Tuesday, June 21, 2016 1 comment

Troubleshooting 101 (Tech Tuesday)

Back at the manor for a couple of days, but I’ll be heading out this morning.

While I was at Mom’s the last couple of weeks, we kept in touch using both the phone and FaceTime. One day, the wife said, “The dryer’s stopped working. It runs, but it doesn’t get the clothes dry. I think the heating element is fried.”

I might be a slow learner, but I can learn. As I said once, there’s no wasted time like time wasted unnecessarily in a chicken house. After replacing a furnace that was actually a thermostat problem, and checking a motor when it was really a switch, I have learned to be extremely wary of her “go directly to the most expensive and/or complicated fix” methodology.



“Have you checked the dryer vent and the ducts?” I asked.

“No, but that’s not the problem, the clothes aren’t getting hot.”

Whatever, I thought, but agreed to have a look when I got home. I didn’t actually get to it until yesterday, but that’s pretty typical. I pulled the dryer back, got the vacuum, and got up an inch of dust behind and under the dryer, then checked the exhaust. It was clear, as was the duct, and I started thinking the wife might have gotten one right.

But as often happens around here, I got yanked off that project to take care of something she wanted done―namely, replacing the furnace filters up in the attic. We have washable filters, so I pulled them out and she agreed to hose them off while I got a nut driver and took the back of the dryer off. But before I found the nut driver, I got interrupted again: “I need a pair of needle-nose pliers,” she called. Figuring she found something in the filter that she couldn’t get hold of, I started looking for them. But before I found them, she called again: “put a Phillips bit on the drill and bring it!”

I couldn’t find the drill, because Daughter Dearest has it down at her place. I grabbed a regular old hand-powered screwdriver and went to her. Turned out she looked up at the dryer vent while hosing off the filter, and took a peek inside. There was about six inches (15cm) of fiber & lint clogging up the vent. We pulled that out, I threw a load in the dryer, and it’s working again.

Troubleshooting 101: check the easy stuff first. Even if it doesn’t fix the problem right away, it doesn’t take long to check. You might not need a new computer, just clean up the old one. Word might not be the problem―strike that, it usually is, the easy fix is using something else. The noise on the phone line might be fixable by tightening the screws at the network interface box. Save yourself a lot of grief and expense, and check the easy stuff first. You can bet a professional repair person will.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 2 comments

A Salted Battery, Golf Cart Edition

Things have been going mostly pretty well here for now. I’m working remote, there’s plenty of stuff to keep Mom and me occupied after work, and we have dealt with most of the little things and all the bigger ones.

Mom’s electric golf cart has been acting up for a while now. First, there was the “wouldn’t run” issue that somehow cleared itself last year. But it was still giving trouble, bogging on hills and even cutting out for a few seconds at a time. So before we came up, she got on the phone with some friends. Wicked Stepfather had parked the cart in the garage for the winter, figuring it would be less moist there.

Here’s where the fun begins. They couldn’t get the thing to go at all. One of the brilliant folks, missing the power cord sticking out below the driver’s seat, put a car battery charger on one of the batteries (it has six). Here’s the fun part: they’re 8V batteries. OOPS They couldn’t get it to go (gee, I wonder why) and ended up pushing it down the hill and into its garagelet around the back of the house.

So we got there, I plugged it in to charge up. Still nothing. I figured the batteries were shot, a pretty good guess because they were the original batteries and the cart is six years old. So I lifted the seat to get the capacity and any other information that would help us get replacements… and when I shone a trouble light down the side, I saw the disconnected positive cable. Wicked Stepfather had wisely disconnected it last year to cut down on battery drain over the winter.

Ooooooookaaaaayyyyyyy. I hooked that back up, plugged the charger in, and the cart rewarded us with motion, hooray! But it was still bogging and cutting out. The battery that had been abused with a car charger had boiled out most of its water, so we added about a quart to get it back up to scratch. That helped with the cutting-out part, but not completely, and it was still bogging on hills.

Out with the old…
So since the Sam’s in Johnson City (about 50 miles away) carried them, we decided to add that to Mom’s list of stuff. Six batteries, $100 apiece. Yay. We got them home, and I brought the cart up top so we only had to carry the batteries 10 feet or so. These suckers weigh about 50 lbs (22-23kg) apiece, so I had a good time getting the oldies out of the cart. But with them out of the way, Mom took the other end of each battery and helped me get them into position.

