Useful Utilities

Here’s an assortment of Windows utilities  that I’ve found very useful.

fre:ac – free audio converter

I use fre:ac to rip CDs to MP3s. But, more importantly, to combine multiple MP3s into one file. This is especially useful for CD audiobooks with multiple discs. Also helpful for multipart audiobook MP3 downloads. Game of Thrones in 28 parts? No problem. Combines them all into one giant GoT file.

WinSCP – File Transfer Utility

When I want to transfer files (ex. game ROMs) from my PC to my Raspberry Pi, I use WinSCP. It can use the FTP protocol, but I run it under SCP. Wonderful to use. Don’t let all the toolbars and icons get you confused. Just hide 99% of them like I did. Makes transferring files to and from different OSs a breeze.

Floola – iTunes Replacement

I have a selection of older iPods which we use for audiobooks and assorted portable music. I’m not a fan of iTunes (memory issues, bloat, constant update reminders, fucked-up syncing, and general hatred of being locked into an ecosystem). This is a simple problem that will read, write, and update your iPod. I’ve been using it to manage audiobooks on a 3rd gen Shuffle. Works great. And, again — unlike iTunes — you can pull your music OFF of the iPod, too.

Handbrake – Video Converter

A long while ago we ripped a bunch of DVDs (to VOB format). I’ve been using handbrake to convert them to MPEGS for our PlayOn / MyMedia server. Works like a charm. Unlike some other / older converters, I’ve not had problems with audio sync and whatnot. Great piece of software.

Calibre – eBook Management

If you have a Kindle, you need to have Calibre. I read a lot of books from my public library, but don’t want to be hassled with return/due dates. Download in epub format, run through Calibre, have Calibre load right to the Kindle. Easy as pie.

Honorable Mentions

7Zip — My primary ZIP tool.
Audacity — Audio file editor.
Bulk Rename Utility — Absurdly complicated, but handy to have.
Win32DiskImager — Reads and writes images. Use it for backing up SD cards. Also handy for loading images onto SD cards (ex. when creating a Raspberry Pi card).
Paint.Net — Powerful image editor/creator.
Primo PDF — Print to PDFs for free.
WinDirStat — Helps me hunt down big files for disk space cleanup.
WinMerge — Helpful dev tool. Compares two files (text is best).


RetroPie Showing Only “CHOOSE”

After building my Pi2 (for the living room), I decided that I’d use my old Pi1 for the bedroom. Just another image install and a new SD card and I’d be set.

Or so I thought. Last night I batch loaded a bunch of ROMs and find that RetroPie is either showing a black screen, a scrambled screen, or just the “CHOOSE” option. You can F4 to exit and restart, but same problem.

After deleting ROMs, paring down ROMs, etc I finally uncovered the issue.

At first it seemed that the quantity of ROMs was the problem (it is running on an older Raspberry Pi, after all). Was it the Master System? SNES? It was weird.

So I slowly re-loaded my ROMs. And the second I added ANY GBA ROMs it started acting up. Here’s why:

I was stupid. I forgot to double-check the install instructions for GBA games. You need to have a BIOS file for that emulator. I had done this on my Pi2, but forgot to do it on my Pi1.

What’s happening is this: Emulation Station attempts to generate screen backgrounds for each of the emulators. To do this, it needs to run the emulator (I’m guessing). It hit the GBA, didn’t find the BIOS, and failed in an unfriendly way.

Putting the GBA BIOS in the proper directory, like I should have done, has fixed the problem. Horray!

Summer Reading List

I’ve never quite understood why there’s a focus on “summer reading” ’cause I read all the freaking time. But, anyway. Here are some books that I’ve been reading, for those that wish to delve into my demented soul.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by HST

If you haven’t read it, it’s worth it. The interviews always talk about his search for the “American Dream” but it’s really a travelogue for me. A breeze to get through. Lots of great lines that you can look forward to using in the future.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

If you are Hispanic, or not. If you are a geek, or not. A multi-generational tale. It helps to be Hispanic (or are married to one). It helps to be a geek and an outcast. Living characters. And I learned more about the DR then I ever had. It deserves the prizes it received.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Even though I’ve been a nerd since day one, Sci-Fi has never really interested me much. Can’t say why. Just never got into it (like I never got into “gaming”). Probably because I spent too much time in front of a computer. But this is a great hard Sci-Fi book. Sure, the guy is smarter than anyone should be, but it’s a great tale and an interesting read. Didn’t want to put it down.

Mr. Bones by Paul Theroux

Known for his travel writing, he really shines in the short story. To my taste, the first half is better than the last. Mainly because I got a little sick of the stories about love. But, that’s just my hangup. If you haven’t read his travel stuff, do so. Fantastic stuff.

Strange Stones by Peter Hessler

Another travel writer. Also check out River Town, his earlier experiences. If you want to learn more about living in China, he’s a great place to start. Interesting stuff.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

See what life was really like in medieval times. Gives you a much better perspective of what it was like to live during that period. A history that doesn’t feel like you’re trudging through a history book.


