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September 2006
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November 2006

Book Review: Creepy Susie

Creepy Susie and 13 Other Tragic Tales for Troubled Children is the best story book I've read in a long time. It is not, by any means, for children despite it's dark-but-cutesy look. It's filled with short, and often very funny, morality tales. My favorite is about a dog who prefers the life in his dreams to everyday reality. So he sleeps all the time, to the point where his family thinks that he has died so they bury him. A cautionary tale for any teenager, indeed.


Convection Wall Heater

If you have an area of your house that could use supplemental heating, I recommend the Econo-Heat convection heater. My experience with Econo-Heat is in our "Three Season Room" (aka "Sun Porch" in warmer areas of the country) which so far this season, with its earliest snowfall in history, has been kept comfortably warm.

The Econo-Heat is a 24" square panel that mounts on the wall using 1" standoffs. It's completely silent and designed for continuous operation. Just plug it in, turn it on, and forget about it. The surface of the square, which is made of some sort of sturdy composite, gets very warm to the touch but not hot. So it's safe for kids, pets, and clumsy adults. The closer you are to the square the more you can feel the heat, but the general idea is that the whole room is kept warm via convection. I know, I was skeptical too, but as I said it actually does work. The wattage is fairly low, under 500 watts, so leaving it turned on all the time not only ensures it has a chance to warm the whole area, but also doesn't cost you too much. (Compare that to a traditional space heater which typically consumes 1500 watts and makes your electric meter spin like whirling dervish.)

econoheat.jpgI actually use two Econo-Heat units in our Three Season Room because its completely uninsulated, is a large room, and has lots of windows. (The manufacturer's website describes the square footage and other parameters necessary to determine if you need more than one unit.) I bought mine from the manufacturer, without checking Amazon first, where I could have saved about twenty bucks. As you can see in the photo, I haven't gotten around to painting the heaters yet, but that hasn't stopped me from considering them a welcome and toasty addition to my home.


Mini Cooper Confidential

Apple products and the Mini Cooper share more in common than iPod compatibility and attention to detail.
Encrypted Mini Cooper Ad
Apple has often been criticized for advertisements that speak only to existing customers, and now Mini Cooper has taken it a whole new level. Their latest campaign is a series of full-page ads in national magazines whose contents are encrypted and thus unreadable to the uninitiated.

In order to read these ads you must use a special decoder kit that was sent to Mini owners via the mail. I feel so left out.


Roomba Battery Woes

I've written about the robotic cleaning appliances from i-Robot before ( here, here, and here) but this time I'm writing with an important tip for Roomba and Scooba owners.

Do not leave your robot uncharged, ever.

Lately, whenever I left town, I'd unplug the Roomba's charging unit. When you do this the battery eventually drains, and then it sits uncharged until you plug it back in again, right?

Wrong.

When you do this you destroy the battery and it won't ever hold a charge again.

iRobot tells you this, (here and here) and woe unto you who ignore (or forget) this advice. I can show you the receipt for my $50 replacement battery if you want proof. (I tried resetting the Roomba's power manager to no avail, if you find yourself in this situation, give it a try before replacing the battery.)

If you won't be using your Robot for a while, the correct thing to do is to completely remove the battery, per one of the articles linked to above.

Ugh. But I still loves our Roombas. And the new Scooba is working out well so far. (More about the Scooba after I've used it more.)


"Presence" for your Mac, today

Writing Getting into your head for the Chicago Tribune, Jon Van says that IBM is working on technology that will allow your cell phone to know where you are and for other technology to respond intelligently according to your location. He writes:

"The system will combine knowledge about where someone's phone is with his calendar schedule, sending incoming calls to voice mail when he's in a conference. Eventually, the system may turn up his home heating system 10 minutes before he arrives."

If you'd like to dabble with this idea now, albeit in a form that's "limited" to your own home, it's easily accomplished with a Mac and some home automation software.

