Which Tech Bit the Dust in 2015 in the Bickford Household

As I get ready for the new year, here’s a look back at some of the formerly cherished tech toys that bit the dust this year. Call me crazy, but these are actually some of my favorite ways of looking back at the way life changes over the long haul–whether it’s the year we got rid of all our VHS tapes and record albums or the ever-morphing setup of our home networking, it’s actually sort of fascinating to watch the passage of the years by looking at what got dumped on Craigslist or thrown into the garbage bin.

DirecTV and associated DVRs

Cause of Death: Hulu Plus

After years of looking askance at the “cord cutters”, I got a really good look at our $100+ satellite bill and decided to see how easy it would be to get the same programming elsewhere. This led me to discovering Hulu Plus, particularly the $12.99 commercial-free version, which we found allows us to stream not only almost every show we watch, but countless other fascinating shows ranging from ancient British science-fiction to full seasons of our favorite comedies–all without the need to rapidly skip forward on the DVR to avoid commercials.

What doesn’t it have? For us, the pain points–if they even deserve the name–were the loss of current season of Project Runway, the Superbowl, and Big Bang Theory. But with so much other programming available, we found it easy to ignore the missing reality shows until next season, and the addition of an on-air antenna seems to promise to solve our other limited programming gaps (with the further option of simply waiting a few months until the DVDs come out which we can grab from Netflix). I also gave up watching any amount of news, but found I don’t miss it a bit, especially given how prevalent coverage is over the internet.

If you’re a big sports fan, this might not be the move for you, it’s been a huge win for us, and probably the hardest thing to getting rid of Satellite proved finding a way to dismantle and dispose of the dish that had been mounted on our house ever since dropping cable a decade earlier

Google TV from Logitech

I actually won this unit a number of years ago at CES, and I was thrilled to use it to easily search for shows using the Bluetooth keyboard in conjunction with the DirecTV DVRs it was hooked up to. This is also notably the device that nearly drove Logitech into the grave, since they invested so hard in what became a spectacularly unprofitable product for them.

Cause of Death: The XBox 360 sitting next to it assuming all its TV app duties, and the dropping of satellite in the Bickford household.

 

Two Mac Minis, Three Shuttle XPCs, and Various Firewalls and Network Gear

Cause of Death: Network consolidation

It’s sort of fun setting up a vast and varied network of computers, tying together multiple office locations and business domains, while managing backup, mail service, and all the other fiddly bits that go into running a business.

As it turns out, it’s even more fun simplifying the whole mess and having way less “support surface” to worry about. This is what happened when AT&T Fiber moved into the building this spring, triggering a re-think of our whole network infrastructure, a very messy (and expensive!) shut-off of our Comcast Business internet at the office, and the unification of two of our corporate “domains” under one roof. The whole process took months, but if felt great every time we got a chance to bin an old server and simplify the overall picture in a new, simpler, and faster network setup.

 

Circling the Drain: Dell 2309WFP Webcam-enabled Monitors

Cause of Death: Windows 10

I like this monitor. The color reproduction is a little overly bright, but I still liked it so much I bought three of them and distributed them to various folks at home and office as it’s both a practical and affordable monitor, as well as packing a decent little webcam into the bezel which is perfect for Skype. Unfortunately, I discovered today that the the webcam is also incompatible–in a blue-screen kind of way–with Windows 10. The only solution is apparently to disconnect the USB port, disabling the camera, and reducing a great monitor to a merely average 23″ panel. I think it’s time to start moving these toward the door…

San Jose International Short Film Festival: The Best of the Rest

I’m writing this two days after the end of the festival, my mind still reeling from the sheer number and variety of movies I saw. It’s simply impossible to have seen everything, and my apologies go to many no-doubt worthy entries which I didn’t get to see.

Here’s a few of my favorites from the final two days of the show:

Papa

An animated film by Natalie Labarre which beautifully captures the joys and frustrations of a guy raising a little girl. How do you ever breach the gap between the world of tea parties and stuffed animals with the adult world of work and responsibility? With a lot of love. Beautifully told and heartfelt.

Barrow

An incredibly ambitious Australian thriller that marries CSI style forensics with an intelligent ghost story.

The Smiling Man

Saw this one as part of the late night Saturday horror block, and A.J. Briones’ little 7 minute film is definitely the stuff nightmares are made of.  The only thing I could wish was a little more of a back story or reason for the action, although the titular character’s performance alone is enough to disturb.

Honorable Mentions/Well Worth Seeing

Dave – A comedy about a many who wakes up after an accident to discover a daughter he never met at his bedside. Awkward!

Carry On  – Overall winner of the festival – An Austrian movie about an elderly couple who scratch out a farm living and have to come to the decision to put down an old donkey. A bit bleak for my taste, but a great film nonetheless with pitch-perfect acting and technique.

