SLAVES TO SPINNING ALONG THE BLACKSTONE:

Today is Patriot’s Day. Here in Massachusetts, this day commemorates – and re-enacts — the battles of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of our Revolutionary War. And we have a marathon too … in Boston.

But this post is about the other  revolution — the American Industrial Revolution — which took place around the same time … and had perhaps even more profound effects on our world.

America: Born Bankrupt

America was born bankrupt. We won the revolution, but lost everything else. Our economy was dependent on Great Britain. We produced raw material, but Great Britain turned those materials into goods for the world’s markets.

Battle of Lexington and Concord revolution

Not merely did we depend on the British to supply us with finished goods we could not produce ourselves, we depended on British banks, British shipping, and British trade routes.

Everything has a price and we had no money. We had hoped we could reach an agreement with England short of war and had there been a less intransigent monarch on the throne at the time, we might have been able to do so. Despite the Massachusetts “Sam Adams faction” who were hellbent for battle, most colonists felt at least some allegiance to England.

We had no “American identity” because there was no America with which to identify. Nor was the yearning to breathe free burning in every heart. What the colonists of North America wanted was simple. They wanted the rights of free Englishmen. We wanted seats in British Parliament. We wanted the right to vote on taxes and other policies that affected colonial life. A deal should have been reached, but George III was not a sensible, reasonable or judicious king.

The result was war, the staggering loss to England of their wealthiest colonies and birth of a new nation.

That we won the war was astonishing. We had little in the way of arms and no navy. We were sparsely populated. Existing militias were untrained, undisciplined, little better than rabble. That George Washington was able to turn this into an army was no mean feat. No wonder they wanted him to be the first President.

French military support enabled us to beat the British. It was a loan, not a gift. We agreed to pay it back, so the French revolution was an unexpected and deeply gratifying development. It was like having the bank that holds your mortgage disappear taking your mortgage with it. It vastly improved our debt to income ratio. When Napoleon came to power and suggested we repay our war debt, we said “What debt?”

Our shipping industry was in its infancy. We had few ships or sailors, minimal access to world trade. The British ruled the seas and being soreheads, refused to share it with us. It would take many years before we could challenge their ascendancy on the seas.

What Did We Have?

Slaves and land. Sugar and rum.

If you who think slavery was an entirely southern institution, you’re wrong. Although slaves lived mostly in the southern colonies, they were brought to these shores by New England sea captains, held in New York, Boston, and other northern cities, sold to slavers at markets in the north, then sent south to be sold again to individual owners. The entire economy of the nascent country was based on slaves and their labor. The institution of slavery could not have persisted had it not been supported by business interests in the north.

The new-born United States had, for all practical purposes, no economy. We were pre-industrial when European countries were well into the modern industrial period. We had no factories. We had no national bank, currency, credit, courts, laws or central government. Our only thriving industry were slaves.

Although there was an abolitionist movement, it was tiny, more sentimental than real.

North and south, slaves made people rich. Not the slaves, of course, but other people. North and south, fortunes were made selling human beings, then profiting from their labor. When it came time to write the Constitution, to turn a bunch of individual colonies into one country, the Devil’s compromise was needed. Abolishing slavery would doom any attempt to pass the constitution … so slavery became law and the groundwork was laid for the bloodiest war America would ever fight.

It would twist and distort American history, shape our politics, society, culture, and social alignments. Its legacy remains with us today and probably always will.

So How Come We Didn’t Find a Better Way?

Question: If our Founding Fathers were so smart, how come they didn’t see that slavery would come back to bite us in the ass?

Answer: They knew it was wrong and knew that it would result in civil war. In other words, they did knew it would bite us in the ass. They could keep slavery and form a strong nation — or eliminate slavery and end up with two weak countries, one slave, one free. They chose what they thought was the lesser of the two evils.

Was it the lesser evil? Hard to say and it’s a bit late to second guess the past. It was clear from the get-go there was no way we were going to form a nation if slavery was made illegal. From private writings by members of the continental congress, it’s clear they knew the issue of slavery would eventually be resolved by war. Long before 1776, slavery was the polarizing issue in the colonies. So “The Great Compromise” was put into place, the Constitution was approved and a later generation fought the war.

Right went head to head with the bottom line and lost.

Eighty years later, 630,000 lives (more or less) would be the butcher’s bill for the compromises made in 1789. An ocean of blood would be the cost of ending America’s traffic in human lives. Many more years would pass before this country’s non-white population would see anything resembling justice, much less equality.

When you dine with the Devil, bring a long spoon.

So About Those Mills …

Slaves, rum, and sugar — the triangle of trade that kept America’s economy alive — was profitable for plantation owners, sea captains, and other slave traders, but it didn’t generate a whole lot of entry-level job opportunities for average working people. A lot of people needed work, even more needed trade goods and dependable sources of income.

Most people didn’t own ships and if they did, were disinclined to take up slaving. It was never a profession for “nice folks” and a fair number of people found it distasteful. Decent people might live off the labor of slaves, but the actual process of buying and selling human beings was more than they could stomach.

So as great political and legal minds gathered in Philadelphia to draft a document to build a nation, other great minds were seeking ways to make money. It’s the American way.

Renovated into elderly and affordable housing, the old Crown and Eagle mill in Uxbridge is beautiful today.

The Crown and Eagle Mill today, renovated into elderly and affordable housing.

In one of the stranger coincidences of history, the Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789 while simultaneously, the American Industrial Revolution took shape on the banks of the Blackstone River.

Moses Brown had been fighting his own war. He was battling the Blackstone. With a 450 foot drop over a 46-mile course — an average drop of about 10 feet per mile — the Blackstone River is a powerhouse. Not a wide river, its sharp drop combined with its narrowness and meandering path give it much more energy than a river of this size would normally generate.

It invited development. The question was how.

Through 1789, as the Constitution was gaining approval throughout the former British colonies, Brown wrangled the river, trying to build a cotton thread factory in Pawtucket, RI at the falls on the Blackstone River. He was sure he could harness the river to power his mill, but as the end of the 1789 approached, the score stood at Blackstone River – 1, Moses Brown – 0.

America had her welcome mat out in those days. We needed more people and especially people with industrial skills. We weren’t picky. All immigrants were welcomed. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for Moses Brown.

Slaterville Mill -- oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

Slaterville Mill — oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

In December 1789, Samuel Slater – a new immigrant from England — began working for Brown. Slater had spent years working at an English textile mill. He recognized that Brown’s machinery was never going to work. Slater had fine engineering skills. In under a year, he’d redesigned and built a working mill on the Blackstone River.