This is when the next thing happened: the new batteries have their terminals spaced closer together than the old ones. That means there was about an inch more distance between terminals on adjacent batteries. Since they’re connected in series (six 8V batteries = 48V), and the connecting cables had little to no slack, they were about an inch too short. The long one, connecting the two rows, was okay, so we just needed four short cables.

Undaunted, we called Lowe’s. They had 18-inch (450mm) battery cables for riding lawn mowers and ring terminals. Since half the length would be more than sufficient, I figured to cut the cables in two and make four out of two. It turned out the cables were about half as thick as the originals, so I bought a second pair and doubled them up.

Double, double, less chance for trouble?
Wicked Stepfather has a little workbench space in the storage room behind where the cart goes. He didn’t have a crimp tool that would handle 4-gauge terminals, but he had a bench vise and that was sufficient. It didn’t take long to cut, strip, and crimp them all. I brought them back upstairs and made the connections.

Finally, it was time to plug it in to charge. I was glad the cart was outside, just in case something caught fire. Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue. So yesterday, I took it on a shakedown cruise. It pulled the hills without any problem, never cut out, and is working just fine in general. After the cruise, I touched the cables—not even slightly warm.

So that pretty much wraps up all the maintenance kind of stuff that Mom couldn’t handle on her own. The lawn mower started on the second pull after two years, which makes me think Wicked Stepfather put preservative in the gas. We made pizza yesterday and had guests over, and that went well.

Looks like I’ll be going back to the manor for a few days next weekend. I’ll come back Monday (since I took the second half of June for vacation), spend maybe another week here, then Mom will spread her wings or something like that. Maybe she’s flying up north or something. I’ll figure it out. I miss the wife, Charlie, and Mason (and DD, who has been married two weeks now), but not much of anything else.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016 No comments

Tines 1.10 (Tech Tuesday)

Friday night, after a few rounds of testing, I decided Tines 1.10 was ready to go and uploaded the source code.

Tines is primarily an outliner, but has functions that make it useful as a planner, organizer, and notebook as well. The code is based on hnb (Hierarchical NoteBook), which I used quite a bit 10 years ago. It runs in a console (terminal, shell, what-have-you)—so it’s plain-text all the way. It can be customized every which way by editing a configuration file, so you can pretty much have everything but a graphical interface. :-) I kept trying different outliners, and kept coming back to hnb because I could make it work exactly the way I wanted.

I mostly lost track of hnb 8 or 9 years ago, after getting a new MacBook Pro at work. The Pro came with OmniOutliner, a very popular MacOS outliner, and I started using it. Then when I got pushed onto a Dozebox, I didn’t have a decent outliner and basically gave up. But late last year, I started looking for a decent outliner to use for both work and personal writing projects. Given that there’s a well-known interchange format for outliners, OPML, having the exact same outliner on all three platforms isn’t a necessity. But I remembered hnb and decided to give it another try.

Technology moves on, and hnb compiled okay, but crashed immediately when starting. I hadn't messed with C code much in years, but it came back to me quick enough. Looking at the source code, I realized it was using 32-bit integers for pointers and modern computers use 64-bit pointers. After fixing all those, it had it running again. I posted to the mailing list on SourceForge and offered patches. One correspondent pointed out that mine was the first legitimate post on the mailing list in years, and suggested I just fork the code and take it over. As if I wasn’t crazy-piled with projects already… but I did it. Thus was Tines born. And Charlie moved into FAR Manor not three weeks later.

Enough of that… what’s it like?

The screen shot here should give you a pretty good idea what Tines looks like. It uses color where available, so it’s not completely boring. It doesn’t use the mouse (yet), but it has menus, function keys, and highlighting.

If you don’t specify a file, Tines opens its “default database” (specifically, .tines in your home directory on OSX and Linux). This is handy for brainstorming stuff, keeping notes and other useful tidbits, or using Tines as a planner. It can import OPML files, save all or part of an outline as OPML, and works with several other file formats. But you can open hnb files (the native format), OPML files, and tab-indented plaintext files as well.

You can use the arrow keys to move around, and use keyboard shortcuts (or press ESC to open the menus) to make changes.