The Holy Cave – A high school sex comedy from Spain, wherein a couple of outcasts with parents who travel a lot decide to become popular by turning their home into a hook up spot.

Love is Blind – A UK comedy about a cheating girlfriend who’s in the midst of a fling when her deaf boyfriend returns home.

Moving On – Imagine finding out the relationship is over when a moving service shows up at your door, hired by your former paramour, to get you and your stuff out of the house. Good concept, sharply executed, with a nice appearance by Robin Lord Taylor (Gotham’s “Penguin”) as one of the movers.

First Date – Another nice Australian comedy of sheer awkwardness and misunderstanding by Rob Innes. Won in the comedy category at the festival, but personally I thought it could have been funnier if they’d pushed the material just a little farther. (It was awkfward-funny instead of South Park-style-“Omigod I can’t believe what I’m hearing”-funny).

Enfilade – A minimalistic, and unique-looking film from Australia’s David Coyle. Imagine Cube done by someone who’s played too much Portal.

Best of Day 2: San Jose International Short Film Festival

I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that the easiest form of short film to do successfully is comedy. Although there were exceptions, most of the films I saw on the second day struggled at least somewhat with the various demands of establishing characters, setting, and an emotional arc–particularly in the dramatic and sci-if genres.

That said, here are some of the best:

Joe Gonzalez’s story of a man who hasn’t been lucky in love, and has launched on a rather novel way to gain revenge. Funny, outrageous, and a movie that nevertheless has a heart.

A King’s Betrayal

From David Bornstein, a real gem of a short that manages both comedy and existential angst from the perspective of a Piñata.

Getting In

An all-too-relatable tale of a guy who gets into the college of his dreams on a sham squash scholarship (he ran the odds of a full ride as a star academic student (7%) against that of the most feeble of athletic scholarships (47%) and took the sensible route). But it all went south when an “injury” caused him to lose the squash scholarship and he was left with over $20,000 in tuition for a semester with only days to pay it. So extreme measures went into play…

image

Great stuff, managing an entire 80s college movie in a mere 13 minutes. Director Stian Hafstad also has a terrific time sending up all the “hacker” motifs in Hollywood while doing some very clever plotting.

Takanakuy

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Austin Kolodney’s hilarious rendition of an American family at Christmastime that discovers the Peruvian holiday of “Takanakuy” wherein grievances are settled with fistfights. Imagine The Good, the Bad and the Ugly crossed with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. With a bit of Enter the Dragon thrown in for good measure.

San Jose International Short Film Festival – Best of Day 1

Day 1 was the red carpet opening along with a revue of past favorites, followed by a round of comedy shorts from recent years.

My favorites so far:

“Fool’s Day” 

Trailer (some spoilers):

Full movie:

Comments: Oh. My. God. This was wonderful, and very dark stuff. Absolutely brilliant comedy filmmaking by Cody Blue Snider. I only wish I could get this on disc to show off to friends.

Status Update: A Facebook Fairy Tale

Hilarious, snarky, and NSFW British movie from Dan Reisinger.

Chronicles Simpkins will Cut Your Ass
image

Brendan Hughes has a hilarious (and evil) take on the mean kids terrorizing the school playground… except this time, it’s elementary school and the gang of toughs is led by a pig-tailed trash-mouth named Chronicle Simpkins. It’s that rare short that starts out funny and gets funnier and funnier.

The Answers

A man dies and gets answers to all his questions about his life. A great premise, strong performances, tight plotting and a compelling emotional arc–everything a short film should be.

Error Prevention is Way Better than a Cure when it Comes to .Net Error Handling

Here’s a fun little .Net speed optimization I found out today:

(In both of these “Reader” is a DataReader which I’m using to loop through a set of database records.)

Code #1:

dim myValue as string

While Reader.Read()
  Try
     myValue = Reader("FieldWhichMayNotExist")
  Catch
     myValue = "This is a default value"
  End Try
end While

And here’s Code #2:

dim myValue as string

dim fieldExists as Boolean = 
FigureOutIfFieldExists(Reader, "FieldWhichMayNotExist")

While Reader.Read()
  if fieldExists then
     myValue = Reader("FieldWhichMayNotExist")
  else
     myValue = "This is a default value"
  end if
End While

So, what’s the big difference? The first one traps for the field not existing and inserts a default value if so; and the second one wastes a bunch of time going through a routine to see if the field exists, then loops through and uses the result of that first scan to use either the field value or the default value accordingly.

You might think that the two would run in similar amounts of time–or maybe even Code #1 would be a little faster, since it didn’t waste a few precious milliseconds scanning to see if the field exists.

But here’s the shocker:  Code sample #2 runs about 20 times faster than code sample #1, since it doesn’t need to deal with the whole .Net exception architecture. In the case of the actual code upon which this was based, it meant the difference between being able to insert 630,000 records in around 100 seconds, vs. more than an hour.

