Thursday, November 19, 2009 Reports mm Jobs Created or Saved in Congressional District xx

There have been a lot of blog posts and newspaper articles written about reporting results for the 57th district of Minnesota or "the fightin' 59th" of Illinois. But few focus on the real problem.

Since the site reports information from ordinary folks who receive "stimulus money," you can hardly expect them to know their congressman.

I once stood on the busiest corner of downtown Minneapolis during lunch hour while KTCA reporter Eric Eskola showed a picture of congressman Marty Sabo to passersby saying "Do you know who this man is?" I watched about 15 minutes of "uh, uh, no!" before anyone even came close.

But part of the job of programmers creating a website is to make sure that things like invalid congressional districts don't get past basic input edits! Try changing one digit in your credit card number the next time you input it on and see what happens!

A Congressional District input should be a wonderful learning tool. "Back in the day," we would have assigned a rookie programmer to handle this part of the coding on a project. "These two columns on the card contain the Congressional District," would have been stated to the rookie. "Make sure its valid."

With any luck at all, the rookie in question was a newly hired MBA from finance who had been sent down to the department to spend a few months "learning about computers". He'd been to programming school. Now the fun would start. Would he find a good source for his information? Would he only check to see if the input was numeric and less than some maximum? Would he allow "00"? Would he find the programming standard for tables? Would he document the table in understandable fashion? And the big one!"
So what are you going to do when the districts change after next year's census? ...Well, who do you think is going to make that change?
Eventually, everything would be fine and our MBA would go back to his "real" job upstairs. But years later when there was a major issue to work out in a possible acquisition or major restructuring and our MBA was now the CFO, he's the one who would say:
Let's get somebody from IT involved. Those guys have way of thinking through all the details and ramifications of stuff. We could really use that on this task force.
And that's the way it was.

And spending 18 million dollars to rework a website? We'll leave that for another post. But a lot of old MIS types are turning over in their graves.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lumberjack or Logger?

I was browsing for books on lumbering and railroads around the 1900 era. Yes, I know, "strange tastes" and all that.

I meandered into the reviews for this book,
"Glory Days of Logging/Action in the Big Woods, British Columbia to California" after Amazon caught me browsing through "Minnesota Logging Railroads." (Isn't it wonderful how Amazon does this? I recall disparaging them in the late 1990s when the stock market had given this profitless company a valuation exceeding General Motors - proof that the market does really know stuff about the future!) The author of the review has some pretty strong opinions about lumberjack versus logger:
(Please don't call them lumber-jacks. I never heard a man who works in the woods called a lumber-jack all my years going up in Oregon. Yet a recent TV show about the worlds most dangerous jobs constantly referred to them a lumber-jacks.)
I grew up in Oregon hearing both terms used. Of course, half of my family was from Minnesota. So, I thought, perhaps it is a regionalism. After all, shortly after I had moved from Oregon to Minnesota, I was having dinner at my future wife's house and my future mother-in-law said, "could you pass the hot dish, Tom?" I was at a loss for what to do - hell, most of the dishes on the table were hot! How was I to know that "hot dish" is Minnesotan for casserole?

So perhaps lumberjack is Minnesotan for logger? Wikipedia suggests that it is more a function of time than place. But our true Minnesota Lumberjacks are timeless:

And don't miss the Lumberjack World Championships in the Lumberjack Bowl when you visit Hayward, Wisconsin.

Friday, October 23, 2009

1980 Ford Fairmont - Abuse of Convention

This was our 1980 Ford Fairmont.

Purchased in the depths of an "Energy Crisis" - oil would soon be non-existent and we would all be walking or biking - here was my contribution to solving the world's problem!

This baby came with a 2.3L 4-cylinder engine and a four-speed manual transmission achieving an EPA rating of 23mpg. (The estimated MPG numbers for other similar sized cars ranges from 07 to 24 MPG.)

I remember this car as fondly as I do the 55 MPH National Speed Limit of the time. But we were in the Second Oil Crisis and still wanted to make trips to our lake cabin. And we needed enough room to haul that Afghan Hound too! What's a guy to do?

