Ridin’ the Bus

We moved.

Packing is the worst. Loading trucks is the worst. Hauling boxes is the worst. Moving is the worst.

The consolation, of course, is twofold. One, we moved out of Monroeville. Don’t get me wrong, our friends there are fantastic. But speaking realistically, is there anybody out there who would miss this?

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That’s Monroeville, Y’all, and it’s fun. This is probably my favorite photo ever. That’s the McDonald’s where you can watch the employees twerk and grind while you wait for your food. Look at the car with one headlight! Look at the friggen sky! Why does everything look wet? This photo is real, folks! It’s real! In a strange part of my mind I imagine locals framing pictures like this and hanging them in their living rooms so they can use them to play depressing games of I Spy with their children. “I spy something dark and deep that eats car tires, yum, yum, yum!”

The other upside to moving is that we moved to Virginia. Charlottesville, Virginia–the academic heartland of the state, TJ’s (Thomas Jefferson’s) home, all that good stuff. It’s beautiful. I’m pretty excited. Katie is too. And truth be told, we’re actually a little closer to Rhode Island here than we were in PA.

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Photo from http://www.huffingtonpost.com

So this is where we are now. The last week and a half have been filled with cardboard boxes and a playful/pretend version of organization. And at least we finally have internet Netflix after going for a week without.

Katie has begun her second year of teaching, now as a special educator for Louisa County Public Schools. Although it’s a little bit of a commute from our home to her school, we’re both really excited for her new opportunity.

In a few weeks I will start my first classes in the electrical engineering doctoral program at UVA. Part of my job will include TAing undergrads . . . please pray for me.

While I wait for that day to come though, I’m getting a little bored. I should probably be using this time to brush up on my calculus and all that engineering-y stuff that I haven’t used for two years. But in reality, I’m just becoming a hobo.

The first step to hoboism was getting my student ID, which, like consuming alcohol, owning a firearm, or shooting webs from your wrists, came with great power and responsibility. Why? Because now I can ride the bus. Charlottesville has a pretty extensive system of these toothpaste-colored buses with mildly worrisome phrases on them like this:

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Remind you of anything?

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So that’s what I do now while Katie has the car. It may take an hour to get to Walmart this way, but at least I can play spot-the-methead while I do it. And then of course I can continue my game in Walmart and on the way back.

Obviously I’m exaggerating just a little. I’ve had an awesome time exploring the local flavor of C’ville: the Corner, the Mall, the Grounds. I gotta say there is so much more to do here than in Monroeville, and it’s probably got a lot to do with the presence of the university. It occurred to me the other day that I’ve spent 19 years of my life closely associated with a college campus and 15 of those years actually living on a campus. Maybe I’m just predisposed to be more comfortable here.

I think Charlottesville is going to be a wonderful home for us for the next five years. To our friends and family, we’d love for you to come visit us if you’re in the area. As long as you don’t mind being shown around by a couple of people still discovering the area for themselves, we’ll have a grand old time.

 

Andrew Makes a Thing (Second Monitor)

Back in the olden days when my sister was in college (what was that, like 2008? People have died since then), she had a Dell Inspiron 1501 laptop to do her schoolwork on (and watch Youtube videos and log into Facebook). This is back when Vista was standard on new hardware, so let’s just be honest and admit that it was a terrible laptop. This is not considering things like the the 1.8 GHz processor or the 6+ lb weight that were commonplace for laptops of the era. Maybe we’re just spoiled with today’s technology; even so, it should be noted that the user manual specifically states that this laptop was “built for today. Designed for tomorrow.” Maybe that’s true. But I doubt they meant it in the specific way it ended up being realized.

My sister has been through a couple laptops since college, and this Dell dinosaur sat around collecting dust for several years, despite being “designed for tomorrow.” Eventually it was handed over to me, where it sat around and collected even more dust.

At some point, I happened across this article, and an idea was struck. After all, the old dinosaur laptop did have a 1280×800 display. I would just take the whole thing apart, and like, connect it up or something, and boom! I’d have a free computer monitor.

Hah.

I guess you could call it a learning experience. But first things first.

This is be beast:

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Does it remind you of George Bush, My Chemical Romance, and Pontiac Azteks? It should.

So I ripped it apart.

So. Many. Screws.

Eventually I got rid of the self-destructive plastic casing and set aside the laptop butt:

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About 9000 screws later, and I had the more meaningful parts out of it, such as the 80GB hard drive, the screen, the DVD drive (ooh, fancy), and the T-shaped motherboard, which looked like this.

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On the back was a whole gig of RAM. Woot. We can play all the greatest games with that. I ended up selling the whole thing on eBay for about $20.