Exception handling: it’s more expensive than you think–particularly inside loops. Prevention in this case was worth 20 times more than a cure.

Laws of Intended Consequences: Grocery Store Checkout Misery in California

Line

This was the scene tonight at my local Safeway as I attempted to grab a quick twelver of Becks to refill the office fridge.

In case it doesn’t look dire enough from here, here’s the scene behind me in line.

Line-2

At this point, gentle reader. you might be a bit curious as to why Californians seem to love waiting in grocery store lines so much that they don’t speed their way through the four (!)  readily open self-checkout lanes seen at the front of the first picture. Lanes so lonely for company that the checker overseeing them began touting them, carnival barker-style, while none of the doomed patrons in line could do more than grimace and sourly wait for the next available spot at the one open checker.

The answer is found in the sign posted at the front of the Checkout lane

Line-3

In a another world–in fact, the world we had just 18 months ago as it turns out–I’d have grabbed my brews, swooped through checkout in a minute or less, and be back at my office jangling my still-cold beers in a plastic bag (that cost less than a penny to make, and which easily holds my purchases together while contributing nothing at all to the inconvenience of the journey, and requiring a fraction of the energy and environmental waste of the “eco-friendly” reusable bag that  every shopper in California is practically required to hoard).

But thankfully, I was saved from this hell of convenience by our wise leaders in the State Legislature–who have Done Something about the Very Pressing Problem of… uhh… what, exactly?

Stopping underage drinking? After all, a minor could just grab a case of beer and… what? Get carded at checkout by the scowling clerk watching the lines like always once the big “Alcohol Purchase–Show ID to Checker”: signal goes off on the self-checkout?

Were underage buyers really standing in line to law-abidingly pay for their non-lawful booze at self-checkout (vs. the much more sensible action of simply shoplifting the brewskis using the now-mandatory “reusable bags” that everyone now carries–thanks to the same legislators?)

If one is overly cynical about the actual motives of this law (and I’ve found it’s very, very difficult to be even appropriately cynical where politicians are concerned), one might suspect that the actual reason for this new prohibition is to lessen the usefulness of self-checkout–which has been catching on hugely in the past few years since it offers customers a way to pay without waiting forever, and which offers store owners a way to control labor costs in an era of massive increases in mandatory minimum wages.

Perhaps it was a payoff to their friends in the grocery unions. Or a way to “Do Something” about the lack of employment brought on by their ever-increasing minimum wages that make it utterly uneconomical to hire low-skilled workers for starter jobs… like checkout clerk.

But once again, thanks legislators. Your willingness to step forward and Do Something–about plastic bags, minimum wages… and now the terrible perils of unregulated self-checkout… has made grocery shopping in California the delight it is.

What to do if your keyboard stops working after upgrading to Windows 10 on a MacBook Pro running Boot Camp

Well, this was a little vexing…

My go-to computer on the road is a MacBook Pro (Retina), which I use Apple’s Boot Camp software on to allow it to simultaneously be a bad-ass MacOS X computer and a killer Windows machine. It really is a terrific laptop.

While on a trip this week, I got a notice (on the Windows side) that Windows 10 was ready to download as a free update to the Windows 7 I had installed. Having done a flawless upgrade of my main desktop to Windows 10, I unhesitatingly clicked “Upgrade”, and an hour or so later, I was staring at the Windows 10 login screen on my newly upgraded laptop. “Press Ctrl+Alt+Delete to Login” it instructed…

I pressed it. Nothing happened. Pressed it again.. three times.. a dozen times… nothing. Rebooted. Powered the machine off. Let it wait for a while. Switched to the Mac side. Switched back. (At least I knew that the keyboard was sorta-working, as it recognized the Alt/Option key for switching boot partitions). But everytime I got to the Windows login screen, I was SOL.

After my trip, I plugged in an external keyboard and it instantly got past the login screen. I installed updates to Windows 10 but when I rebooted, the same problem persisted. What the devil was going on?

Turns out, the Apple keyboard drivers that came with Boot Camp got deactivated or otherwise messed with by the upgrade, so it was unable to handle the delete key in the upper-right of the built-in keyboard (most likely treating it as backspace instead).

The workaround: To hit Command-U at the login to activate the accessibility settings and use the onscreen virtual keyboard to trigger a Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

The fix: Boot back over to the Mac side, go to the Utilities folder and launch Boot Camp assistant. Download the (sorta) latest drivers.* onto a USB thumb drive. Then boot back over to Windows, pull the virtual keyboard trick to log in, then run the setup program on the flash drive to repair the drivers. Reboot, and all is well.

Hope this helps someone!

*It actually installs drivers from 2014, but attempting to directly download the Boot Camp 5.1xxx drivers from the Apple site results in an installer that refuses to run on this machine–even though it was specifically listed among the supported machines on the Apple site).