By 1790, Slater’s Mill was up and running, the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory in the United States. Slater’s Mill proved you could make money in New England doing something other than whaling, fishing, or running rum and slaves. Entrepreneurs hopped on the idea like fleas on a dog. Mills were an immediate success. New England was inhospitable to agriculture, but fertile for factories.

Mills grew along the Blackstone from Worcester to Providence, then sprouted by the Merrimack in Lowell, and eventually, throughout New England. Wherever the rivers ran, mills and factories followed.

The Blackstone Canal

On the Blackstone, mill owners urgently sought a better way to move their goods.

The features that made the Blackstone a natural for generating power made it useless for shipping. The only other choice — horse-drawn wagons — was slow and expensive. the trip took 2 to 3 days over dirt roads from the northern part of the valley to Providence.

blackstone canal locks

When the weather turned bad, the trip was impossible. All of which led to the building of the Blackstone Canal. Meant as a long-term solution, it actually turned out to be no more than a short-term temporary fix … but it was an impressive undertaking.

What Does This Have To Do With Slavery?

Mills brought employment to the north. It created a real industrial base that would give the north the ability to fight the civil war … and win. It started with a river, continued with a canal, expanded with the railroads. Which is why the Blackstone Valley is a National Historic Corridor and known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution … a revolution that brought the U.S. into the modern world and positioned us to become a top dog on the international scene.

Building the Canal

The Blackstone Canal took 4 years to build, from 1824 to 1828. The main canal runs alongside the Blackstone. In some places, the canal and the river are one. There is an extensive network of small canals, many on tributary rivers like the Mumford. The main canal was designed to handle large barges. It travels in a relatively straight line from Worcester to Providence.

The smaller canals allowed mills to move goods to places not immediately on the Blackstone. Small barges could move cargo between towns and mills.

Small canal serving the Crown and Eagle

Small canal serving the Crown and Eagle

Big barges were faster and cheaper than horse-drawn wagons. A single barge could haul as much as 35 tons of cargo and only needed two horses going downstream.

The canal system remains largely intact. Trails along the canals where horses towed barges have become walking paths. The barges are gone, but small boats can enjoy the open stretches of canal and river.

Railroads

Ultimately, railroads were the game-changer. As soon as rails from Worcester to Boston, and Worcester to Providence were built, the canals were abandoned. Business boomed.

The Blackstone River was lined with mills and factories at the end of the 1800s. The Blackstone supplied the hydro power and in return, the river was used to dispose of industrial waste and sewage.

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By the early 1900s, the Blackstone River in Massachusetts was grossly polluted. Fortunately for the river, though not necessarily for the valley’s residents, this was also the beginning of the end of the textile industry in the northeast.

As of 1923, the majority of nation’s cotton was grown, spun and woven down south. Without its mills and factories, the valley’s population began to shrink.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pollution

In 1971, the Blackstone River was labeled “one of America’s most polluted rivers” by Audubon magazine. It was a low point for the region. It was time to clean up the mess.

We’re still cleaning up. Although not as polluted as it was, the watershed has a long way to go. The river’s tributaries are less polluted than the Blackstone itself because against all logic and reason, waste-water is still being discharged from a sewage treatment plant in Millbury. It’s hard to fathom what reasoning, if any, those who favor pouring sewage into our river are using. The fight never ends.

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Good news? The birds and fish are back.

American eagles nest in my woods. Herons and egrets wade in the shallows to catch fish that breed there. The river is alive despite man’s best efforts to kill it.

CHARGE! – Marilyn Armstrong

To keep the world running, I have to charge things that recharge and keep a stack of AAA and AA rechargeable batteries ready to go.

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My world — the entire world and now, my heart too — runs on batteries. Mostly rechargeable batteries, except for my pacemaker which needs new batteries every 4 or 5 years (I think) and I do hope the batteries are very high quality.

Add 3 laptops, 2 Kindles, a couple of tablets, cellphones, 5 (6?) cameras, voice recorders, mouses (mice have fur and make squeaky noises, mouses attach to your computer), a wireless keyboard, a GPS, various clocks, flashlights, who-knows-how-many remote controls, electric razors, tooth cleaning machines, and a mind-numbing array of miscellaneous devices I can’t remember off-hand.

I have never lived in a house that had enough electrical outlets for things like lamps and televisions, much less a way to accommodate these chargers. So, I own power strips.

They are everywhere, snaking around corners, between dressers, behind the sofa, on each side of the bed and of course near each computer. They are also hiding in a lot of places you might never think to look. Throughout the house, in every room, power strips keep chargers charging and electrical devices functioning. From high-end hubs with surge protection to whatever was on sale at Walmart that day, every one is full or nearly so.

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Most power strips are designed by people who don’t use them. I have reached this conclusion based on the design that presumes you will never have anything larger than a lamp plug that needs a socket. Not even a vacuum cleaner cord fits properly, much less a power supply.

Typically, power strips don’t leave room to fit more than 2 or 3 chargers in a strip designed for half a dozen plugs. There’s no allowance for odd-shaped power supplies that will use half a strip.

 

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I don’t understand why chargers have to be so inconveniently shaped, or why they can never make a 3-pronged plug that will fit into an outlet without a fight. Why do most chargers require that you insert them at the end of the strip. No one ever seems to consider that there are only two “ends” and only one without a cord in the way. There’s some kind of Murphy’s Law that say if you are going to need two wall outlets, both devices will need to be on top or on the bottom.

I have 2 electrical sockets in the bathroom and 2 devices that require electricity. Only one can fit. The other socket is always unusable. The one charger blocks both outlets. Always.

The first day we moved into this house, two events occurred that have since defined our lives in the Blackstone Valley. The toilets backed up and the power went out. The toilets backed up because the crooks who sold us this house parked their van on the septic system’s outflow pipe and crushed it. The power went out for the usual reason: heavy rain, high wind, and lightning. Getting to know my neighbors meant figuring out how to find an electrician and plumber before I’d unpacked.

I don’t notice how dependent we are on batteries until I’m packing for a vacation. Half a carry-on is allocated to chargers … just for things we use while we travel: laptops, accessories, a pair of Kindles, his and her cell phones, mouses, portable speakers and more. I used to pack this stuff carefully. Now I just shove the chargers and wires in a bag and untangle as needed.

High tension wire, golden maple leaves framed by an azure sky.

