Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Government Shutdown and the Affordable Care Act

On October 1st, 2013, the US Government shut down for the first time in seventeen years.  As with the last time, it was a result of political maneuvering to manufacture a crisis and then try to push through things by tying them to the resolution of the shutdown.  As with the last time, it was wrong.

In case you are reading this a long time after the event, the key causes are twofold:

1) There is currently a small group of extremists in the Legislative branch that have been locking up the government for years
2) This group has, essentially, a blind faith that the Affordable Care Act, which they currently call, "Obamacare" must be fought tooth and nail, in spite of being passed into law, upheld by the Supreme Court, and being popular among most citizens of the USA

The core problem is from a splinter group of the Republican party that belongs to, or take instructions from, the "Tea Party".  The Tea Party has been marketed as a grassroots effort, but I know this to be a lie.  I watched as the Tea Party was, in large part, created by a small group of wealthy sponsors, heavily assisted by Fox News.

They are staunchly opposed to taxes and government spending.  In practice, they have been extreme and uncompromising.  Unfortunately for the USA, even though they are a small minority they are just large enough to compromise our government's function.

They are militant in their opposition of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which they call "Obamacare".  Sadly, there are still people in the USA that do not realize Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing.  In fact, side-by-side polls have shown a major disconnect in understanding.  They asked about feelings on Obamacare versus the Affordable Care Act - the results differed significantly. Which is to say, a significant number of people are opposing something they like because of a misunderstanding, ignorance, or partisan tribalism.

Because of the mechanisms of the USA Government and the political parties in power, a small group of people can stop progress on anything that requires the Legislative branch to agree.  Case in point, this shutdown.  The Senate has passed measures that are agreeable to the Executive branch, but the Tea Party, which is primarily affiliated with the Republican Party continues to vote them down.

Another wrinkle is that the Republican party more consistently votes as a block.  This has led to the Republican-led House of Representatives wasting an offensive amount of hours holding over 40 votes to repeal.  Their actions, ironically (in light of their concerns about government waste), result in a profound waste of government time and money.

The tragedy is that the ACA is a good law that corrects a number of big problems in the USA healthcare system.  Every measure that has been implemented had positive impacts on patients and the business of healthcare.  Each measure ends up being quite popular and the opponents of the ACA continuously are surprised at the positive impacts.  Essentially, blind partisan hatred is so high that people are opposing something that they actually like.

Please contact your representative and tell them to stop fighting the ACA.  The ACA is good for the USA.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Quitting Adobe Creative Suite

Background Fluff

Most of the folks that know me also know that I spend a hundreds of hours each year providing all sorts of elaborate capabilities to help my friends run OwlCon, a gaming convention at Rice University.  I resuscitated, some might say resurrected, OwlCon in 2001, after it was mortally wounded in 2000 by...a sub par execution.  I had help from some great friends, increasingly more of them each year.  It was a labor of love, but we all felt it was worth it.

Each year, I jacked up the technological capabilities via the website.  We started with simple mail forms, cutting and pasting data by hand into spreadsheets.  It was a simple and effective brute force approach, but it was tiring and time-consuming.  Years passed and things became increasingly automagically-generated.

I was a novice at web sites wen I started.  I taught myself what I needed as I went along.  It was not long before I took advantage of Dreamweaver.  It was a standard application on the Rice computers, so it was not an issue.  Soon, all sorts of nifty things were done with PHP, mySQL, and HTML.  Each year, the site became more sophisticated in order to further reduce the workloads of planners.

Then I moved on from graduate school and the time came to buy the software so I could continue to be the webmaster for OwlCon (no one with skills in  was interested in taking over).  This persisted for some time.  Then I turned around to see that I was using the Creative Cloud...and it was just too much money for what we got from it...and I am one of those people that classifies piracy as stealing, so I had to find legitimate, free (or almost free) alternatives.

So, I quit Adobe Creative Suite.  It is a little scary, but I think I'll be all right.  Here's what I learned.

Many Others Have Gone Before Me

It turns out that lots of people need to create and maintain web sites (Dreamweaver), create vector graphics (Illustrator), edit images (Photoshop), and do desktop publishing (InDesign).  So, I reached out to friends and the Interwebz to identify good alternatives.  And then, humorously, I found this post from Lifehacker that pretty much lays out everything I learned the hard way.  Well, here's my commentary nonetheless.

The Replacement Killers

  • Photoshop -> GIMP: GIMP has been a solid alternative to Photoshop for well over a decade.  It has only gotten better over the years.
  • Illustrator -> Inkscape: Not only does it perform much the same, it can even process an Adobe Illustrator file format; so, if you are stuck with *.ai files and no Illustrator, you have a way forward
  • Dreamweaver -> NetBeans + WAMP: OK, so this is not necessarily apples-to-apples; *I* am coding the site from scratch.  I have found NetBeans and WAMP give me an environment that is in many ways superior to what I had with Dreamweaver.  However, if you are not a coder, you should go another route - the Lifehacker article suggested KompoZer.  They had a nice article on how to create a site, too.
  • InDesign -> ???: Right now, my need for this is low, so I have not put in the time to test things. I defer to the Lifehacker article.
And that's all that I have to say on this.  If you need more information, I recommend you look to the Lifehacker article (read it anyway, it's good) and your friendly neighborhood search engine.  The important thing is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Best of luck in your creating!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Converting a Micro SIM to a Nano SIM

The Sad Backstory

So, my iPhone 4S suddenly started having issues last night.  It would repeatedly connect and disconnect from the recharger while sitting there calmly, physically connected to it.  I tried hooking it up to the USB adapter to my laptop (different cable).  Same problem.  The iPad had problems with neither cable.

