Saturday, February 26, 2005

Cool Low-Tech Things

I get excited by simple, effective solutions to problems. Items that can be taken apart easily, and that have replaceable parts that can be found in any hardware store, give me a thrill. Such items rarely become obsolete and are good investments.

They make me want to shout!

So this blog will feature an on-going list of Cool, Low-Tech Things. (I was almost going to make it a top-ten list of things, but then I remembered how I don't like such evenly numbered lists of things.)

The first item is a wonderful personal care item. Anyone with problem sinuses or asthma should have one. It's the Neti Pot. I have the ceramic Neti Pot from the Himalayan Institute, which I bought at our local health food store.

Here's why it's so cool. First, there are no moving parts to wear out. Second, it doesn't require special expensive chemicals that must be purchased from the manufacturer. (It can be used with ordinary kosher salt or sea salt.) Unless I drop it or lose it, I'll be able to use it my entire life. Wow! But best of all, it really works. Treat yourself with one right away!

Friday, February 18, 2005

NPR's "Drafting a Genetic Map of Human Diversity"

In "Drafting a Genetic Map of Human Diversity," NRP reports that a new genetic map "will help determine who will benefit from drugs and who won't." What if researches find out that no one will benefit?

This NPR audio track discusses the ethical implications of the new map as much as its medical applications.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

TurboTax -- Angst and Euphoria

My home computer runs Windows NT. It serves me well. But I get nervous every time I need to update a program. Why? Microsoft stopped supporting NT quite a while ago. So I've become adept at locating that little "System Requirements" section on packaged software.

I've used TurboTax to file my federal taxes for 2001, 2002 and 2003. But when I sought out the latest version for 2004, I noticed that Windows NT was absent from the "System Requirements" section.

I bought it anyway. I'm sure they didn't mean to imply that it won't run on NT. They just left it off because ... well, nobody has NT anymore. Besides, perhaps it is time to buy a new computer. Or at least I'll buy a new hard drive and install Windows 2000 on it. And if I don't switch to Windows 2000, I can always run TurboTax on my office computer.

Before I cracked open the shrink wrap, I decided to check out the TurboTax website to verify the system requirements. After a mere six mouse clicks, I had my answer:

System requirements misprint on the Welcome Back CD packaging

The TurboTax Welcome Back CD packaging incorrectly lists Windows 95 and NT as supported operating systems. You can review the actual system requirements with the links below.

Then I got mad. This is all the fault of a lazy Intuit IT department and a team of inconsiderate programmers. And because of them, I have to invest time and money updating a perfectly good computer. I decided to rebel. I would do my taxes by hand.

Just before I clicked on my browser's close button in a huff, I noticed an inconspicuous link called TaxFreedom. "This looks interesting," thought I. In my rebellious mood, I envisioned a site that would show me how to give the IRS a virtual middle finger. If I could blow off doing my taxes, I won't need software.

But the link led me to another TurboTax site that offered to "Prepare and e-file your federal return FREE and get your refund fast!" Well, I wasn't born yesterday. I know nothing's for free. What's the angle? Apparently, they do your federal taxes for free, but you have to pay for having your state taxes done. That's okay. My state taxes are a breeze to do.

The system requirements (yes, I checked that right away) informed me that this would work only with Internet Explorer 5.5 and above. I did have the right version. But I've configured my firewall to block IE from the Internet. So I spent some time figuring out what IP addresses I needed to allow in order to get IE to work.

After I convinced myself that it was for real, I decided to give it a try. "I'll just enter my name and address," I told myself. It was nearly midnight.

Well, by 1:30am I had completed both my federal and state taxes, the latter by filling out the form at my state's website. My cost? Zero. And I believe it took less time than if I had been able to install and run TurboTax, since it's necessary to download several megabytes of TurboTax updates before filing.

Incidentally, I got a nice refund and I returned TurboTax with no questions asked.

So maybe I can keep using NT for a few more years....

Friday, February 11, 2005

Douglas Adams

Many events and influences led to my starting this blog. As this is day number 42 of 2005, it seems appropriate to mention Douglas Adams.

Mr. Adams is well known in geek circles for authoring "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." What I like best about his works is that they're filled with humorous examples of how technology fails. The more sophisticated it is, the more utterly infuriating it becomes to operate. And it fails us at the most inopportune times.

One of my favorite examples of this is the motion-activated radio on board the Heart of Gold. You don't even need to get up to change the channels or mute it. On the other hand, you have to sit awfully still if you don't want to change it inadvertently. Obviously the engineer who came up with that idea wasn't too fond of dancing.

If you think that's silly, consider the earliest CD players. (And at the risk of showing my age, remember their precursors, vinyl?) You certainly couldn't jump around too much without causing the player to skip. So audio equipment was anchored to walls, and the individual components placed on foam isolators.

Another example. How many of you cell phone users have repeatedly said, "I can hear you. Can you hear me?" Pretty soon we'll see phones equipped with the popular ICHY button, which will automate this. Come to think of it, why stop there? Why not have these buttons, too:

"I'm fine. And you?"
"Hi! How are you?"
"This is true."
"Can't make it then. How about next Tuesday?"
"See you, later."
"Take care."

If those last three seem vaguely familiar to you, does the term "sig" or "signature" help?

Before I end this entry, I'd like to encourage you to point your browser to the online Guide, hosted by the BBC, which you'll find here.

Bye. See you later. Take care. Whatever.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

What the heck is a Luddite Geek?

From WordNet (r) 2.0 :

n 1: any opponent of technological progress
2: one of the 19th century English workmen who destroyed
labor-saving machinery that they thought would cause

From Jargon File (4.3.0, 30 APR 2001) :

geek n. A person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance. Geeks usually have a strong case of neophilia. Most geeks are adept with computers and treat hacker as a term of respect, but not all are hackers themselves - and some who _are_ in fact hackers normally call themselves geeks anyway, because they (quite properly) regard `hacker' as a label that should be bestowed by others rather than self-assumed.

Well, that should give you an idea where this might be headed.