouldn’t say that there is no multitasking, the native apps seem to do it just fine. Zune runs in the background, mail downloads in the background, etc. It’s just not available to third party apps. MS has to rectify this or this phone will be a total loser. Again, apparently they’re workin’ on it. Funny, it seems like they should know something about implementing multitasking, huh?

Browsing is fast and efficient. SMS is more than reasonable. Oh yeah, the phone works great, just like a phone should.

I was pleasantly surprised with Windows Phone 7. Can Microsoft pull it off and become a contender? I hope so. Not only because I’m a MS fan, but because I’d love to see more competition driving this market.

Windows Server 2003 (or Windows Home Server) Account Lockout

I had a long power outage yesterday that caused my servers to shut down. While they are on UPS’s, 5 hours or so without power ran ‘em dry. When I tried to hook my desktops up to them after the outage, I couldn’t access the shares one of the servers. I kept getting an error telling me that my account was locked out. When I used Remote Desktop to login to the server (with the administrator’s account), the accounts were indeed, locked.

After playing around for a while and searching for a solution on the net, I ran into a reference to a solution to a similar problem that was whacky enough to give a try. As it turns out, the clock on my server had not updated itself for some reason and, in fact, had been reset to some date in 2007. Once I updated the clock on the server to the correct date and time and reset the lock status of the account, I had no more difficulties. Apparently, this is a security feature. I just wish it had been a bit easier to diagnose.

The Real Challenge for American Car Manufacturers

It seems that most people have yet to notice, but American car companies are back. Well, not necessarily back financially, but for the most part, they’re back to building world class vehicles. Certainly, there are few cars waiting for their refresh or to be dumped and many cars and even brands have simply been removed from the scene. The new stuff coming out of Detroit, though, is really very good and, for the most part, cheaper than anything shipped to US shores.

As it turns out, though, building new world class cars was the easy part for the American manufacturers. Projecting that reality to the buying public, however, is going to take a very long time. And long-term thinking is just not an American business strength.

A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with a couple of young entrepreneurs who were both planning new car purchases to accommodate their expanding families. I asked what cars they were looking at. Their answers . . . Honda, Toyota and Nissan SUVs with a BMW or Audi as a long shot. I asked if they had considered an American car. I got blank stares. I said that there were some really nice new small SUVs offered by Chevrolet and Ford. More blank stares. I told them that I had purchased one earlier in the year. Polite, but uninterested body language. I said that the gas mileage was great, it had more interior room than its competition, the safety ratings were the same as the cars they mentioned and after 11,000 hard city miles, the car was tight and solid. Maybe some slight interest, but I may have been imagining it. I then said that the car cost about $5,000 less than its direct Japanese competition and was $10,000 to $15,000 less than its German competition. They responded, “yeah, I’ll have to look into that,” and went to discussing the Japanese and German cars.

I have to assume that if the American companies continue to produce great cars at lower prices, eventually, the buyers will come. Clearly, the companies are going to have to be patient, though. When Lexus entered the US market, no one thought that anyone would buy a high-priced, “luxury” Toyota. At first, few did. Toyota knew this – they knew that it would take a very long time to be considered an equal with the worlds’ best vehicles in that class.  The costs must have been tremendous, but they stuck with their plan and we all know the outcome. The American auto manufacturers will need similar planning, patience and stick-to-itiveness.

Keep pumping out great cars at good prices, Detroit. Eventually, the buyers will come.

Note: there is some indication that the tide is already turning. According to the cars.com blog, KickingTires, Buick is currently outselling all luxury brands in the US except BMW (they are forecasted to beat BMW too by year’s end) with only four cars in their lineup and 73% year-over-year unit sales growth in February.

The Art of Asking and Listening – Active Listening

In the Sales 101 book that I’ll eventually get around to writing, learning how to shut up may end up being the sole topic of the first chapter. It’s truly shocking to me how often I witness a sales person dominating a conversation with a customer. The less your customer speaks, the less likely it is you’re going to figure what his/her problem is and because of that, the probability that you’ll be able to discoverer an opportunity or address his/her needs will be almost zero. Simple as that.

Successful sales people listen to their customers, making each communication with a customer an opportunity for the customer to say more about themselves, their situation and their needs. As much as we have been taught that listening is a passive activity, good listening is actually an active one. It involves asking questions about what the customer is saying to show that you are, in fact, listening, that you understand what they are saying and that you are interested in learning more. As much as a conversation with a customer should never be about your ego, it should always be about their ego. Make them feel great about what they are saying and show your respect for them by working to understand fully and expressing your interest.

I was just in a meeting where two of the people at the table never said a word. This wasn’t a pecking order or hierarchy thing, they were equal players as far as the sale went. It was clear that their lack of talking had actually led them to be bored and disengaged within a few minutes of the start of the meeting. In this meeting, the sales person was doing all the talking. He never asked a single question of the two people or anyone else for that matter. At this point, I don’t think that sale will ever happen.