I’m in the process of getting rid of the other parts now, but of course, I kept the screen.

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Because I’m the very best at planning things out, it wasn’t until this point that I waited to purchase the controller board, which actually makes the screen usable (see the article linked above for more information). Of course, this board is fabricated in China, which means it arrived in a crushed box about a month after I ordered it.

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Ain’t it purdy? Connected to this board was an LVDS cable, an inverter board, and an input keypad for graphics settings.

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Although delicate, the LVDS cable was easy enough to connect. I was super close to having a whole new monitor!

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As I mentioned before, I am an expert planner, so it wasn’t until this point that I realized I didn’t have a VGA cable to connect to my computer. So I decided to order this from China also (it was cheap, don’t judge me). But wait! What about my trusty DP-to-HDMI cable!? Who knew that the inflexible mess that once connected my computer to my 60 lb TV would come in handy again?

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At this point I knew I had a problem, because the screen only produced some barely-visible shapes when I turned it on.  I chalked this up as a success because there was no smoke. Smoke can’t usually be retracted once it shows up.

Eventually though, my VGA cable showed up from China, and I was able to test it out. Unfortunately, I only achieved the same results as before. It was at this point that I contacted the board manufacturer with my problem and hoped they could read English. A couple days later I got a very legible response that boiled down to “make sure you plug the inverter in.”

Wait, what? That connector on the side of the inverter is supposed to do something? No way! So I looked a little closer at the old screen.

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Oh. Crap.

This is the old inverter board, which obviously can’t be used anymore:

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I am an electrical engineering failure. I will hand back my diploma just as soon as I can find it.

I redirected the inverter cable to the corner of the screen and cut a small hole in the plastic enclosure for it to fit through. With this additional slack in the cable, I reconnected everything and Voila!

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Now all I need is a stand to hold all the loose ends and keep any wires from pulling out.

In the end, I spent about $55 for a ~720p monitor. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Don’t leave pieces of your computer on the floor. People will step on them.
  • Order products from China several weeks in advance because that’s a long way away.
  • PLUG IN THE INVERTER BOARD!
  • The LVDS cable is very short and needs to be accommodated.
  • The controller board has an audio jack and your guess is as good as mine about what that thing is for.

And lastly, if I can do it, so can you! Clearly my degree didn’t help me at all. Take those old dinosaur laptops and make monitors! They’re weird. And ugly. And recycled stuff is cool these days. Besides, once you have a second monitor, you can watch Netflix and browse Facebook at the same time. That’s the real American dream.

Lifehacks for Technophobes

People consult me all the time with tech problems they’ve been experiencing. As a result of the increasing complexity of today’s technology, I decided to provide some of the advice that people have found most useful. My hope is that you will be able to return to this list of common issues and solutions for the majority of your troubleshooting needs. In the words of the Travelocity Gnome, “Help is on the way!”

 

  • If you’re having wireless issues, I’ve found that one of the best solutions is to re-download HTML.
  • Lots of times, you will experience a drop in framerate if you are playing an HD game. Just overclock your PC by plugging it into a 240V outlet.
  • People complain a lot about the bandwidth of their local area LAN. The solution is to Google shorter phrases. Boom! Lightning fast internet!
  • Remember Windows 8? The main problem was your ISP. Run a malware detector and delete all of them.
  • If you’re running Linux, just restart the kernel.
  • Most iOS issues can be fixed by installing and playing Candy Crush. Each time you beat a level you’re actually beating a virus.
  • If you’re not impressed with post Windows 3.1 operating systems, you can pretend you still have an older version by using the DOS terminal. It was implemented to help older users.
  • Flash games are named because they can induce seizures.
  • The “#” symbol is called a hashtag because it was originally used by the FBI to track or “tag” phone users. If you’re using a touch tone phone, remove this key immediately!
  • If you are considering building your own PC, be sure to choose a case that’s slightly flexible. This indicates that your PC will be able to “breathe,” which is essential for cooling your hardware.
  • Never run .exe files. This is short for “executable,” and they will execute your computer.
  • The best passwords include at least three “Alt” keystrokes.
  • If a program on your computer freezes, run Windows Updates. This will fix the problem every time.
  • Why would you call a confusing number like 518-376-2931? Call a simple one like 518-123-4567 instead.
  • The number of pixels on your display corresponds to your processing power. The faster your processor, the better the resolution. A 720p display will have Pentium 3 at least.
  • If you experience stack overflow, it means that your PC tower is full. Consider buying one with more space.
  • If you tap “HAXOR” in Morse Code with the hook of a landline phone followed by dialing “1337”, you will be redirected to Kevin Mitnick.
  • When taking your laptop to a new location, be sure to update your MAC address to ensure you don’t miss important emails.
  • Processor speed, which is usually measured in gigahertz, is an indication of the bandwidth that your wi-fi uses. Bad processors can only use ethernet connections.
  • Programming languages are named to indicate their incompatibility. For example, pythons do not drink java. It goes without saying that C# is exclusively used by the government to snoop on internet users.
  • Make sure you upgrade to IPv6 by installing Microsoft Edge.
  • Building your PC with enough RAM is important for running Adobe Flash Player.
  • Remember Windows Vista? You can fix it by throwing your computer in the trash.
  • Sometimes the air becomes so full of wi-fi packets that it creates a traffic jam on the block chain. IPv6 was designed to help prevent this sort of problem.
  • Some tablet users can experience lagging if their bluetooth doesn’t have enough wi-fi. Just ensure your phone is nearby to boost the signal.
  • If your laptop is overheating, it could be because the internet is full. Close the lid and shake it up and down a couple of times to clear your browser cache.
  • If you are hacked and your computer is compromised, just remote desktop into yourself and play Candy Crush.
  • If you have Firefox, make sure that it is running Chrome.

