The Presentation

I gave the short presentation I’d been dreading this afternoon. Anyone who knows me knows that I have no problem talking to people… even to groups of people at a time. Only when I’m standing up in front of a room with all eyes fixed forward do I entirely lose my nerve; however, today I think I did well. I crammed a lot into roughly 15-20 minutes, but I think I gave everyone a rough idea what we have available, and where to go to find more information and help if they need it.

Next time I think I need a bit more in the way of notes — rather than just bringing up the bullet points and coming up with information on the fly. I also think I could tweak the order of things a bit. I kept telling people about a certain topic, but then saying “I’ll explain that in a minute” when I should have just included it all in what I was talking about.

For those who are curious, today’s presentation was an orientation for our new users (postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads). It’s the first time, I think, that we’ve ever had them all in one room for this particular talk. In the past postdocs have just gotten the info they needed as it came up. We would have an orientation for the grad students, but our part was mostly “here’s the e-mail address you send help requests to” and a pointer to our documentation. Since we had everyone new in the same room for a change, I went all out and came up with a short Keynote presentation to give folks an overview of everything we offer within the department, as well as more insight into how things are configured.

Talking to some of our new users after the orientation, I got a number of thanks for presenting it and letting them know about things they might never have heard about otherwise. I was stoked that the feedback was so positive, and I hope this really helps people with their future work in the department. I hung out with a couple of the postdocs and our grad students after the talk and we talked about all sorts of random stuff, from artificial intelligence to the best places for lunch and ice cream around Princeton and even about the best places to grocery shop on a budget. In all, I think today was a very successful day, and I’m really looking forward to giving this talk again next year.

Droid X

This is going to be really short as I’m writing it on the phone, but I got a Droid X this week. My first impression is that it’s awesome. Usability isn’t quite up to Apple standards yet, but it works quite well for me. The screen is great, the phone is snappy, and so far it does everything I ask of it and then some. I’ve been able to find the apps I use on my iPod, or functional equivalents, except I’m going through Bejeweled Blitz withdrawal since that isn’t available on android. There is hope, though, that I can use the flash version once this phone gets Froyo.

That’s all for now. I’ll have more to share later.

Oh, by the way, Swype rules!

Patriot Box Office Impressions

Just a quick review while the thoughts are fresh in my head. I’ll hopefully fill this in later with more details and some screen shots.

So, I get a lot of e-mail from Amazon, trying to convince me to buy things. Well, earlier this week they sent me one about a rebate on something I’ve never heard of, yet it’s the first time I’ve jumped on one of their offers. The device was the Patriot Box Office. What convinced me to order one was the fact that I’ve been considering building a home theater pc for quite some time to stream a growing library of content in numerous containers using several different codecs for video and audio. I have a PS3 and a Roku media player, but so far my experience has been less than satisfactory at getting this mishmosh of random media files to play back on my TV using my devices. My thought was that the only way to guarantee you’re not left with some sort of odd compatibility issue is to have a full PC, hence the idea for a HTPC. Well, I saw the PBO, and it claimed to play everything I could throw at it and then some. It also said it could do it for $99 minus a $35 rebate, so I figured what the heck and I ordered one.

The PBO arrived the day after I ordered it. Way to go Amazon Prime 2-day shipping! I got it home, plugged it into my network — I have an ethernet switch in my home theater, attached it to my receiver and hdmi switch and turned it on. After a brief bootup, I was at a screen where I could browse various locations for media. This includes USB drives (if any are connected), an optional 2.5″ internal hard drive, “net” (SMB/Windows shares), and UPnP (aka DLNA) servers. I already have functional SMB (samba on linux) shares and a DLNA server (mediatomb), so I went right into Net at first, entered some login credentials to get to my share, and I was in my media library. The browser is pretty much the same no matter what medium you use to store your files.

As you scroll through the media browser, it shows all compatible files in whatever category you selected. The options are All (default and what I usually stick with), Music, Photo, and Movies. You drill down through directories (assuming you don’t have media in a top level directory) as you would with any typical file browser on a computer. Once in a directory with files, they’ll be listed under the directories and you can scroll down and select them. By default, when you select a file it begins to grab the file and plays a preview on the right side of the window. I’ve turned that option off so it speeds things up a bit. It will still show the complete file name along with the file size. Once it plays video (whether in the preview or hitting Enter on the remote to open the file), it displays your current network speed. I’m not sure how it determines it, but I imagine it’s useful if you’re having issues playing back files over a wifi network. I’m not sure what else I can say after this point, except it just works. Coolness.