My least favorite feature on the Fairmont was its horn. Ford violated the common sense practice of putting a horn button where everyone else had been putting it for about 60 years - on the steering wheel. Someone had a better idea. The horn was activated from the turn-signal stalk. No I am not making this up!

Oh, what kind of actual mileage did I get? Mostly 27-28 with an occasional 30-31 for all highway driving.

Monday, October 19, 2009

How Many Processes Should be Running in a Clean Version of Windows XP?

Now there's a question that should be easy to answer. Just Google that phrase and see what you get!

If that weren’t bad enough, there are plenty of libraries of processes around the Internet.  But the one that I’ve run into seem a little shaky – especially when they allow readers opinions that then vary from “Part of the Operating System – Don’t delete!” to “Was a virus that killed my system”

I asked myself the “How Many” question a couple of years ago when I brought up the Task Manager on a friend's machine and saw 112 processes running. I knew that was bad. But what was good? I tried my own machine and found about 70. I vowed to answer the question for myself the next time I had to do an XP Install.

So, here we are. I put a brand new 500 GB hard drive in my Dell Vostro 1500 and re-installed Windows. This is the story of what happened, process by process. I will show you the processes as they are displayed in Task Manager. I operate under user TOM.

First I did the basic install and took a look before adding any drivers or utilities.


# Image Name User Name Belongs to
1 svchost.exe LOCAL SERVICE Windows XP
2 alg.exe LOCAL SERVICE Windows XP
3 svchost.exe NETWORK SERVICE Windows XP
4 svchost.exe NETWORK SERVICE Windows XP
5 System Idle Process SYSTEM (Not really a process!)
6 System SYSTEM Windows XP
7 smss.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
8 csrss.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
9 winlogon.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
10 services.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
11 lsass.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
12 svchost.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
13 svchost.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
14 spoolsv.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
15 wmiprvse.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
16 msiexec.exe SYSTEM Windows XP
17 explorer.exe TOM Windows XP
18 taskmgr.exe TOM Windows XP
19 wscntfy.exe TOM Windows XP


That's pretty much basic Windows XP. Seventeen processes if you don't count taskmgr.exe which is required to display the processes and "System Idle" which is simply the processor not running anything.

Needless to say, things are not going to stay at seventeen very long!

My first surprise, though was this:
After sitting idle a bit, msiexec (the Windows Installer) and wmiprvse (Windows Management Instrumentaion) fell off leaving 15 real processes - seventeen displayed on the Task Manager list.

If you start Windows up in Safe Mode, by the way, you will find these same fifteen processes running except for:
alg.exe – part of Internet connectivity
spoolsv.exe – the print spooler
wscntfy.exe – the Windows security center
and one of the svchost.exe processes
so perhaps eleven processes is “minimum windows” or maybe as much as fifteen.  You make the call.  Either way, there’s not much happening at this point.  And what is happening is pretty slow going, especially on the screen.  Program windows and icons don’t move around very fast because the video acceleration capability of your video adapter is not being utilized.  So let’s add some drivers!

After adding drivers for Intel and Roxio chipsets, Nvidia Video card and both wired and wireless networking cards, we picked up 8 new processes, for a total of 23 real processes (again omitting Task Manager and System Idle) . From now on, with processes coming and going, I will just keep track of the numbers of new ones showing up.

18 wuauclt.exe SYSTEM Windows auto update
20 BCMWLTRY.EXE SYSTEM Broadcom Wireless
21 nvsvc32.exe SYSTEM NVIDIA graphics card
22 rundll32.exe TOM  
23 rundll32.exe TOM  
24 WLTRAY.EXE TOM Dell Wireless Tray
25 msmsgs.exe TOM Windows Messenger

again, after sitting idle a bit, one process, wuauclt.exe went away.

After adding some more drivers, the Firefox web browser, the TrendMicro antivirus system and the Dell Utilities to "make it a Vostro" we are up to 33 processes. Also we have used 4.91 GB on the hard drive and still don't have an honest application installed! Hey, does anyone remember the IBM PC XT with a 10MB hard drive? Here we have used 491 times as much disk space as there was on the XT and can't do a spreadsheet yet. Ah, progress.