If you think our civilization can survive anything, ponder this. All our stuff depends on batteries and electricity. Without electricity and batteries, life as we know it would end in about a week or two, at least in cities. It might go on a little longer in rural areas. After that?

Life will be a jungle in where every man, woman, and child will fight to the death for a working AA battery.

 

The Party: Taking Pictures When There’s Nothing to Shoot – Marilyn Armstrong

Sometimes, there’s really not much to shoot.

Here’s the story. There I am at a party. I’ve brought my camera, because hey, why not? I’ve been taking pictures of people doing what people do at parties. Talking. Eating. Sometimes laughing. A few loners. People talking in pairs, in groups. And I’m trying to find a new way to do something at which I’m not particularly good while finding a way of making pictures that are inherently dull, not so dull.

Tall pines from the deck.

The host, a retired photographer and videographer, hates parties and was hiding. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t appear until his wife rousted him from wherever he was holed up.

This is a group dominated by professional media people, some retired, many still working. So there were a lot of cameras, mostly Canon, a few Nikons. I’m the only one with one of those funny little cameras, having brought my Olympus PEN E-P3 and a spare battery while leaving the rest of my gear home.

The man with the Canon.

In this crowd, pictures are not taken on telephones or tablet computers. It’s not that kind of crowd. This is not a group in which anyone suffers from techno-envy. We all have equipment. Lots of it, our own and stuff that belongs to the television stations for which most of the guests work. Oddly, no one is doing video. Too much like work.

A hallway.

I didn’t actually know more than a handful of the people at the party except in the most general way. I know the host, the hostess, a few other people here and there. Pretty much everyone is a former colleague of my husband or related to the birthday boy.

One way or the other, I’m not sure I could get most of the names straight. Even if everyone was wearing a name tag it wouldn’t help much. The problem is partly because I didn’t know most of the guests. It’s also that I am terrible with names and faces. I’m nominally better with faces, but hopeless with names.

Still life with cheese remnants.

You can tell me your name and within a breath, I’ll say, “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?” and if it happens more than twice, I’ll be too embarrassed to ask again, so I’ll smile and nod. Life can be a bitch. Parties are worse.

So it’s me and my camera. It’s an event and besides, what else am I going to do?

This is not a really exciting experience for me. About an hour into the event, my boredom exceeded my tolerance, so I set myself a challenge. Find something to shoot in a lovely, but architecturally ordinary, suburban house.

In the corner.

In the end, the choice was simple: play “Word Mole” on my telephone or find something to shoot. I went with photography, although I’m a world-class “Word Mole” player.

Reflections in a high window.

Here are the results. “Seek and thou shalt find” should be the motto of all photographers. I looked. I didn’t just look around, I also looked up and down. I looked in corners, I peered through banisters. I tried natural light and flash, wound up using both.

Kitchen talk.

Motto of the story? There’s always a picture somewhere. Somehow. You have to look for it, sometimes very hard, but it’s there.

 

It’s Not Your Equipment … It’s a Lack of Documentation! – Marilyn Armstrong

Maybe I should just give up, but I spent my career writing material to help folks use complicated equipment and sometimes very obscure software.

I should probably start by mentioning that I’ve fought this battle for long years … and was utterly defeated. About 7 or 8 years ago, high-tech companies, in a money crunch and driven by that bottom line that seems to be the only thing that matters anymore, began to eliminate technical writers. Entire departments were dismantled and eliminated. Jobs disappeared and what remained paid so badly it was insulting.

A decision had been made at the corporate level: YOU don’t need documentation. No matter how complicated or expensive the equipment or software you purchase may be, don’t need documentation. Companies provide the minimum the law requires or they can get away with. Quality is no object nor usability. Information is limited to basic stuff like how to install a battery and if you are lucky, where the compartment is.

I was a technical writer for about 75% of my career, the rest being divided between journalism, editing, promotions and advertising. But mostly, I wrote documentation and I though my work mattered. Probably naive, but I believe that if I documented a system, it should be well written, clear, organized, and useful., When a user needed to find something, it would be in the book and in the online help. It would be easy to find. I carefully avoided using mysterious search parameters that could be deduced via a psychic link to my brain. If you knew what you wanted, I made it easy for you to find it.

I was proud of my work. I still believe the fundamental goal of documentation is to make complicated things simple. Not necessarily easy because sometimes, the product was not easy to use, but that didn’t mean that it had to be hard to understand. My documentation was good for another reason: I used the product and tested what I wrote to make sure it was true. This testing makes the difference between a pile useless gibberish and a manual.

Thus, when you get something that appears to be documentation, stop and read it. Appearances are deceiving. Most “manuals”  are generated, not written, and never checked for accuracy or usability. Such “manuals” are as likely to increase your confusion as provide illumination.

I bought a PEN EP3 camera from Olympus. Seven months and hundreds of photographs later, it remains one of the mysteries of my world. It takes wonderful pictures, and it has hundreds of functions. I haven’t the slightest idea how to find most functions and have no idea what to do with them if I could find them.

I grew up in a pre-digital world. I know F-stop, depth-of-field, shutter speed, aperture and focus, film speed and composition. I have a good eye. I’m no genius, but my pictures are pretty and I enjoy taking them.

He solves the problem the way most do: Automatic everything, then shoot.

New digital cameras have a vast and overwhelming array of functions, most of which you or I will never use or need. I believe they are there entirely to impress us with the super high tech-ness of the equipment. I doubt that even the designers — especially the designers — expects us to actually use them. Which is good, because I don’t know what they are supposed to do anyhow or why I would need them. Ansel Adams didn’t need them. Neither did Edward Weston. Neither do I. But, the more you pay for a camera, the more of these obscure functions you get and I figure that the least they owe me is an explanation of what these setting do and how to find them.

I’m not sure whether to curse or say thank you. Maybe if Olympus provided a manual that explained these options, I’d be grateful, but that is not happening.

I spent half our shooting time trying to find the menu to change the ISO.

This is true of cameras, but the lack of documentation on your computer is actually worse … much worse because most of us depend on our computers. We need them to work and we need to have some control over the environment in which we work. Configuration of our computers to suit our needs is not a minor detail: it’s the difference between having a tool that does what you need and one which is a burden … an enemy with which you do daily battle.

I spent all last night — until dawn — trying to figure out how to turn off the touchscreen functions of my monitor. Before Mac users jump in and point out that it’s because Windows doesn’t work, that’s irrelevant and untrue. Windows works fine. It’s just that the company doesn’t provide any written documentation. There is embedded information in the operating system, but much of it isn’t logically arranged. It’s rather like looking for your car keys after you’ve dropped them someplace you don’t normally put them. You know they’re in the house, but where? It could be years before you find them..