What have I thrown at it so far? Well, let’s see… MKV containers with H.264 encoded video as well as both AAC and AC3 audio tracks. The great bit is through the options, you can have it pass the audio stream unmolested through either the HDMI connection or, as is my case, via the toslink optical connection. This lets me hear the standard 5.1 audio stream as it should be, decoded by my receiver. You can also have it convert the stream to linear PCM and send that out instead. I’ve had to do this with a few files, I think due to the fact that the AAC audio wasn’t a stream which my receiver natively understands, and that’s fine. I do wish there was a faster way to switch between raw out and lpcm out than having to jump through the setup menu, though. Other files I’ve tried are m2ts avchd files created by my Sony HX5v, and some standard mpeg2/ac3 files pulled off cable. All worked well.

So things work, are there any issues? Well, yes… so far my biggest complaint is the speed and layout of their menuing system. Scrolling through lots of files takes a long time. It also has this odd habit of checking the file before it lets you play it. I had a few files which I thought it was refusing to play until I realized you have to scroll to a file, then wait a few seconds for it to “detect” the file type. Then you can play it just fine. Drilling through directories is a bit slow too. I wish it would cache more data locally. I think there’s some hacked firmwares available which do that, but I’m not ready to risk bricking my PBO quite yet. I also wish there was a skip X seconds setting available on the remote. Some things I have recorded contain commercials, so a skip feature would be great. Update: I completely missed the “CM SKIP” button on the remote which does exactly what I want. Excellent! I can fast forward through video at up to 32x on SMB shares, though only 2x on DLNA servers. A little annoying, but not the end of the world. I’m sure there’s other things which may annoy me, but these are the two issues which jumped out at me after using it for a few days.

So that’s about it for now. I’ll update this as I either find solutions to problems I’ve encountered or thought of other things to mention. For now, I’ll leave you with a picture of the unit sitting in my home theater.

Patriot Box Office


Food for thought:

In March, I spent $494.20 on “food,” broken down as follows:

  • $233.62 on Groceries
  • $260.58 on Restaurants, Coffee Shops, and Fast Food

In April, I spent $336.27 on the same category, broken down as:

  • $283.98 on Groceries
  • $52.29 on the rest

So, a savings for $157.93. Nice! I want to track this over the next several months so I can compare the monthly average over time. I also need to see if I can cut out a little bit more, since I’m a bit over my desired budget of $300 for the month. I should be able to feed myself for $10/day or less, so we’ll see how things go in May.

Oh by the way… Mint rocks. It finally convinced me to keep better track of where all my money goes.

Why I need to stop eating out

Recently, some friends and I visited a local restaurant. I had a tasty rigatoni with vodka sauce and sausage dish. The cost for that alone was $16, not including tax, tip, drinks, etc. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I cheat and buy off the shelf stuff, I could easily make this for a lot less at home. So, last night I did. Here’s the breakdown. Note that this was meant to be fast and using current pricing. Sales and making the sauce myself might have saved a bit more. I’ve rounded all values up to the nearest dollar.

  • Box of Rigatoni (on sale) – $1
  • Jar of Classico Vodka Sauce – $3
  • Package of 6 links of poultry sausage – $5 (pork sausage in a club pack would have been about 40% cheaper)

So, total cost for the above items is $9. Now, I’ll admit my idea of portion size is probably a bit bigger than those they expect. But realistically, the above items give me three servings. That means my cost per serving is $3. That’s… astounding. A $16 meal for $3 at home. Yes, I really do need to cook at home more often.

In addition to this one example, I really need to start bringing lunch with me more often. I’ve been buying lunch way too often, and it adds up. For the typical “lunch special” here at work you pay around $6 (plus tax). Add to that a large coffee and dessert, and it’s another $3. For a lot less than that (say $2-3), I could bring a sandwich or left over dinner if I’d just cook more often. I also have an old single-serve coffeemaker in my office, so I could easily make my own coffee for another 40 cents. So say lunch made by me was $4/day, that’s a $5 savings per workday. Multiply that by an average of around 22 work days per calendar month, and that’s $110 per month. Wow! That’s significant.