About A Robot

This is a story about a robot. Actually, it’s a story about a new house, nine cats, and a robot.

When we got our new (old) house, we knew that we wanted tile floors. Even though the humidity isn’t as bad in Central Texas as it is near the coast, it’s still pretty high. And we have cats. A lot of cats. Which, as any cat owner knows, means hair and puke and other misadventures. So, carpet was out.

The house we found has tile in most of the main floor, but the bedrooms had carpet. So, before we moved in, we ripped out the carpet and put in “wood” (vinyl) flooring “boards”. Easy to install and clean.

Just sweep and mop! Except, I’m an extraordinarily lazy person. I make excuses about my excuses not to do something, especially something as mundane as cleaning a floor. Which really isn’t that good, considering the amount of cat hair our babies generate. In technical terms, it’s an assload of hair. Tumbleweeds of hair.

I did some research on cleaning non-carpeted floors and ran across a cat group. They had tried a number of things, but one that seems pretty successful was the Neato Robot.

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Unlike the iRobot, which just knocks around into things, the Neato is laser guided. It makes a map of the objects in the room and then follows that map. (It does have bump sensors for objects out of its view — too low.)

The other thing that sold me on the Neato was the price — I could get a high-end model for the price of a mid/low range iRobot. And, here is laziness coming in again, it has a pretty good sized dust bin.

We’ve had it for about 4 months now — long enough for me to give a proper review.

Long story short, it does a pretty darn  good job of keeping our home floors clean. It picks up a LOT of hair. And I do mean a LOT. Not perfect — it does blow tumbleweeds around sometimes — but very good. Whenever I clean the bin I’m always amazed by the amount of crap it picks up.

Downsides? It will take more than one charge to clean our modest 1500 square foot home (it’s actually cleaning less than that, as we have one room closed off). The good thing is that when it runs low on juice, it just docks, recharges, then starts up again. But that takes a while.

Because we have a lot of obsticles around, it does take time to clean. I think about an hour to do most of the rooms — but that’s an hour of machine time.

It’s not the quietest thing in the world, but it’s a vac, so you can’t fault that. The bin still needs to be cleaned at least once during a vac session, but, to be fair, we have a lot of cats and they generate a lot of loose hair.

It’s pretty rare for it to get stuck somewhere. The Neato is good at getting itself out of problem areas, but once in a while it beeps to get help (it also alerts you if the bin is full).

One thing it does force us to do is some “pre cleaning”. We have to pick up any rope-like toys that might tangle in the revolving brush. And we put away the snack trays or any other light furniture (it will push around some light stuff, especially if it gets stuck on the item). This is actually a good thing, in a way, as it forces us to maintain a certain level of non-messiness. Keeping crap off the floor is good! The Neato is also the reason why I designed all of our bookshelves to be 6″ off the ground — so it can clean under them.

Cleaning the Neato is a breeze. The bin is easy to empty. The filter gets some shop vac action to keep it clean (I do this once in a while, not every time). The brush/roller is extremely easy to remove and clean. Far easier than any traditional vac.

Spending hundreds of dollars on a robot vac seemed pretty crazy to me at first. But, I thought about it. Opportunity cost. The time we save not having to vac/sweep will pay for the robot within a year. That’s a pretty good return on investment. Plus, we don’t have to handle a task that we don’t like.

What about the cats? Amazingly, after a few runs, they get perfectly used to it. Doesn’t phase them a bit. They either follow it around, seeing where it will go next, or just hop up somewhere and take a nap. I has very glad of that — I didn’t need a house full of paniced cats!

DSCN4636 (Small)P.S. This blog posting was typed in my living room, on my recliner, on the antique AlphaSmart 3000. Cats can jump on my lap and I don’t worry about them screwing up my work or me dropping a laptop. I’m not typing this on the AS to be cool — but because a certain little kittie of mine decided that my chair was the ideal place for a nap. The things I do for my babies.

In Praise of Uni-Taskers

TV celebrity chef, Alton Brown, is not a fan of what he calls “uni-taskers” in the kitchen. Those are devices which can only be used in one way. Think: cherry pitters and other gizmos.

While I do agree with him when it comes to the kitchen, I’ve found the rule less effective in other areas of my tech life.

We currently live in a world of the all-in-one device. Ten years ago we had a bunch of different devices. Today, you can find most everything in a single “smart” phone. And I think that’s a problem. A problem of focus.

I’m singling out the smart phone here, but the same is true for the always-internet-connected PC. But the phone exacerbates the problem.

Over the last couple of years I’ve found the ability to focus to become increasingly difficult. In the past, I’ve been able to sit down to a task and knock it out in a couple of solid hours. Time would pass quickly and I got things done. Now, it’s just a bunch of 5 minute bursts of work.

I was really getting worried about my inability to focus. Do I have some middle-aged deficit disorder? Just growing old and senile? What the heck was going on?!?