On a new computer, you typically get an “introductory” video and that’s pretty much it. I watched it. It showed me in exquisite detail how to do what I already knew how to do.

Operating systems are designed to be used the way the system’s developers expect you to use it. If you prefer a different setup, trouble starts. The only way to figure out how to do something differently is to keep querying the system and hope you’ll stumble on the right  key word — the word that will bring up the information you need. What is most frustrating is that you are sure it IS there, but whether or not you will ever find it is a different issue.

If you are sufficiently persistent and a bit lucky, you will eventually find a mystery menu after which you fix your problem in a few seconds.

Last night, I searched, searched again and again. It didn’t call Dell because I knew the support person wouldn’t know the answer either. They pretty much never do.

So I tried one word combination after another, recombining them in the hope that it would lead to a menu buried in the system. There had to be a way to deactivate touch input.

Around 5 in the morning, I found it. It took me less than 30 seconds to eliminate the problem that had been driving me nuts since I got the computer. Now, it’s a monitor. A great, high-definition, 23-inch monitor that’s a joy to work on and makes photo editing a pleasure. No more configuration by crawling insect. I am mistress of my virtual world at last!

A technical writers earns less than an entry-level developer. I understand the guys in India who provide telephone tech support work cheap, but I bet a tech writer would cost less than a network of telephone support no matter how cheaply they work.

Assuming you are under warranty and you can get through the voice mail  maze … and further assuming you get someone who understands the problem and don’t get blown off because software is not part of your warranty (Note: If someone can tell me how, without using software, you can determine if you have a hardware problem, I’d like to hear it) … Round and around you go.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Would it blow the budget to hire a competent technical writer to embed online help that will live on even after the warranty period is over? Wouldn’t it be nice to help users avoid needless aggravation and not wind up with angry, frustrated, exhausted, and homicidal customers whose problems remain unsolved?

Granting that many home users have a limited understanding of how their computers work and for them, it wouldn’t much matter what documentation you supply. Most problems result from insufficient understanding of a product or process. If you are talking about a novice user, perhaps more information wouldn’t help. But …

I’m not inexperienced and I still can’t find essential information I need to configure my monitor. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a menu on the control panel that I could use to configure the monitor’s capabilities, not merely its resolution but any other functions it may have. Functions not available on a particular model could be grayed out. How about that?

There is nothing wrong with my computer that better organized and easier to find information would not solve..

Every issue I’ve had over the last 5 or 6 years was ultimately fixed with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem was never something broken. It was always lack of documentation.

That pisses me off. Because tech writers — even highly experienced ones — work pretty cheap. Users do need documentation, and not just for software and computers. We need documents that let us use our cameras and telephones and DVD players and all those other pricey little devices that we own and often, don’t know how to use. Online FAQs are insufficient.

This is an old battle I’ve already lost. I know it’s hopeless. I find it infuriating that I can barely figure out my telephone without customer support, so rather than spend time on the phone with customer service, I don’t use anything I can’t easily configure.

I had to buy a separate book on how to use Photoshop and another for my first camera. I was able to get some help from a fellow user of my new camera, but that only goes so far. For my PEN P3 camera, there IS no customer support nor any after market book. I depend, as Blanche DuBois said, “… on the kindness of strangers.”.

My camera will remain a mystery until someone writes a “Dummies” book for it. Hopefully I’ll still own the it when the book finally gets published.

It’s not fair. The reason they get away with it is because we let them. Think about it.

So how did I finally figure it out? The “monitor” menu should have been a gateway, but was useless. The only thing you can the “Monitor” menu lets you do is lower your screen’s resolution. That’s useless.

Finally, I typed: Touchscreen.

Up came something that I hadn’t considered. Flicks. Now, for me? That means the movies. Having never used it, I had no idea it had anything to do with the monitor or its touchscreen technology. Once I got to “Flicks,”, I started opening menus and voilà, there were two check boxes allowing me to toggle an option:

  • Enable finger as pointing device.
  • Do not allow finger as pointing device.

I un-checked the first one by checking the second. I clicked “Apply.” As the sun rose in the east, my problem was solved and I went to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream  … of murder, destruction and vengeance.

ROKU – BETTER THAN EVER AND JUST AS CHEAP

Every once in a while, someone invents something that makes life a little brighter. 

Enter the Roku, a little streaming device that runs off your WiFi so you can stream movies, TV shows and other channels both free and subscription-based on your television. The price is right: the entry-level model is $49.99, and even the top of the line is less than $100, cheaper than a modest game system.

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The Roku comes in different flavors though they all work the same way. Advanced models offer additional bells and whistles including an earphone connection through the remote control. In our case, there is no point in getting an advanced model. Both our television have just one high-definition port and it’s already in use by the cable box. Also, we have wireless Sennheiser headphones hook-ups for both televisions.

plugs roku and headphones

Roku is small, the size of a little bar of soap. Connecting is simple. I did it alone and despite a few humorous moments caused when I didn’t notice I’d accidentally turned off the power strip, it went smoothly. Roku is as easy to install as the ads promise. It works. And keeps working.

Plug A into B, B into C. Insert batteries (2 AAAs, included) into the remote. Turn on the TV and follow the prompts. The single item the instructions don’t cover is reminding you to switch your TV input to whatever input you are using for Roku. This was easy on the newer TV in the bedroom where inputs on the back of the set are labeled. The bigger (older) TV in the living room makes you guess, so you have to click through the inputs until Roku appears. Mostly, you need to know to take this step or you will sit there staring at an empty screen, wondering why you aren’t seeing Roku.

roku to TV + headphones

The instructions promise installing the Roku will bring out your inner geek. My inner geek is not hidden. I just don’t like hardware. In my secret heart, I believe electricity is waiting for the right moment to spill out of the walls. I don’t trust hardware and I believe the feeling is mutual.

Regardless, I set it up and by golly, it works. This was my second installation, so I’m two for two. Yay me. It took about half an hour, most of which involved getting the wires out of the way and finding a place to put Roku where it is accessible yet close enough to plug into a power strip. Compromise was required. I wish manufacturers would include longer power cords longer on electronic devices. They are all — including Roku — about a foot short of convenient.

Despite advertisements to the contrary, there are only few free services. Almost everything is either subscription (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime) or pay-per-use (Blockbuster On Demand).