The Planner menu helps you set up a planner, according to David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. One powerful new feature in v1.10 is the today command (mapped to “Today’s Agenda” in the Planner menu). If you have set up a calendar using the Planner menu, this command jumps to the entry for today’s date and displays all the items under it. This lets you computerize your tickler file, at least for to-do items and other things that don’t require paper.

If you have a large outline, and you probably will if you keep everything in the default database, you can search for buried treasure… I mean, items that you can’t quite remember where they are. The Level menu lets you sort items in a particular level, which might be useful for notes. There’s also a “shuffle” mode, to randomly disorder items in a level. I’m not sure why you would want to use that, except it might help you to discover relationships between items, but it’s there if you need it.

All well and good—how do you use it for writing?

I’ve long been a pantser, but as I continue writing I find I like to loosely plot my projects so I don’t forget things. Plotting isn’t as fun as letting things happen, but it’s a lot less scary when you have people asking you when the next book is on the way. (And for those of you who have been patiently waiting for The Blood of Heroes, the first draft is almost done. Finally.)

But I digress. An outliner is a good way to plot out a novel or a work of non-fiction. Instead of stifling creativity, it lets you think about other creative things by capturing your thoughts about how to organize your work. I have a memory like a steel sieve, and it frankly scares the crap out of me when I depend on remembering details of the Accidental Sorcerers series—about 200,000 words total published, and more coming. The amazing thing is, I haven’t forgotten anything crucial… so far. But Tines is more than an outliner, and that means you can use it for both your outlines and your story bible without switching applications or even files.

Now here’s the fun part: you can export all or part of your database as OPML. Scrivener reads OPML files, and can create chapter folders and scene documents for each entry. It recognizes the _note attribute extension, and can (by your preference) insert those notes into either the Synopsis or the document proper. So you can add the following code to your .tinesrc (default configuration) file to edit notes:

bind ^N "macro edit_note"
macro define edit_note
 att_get _note
 getquery "Replace _note with:"
 att_set _note $query
end

Press Ctrl-N to create or edit a note. That will end up in the next release, v1.10.1, before too long.

Where do you get it, and what’s next?

Next, I plan to create packages for MacOS X and Linux. Then, I want to get it ported to MS-DOS or FreeDOS and create packages there as well.

Right now, you have to download and compile1 Tines. That certainly limits its extent, even more so than it not being readily available on Doze right now, but that too is on the list. Please give it a try, if you’re inclined, and let me know how it works!


1Compile: from the Latin “com” (together), and pile (a random heap, or possibly hemorrhoids). Thus, “compile” means either “throw things together in a random heap” or “a multifaceted pain in the ass.”

Do you use an outliner? How? Sound off in the comments!

Sunday, June 05, 2016 4 comments

Nerd Month!

For all of June, I’m the quintessential nerd: living in Mom’s basement. You probably know about Mom’s summer house in the mountains of North Carolina; I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before. With Wicked Stepfather’s abrupt shuffling off of the mortal coil in spring (he keeled over in seconds), Mom has obviously had to make some adjustments. She still wants to get out of the Florida heat for the summer, but wasn’t sure how she would do with distance driving because Wicked Stepfather was one of those guys who did all of that. So I agreed to come up with her, spend the first two weeks working remote, then take the next two weeks as vacation.

So far, she’s done quite well. I packed my Miata with stuff I’d need for the month (mostly electronics), and showed her the easy way to get here from FAR Manor. The GPS in her car, which famously led Wicked Stepfather at least 100 miles out of the way each time, had a snit fit most of the way up. But she kept up without any problem, and I only sandbagged a little. The route I discovered a couple years back has about one mile of really sharp curves (out of over 300 miles, most of which is four-lane now). She’s also doing most or all of the local driving now that we’re here. She has no problem, something the youngest brother Solar was worried about. There’s the question of how she ’s going to get up north (probably flying), but so far so good.

Now, for a couple pix…

First, my June dwelling. The basement, like most in hilly areas, is exposed on one side (eastern exposure, which makes sleeping late in the morning problematic). I took the TV off the cart at the back wall to make room for the computer. Mom said I’d need another set-top box down here to watch TV anyway, so it all works out well.


I put the work laptop on the little table by the window. The first couple days I was here, before the cable company set us up with Internet, I had to hike it down to the “media center,” which is right by the pool. I might do that again…


Yesterday, after a morning of yard work (I had to weed-eater the entire back yard, because it was like a meadow with all the tall weeds and flowers), we went to Blind Squirrel Brewery for lunch.