In Smart Home Hacks, Hack #54 and #57 describe two ways of having your home lights turned up. and your home stereo switched on, before you arrive home from work. The first one is written by Michael Furguson, author of XTension, and describes how to use driveway sensors that are a lot simpler than you'd think. In the second hack I describe how I integrated the HomeLink transmitter in my Nissan with both my garage door and home automation setup.

Hack #35 tells you how to have your computer automatically forward your home phone to a different number based upon your schedule. In the book it's written for PC users by Jon Welfringer, but the concept of using a little scripting and dialing numbers with a modem, in order to set your phone company's forwarding options, is easily portable to a Mac.

And starting on page 257 (Hack #70) is a technique for knowing who is at home, and having your house respond accordingly. I use this one myself; my alarm clock doesn't go off on holiday or weekends--or at all if I'm traveling--thanks to my home automation system knowing whether or not I'm present.

Finally, don't forget about the Salling Clicker. If you've got a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, not only can you remotely control your computer, your computer can know when you're within 30 feet and automatically get busy before you sit down.

All these projects are great fun, and you'll be ready for the future that the Trib article describes, whenever it finally gets here.


LaserWriter 12/640: Rescued

laserwriter-12-640.jpgMy trusty laser printer, an Apple LaserWriter 12/640, has been out of commission for more than a week. Every time I tried to print the paper would get jammed up, accordion-like, between the toner cartridge and the fuser. Oh, dismay! I've had the printer more than 10 years, it's the second-to-last laser printer model produced by Apple and its a major workhorse. It has reliably produced over 10,000 pages from its Genuine PostScript, 600DPI, 64MB RAM-equipped innards.

I'm handy with software, but laser printers are mechanical, messy, and mysterious to me. So I called all over Chicago looking for someone to fix it. I only found one guy who was interested in working on an Apple printer, and he wanted nearly $100 just to diagnose it. Ugh. I have a nice HP color laser printer too, so I was tempted to just send this one to the junk heap, but I knew I'd miss its fast and economic printing if I did that. (Not to mention feeling a good measure of disposable-society guilt.)

So I turned to the 'net. I read dozens of web pages about what might be the cause. Information about paper sensors, rollers, and bad fusers swirled around in my brain. Today, I decided to put some of it to use and really try to figure out what was hanging-up every sheet of paper. I opened up the printer and was surprised when a piece of broken plastic skittered across the floor as I removed the toner cartridge. It's an after-market generic cartridge that I put in a couple of months ago. It didn't fit as well as the Apple toner cartridge, but it seemed to work. I couldn't identify where the plastic part had broken off, but now when I put the cartridge back in the printer it fit better than it ever had before. And, to my delight, my printer worked perfectly again!

So, two lessons here. The first is that no-name cartridges don't necessarily fit this printer very well. And if the cartridge doesn't fit exactly right, it can cause confounding paper jams. Secondly, in all of the reading I did about troubleshooting laser printers, none of the sources mentioned the cartridge as a possible cause. So, dear reader, should you find yourself in the same situation, check the damn cartridge first.


Robert Anton Wilson needs your help

I've written before about Robert Anton Wilson (RAW), an amazing author whose work has profoundly influenced me. His many books are not only entertaining, but they lead you down ontological rabbit holes that, without exaggeration, change the way your brain works. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not.

Well, RAW is sick and dying, and desperately needs financial help. Douglas Rushkoff provides details about how to contribute and calls RAW one of his heroes. Mark at BoingBoing echoes the same sentiment, as do the many comments on Rushkoff's post.

When I moved to California in 1996 I was thrilled when I realized that I'd be living less than 100 miles away from RAW. I thought for sure I might happen to meet him, and over the years my fantasy was buoyed by learning that several of my co-workers and friends either already knew him, or knew someone in his inner circle. But I was determined not to try to make the meeting happen; leaving it to fate or dumb chance. So it goes.

If you've never read any of his books, visit the Robert Anton Wilson bookstore. (Cosmic Trigger is a good one to start with. If you prefer fiction, then The Illuminatus Trilogy is your best choice.) If you have read his work, then I'm confident you'll join with me and help a brother out when he needs it most.