New processes are:

26 firefox.exe TOM Firefox
27 quickset.exe TOM Dell Vostro Buttons
28 SfCtlCom.exe SYSTEM Trend Micro
29 stsystra.exe TOM Audio Driver
30 TMBMSRV.exe SYSTEM Trend Micro
31 TmPfw.exe SYSTEM Trend Micro
32 TmProxy.exe SYSTEM Trend Micro
33 UfSeAgnt.exe TOM Trend Micro

I use TrendMicro for my antivirus since it hasn't "broken" anything on any of my computers yet. This is much unlike Norton and McCaferty (yeah, I know the real name) whose annual upgrade processes have made some of my computers sicker than any virus and me madder than hell!

After adding Microsoft Office, a lot of data files, firing up Excel, running several tabs in Firefox and starting up Outlook Express for e-mail, I found myself at 36 processes.

New processes are:

34 ctfmon.exe TOM MS Office 2007
35 EXCEL.EXE TOM Excel 2007
36 msimn.exe TOM Outlook Express

Also another copy of svchost was added but msiexec.exe went away.

36 svchost.exe SYSTEM  

Not bad!. 36 processes running, very snappy performance! And in the process of adding a good amount of data, I increased disk usage to 17 GB.

Then I installed a copy of Zune software for my wife's Zune player that I gave her last Christmas. (Why a Zune? The FM Radio.)
This got me two Zune Processes

37 ZuneBusEnum.exe SYSTEM Zune
38 ZuneLauncher.exe TOM Zune

and as a surprise bonus, I also found

39 mscorsvw.exe SYSTEM  

running on the system!

I had to install an operating system upgrade to get the Zune program to load so this might have been the real culprit here.

It is hard to find a good description of what this process does, but it appears to be compiling some code on my system and some descriptions indicate that it may go away after awhile. We'll see.

This got us to a total of about 39 running processes. (37 without Task Manager and Idle)

Now actually connecting the Zune and synching it got me two more processes:

40 ZUNE.exe TOM Zune
41 WUDFHost.exe TOM Zune

for a total of 41 processes.

Overnight, Windows shut down after downloading a "critical" update. With the Zune disconnected, ZUNE.EXE went away but not WUDFHost.exe

And, O yes, mscorsvw.exe did go away.

Next I added in Photoshop Elements 3.0 plus did a reboot or two.
This gave me a total of 8 copies of svchost.exe running
Plus three new processes for the Photoshop Organizer contained in Elements.

42 PhotoshopElementsDeviceConnect.exe SYSTEM P.S. Elements 3.0
42 PhotoshopElementsFileAgent.exe SYSTEM P.S. Elements 3.0
44 PhotoshopElementsOrganizer.exe TOM P.S. Elements 3.0

After transferring 35,000 photos into the organizer, disk usage was up to 55 GB. The first computer I ever worked on held about 2mb on each reel of magnetic tape. So this is about 27,500 reels of tape.  Quite a tape library I have.

And with the comings and goings of a couple of the processes such as wscntfy.exe and wuauclt.exe we are at 44 processes - 42 without Task Manager and Idle.

For me, this should pretty much be my base system:
Multi-tabbed Web Browser
Photoshop Organizer with my photos
Either Word or Excel
Zune awaiting connection

Anything over 44 processes is probably unnecessary or suspicious for me.

And, of course, as always happens, I missed one driver that comes with a running process:

45 SynTPEnh.exe TOM Synaptics Touchpad

that one is for the Synaptics TouchPad on the Vostro.
So make the new total 45.

I also noticed that TrendMicro received a quick update and that added two processes very briefly. I didn't get the names.

Well, of course your mileage will vary, mostly depending on your applications.  But I have now vowed to run task manager when I first fire up a new computer and store away what is running in the "initial state." By the way, if you do that and find much over 40 processes running, it is because your new computer is loaded with "crapware" and "nagware." In this case you must "de-crapify" the computer or do what I just did and reload the Operating System from scratch.

Or, I suppose you could just buy a Mac. But then, where's the fun?