The food was good, too.


They have two disc golf courses, and I happen to have my golf discs with me, so I’ll likely head on back there once I’m on vacation the last two weeks of the month.

Monday, May 30, 2016 3 comments

Daughter Dearest Ties the Knot

And we officially begin a new chapter—both our kids are married.

Here comes the bride—get outta the WAY!
Saturday was the culmination of a lot of preparations that made everything a little crazier than usual around the free-range insane asylum, but everything went off as expected. Charlie tried to steal the show, making his contented growling noise in the back row and making DD laugh a little up at the altar.

At rehearsal, I had to carry on a tradition started by the wife’s dad. Back when, the preacher got to the part where he asks who’s giving away the bride. He answered “Her mother and I. And I got two more at home! Who wants ‘em?” So when it came to my time, I put her hand in Fizzle’s and said, “She’s all yours, buddy! Good luck!” (Of course, neither of us did that at the actual ceremony.)

So now it’s time to rename Fizzle, since he’s no longer the Future Son In Law. +Katherine Hajar suggested “Sizzle.” And why not? Sizzle it is!

And tomorrow, I’m off to NC with Mom. For the whole month. Once she gets her cable modem activated, I’ll resume regular blogging.

Friday, May 27, 2016 3 comments

Stiletto’s Getaway (#FridayFlash)

This runs a bit longer than a flash should—just short of 1300 words—but it’s part of a larger work in progress (16K words and counting). Stiletto has a bit part in Blink’s story, being serialized at WriteOn now, but she’s the main character in this one. This takes place the winter before Blink manifested…



A jet-black rocket on two wheels glided over the streets of Skyscraper City. What little noise it made was drowned out by the roaring and wailing of three police cars in hot pursuit. The bike had no lights; the rider had a night vision display to show her where to go.

“A little tighter than I’d have liked,” Stiletto muttered to herself, snapping the motorcycle around a corner. The back end stepped out, but Stiletto knew to stay on the throttle and the bike jerked upright with a little wiggle. Pegging the throttle out of the turn, she thumbed the voice command switch. “Deploy caltrops.” Above the soft thrum of the engine, she heard the caltrops rattle onto the street behind her. The cops would have to slow down for the turn as well, and so they wouldn’t plow into a wall when their tires went down. Stiletto would kill only if she had no other choice.

Behind her, the lead cop car went into a skid and the other two braked hard, giving Stiletto some breathing room. “Now they’ll call for backup.” Captain Heroic was retired, it was too cold for No Sweat to do his thing this time of year, and the Masked Warriors never did this kind of pursuit. That left the Devis and Count Boris to worry about… but she was almost home free. She blew through a red light, swerving to miss the delivery truck lumbering through the intersection, then took a left at the next block. Two blocks down, she took another left and slowed enough to keep the traffic surveillance cameras from tripping and giving away her position.

A supervillain had to know exactly where she was at all times, and Stiletto was no exception. Twelve blocks would get her to the bridge and then to Riverside North, where she had her lair. And her home. Cops feared to tread those streets at night, but things were more orderly than they thought. That, of course, was largely due to Stiletto. She had put the word out to the gangs long ago: Don’t recruit kids, don’t sell drugs down here, and don’t involve bystanders in your wars. After making examples out of a few non-believers… well, it was a pretty safe place for everyone who belonged there. But between here and home was—

A cop car skidded around the corner, lights flashing. The driver hit the siren as Stiletto hit the gas. Between here and home was two blocks run by the LeFleurs mob. She had little use for mobs—white guys in suits who thought that made them superior to gang-bangers—but they might be good for a little distraction. Behind her, three more cop cars joined the renewed chase. Good. That should make it a fair fight. “Side guns,” she commanded. “Rubber bullets.” The weaponry clicked into place.

A hard right, a left, and now she was in position. “Fire!” The automatic weapons pumped rubber bullets into storefront windows, shattering them and setting off alarms. Mobsters on watch, hearing gunshots and police sirens, responded immediately. Focusing on the traditional enemy, they barely noticed the black motorcycle without lights. A few bullets spanged off her fairing, spending themselves against brick walls and pavement.

In turn, the cop cars skidded to a halt. Cops poured out the lee side of each, returning fire. “Now they have something else to think about,” said Stiletto, with a satisfied smile. “Disarm all,” she told her bike, slowing to a legal speed. “Let’s go home.”