I was pleased to see that improvements have been made to the remote. The older version works, but it’s awkward and not very responsive.The newer unit has dedicated keys for major channels (nice!) and the unit is much more responsive. I wonder if I can get a newer remote for an older Roku? I’ll have to check.

The “search” capabilities are primitive using the remote, so search on a computer and put everything you want to watch on wish lists. Use the remote only to make selections. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Be aware: You can’t install Roku without a computer. To activate your unit, you must enter a generated code from the television into your account on the computer. 

Closed captions are available on almost everything. Some old television series and movies don’t have them, but that’s true on cable too.

roku and headphones

Is Roku going to replace expensive movie packages from your cable or satellite company? Maybe. It depends on your viewing habits, your technical aptitude, creativity and how your cable company has structured their prices. They don’t make it easy to delete pieces of your package. However, if you currently can’t afford movie packages from your cable or dish provider, this is affordable and easy to use — as easy as they say it is and getting more versatile every day. You will find that Netflix streaming video does not include most popular movies. For that, you need to sign up for their DVD service too … and I won’t do it. I’m not really thrilled with Netflix, by the way. Just thought I’d mention that. I’m tempted to try a different streaming service to see if it’s any better. I’m an Amazon Prime member and while their free selection is smaller than Netflix, it is higher quality.

You need one Roku per television, but you don’t need a different account for each Roku. One account for a household, no matter how many televisions you have, is enough.

Roku is great addition to your entertainment package, especially for the price. It delivers the goods, is more than worth the money, whether you buy the economy model or top of the line. Whether or not it can replace other services is subjective.

WHO SAID YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP?

Daily Prompt: I Believe

For today’s prompt, tell us three things that you believe in your heart to be true. Tell us three things you believe in your heart to be false.

- – - – -

Three things I really believe. I would never lie to you.

I believe, that:

  1. Electricity was created by the Power Demons from hell
  2. Electricity stays in our walls because we believe it will
  3. When the Power Demons choose, it will leak from the walls and fry us all and only those who live without its so-called benefits will survive.

75-Wires-57

I don’t believe, that:

  1. Every cloud has a silver lining
  2. That there’s a benevolent deity keeping personal tabs on each of us
  3. If you pray hard enough, you will always get what you want.

What, you don’t agree? I wonder why not. Hmm. Seems logical to me!

More beliefs:

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH ORDER PIZZA

Daily Prompt: The Heat is On

The high-tech world is fueled by pizza. If it had not already been invented, a group of developers trying to meet a deadline would have had to invent it.

I could have invented it myself. As the only non-engineer on a development team, I was supposed to know about things like food. And complete sentences. And the difference between active and passive forms. Whew. That was why they paid me the big bucks.

The world in which I worked most of my life required tons of creativity and productivity. To keep these going, three key ingredients were needed:

  • Computers
  • Coffee
  • Pizza.

We could have posted a sign outside the offices which said “We work for pizza!”

75-work-for-pizza

Because essentially — not counting salaries — that’s what kept us going. I never missed a deadline. No one else did either. When our efforts seemed in danger of flagging, copious amounts of pizza appeared in various permutation. Of course, there were plenty of computers and endless amounts of coffee too. That went without saying.

I do not believe any developer I know would work in an office where one actually pays for coffee. Blasphemy!

Question: How do you know when your development team has been working too much overtime?

Answer: When someone says “Can we have something to eat that isn’t pizza?”

No. Not really. And don’t forget to make fresh coffee.

Other Entries:

  1. The Daily Prompt & Eric’s Aria – Part 1 (short story) | The Jittery Goat
  2. Procrastination Insults My Intelligence | I’m a Writer, Yes I Am
  3. The biggest appointment | MC’s Whispers
  4. Under Pressure | A mom’s blog
  5. pressure | yi-ching lin photography
  6. DP Daily Prompt: The Heat is On | Sabethville
  7. Cops | Views Splash!
  8. the pressure is the same | y
  9. Men | Hope* the happy hugger
  10. One Crazy Mom » The Heat Is On
  11. Student hurrying to catch the bus (Daily Prompt: “The Heat Is On, Show Us Pressure”) | Photo0pal Photography
  12. I’ll start tomorrow. | Attempted Human Relations and Self
  13. DAILY PROMPT: Pressure | cockatooscreeching
  14. Life Confusions
  15. Daily Prompt: The Heat is On – Perspective of Medical Student | Journeyman
  16. Daily Prompt: Pressure | Captured By Kylie Photography
  17. The heat is on – turned down to low! | Sue’s Trifles
  18. Pressure | The scribbles in the margin
  19. Pressure Points and Implosions | ALIEN AURA’S : IT’LL BLOW YOUR MIND
  20. Daily Prompt: The Heat is On | CHRONICLES OF AN ANGLO SWISS

YOU MADE THAT YOURSELF?

When I was a young mommy working full-time and raising my son, I thought I should make my own clothing. It would save a lot of money. My mom made all my clothing when I was a child. She continued throughout her life to make her own outfits and they were gorgeous and classy.

Now that I was grown up with a job and a toddler, she occasionally — if I begged and pleaded — made something for me. Things I wanted but couldn’t find in the store, or afford if I found them.

I waxed nostalgic about the days when Mom made my clothes. I didn’t appreciate how beautifully everything fit. How special the outfits were until I was much older. When I was a kid, I wanted was to look like everyone else. Kids are dumb that way.

sewing susan

I spent my entire childhood watching my mother sew things on her magic Singer. How hard could it be? I picked up a second-hand sewing machine. Took a sewing class. Bought a few patterns. Acquired fabric, zippers, buttons, threads — all those little widgets and doodads sewing requires.

There were a lot more than I imagined possible. And I made some spiffy new outfits. I was thrilled at how much clothing I could make for a pittance, especially compared to buying it at Macy’s.

People stared at my clothing. Admiration, I figured. They must be impressed. I was right.

Long pause. “You made that yourself?”

“How did you know?”

“Just a lucky guess.”

It turns out that you have to set both sleeves the same way so one isn’t puffy and the other flat. There’s pattern matching too. Oh, and buttons, which are supposed to line up. Zippers are not supposed to stick out and be all bunchy. Also, they are supposed to close so it’s level when zipped.

Details, details. Hems? One length all around. Those pesky collars? Hated collars. They never came out right.

Even is a big word in sewing. Both sides of a garment should be as close to exactly the same as possible. Unless you are oddly shaped or making a costume for a party and intend to look weird.