Folks, no matter what happens, just be sure to have fun. Keeping an open mind will guarantee that you’ll discover all kinds of technology secrets. Most of these tips have resulted from just playing around with my stuff and not following the rules.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to go play Candy Crush.

Content

If I’ve learned anything at work it’s how to technically write. I’ve become more aware than ever of how important clear writing can be, and how something that seems perfectly clear to one person can be completely misconstrued by another. I’ve learned to write boringly. Regardless of all the talk of creativity, there is very little room for a beautiful phrase or an artistic sentence in technical writing. There seems to be a strong inverse relationship between the amount of data that can be conveyed in a sentence and how exciting it is to read.

I like to write, and this makes me kind of sad. But it begs a couple of questions that I find pretty interesting. If exciting literature is more fun to read but carries less content, are we more inclined to read things that contain less information? Does this relate to the burnout we sometimes feel from being perpetually stimulated day in and day out as we maintain our busy lifestyles? Do we actually prefer things we don’t have to think about very hard, which contain less information for our brains to process? I’d argue that we do. But I’m not entirely convinced that technical writing is the best example.

See, there will always come a time when it’s necessary to communicate things for purely informational purposes. Speaking from an engineer’s standpoint, there is no requirement that this information be presented in an interesting way. After all, it’s pretty difficult to make cold hard facts interesting, much less entertaining. This being said, without at least a little bit of fluff and creativity, the entire literary world would be dead.

Because I’m an engineer and a dork, I’ve included a quick graph depicting this situation. Based on what I’ve said so far, a graph will probably make this post even less interesting or maybe even scare everyone off. I’ve included some of my personal opinions of “common household items” on the graph in an attempt to give other like-minded people a feel for what I’m trying to say. In engineering, this is a prevalent option for explaining something after you’ve given up on technical writing.

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Click image to view

I wonder sometimes if it’s possible to ride that fine line between content and entertainment value successfully. It’s much too easy for a data-rich report to be a little overwhelming or an entertainment-centric sitcom to be annoyingly vapid. One could imagine that a compromise would harm the strong points on each side as much as it improved their deficiencies. Preferably, we’d be able to make credible data content enjoyable in an entertaining way.

If successful improvements like this could be made, our graph would exhibit a bubble of the sort depicted below. Ideally, as entertainment value increased, data content would remain high and steady up to the points where our heads explode. Who knows, maybe someday this upper right region will be filled with some kind of hypnopedia.

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Click image to view

These are just some things I’ve learned in the last few months. I think it’s good to think about the kind of content we spend our time with, regardless of its flavor. But until you make your own conclusions, you should keep reading this blog until your head explodes, because that’s just how amazing our lives are over here.

We Eat Stuff

From time to time we get hungry. And sometimes we try to put something on the table that’s a little nicer than Ramen. And sometimes we get a little carried away trying to accomplish that. There have been numerous times when we haven’t sat down to dinner until almost 8:30. Fortunately for us, the wait usually pays off. I think the only time it didn’t was when Katie decided to deep fry tortellinis.  Other than that, Katie is pretty much an all-star chef, and thanks to the Pinterest gods, she’s never short on ideas. You can find most of them here.

There’s that good old saying that goes like “blood is thicker than water.” Let me tell you my own version:

Chicken is cheaper than beef.

That’s probably why most of our little dinner experiments center around the bird that clucks. Chicken is mostly an empty canvas; throw any number of spice patterns at it and it will hold them together. That is, except curry. Curry is evil.