And so now, as a public service to everyone who has read this far, lets conduct a poll:

How Many Processes Are Running on Your Copy of XP at the Moment?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Quality of American Cars versus Japanese

I continue to see many references to the reported inferior quality of American Cars. Meaning GM, Ford and Chrysler.

But once in a while there is a gem like this:
I have a 2002 BMW 745i sedan with 85,000 miles that is dripping oil around both the oil-pan gasket and the timing-gear gasket. My dealer says it will cost $6,500 to replace the gaskets, as the front of the car needs to be taken off. The car does not have an accessible dipstick ...

That's right, BMW sold this guy a car that will cost him $6,500 to change the oil-pan gasket.

And it doesn't have a dipstick? Just a warning indicator? They don't call them "idiot lights" for nothing.

There is more to quality than having the doors evenly spaced in the openings and pieces of plastic falling off. My only experience with a "quality built foreign car" was with a used Datsun 510 built around 1970. Now Wikipedia references the 510 as "the Poor Man's BMW" and it did serve as a pace car at least once. But, that car was a dogggggg! Replacement parts cost at least double the cost of domestic brands. The heater was designed for a climate much warmer than Minnesota. And did the thing need parts!

When the choke stuck closed and the engine gagged, Linda was driving alone. It stopped dead in front of a firehouse where the firemen kindly pushed her to the side of the road. The Japanese lost me as a customer on this vehicle. After that it was strictly AMC Matadors until I could afford my first new car.

I suppose things might have changed in the last 40 years but apparently, no one credits GM with making any progress in the time so why should I give the Japanese a break?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Please Don't Send Them to AntennaWeb.Org

UPDATE 5/17/09
While checking out mom-in-law's converter, I discovered another cause of pixelation from digital converter boxes! See below in the bullet points for wind related problem!

I had a call from my mother-in-law this morning. She had been listening to "Old Folks Radio" here in the Twin Cities, WCCO. Used to be quite a station with over 50% market share - but that's a subject for another post.

Apparently, we in the Twin Cities have one of the largest percentages of non-participation in the cable/satellite television revolution. Probably over 25%! I can believe this. As resident technical guru for the family, friends and associates I am truly amazed at the number of people who receive their television signals Over The Air. (OTA)

The "Fix-It Guys" on the Saturday morning WCCO radio program (You see why I call it "Old Folks Radio"?) made another reference to AntennaWeb.Org on their show this morning. This site gets frequent reference in newspaper articles, on radio and TV shows and on websites purporting to tell you how to deal with the transition to DTV. (Digital TeleVision)

Now, I will personally guarantee you that if you are having trouble getting your converter box to work reliably there is nothing on AntennaWeb.Org that is going to help you! But let's try it. Go there and plug in an address in Fridley, Minnesota. You will get a screen that looks like this:

Now for people like me, it is actually interesting to know that digital channel 2 is broadcasting on UHF channel 34. For mom-in-law, I think, not so much! So the useful information being provided to her must be that she is going to pick up channel 2 at a compass heading of 85 degrees and channel 5 at a heading of 81 degrees. Do I get mom a compass? I have already suggested that "point it to the East - toward the Anderson house" would be the best bet.

Most converter boxes have a built-in signal strength meter that you can watch as you (or a helper if it's a rooftop antenna) adjust the position of your antenna. DO NOT CONSIDER BUYING A CONVERTER BOX THAT DOES NOT HAVE A SIGNAL STRENGTH METER! Now there is some useful advice.