I took a another course, this time in tailoring. It didn’t go as well as sewing had. You had to use padding and stuff that stiffens fabric. I was never patient enough to get it right.

I gave up making my own clothing and returned to holding my little plastic card and yelling “CHARGE!” as I went into the mall. The sewing machine grew dusty. It is still gathering dust in my dining room.

It’s all closed now. But not wasted. It’s a lovely spare table on which to display dolls. I collect dolls. And no, I do not make their clothing.

I do many things myself. I get up and out of bed by myself. I wash dishes. Write, edit, take pictures, process photos. Pass out treats to dogs. Manage our so-to-speak finances.

singer sewer 2

Take more pictures. Water plants. Maintain this blog.

That’s pretty good, isn’t it? All by myself I mean?

Oh, and I fix computers, install software and if you need anyone to explain how to use something? I’m your gal. Does anyone need an older, but barely used sewing machine?

WHAT’S WITH 1337?

What’s with the 1337 thing? WordPress uses it for a lot of things, for the top number in posts, in follows. I figured it must have some kind of historic significance to them, like the amount of money they had when they started the company, or maybe a time or maybe map coördinates.

Nope.

I looked it up. Whatever did we do before we had Google? Of course, before the internet, we would not be looking it up because this is the straight stuff: pure internet/gamer/hacker gibberish — er, slang. A bizarre distortion of language and a techno-geek in-joke.

72-1337-A

1337 means LEET,  a twisted version of the word “élite.” Which, over the years, has become internet slang for superior. Here’s the math: 1337 (1 – L, 3 – E, 7 – T) = LEET = ELITE.

This is supposed to be tres cool. Do you think it’s cool? I’m curious to hear what you think. I think it’s lame and annoying, but hey, I’m old. Definitely not one of the cool kids.

In fact, I’m not a kid at all.

Image

REVIEW: THE DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET

After the Kindle HDX washed out, I had a hole where a small, portable web-capable device should be. With hospitalization soon, I wanted to be able to do small footprint basic computing. My laptop is great, but too big and heavy for a hospital bed.

I’ve been using the Dell Venue Pro 8 every day for the past few weeks. I no longer find myself shouting at it — big improvement. The real problems were solved when Dell installed new drivers. The rest of the issues have gone away as I’ve gotten to know the hardware and operating system.

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I remain underwhelmed by Windows 8. It offers no advantage over Windows 7, at least to customers. My son pointed out it offers value to Microsoft by making everything proprietary. It blocks you from using applications not made specifically for Windows 8. Considering the whole advantage to Windows has always been its universality, this is a strange, self-destructive direction for Microsoft. They have a new CEO. Let’s see if he gets the company back on a sensible course. Otherwise, this will likely be my last Windows device. Sad, after such a long relationship.

Technically, you can run standard Windows applications on any Windows 8 machine, tablet or otherwise. Practically speaking, it’s not true. Some things run. Most don’t. The Venue 8 only lets you install by download, which eliminates a lot of my software by default. Most of the other applications I use on Windows 7 don’t run on 8 — or run so poorly it isn’t worth the effort. It’s ironic. Just as Apple is opening up their platform to all kinds of applications, Microsoft has gone the other way.

The tablet’s native software runs well. The email app is fine. IE runs smoothly. You better like IE because you won’t be using Firefox or Chrome — neither runs on the tablet. I’m not a big gamer, so the lack of games doesn’t bother me as much as it aggravates others, but still. Aside from Solitaire, there are no games. You can’t even get a download of Scrabble. That’s rough.

Photography apps? None worth the effort. I won’t be taking a lot of pictures using the onboard camera (which works pretty well), or uploading photographs to the tablet — even for viewing. There’s no USB port, no slot for an SD card other than one micro card which is an extension slot for memory.

If you want to play games, read books, watch movies, listen to music? The Kindle Fire HD (the old version, not the HDX), is just $139 from Amazon. It’s a far better choice for entertainment. Not as good for email and other Internet activities … but for entertainment, it’s a winner.

The Dell Venue Pro 8 is solidly built. It feels great in hand. It seamlessly connected to Netflix. Watching movies is easy. You can listen to music on Amazon’s Cloud Player, but it’s not straightforward. Microsoft really wants you to use its own software … but I find it confusing, complicated and lacking documentation or instructions, ultimately incomprehensible. It’s inexcusable to provide so little support.

The (free) copy of MS Office installed without a hitch. I don’t know if I’ll get out much use from it. That’s not what I bought the tablet for. I found a bunch of other useful small applications. Solitaire, a clock, calendar, alarm and stopwatch and installed them without incident. I uninstalled a few things too. Installation and uninstallation is really easy. And fast. If only there were more apps!

The speakers are great, though not terribly loud. Which is fine. I can use earphones if I need it louder. For such a little tablet, the graphics are fantastic. I watched “Jack Reacher” on Netflix and enjoyed it. My website looks great.

The cameras (1 front, 1 back) work but the lack of editing software limits their usefulness. It would be okay for Skyping — probably — but I don’t Skype, so it’s moot. The video camera seems fine as does the voice recorder, though I have little use for either.

It’s got a lot of bells and whistles, some of which I might use yet it’s missing important basic tools. Not being able to edit its own photos is bad, but not being able to upload my photos at all? Worse. All for the want of a USB port.

It’s good for reading (Kindle and maybe other reader apps), watching a movie on Netflix. I don’t know about other services but you can’t watch Amazon Prime. Or I can’t figure out how.

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It’s good for quick emails. I’m disinclined to write much on a virtual keyboard. I can  do small amounts of web editing but wouldn’t want to do more. But not because the tablet won’t. It loads this website fast and switches to editing mode with no problem.

The Venue Pro 8 is too small for web editing. It’s too small for a lot of things. My son has a 10″ device and he can do a lot more. The “OK” boxes and other targets on-screen are tiny. Even using a stylus, I miss as often as I hit. Fine editing is out of the question. That is not the fault of the tablet. I chose this size. I knew it would have limitations. I was right.

There are no after market accessories — yet. Well,  there’s one, but it doesn’t work. I bought a secondary market keyboard — blue tooth — and returned it. It wasn’t broken, but you had to enter a generated key code. You couldn’t see the code because the virtual keyboard popped up and blocked it. By the time you got the keyboard out of the way, the code was gone. The codes are good for only 30 seconds. I don’t understand why they designed it like that. Just provide a printed code. Why make me jump through hoops to sync a keyboard?