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The other day we made chicken piccata

Chicken piccata is one of those dishes that has a great potential to make people angry because it tastes like pine sap. But the good news is that with the right ratios of lemon, vermouth (heh heh), and capers, you can end up with a really wonderful variation of the bird that clucks. The second time we made it, we marinated the chicken breasts in a little lemon and pepper before cooking them, and I think it made the dish even better.

This past weekend, I tried to make chicken lollipops.  I had seen this at some point on the food network (it is educational, I swear!), and thought I’d give it a shot.

I started by removing the skin and tendons from the lower part of the chicken legs by just chopping the joint off. Once I scrapped the meat over towards the other end, I put them in a Ziploc and marinated them in our super top secret family chicken marinade recipe. That was a nice touch. Like I said earlier, chicken can get kinda boring on its own.

So dinner came around that evening, and I started by searing the lollipops with a little cornstarch in our cast iron skillet.

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Somehow they all fit

Then I threw them in the oven with a half onion, a head of garlic, carrots, and a red potato. About half an hour later, the kitchen smelled like the cloud of steam that comes out of a red hot dutch oven, and the meat thermometer made the happy noise. With the softened garlic, I added some olive oil and a bunch of parsley and made a sauce out of it. Here’s the finished product. It was pretty damn great.

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hnnnnnggggg

Pork is more than chicken but still cheaper than beef.

Everything is cheaper than beef.

One time we had some pork, and Katie made this wonderful glazed deal. It might not look super fancy, but let me tell you, I’d never had a pork chop I liked until then.

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Pork chop, ooh-ha-ha.

One time we had a couple sourdough loaves from Pittsburgh’s strip district and turned them into bread bowls. There’s something very comforting about soup and bread, probably because you eat soup when it’s cold and rainy / you’re dying from pneumonia, and bread is, well, bread.

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I don’t have a spoon. *sobs*

Let’s face it though; there are lots of times when the table is not the place to be for dinner. For us, that’s usually for two reasons:

  1. The table is covered in crap
  2. Netflix

This happens about 100% of the time, so we improvise and make a few plates of odds and ends that we can snack on until we feel fat. My family has always called this sort of thing a “nosh.” Really it’s mostly like eating appetizers for dinner, or dining at a tapas bar. There have been more occasions than I’d like to admit where dinner was just a giant bowl of guacamole.  (#guacfest)

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This one came with margaritas!
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This one came with wine!
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Having a loaf of french bread makes everything better

I hope you’re hungry now. I am. But that’s mostly because Katie’s cooking bacon.

There are days when we get an immense joy out of cooking together. Don’t get me wrong, cooking can be stressful when you have to do it. But with the realization that the experiment you’re about to start can be both exciting and extremely rewarding, I think it’s one of the very best stress relievers. I don’t plan on giving it up any time soon, that’s for sure.

Anyway, this is just a little insight into our life. Or our food. Or our life of food. Let’s face it, life’s pretty boring if there isn’t nice food. I guess that’s why there’s Netflix.

Employment Blues

“I guess I’m stuck here.”

That’s what I thought about a month ago when I found out the US postal service had lost my employment forms.

Turns out I was only slightly wrong. I wasn’t stuck in any particular place. I was stuck in unemployment land. Since then I moved in with my friend from school for a month until the lease for Kate and I’s apartment kicks in. So here I am in Pittsburgh with nothing in particular to do and no income. Awesome.

Whatever. Ignore the fact that there is a random copy of my security reinstatement floating around in space somewhere. Ignore the fact that the government didn’t like the that I didn’t state something twice and rejected my paperwork the second time around. I’m a free man! I can do things like hang out in coffee shops and pretend to be cool. After all, it’s all about the image. I think doing hipster things like using a pen and paper is really the way to get people to think you’re a free thinker. It might help if I could grow a five o’clock shadow or something. Maybe more chest hair.

At least in this situation I have time. In all seriousness, I think at this point in most people’s lives they would give anything for a chance to distance themselves from the craziness a little. With the wedding nearly a month away, it’s helpful to be able to sit back and try to grasp the idea of being married, to pray about the anxiety, and to make a full time job out of  feeding myself.

That’s all I can do. I have to trust that God will get me where I need to be right now. Even as I pray for the phone call from my employer, I’ve got to recognize that this time of limbo is purposeful and necessary. Soon I’ll be looking back and wishing I was free to roam the streets of random Pittsburgh neighborhoods again. The good news is that if the opportunity does come my way again, Kate will be with me.

Maybe by then I’ll have more chest hair.

-Andrew