At an abandoned factory along the riverfront, Stiletto ran her motorcycle up a loading ramp. A narrow door swung open long enough for her to shoot through it. She rolled between two sets of uprights; as she shut the bike down and raised the cowling, the uprights came together, clamping the wheels. The entire thing turned around, facing the door for her next caper. This was Stiletto’s hideout, and it was more comfortable inside than it looked. Some dumbass yuppies had tried to gentrify this part of Riverside back thirty years ago, and ended up running back to the white side of town. She owned this building outright, through a few shell corporations, and the defenses kept druggies out.

City Loan, a notorious payday lender with hidden ties to Grimes Financial, had lost about two hundred thirty thousand bucks tonight. They would get half of it back soon enough; she knew several families who were about to have their loans paid in full. The rest would give her secret identity a little free time. “Yeah, you deserve it hon, havin’ to put up with Stiletto most weekends,” she told herself. But for now, all but a couple hundred went into the hidden safe along with her costume.

Dressed in street clothes, she used a pair of night vision goggles to check the perimeter. Nobody nearby. She locked up and emerged into the night.

A few blocks from her apartment—another failed gentrification attempt—she paused. She knew the snick of a switchblade, the click of a revolver’s hammer, the chick-chick of a cocked semi-auto, every sound of every weapon you might find down here. But this was more of a tock sound, like someone doing a really loud tongue-click.

What the hell? she thought. It was pitch-dark here, so she felt no need to hide. Anyone coming for her would be just as blind as she was right now. She put a hand on her own switchblade.

Tock, came the noise again, rattling up and down the street. “Busy night, hon?”

“You could say that,” Stiletto blurted, expecting neither the kindly question nor the woman’s voice behind it. She always tried to put her villain identity away with her costume, but all her mental alarms were blaring. Just another lady, she tried to convince herself.

“Easy, now. You got nothin’ to fear from me,” the voice came again. “I know where you go and what you do. Doesn’t matter to me.”

Snick. Stiletto brought out the switchblade without thinking about it. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“The phantom who sees in the night.” The woman—whoever she was—pitched her voice to make it sound spooky, then chuckled. “You might want to go around one block. The Three-Knees are hangin’ out up the way you usually go. Young woman, walkin’ by herself? Could be trouble.”

“What… this ain’t their hood.” Theirs was Third Street Northeast; they used 3NE as their tag. Calling them “Three-Knee” to their faces would get a violent response.

“Don’t matter. They’re there. And they don’t quite understand how things are done down here.”

“Yeah.” Stiletto worked by cutting one of the violators out of the herd; she couldn’t take on a whole gang by herself. “Thanks for the warning, uh…”

“Don’t matter who I am,” came the answer. “Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… well, you ride your ride, hon. I’ll ride mine.” And the presence was gone. Somehow, Stiletto could sense that.

“No. Way,” she whispered to herself. Her aunts had brought her up on stories of the Night Stalker. The phantom who sees in the night, she thought with a chill. It couldn’t be the real Night Stalker; if she was even alive, she had to be pushing eighty. But you heard things, and not all of them were from superstitious old folks. Women and children, warned of danger up ahead in a hood where most of the streetlights never worked. Or rescued. Not all the peace in Riverside North was Stiletto’s doing, when it came down to it.

She took the recommended detour, chewing over the woman’s riddle. Some things are gone and not forgotten. Other things… “are forgotten and not gone?” she asked herself. “Was there really a Night Stalker?”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 4 comments

Mason Says Farewell to Kindergarten

Mason’s first year of school is drawing to a close. Yesterday, the kindergarten classes had their “graduation” ceremony.

In which Mason gets a hug, from the principal of the thing. :-P

He has made quite a few strides this year. He reads now, and he’s always been good with numbers. He doesn’t know it just yet, but he has a couple of graduation “presents” waiting for him tonight: his own writing/drawing journal, and the second Dragonbreath book. He always complains when packages arrive from Amazon and they’re not for him… at least the one coming in today is partly for him.

Wife’s birthday is tomorrow, Mason’s last day of school is Friday, DD’s wedding is Saturday, and I think I missed the 11th blogiversary day for TFM. This week is going to be crazier than usual. At least Thing #1 (the graduation) is over.

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