Dell sells a keyboard that apparently works, but it’s $99. Too expensive. I’ll do without. I don’t know how well any blue tooth accessory will install. If it includes a “time out” code, it won’t. It’s a tactical rather than technical problem, but it stopped me.

If anyone wants to point out how I could use my iPhone, may I remind you I find an 8″ tablet too small. Do you think the iPhone would be better? Think before commenting.

Summary

What I like:

  • Great graphics
  • Excellent sound
  • Good camera and video (but no editing tools)
  • Free Microsoft Office, email and other workaday stuff
  • Fine build
  • No problem loading websites
  • Fast boot time; almost instant
  • Long battery life and short recharging cycle
  • Comes with a charger.

What I don’t like:

  • No USB port
  • No SD card slot
  • The cord is too short. Really, would it have broken the bank to add a foot and make it reach my desk from the electrical outlet? Serious inconvenience
  • No documentation. The PDF is just generated data. Useless
  • Windows 8.1 sucks
  • The graphical Interface feels like a bunch of pieces stuck together without a cohesive concept.

Related articles:

DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL | Serendipity

THAT CRUMBY KEYBOARD

logitech sealed keyboard

When I finally bought a sealed, washable keyboard, I thought I was finally quit of sticky keys, breadcrumbs stuck under the space bar and the general sense of unsanitary-ness that accompanies my keyboards.

I am an incorrigible eater of food while working on the computer. I quit smoking years ago … but I can’t seem to quit this. I not only snack at the computer. I eat breakfast and lunch here and if Garry is out-of-town, occasionally dinner too. It’s like eating in front of the TV. I’m here, I’m hungry. I eat.

This morning, my typos have been particularly outrageous. Lately I’ve been missing letters. First and last letter, Ls and today, spaces. Finally it occurred to me the keys are not moving properly. Those missing letters are not maladjusted fingers or brain glitches. It is my old nemesis, crunchy keyboard syndrome.

computer and keyboard

It’s a Logitech keyboard. Sealed, it can be immersed in water and washed. Which is what it needs. The problem? It’s not an immersible wireless keyboard. It’s plugged in to the rear USB port. To avoid having the cord in my way, I ran it through the hole in the desktop — designed for that purpose. But to detach it for washing, I would have to roll myself into a ball and crawl under the desk. Then do it again when I reattach it. Not surprisingly, I haven’t actually washed the keyboard since I got it.

So I brushed it, went over it with a wet paper towel. I picked the big crumbs out with tweezers. I have to admit, it’s working a lot better. At least until lunch.

TECH SUPPORT – WHERE “BAD” IS THE NEW “GOOD”

Bad customer and technical support is the new good. You only think it’s bad. The problem is your attitude. Or so they’d have you think.

YOU CAN RUN, BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE

Death cust servAll the big technology companies are working hard to save a few bucks. The competition is fierce. Every penny counts. Since executives won’t accept lower pay nor will stockholders accept lower returns, it’s customers who fill the cost-cutting gap.

In the race to be the cheapest, tech companies stopped including chargers with devices. No manuals. No system software. No reinstallation software. Short power cords that don’t go from an outlet to a desktop. No connector for printers, speakers or whatever. Everything you need to finish setting up costs extra.

Customer service was the first thing to go. They hired people who don’t know anything, don’t understand or speak English. For all I know, they don’t understand or speak Spanish either. They aren’t trained, don’t know the products. And since manufacturers no longer include documentation, you don’t have the option of taking care of it yourself.

No company — not cameras, computers or software — includes documentation. I became obsolete years ago when the industry decided no one reads the manuals. So they fired the tech writers, put some generated information in an online PDF. They figured customer service techs would handle the fallout. But they don’t. Many of us would be happy to fix minor glitches but have no alternative to spending our time on the phone, frustrated and angry.

THE PLAN IN ACTION

You can’t say they didn’t have a plan. The big corporations indeed had a plan. A bad one.Customer Service waiting

It was so bad, it was immediately adopted by everyone. Globally.

It’s not a Microsoft problem, a Dell problem, or any company’s individual problem, though some are more awful than others and a few are notorious. It’s a cross-industry problem, affecting virtually every organization in this country.

Bad is the new good. Because good is remarkable.

WOULD IT KILL THEM TO INCLUDE A MANUAL?

CustServCartoon In every industry, business, service — service support stinks. It doesn’t matter where you go. You’ll get the same lousy service. It’s the great leveler.

Sometimes, you get lucky. The guy or gal you connect with actually knows the product and you think “Wow, that wasn’t bad! Maybe it’s improving.” The next time, it’s the same old, same old.

AMAZON – THE BRIGHT SPOT

There is a bright spot. Amazon and Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon) still have terrific customer service. That could change any time on the whim of a company exec, but for now, it’s great.

It’s no accident I shop through Amazon. They offer really good service. You have a problem, they go out of their way to make it right. You need to return something? They don’t question you, make you jump through hoops.

I wish I could buy everything from them.

DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Not long ago, I chronicled my adventure with Dell Customer Disservice and Dell Technical nonSupport. A few days later, I wrote ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION, GET A SIMPLE — WRONG — ANSWER. The following day, my Dell Venue Pro 8 tablet arrived. Such a little package. Well, what did I expect? It’s just a wee bit bigger than a Kindle.

dell-venue-8-pro

Why Do I Always Have Be the Fixer?

Yesterday was computer fixing day. My son used to be a professional computer repair guy but has apparently forgotten everything he ever knew. He handed me his laptop. Seven hours later, it was running pretty well, though it could use a full reload of the OS which I’m not going to do. Still, I think it’s at least a working computer.

With all the jokes they make about Old People and computers, how come I’m the ONLY one in this 3-generation household who understands how computers work? How come, huh? I wanted to beat the kid (all 6’4″ 240 lbs of nearly bald 44-year-old kid) to death with that 15″ laptop. I’m definitely getting old and cranky.

Back to the Review (Already In Progress)

The Dell Venue Pro 8 is well-built. It has a lovely, solid, silky feel. It easily connected to the Kindle application and Netflix. Without a hiccup. Chrome, on the other hand, would not work and I gave up. Some battles aren’t worth the effort. The (free) copy of MS Office installed without a hitch too. Eventually I found a variety of other useful applications, a reasonable version of Solitaire, a clock, calendar, alarm and stopwatch and installed them too. I uninstalled a few things I didn’t have any use for. Installation and uninstallation is really easy. And fast.