I tried to restore it, but that was problematic, what with it randomly disconnecting in the middle of restoration.

So, off to the Apple store where an "Apple Genius" decided it was pocket lint and started digging into the connector port with a SIM card removal tool.  My hopes grew.  Certainly pocket lint clogging the port *could* be the problem.

After the "genius" was done, there was a stark difference in performance.  Now it would not connect at all.  Hooray.

And it's 18 months old, so it's out of warranty.  Hooray.

Anyway, long story short, I had an iPhone 5, which takes "Nano SIM" cards as opposed to "Micro SIM" cards, neither of which deserve their names.

The Motivation

T-Mobile used to just cut down the cards for free.  The location I went to was eager to reap the revenue of their new $20 fee for doing that.  Sure, I could afford that, but it pissed me off that they took something that can be done literally in seconds, using a tool that costs around $5, and tried to jack me for $20.

Sure, I could have made a stink and perhaps even changed providers on principle, but cutting down the card *should* be easy... right?

So, I decided that I would punish them for poor market research and price setting by at least *trying* to cut down my card.

What did I have to lose?  If it did not work, then I had lost a little time.  If it did, I could claim triumph and perhaps even help a friend in the future.

The Resource

After searching the interwebs, I settled on this tutorial and cutting guide.  Knowing that I had plenty of tolerance in how I cut it, and wildly confident in my skill with precision knifework, I flagrantly disregarded the instructions to score/mark the card, whipped out my precision knife, and started cutting.

I cut away all of the spare card and even clipped off a piece of the contact to make the chopped off corner shape.  Still not enough.  The height of the card was good, but the width was not (I am calling the width the long dimension that goes side to side as you look at the card).

So, I cut a sliver more off of each end, wincing slightly as I boldly (foolhardily?) sliced off bits of contact.

Humorous aside: I whipped out precision knives and clippers for this work and a pair of plain old utility scissors ended up being my primary tool of choice when it came down to it.  It was just easier to grip the card and use the nice long blade of the scissors to insure a straight cut, as opposed to fiddling about trying to hold a cutting guide against a tiny card while cutting it. The only problem was having to resist the urge to run with scissors.

With the slight adjustments, it was the right dimensions now, but the corners were a bit fiddly.  So I rounded them down slightly with a handy nail file.

Bang! It fit.  It ended up being a hair smaller than the holder.  But did it work?

I slotted it into the phone...

Moment of truth...


Sure, because you have to trim the contacts a bit, it feels like you are breaking it, but what the interwebs say is true, it's will still work.

So, if you want to take a shot at it, I encourage it.  you problem just need good, straight, sharp scissors and a steady hand.  I do not recommend being as cavalier as I was.  Go ahead and mark or score the card using the template.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Trying Out NetBeans Integrated Development Environment, Part 2

OK, time to start using it...

I fired up NetBeans and learned that it thinks of things in terms of "Projects".  It gave me multiple choices and, frankly, I had no idea which made the most sense.  I was a bit uncertain at first, but I selected a "PHP application" project and clicked "Next"...

Choice - Version of PHP? I went with the latest version they had 5.4  I hope it's enough.

Choice - Metadata separate or no? An interesting feature is that NetBeans was willing to let me save my metadata in a different location than the rest of my files.  I pondered doing that, but decided I would go "all in" on this first try.

I gave it my remote connection info and tested it - Success! I chose to have it upload files on save, so that I don't have to worry about the current files on the site being outdated.

Off to the races!

Houston, We Have a Problem - Upload on Save Not Working

So I decided to start out easy and create a very primitive script to run phpinfo.  Well, immediately I had a problem in that it could not upload the files, as desired.

I opened up the Project Properties and looked at the Run Configuration and saw that the defaults for Upload Directory and Project URL were off.  Upload directory had the project name, that is not what I want.  Cleared that.  The project URL was wrong too.  Fixed them...

Still no luck.

Checked FTP settings.  All looks good.  Test still results in successful connection.

:-( also not working...WTF?

Oh, God, is it the bloody VPN again?  Turned off VPN.

Dreamweaver works.

Uploading files from NetBeans works...file is too high in the directory on the site...fixing Upload Directory.  Hel-lo Goldilocks, that's just right!

Hooray!  I can start working now! :-D

Lesson learned: Even if the FTP test works, fire up a separate FTP access to verify as you go that you are using the correct parameters and writing to the correct place.