In fact, here are several pieces of useful advice for making your converter box work well.
  • Many converter boxes are bad. Bad designs, bad quality, bad workmanship, bad bad bad. I know several people who returned them for different boxes of the same type and for different brands with much improvement in results! Read the reviews before you buy. Or after you buy and before you take it back to get a different one. And, o yes, DO NOT CONSIDER BUYING A CONVERTER BOX THAT DOES NOT HAVE A SIGNAL STRENGTH METER!
  • Many indoor antenna's are bad. You may need a good quality UHF antenna to make your box work. Warning: antenna manufacturers operate like fishing lure manufacturers. The objective is not to make lures that catch fish - it is to make lures that catch buyers! A good quality UHF antenna is quite simple in design. The indoor variety is a simple loop and the outdoor variety is a simple Yagi design. Don't know what I mean? Find someone to talk to who does - not someone who says "Terk." Both of these designs are strongly directional. That is why you need the antenna meter.
  • If you are very close to the TV station, you can overload your converter box with the signal. Try using an attenuator. Only about two bucks - worth a try. Buy a 12db version if you think this might be the problem.
  • The antenna designs I mentioned (loop and Yagi) are very direction sensitive. That was deliberate on my part. If you are visiting this site, chances are you are having pixelation problems - your image is breaking up into little boxes. Did you formerly suffer from "ghost images? The digital equivalent is pixelation. These phenomena come from the signal being reflected off an object, such as a building, hill or water tower and you having to deal with two signals arriving a tiny fraction of a second apart. You must change their relative strength to solve their problem. Solution? A directional antenna and a means to rotate it if you have signals coming from different angles. (this is what the site is actually useful for)
  • Digital signals are subject to pixelation drop-outs resulting from the wind! Mom-in-law had already consulted with her next-door-neighbor (Yes, in the Twin cities we even have clusters of non-cable-or-satellite participants) who had noticed that his drop-outs seem to correlate with windy days. I got the same correlation from another friend. It turns out that there is a thread on SatelliteGuys.US on this subject. SatelliteGuys.US is, in my opinion the best site for anything technical on digital TV. This specific post even explains a bit about the phenomenon:
    "What you are experiencing is a form of multi-path interference . You will likely see dropouts when the wind blows because the strong and weak spots of the UHF signal will move around as the tree deforms and the branches move about. The effect is called wave diffraction and overlapping fields. It is common on UHF on windy day and will be worsened by climate temperature inversions called ducting. Experienced yesterday on a service call. The levels on the meter were all over the place and could not perform the maintenance. had to schedule it for another day."
  • Final recommendation? Subscribe to satellite TV or cable. This is a temporary solution, just until you have fiber-optic service to your home. Then you will receive all of your Television via the Internet at your own choice of time. And how long is that going to be? Well, I attended a seminar in the late 1970s where Harry Newton was advocating just that change in U.S. telecommunications infrastructure. He noted that our 50 state public services commissions would stand in the way of that and so far they have managed to oppose it for well over thirty years.
And now, back to

If they don't have much useful information for the average consumer, why are they around? Well, look at the screen you used to get the antenna direction information? Hmmmmm, address, telephone number and "send me ..."

WCCO. Old folks radio. Bah, humbug!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How to Ruin a Stapler

I've given up!

After forty years of trying to get people to use staplers correctly, I no longer even try.

Today I was sitting with my son in an office at an insurance agency as the clerk slammed her fist down on her stapler. The staple bent the wrong way and she pulled it out and slammed in another. "Only the boss has a working stapler," she remarked. "The other three are all junk!"

Well, yes! Slamming a stapler down like that does ruin them quickly. Just press and release. It's not a damned hammer!

Consider this Aceliner 502 stapler that I first acquired back in 1972. It is now an antique but is still working fine. Tonight I used it to staple the 40 page document underneath it with no problem.

(Click on any photo to enlarge)

It has never been slammed!

Let's take a closer look at the business end of the stapler:

Notice that carefully machined groove into which the staple points are guided when you operate the stapler. That is the key working part of this clever machine. As the points touch the groove, they are gently bent inward and continued pressure folds them under the paper forming a closed staple.

Damage that groove and the stapler is ruined. And how might you damage it? Slam the stapler down and your staple will nick the groove. Do this a few times and the nick will increase in size until it catches staples and causes the points to fold and crunch.

Take an even closer look. Forty years use and no nicks! I attribute this to about 20% quality workmanship and design and 80% careful use.

I used to try to convince people that their banging and slamming were the cause of stapler failure. But they've seen too many movies and TV shows with people pounding staplers to believe it. So today, I just smiled and said, "yes the boss always gets the good tools!"