Tuesday, June 21, 2016 2 comments

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 1 comment

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.

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