Societally, we often think of sales people as the best talkers. In fact, the best sales people are the great listeners.

Working on a WordPress Plugin

It’s been a long time since I’ve written any serious code, but that doesn’t keep me from dabbling every now and again. Of course, I always find myself on the steepest part of the learning curve when I come around to engaging with a new compiler, debugger, language or environment. Since I do it rarely, I tend to forget everything I learned the last time and usually end up changing something major between forays – language, environment, libraries or something – it’s new every time. That’s OK, but it takes a lot of time and energy to simply catch up let alone move forward.

My latest trial is creating, (more like changing and adding) code written in PHP. Specifically, I’m making a cut at taking over a now unsupported plugin in WordPress. As with most languages and environments, that means I have to ramp in several domains. PHP, SQL and WordPress, primarily, but there’s a bunch of smaller stuff too.

The plugin I’m working on is a branch of Now Reading Reloaded which itself is a branch of the original Now Reading plugin. The authors of both decided that they didn’t have time to continue to enhance them. After spending about a week getting my head into the process, I don’t blame them.

Now Reading Reloaded allows me to track and comment on books I read and lets me keep a virtual library that I can access and share on my blog (see the widget on the left with all the pretty book covers or the Library link in the menu for the full list). For the most part, it works well. I have made some modifications to it in the past, but minor, visual ones primarily. What I want to do is make some functional modifications that require changes deep in the guts of the code.

WordPress is conceptually simple and PHP is pretty straightforward (it’s a scripting language, though, and therefore its is always a bit funky). SQL is SQL, arcane as always, but totally standardized. Put them all together, though, and it’s somewhat dizzying, at least for a newbie at it like me. The structure of WordPress plugins is regimented, but is too complex to allow one to just dip a toe in the water. I’m going to have to do a deep dive if I’m going to pull this off.

Here goes . . .

The Science Behind Traffic Jams

Why Traffic Jams Happen width=
Via: Car Insurance Guide

Knee Surgery . . . Finally

dislocated-patellaAfter whining about a deteriorating knee that has slowly eroded my capability to ride my bike over the last few years, I finally found a sports medicine physician who diagnosed my problem and performed surgery to fix it. I had the surgery yesterday and start my too long recovery period today. Officially, the diagnoses was Chondromaliacia Patellae caused by Patellar Tilt (see diagram at right).

It turns out that amount of cycling I was doing caused the patella (kneecap) to be pulled laterally towards the outside of the knee. Basically, my lone focus on cycling caused certain muscles to develop while others remained weak, pulling things in one direction only. Since the patella was pulled outside the groove it normally sits in, it rubbed the cartilage between the kneecap and femur where it’s not designed to – over the sharper part of the femur. After about 10 million cycles, it rubbed right through so that there is no longer any cushion between the kneecap and femur. Bone rubs on bone. Ouch.

Funny, though, I had no trouble walking. The hole was low on the knee so it only affected me when I bent it by over about 30 degrees. Stairs were hard, ladders were almost impossible and cycling . . . well I had to stop riding last August.

The surgery is arthroscopic and isn’t major, relatively speaking. The surgeon cleans up the crappy hole in the cartilage and does a lateral release – cutting part of the connective tissue that holds the kneecap in place (the lateral retinaculum) allowing it to slide into its normal resting place. Finally, and this is the gross part, the surgeon drills or digs a small hole in the femur (a process called microfracturing) to release cells that help the cartilage heal more completely.

About four weeks after surgery, I’ll be getting four weekly injections of Orthovisc, which is made from naturally occurring lubricants found in joints. Apparently, this is injected with a needle the size of an oil well drill bit, but it’s worth manning up because it helps the cartilage heal, adds some lubrication to the beaten up joint and speeds up all-around recovery a good deal.

The prognosis is that it will take me about 4 months to recover enough to get back on my bike for any serious riding – why didn’t I do this in September? One of the advantages in working with a sports medicine specialist is that they are very sensitive to their patient’s addiction to their activities and work to get them back in action faster. Given that, I’m hoping my doc works with me to cut some time off the textbook recovery period.

Update(s): when I searched the web for information about this surgery and, more importantly, the recovery from it, there was very little to be found. So, for those of you have stumbled across this as a result of a search for information, I’m going to keep a brief digest of what my recovery was like. As usual, your mileage may vary.