But I took a step back and looked at the situation. Was I having trouble focusing in all areas of my life? Well, no. If I had a non-internet task in front of me, I still retained my focus. Preparing a meal? Yep, I could get that done with not much interruption. Reading a book? I go through about two books a week. So the ability to focus was still there. Diluted, but still there.

Looking deeper, I analyzed those things where I found distraction / lack of focus to be strongest. In results which will surprise no one, I found that I’d dick around most when my tasks were less than desirable. You know the “have to do” versus “want to do” stuff.

“Have to do?” Where did those things come from? And how are they different from “want to do?” Is cleaning up the house a “want” or “have”? Well, it depends. If I wanted the house to be organized because I want to play with my toys, it was a “want”. Guests coming over? It’s a “have”.

Work is the same way. When I’d say yes to things that don’t really benefit me — that I don’t care two shits about — they become a “have”.  And those always seem to suck-suck-suck.

It’s my own damn fault for saying yes to things. It’s one of the most important things that one can learn: to say no. True, being an independent consultant, it’s hard to say no to work. But at what cost did I say yes? To get a short term monetary gain, but to sacrifice my long term goals? That’s not a good idea. Every time I’ve ignored my gut and said “yes” it’s been bad. Never worked out without a lot of pain. Just say no.

Enough navel gazing. What about the uni-taskers I was talking about? Let’s take an example, reading.

As I mentioned, my ability to focus on reading is un-impaired. And why? Because I only read real stuff in two formats: print or Kindle. Both are uni-taskers. Can’t dick around much on a Kindle. And a book is a book.

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If you are a reader, you need a Kindle. Nothing more to say. It’s a fantastic device and has me reading more than ever. Since I’m a cheapskate, the vast majority of books come from the library. For a $120 device I’ve probably spent $20 in content — the other hundreds of books are from the library. Not what Amazon wants to hear, but they make plenty of money off me as it is. And with tools like Calibre (free, and extremely useful), due dates are a thing of the past. I read at my pace, DRM fiends.

Music is another thing I use uni-taskers for. Sure, Amazon Music (and other streaming services) is handy — and I pay for it — but when I listen to music I want to listen to music. I don’t want to navigate. I don’t want an app to crash. I don’t want pauses. I don’t want notification beeps. I don’t want suggestions. I don’t want to be directed to purchase something. I want music.

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So, I stick with CDs and LPs in the living room. Amazon is there, too, but only if I’m browsing around for new stuff, or can’t find the media. And at my workspace? An “ancient” Creative Nomad Jukebox. It’s one of my favorite thrift store finds. Load the music up, press play. Easy navigation. And no distractions.

One of the projects I’ve been thinking about is Twine interactive fiction. Think: Choose your own adventure. But writing on a computer? Ugh. It’s not going to happen. There are just too many distractions.

First, you have the Internet, the great time-sink of history. Second, I’ve usually got work e-mail running on my PC. Hard to get away from that, as much as I’d want to. (I’m actually considering whacking e-mail. It’s value to me is close to nothing.) Third, though I like the good mechanical keyboards I have, I just don’t like typing into screens — especially first drafts — my desire to edit as I go is too great. (That may be fine for blog posts, but for creative writing, not so much.)

Yes, I’ve tried social media blocking software. I’ve tried internet blocking software. Neither has worked for me. Mainly because when I sit in front of a PC I think “work” (the things I “have” to do, not what I “want” to do). So I need to get away from the screens.

So, I’ve once again dipped my toes into 10+ year old technology. No, I’m not a hipster, so I didn’t get a typewriter — plus, I can’t survive without backspace and arrow keys. But I did get a AlphaSmart.

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It turns on instantly. It constantly saves. It does only one thing — allows you to type text. Originally designed for school use, they were discontinued years ago and area only available used. (Got an excellent condition one on Amazon for about $30.)

In today’s world, it’s about one technical step up from a typewriter. Even its way of transferring files to a PC is a hoot: You connect it via USB, it emulates a keyboard, you hit “send”, and it “re-types” your document into whatever window is open. It’s like watching Zork or Hacker type text. (Look ma, I’m running at 1200 baud!)

I had looked into to the Hemingwrite (now Freewrite), but too spendy for my modest uses. This blog post sold me on the AlphaSmart: It’s a piece of junk, but great for writing! If you are crazy enough about writing to get one of these, be sure to get the 3000 model — it has USB and emulates a keyboard on the PC. You don’t need any software. I connect it to a Windows 7 x64 machine without a problem. Be sure to set the “Send Speed” to “4” so you get the blistering 1200 baud.

You will not be impressed with this device, and it really really only does one thing. But for what it does, it does just fine. It allows you to focus on writing. Added bonus: It was designed for kids, so it’s pretty darn tough. It has cursor keys. A decent keyboard. And it runs about 300+ hours on 3 AA batteries. Definitely  a niche tool (unlike the Kindle or Nomad). I call it a “first draft” writing tool.