In short, times are tough, and a lot of us have to watch our budgets. By making some simple changes to my lifestyle, I can easily save hundreds of dollars per month. Now I just need to force myself to stick to the plan. This post isn’t meant to bash any restaurants. They deserve to make money, and I’m not saying you should stop visiting them — heck, I’ll probably still eat out on occasion. That said, this is a bit of an eye-opener when you’re trying to stick to a budget.

I’m going to try and post on this next month to see how I’m making out, and for some before and after numbers comparing March (an average month) with April (a month where I’m trying to cook at home more often). Stay tuned.

iPod Apps

After seeing SRHuston’s list of what iPhone/iPod apps he finds most useful, here is my list. I think this list is a bit unique, since I don’t have an iPhone, but rather an iPod Touch. Not having phone/3G on the device does curb the usefulness a bit, but I do still use it often; hotspots are plentiful, and it’s fairly easy to create a mobile hotspot on my Nokia E63. The list is in no particular order, just that which popped into my head.

  • Bewjeweled – Absolutely addictive game. This is one of my favorite ways to kill time.
  • PopStar – Yet another really addictive game. I’ve actually been using this a lot more than Bejeweled lately.
  • TweetDeck – I already use TweetDeck on Mac, Windows, and Linux, so it made sense to use it on the iPod too.
  • MobileRSS – I use Google Reader for my RSS feeds, and while Google does have an okay mobile web interface, MobileRSS is significantly nicer and easier to browse on the iPod.
  • Mint – If you use already, this is a natural add-on.
  • Clock – Okay, this is the built in application. Since I threw out my age-old alarm clock when I moved a few months ago, I’ve been using the iPod Clock application as my alarm clock.
  • Facebook – As with Mint, if you already use Facebook, this is a natural extension. A lot nicer than the web interface, IMO.
  • Now Playing – I use Netflix Instant Streaming extensively. This is a great way to manage my queue, especially when friends mention new shows/movies to check out.
  • TouchTerm – This app isn’t as useful as it could be, mostly because it can’t run in the background. As a Linux sysadmin, though, it’s invaluable when travelling and I have to ssh into a machine to check it out remotely.
  • Palringo – Obligatory Instant Messaging application. So far it’s the only one which has worked well enough to use on a regular basis, though I’ve been wanting to check out Meebo.
  • Dropbox – Very useful for viewing files on the go. Example of a recent application: I travelled to Philly and kept copies of the Septa subway and rail schedules in my dropbox so I could view them offline.

That’s the majority of the apps I use on a regular basis. I’ve got lots more on the iPod, but rarely use them, so they’re probably not worth mentioning. Mostly small games and other things which looked neat at the time, but turned out to be less than useful.


Thanks to the WordPress Mobile Pack plugin and the Carrington Mobile theme, this website is now available in a scaled down form for mobile device use. It should detect your device automatically, but if you want to explicitly use the mobile-optimized site, you can go to and opt to use the mobile edition. If you are using the mobile edition and want to view the full desktop site, there’s a link at the bottom to switch to it. I’ve tested the mobile edition on my Nokia E63 and Apple iPod Touch and it looks great on both. Thanks for looking, and have fun!

I will update this; I promise!

I figured it was time for some changes. I’ve got entirely too many domains and too much social sprawl. So, I’ve created a new About Me page with links to my usual hangouts. What’s there now is the beginning, but I hope to add more as I see fit. I’ve gotten rid of some excess pages on other sites and redirected some of those old urls to their corresponding pages in this blog. I’ve also gotten rid of my stand-alone Gallery install and now refer to my Flickr account, since I’ve been using that for quite some time anyway. Hooray for consolidation!

While I was at it, I figured it was about time to move to a different theme in WordPress and perhaps at least post something to the blog. The problem is, while I was never good at updating my blog, it’s been even worse since I’ve been using Twitter and Facebook as my primary outlets for what’s on my mind. I hope to change that, since Twitter is too small for some things, and Facebook is limited only to my friends. I’d still like to use this as a means to say what’s on my mind in more than 140 character chunks. I also want to completely rebuild my Links to other blogs and interesting sites,