  • One day after surgery – Ouch! Anesthesia and anesthetic are all gone and being very much missed. Like an idiot, I didn’t take the pain medicine (percocet, in my case) soon enough or frequently enough. This is the only day I had to take any though. 24 hours after surgery, the pain was manageable. I’m a wimp, too.
  • Two days after surgery – Still a lot of swelling and very stiff. Moving around on crutches a bit. Started using a CPM machine to exercise the knee. Doesn’t seem like it would help, but it does. Start doing basic exercises with short range of motion. Painful.
  • One week after surgery – I still can’t bend my leg much. After using crutches for about 4 days, I moved onto a cane. Doctor says I don’t need it, nurse and physical therapist insist I do. So, I compromise. I overuse it and the knee remains really swollen. Sleeping is hard, every move causes me to wake up.
  • Ten days after surgery – See the surgeon. Have the stitches removed (no bleeding at any time – the holes are very small). He says my knee is abnormally swollen. I probably used it too much. Gave me a few more exercises and tells me that I can do the PT work myself if I like, which I do. He tells me “full” recovery will take 4-6 months. Longer than his original estimate. I start walking without any support (cane/crutches) all the time. I crank the CPM machine to 80-degrees of motion.
  • Two weeks after surgery – Still discouragingly stiff and swollen. Doing loads of basic leg lifts and such and spending >2hrs/day in the CPM machine.  I’m getting around better and can even climb (not descend) stairs a little. Interesting how the basic act of releasing my leg in the backswing of a stride is stiff and painful. I can walk, but with a stiff leg. Sleeping remains difficult since I toss and turn, waking up each time.
  • Three weeks after surgery – Remains stiff and swollen. The swelling is certainly less severe than right after surgery, although it’s hard to tell if it’s better than a week ago. Spending >2hrs/day in the CPM machine and another hour/day “exercising” and icing. Also, added a 20 minute session/day on the elliptical – almost no resistance. Like last week, releasing my leg on the backswing of my stride is stiff and painful. Getting little sleep because every toss and turn wakes me up with some pain.
  • Four weeks after surgery – I could feel enough improvement that I abused it. I ended up standing and walking a lot this week. At times, I could walk with almost no limp, but ended up paying for that in the last couple of days. No real pain, just a bit stiff on the backswing of the leg, I can go up small flights of stairs with almost no pain, but can only go down stairs one at a time – always leading with my bad leg. Still using the CPM machine, now at 100-degrees and I’ve turned up the resistance on the elliptical, although not the time. Sleeping is no longer a huge problem, although I still end up waking up because I bump or twist something during the night.
  • Five weeks after surgery – I still have a lump on the outside of my knee that is completely numb to the touch, but doesn’t disturb me otherwise. I think this is swelling around where the muscle holding the patella was cut. That’s also where I feel the tightness in the backswing of my leg, which continues. Once I get loose, I can walk without much of a limp. Climbing stairs has gotten a bot easier and I can even gingerly descend stairs with both legs. I’ve increased both my time and resistance on the elliptical and have even gone for a couple of mile walk. The knee makes a lot of crunchy noises, though, which is freaking me out a bit.
  • Nine weeks after surgery – Fast forward . . . another appointment with the surgeon, only my second one since the surgery. He’s pretty casual. I called a couple of weeks ago because of the crunching sounds coming from my knee when I bent it. He said, “nothing to worry about.” That didn’t help. They did, however, mostly go away over the following weeks. I still have the tightness where the band was cut, although it’s not as bad. I stopped using the CPM machine at the 6-week mark, per doctor’s orders. I don’t think it was doing too much for me anyway. Going up many stairs brings about a little pain. If I hadn’t had surgery, it might not even register too much. Going downstairs is quite a bit different, although I can do it much better and with less pain than just a couple of weeks ago. At this visit to the doctor, he told me to start physical therapy, which I will this week. He told me it will be another four weeks until I should even sit on a bike. I’ve upped both time and resistance on the elliptical and am on it five times per week. I’ve also restarted weight training – upper body only, of course. Things are getting better, although much more slowly than forecasted by me or the surgeon. My biggest concern is that there is no indication yet that the surgery actually fixed the original problem. There are other pains and stiffness that mask the pain from the injury.
  • Sixteen weeks after surgery – well, I’ve officially blown off the cycling season, there’s no way I can ride a bike . . . at all. Things are better, I guess, but they’re not very good. Stairs remain a problem, especially down. I’ve been doing physical therapy now for almost 6 full weeks. I’m stronger, for sure, but not in much less pain. The pain is different most of the time and I still feel a lot of numbness on the outside of my knee – the other side from the injury. I have to think it’s surgically related. Probably from the band that was cut holding down the patella. Stretching like a maniac helps, but disappointingly little. I can’t squat down and if I do work my way to the floor, I can’t get up. While supporting my weight, even half of it, I can’t bend my knee more than about 50-degrees. Without weight, I can bend it all the way. Very discouraging.

The History of Computers [ala Techking]

This is great (thanks Techking for creating it and @djilk for pointing it out). A humbling look at where computers started and how they advanced. There are many missing, including some of the more recent super-duper computers produced to work on some nasty computational problems and a couple built to become chess-masters and Jeopardy winners, but the key ones are pretty much all here.

Computers-Chronological-Timeline-580px

Check out other cool infographics on Techking.