The highest version of PHP that NetBeans offers me is 5.4, which begs the question, what version is my host running?  Well, as you know, phpinfo is the way to answer that turns out it is 5.4.11.  OK, good to go.

How in the HELL Do I add a Folder?

OK, so time to get to work and I want to muck about with test files, so let's create a new folder.

Right Click my main folder...umm, nothing for folder creation.  Check the other menu tabs...nothing.

Searching the interwebs...A-ha!  Hmm, you have to pick "Other"...and then "Other"...and THEN "Folder".  Wow, I guess NetBeans people don't care much for folder creation or they *really* like subcategories.

OK, So, In Practice, What Do I Think?

Not bad.  I like their syntax prompts and hints, for the most part.  Honestly, they feel a bit like an overbearing mother, but Dreamweaver felt like an absent parent.  So, NetBeans is definitely worth trying and try it I will.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Trying Out NetBeans Integrated Development Environment, Part 1

NetBeans logo

Long time, no post!

I need to get back in the habit and today I do just that.

I am trying out NetBeans IDE.  IDE stands for "Integrated Development Environment".  Basically, an IDE is a piece of software that facilitates your development of applications/content in a given coding language.  I am specifically interested in PHP and MySQL for website development, but there are many languages and many IDEs out there.

Why Am I Looking at a New IDE?

Note: This section is mostly personal history.

Excellent question.  The reason I am looking at IDEs at all is because I currently use Dreamweaver to develop web content, primarily for  While it is a very austere and low bandwidth site in appearance, there is a lot of magic going on behind the scenes.  The vast majority of what you see is dynamically generated with up-to-the-second information and there is a mountain of features behind the curtain for the folks running OwlCon...the Wizard of Oz would be proud.

But I do this as volunteer work for a student organization and having them fork out hundreds of dollars a year for Adobe Creative Suite (CS) or even just Dreamweaver is probably no longer necessary.  About a decade ago, I wore many hats and had to work a lot of magic using many components of Adobe CS and Dreamweaver, so when Adobe acquired Dreamweaver, that made life easy.

But damn is it expensive and I want to see if I can find a way to obviate the need for it.

What is Out There?

You can surf the web as well as anyone, but this wikipedia comparison is a reasonably good starting point.

What Did I Look for in an IDE?

I had a number of considerations that mattered to me:
  • Free and open
  • Strong community
  • Highly regarded
  • Cross platform
  • Supports PHP and MySQL development
  • FTP/syncing
  • Easy uploads
  • Easy local testing
Free and open - it's kinda pointless to buy something different, since cost avoidance is one of the reasons for this activity.

Strong community - As with any free or open software, you are going to want a strong community to insure that you will have a reasonably good chance of 1) addressing your questions and problems and 2) the software persisting over time.

Highly regarded - I am not interested in the "sleeper" software with a "cult" following.  I need something that works and lots of developers consider it to be a solid tool.

Cross platform - I don't want to have to worry about whether or not I am on a PC or Mac now or ever.  That said, if I had to choose, I would settle for Windows-specific, since that is my primary means of development.

Supports PHP development - What I primarily mean by this is that it supports syntax and formatting of good PHP code, to include MySQL commands within PHP scripts.  So, if I mistype a function, I would like to have feedback, e.g., the text changing color or not changing color.  I would also like easy references for PHP and MySQL.

FTP/Syncing - I would like the platform to have the ability to compare my local and remote files and determine which ones are newest, then give me the option to update just those.

Easy uploads - I would like the ability to upload a file.  For example, a hot key that will upload the file to my site.

Easy local testing - I would love to be able to do any local testing without extra hurdles, be that moving my sites to specific directories, changing my database names, installing a WAMP stack, etc.

Why Did I Try NetBeans?

Well, it appears to satisfy all of the above requirements.  Yep, that's pretty much it.

I am concerned that it might not be ideal for PHP, as it was primarily created for Java (hence "beans" in the name).  But folks on the interwebs seem to like it for PHP, so I will give it a try.

Installation Notes

NetBeans has the option to download just a PHP version, but I went ahead and downloaded the whole thing, which means I can code in a number of other languages.  Hopefully, this does not create problems or confusion.  If it does, I may have to back off to just the PHP version.

Because I went that route, I had to install the Java SDK (Software Development Kit) from Oracle.  Not surprising.

While installing, I was required to accept the terms for JUnit, which was a surprise, as I had not heard of JUnit until this request popped up. It appears to be legitimate and it enables unit testing.  I am not sure if that will extend to PHP, but if it does, that could be pretty cool. Clickety click.

It Won't DIE!

After it was all installed, I ran into yet another oddity.  It would not stay dead when I closed it normally.  Rather, it would shut down, then restart, giving messages that suggested updates were occurring.  I could only completely close it by killing the process in Task Manager.  OK, not surprisingly, that is because it is trying to do things like make changes to the computer so it can update the software.

Running in administrator mode solves this problem, but I find that I have to keep it in administrator mode, even after everything is up to date, or use Task Manager to kill the process.  This worries me.  I will have to look into this more.

Ready to Rock!

OK, so now it is installed and I am ready to rock.  Until the next post...