Compact Fluorescent Reviews

Inspired by Don Klipstein’s CF Top Page, I figured I’d briefly share my own experiences with CF bulbs thus far. When I moved into my current apartment back in 2005, I decided right away that I’d go with CF wherever possible for my lighting needs. It just makes sense to me; 14 watts is less than 60, and if I can do my tiny little part to save power, so be it. In September of 2005 I purchased two 6-packs of Commercial Electric 60 watt equivalent 14 watt CFLs at Home Depot for around $12-14 or so (don’t recall exactly how much) and so far I’ve only had one failure. I’m assuming this particular bulb was defective because even though I had it in an enclosed fixture in the kitchen, it’s been about a year or so since it failed and the other bulbs in the same fixture are running fine. While all the bulbs didn’t go into service immediately — I put them in my lamps right away, then slowly replaced the overhead lighting in the kitchen and bathroom with CFLs as I discovered how well they worked — I’ve been running completely CFL since at least mid-2006. Running the 14w Commercial Electric bulbs I have: 4 table lamps, 3 in an enclosed kitchen fixture (normally a death sentence for CFLs), 2 over the vanity in the bathroom (they’re so bright that if I used all four sockets, it was blinding), and 2 of the 3 sockets in the overhead bathroom fixture.

When I ran out of the C.E. bulbs, I picked up an 8-pack of Philips 13w CFLs from Costco. These work just as well as the C.E. bulbs, and, to my eye, are just as bright or even a tiny bit brighter. So far I haven’t deployed these as much. I have one in the bathroom and one in an enclosed overhead hallway fixture which I almost never use.

I have two 3-bulb ceiling fan fixtures in my apartment. At first I tried the 14w C.E. bulbs in them, but they were entirely too bright. I finally ended up purchasing 9w GE CFLs at Lowes (no recall on how much I paid, but they were a bit expensive compared to the relatively cheap 14s). These are more than bright enough when I want to flood the rooms with light, but honestly, I prefer using my lamps instead; I still find overhead lighting to be entirely too bright. I don’t think I’m photo-sensitive, I just like dark rooms :)

Finally, I have one other bulb to mention. I picked up a small package of 23w Commercial Electric bulbs around the same time as the 14s because I got myself a torch lamp for the living room — mainly for use when I have guests. It works well, but it seems more noticably dimmer when initially turned on. I don’t notice it quite as much with the 14s. It does seem to get to full brightness in well under a minute, and I wouldn’t consider it too dim to be usable initially.

In all, I’d say I’ve been pleased with the bulbs I’ve purchased so far. With the exception of the one early failure, all that I’ve deployed are still in service after 2-2.5 years. This is with the abuse the electrical grid can throw at them (we have some odd power issues here several times a year), as well as abuse I and the cat can dish out (she’s knocked over a few lamps with the lights *on*). If anything noteworthy happens, I’ll post another entry to the blog.

Gas Station Shit List

Several months ago, I pulled into the local Valero station. It’s the same thing I’ve been doing for a while now, ever since I moved here. It’s the closest station to me, only a quarter mile away or so. This day was a little different, though. I handed my credit card to the attendant, same as always, ask him to fill it up with regular, and away it goes. I took a few minutes to look around and notice something strange. There are two rows on the gas price sign over the pump. I take a closer look. Son of a bitch… there are two prices now, cash and credit. I vaguely recall gas stations charging extra for credit a long time ago, but that was when I was kid. Gas companies don’t seriously charge more for credit these days, do they?

Apparently they do. After the incident at my local Valero, I began to take a closer look around the area. It seems like every Valero in my part of the state is charging seven cents more per gallon for credit card purchases. What a rip! I don’t have numbers to back it up, but I know that their merchant fees can’t be nearly as much as they’re charging. I, personally, would think that it’s well worth the fee not to have to deal with cash; it’s a much quicker transaction. It would be one thing if they discounted the cash price, but it’s the same as all the other local stations.

I have, therefore, put Valero on my shit list. I refuse to buy my gas there given the number of competitors in the area who don’t charge the credit card premium. For a while, I thought this was going to be the only one. That is, until yesterday.

I was south of a quarter tank and heading home from a shopping expedition. I came across a Gulf station on US 130 North and stopped for fuel. I handed my card to the attendant, same as always, and after he’d already ran it and started pumping did I notice that they too were charging a seven cent premium for credit. What the fuck?! So, yet another gas company on my shit list.

So, the moral of the story? Pay attention at the pump. In these days of close-to-three dollar gas it’s easy for them to try and squeeze even more out of the consumer. Be weary, and make sure you’re paying what you think you are. I’m going to complain to the companies involved for what little good I think it’ll do. Perhaps if consumers en masse started boycotting these stations, they’d get the hint. For now, however, it’s just my little protest.