The tablet wasn’t working quite as it should. It dropped its Internet connection each time it went to sleep and it wasn’t sensitive enough to touch.

This meant – OMG!!!! – another call to Dell’s tech support. I didn’t hesitate. I have learned that thinking about it will make the inevitably horrible experience even worse. Moreover, I have no intention of keeping the tablet if it isn’t going to work properly.

The problems weren’t big ones, but they were annoying. Mostly I like the tablet. Good speakers, exceptional graphics. Watched “Jack Reacher” on Netflix. Not bad. The sound isn’t as loud as I might like, but the quality is excellent and it has an earphone jack. The cameras (1 front, 1 back) work pretty well, even in low light. I haven’t tried the video camera or the voice recorder yet. Overall, it’s got a lot of bells and whistles I might really use (be still my heart).

Tech Support Again (Oy)

I am not going to go into details. Suffice to say, I was on the phone with this doofus for 4-1/2 hours. When the conversation started I had 2 relatively minor issues. After he fixed things (reinstalling the drivers, etc.), the tablet was dead. Unresponsive. He said he wanted to try one more thing. It was getting late, past dinner time and I said, “No, I’ve had enough. Either you put me on with someone who actually knows what needs to be done and can speak English well enough for us to understand each other (this guy not only didn’t speak English, he didn’t understand it either) or I swear I will return this tablet to Dell, explain that YOU are the reason why and never, ever buy anything from Dell again in this lifetime.” Which, if I didn’t get my blood pressure under control, might not be very long.

He threw in the towel and passed me to a Supervisor. Who spoke and understood English. And knew how to get the tablet up and running.

The secret of getting a dead Windows 8 computer up and running is 3 successive cold reboots. Third time, it goes into “self-repair and diagnostic mode” — the new version of Safe Mode.  Which doesn’t require a password. So finally, I was able to adjust the setting after which it began to connect automatically to WiFi. Problem solved.

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Next, I insisted I make the table NOT password protected. Which is when I discovered Windows 8.1 is still — as all Windows have been — a hack over DOS. It was comforting in a weird way. There was the old DOS prompt in its little black window, like an old friend. It meant I was not really learning a new OS. I was just learning to work around the changed GUI. I felt better.

Eliminating Password Protection

For anyone who wants to get rid of password protection in Windows 8.1, here’s how to do it:

(1) Use Search to find the command prompt. Start typing “Command” and before you hit the second “m,” you’ll see command prompt as a clickable link. Click it.

(2) Type: control userpasswords2

(3) Up comes a little window, a little window you’ve seen on every version of Windows since 3.1.

(4) UNCHECK “require all users to have a password,” then enter your password as requested. Exit all the way out and reboot. That should do it. Sometimes you have to do it twice.

Win 8.1 has the identical sub-structure as every version of Windows. Control panel, menus, SysConfig, Uninstall. It’s all there, buried a level deeper under a new — pointless and unattractive — user interface. You can change the interface using “Personalize” and make it less ugly.

My over all opinion of Windows 8.1 remains unchanged. It is not an improvement over 7. If anything, it’s a step backward. It requires significant relearning without offering any noticeable advantage to users. After you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to work with, but it’s unnecessary and adds an unfamiliar layer to what ought to be simple.

Summary

What I like:

  • Great graphics
  • Excellent sound
  • Surprisingly good camera and video
  • Useful apps that work and most of them are free
  • Feels nice to the touch with a fine build quality
  • Good battery life.

What I don’t like:

  • The cord is much too short. Really, would it have broken the bank to add a foot and make it reach my desk from the electrical outlet? This is a serious inconvenience, not a quibble
  • Horrible documentation. I’ve seen the PDF and it isn’t much more informative than the leaflet. It’s not that Win 8 is difficult. The documentation is totally inadequate
  • I don’t like Windows 8.1. Now that I can use it, it’s a lot of flash and dash. It isn’t an improvement over Windows 7 — quite the opposite. Sorry dudes. I still don’t understand why you took a good OS (Win 7) and made it harder to use
  • The graphical Interface is neither tablet or user-friendly. It doesn’t feel integrated or smooth. More like a bunch of pieces stuck together without a cohesive concept.

BEYOND THE MOON: ENCOUNTER WITH TIBER, ALDRIN AND BARNES

Encounter with Tiber, by Buzz AldrinJohn Barnes

Originally published in July 1996, Encounter With Tiber was released on Kindle on May 28, 2013. I’m a lifelong fan of science fiction and space exploration. I watched the moon landing in 1969 — the glory days of NASA — and dreamed I’d see space flight become accessible to everyone, even me.

I jumped into reading this with enthusiasm. Buzz Aldrin’s fingerprints are all over the first section of the book. Not only does it give you an up-close and highly personal look at the inner workings of NASA, but it gives you an uncomfortably intimate view of the politics of America’s space program. From this, I gleaned an enormous amount of information about what happened to the U.S. space program.

How it is that more than 40 years after landing men on the moon, our space program is moribund, hobbled by in insufficient budget. Our human dreams of venturing into space are dead on the launch pad. The 16-years since the publication of the book have dealt unkindly with NASA. It’s hard to see what would revive the program.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on Mare Tran...

This first part of the book is a beautiful presentation of our space technology, why it worked, why it stopped working. For the first time, I understand the workings — and failures — of our technology.  Aldrin uses diagrams to explain all kinds of stuff that I had heard about and never understood. I know it is supposed to be fiction, but it felt real.

Then the book switches authors. Rarely in a co-authored book has it been so obvious when one author stopped writing and the other picked up. The style goes from scientific and precise, to … something else. Aldrin writes like a scientist, which he is. Barnes writes like a novelist for whom details are optional.

Aldrin poses on the Moon, allowing Armstrong t...

The change in “voice” is abrupt and somewhat jarring.

Both authors write well but very differently. This is an ambitious book which covers the development and fizzling of our space program then takes off into the stars with a crew composed of different sentient species leaving from other planets in yet another star system. The stories tie together by sharing a common theory of the life and death of stars and planets.

I was a bit put off by the sudden switch from Aldrin’s precision to Barnes lack thereof. Aldrin explains everything and can’t go 10 pages without a diagram. When he’s writing, you don’t spend a lot of time saying “huh?” Barnes, on the other hand, doesn’t bother to define any terms at all. Vague and belated attempts to rectify the initial omissions are more annoying than satisfying. Eventually, I just rearranged my brain and moved on.

The characters — human and otherwise — are interesting, though the aliens weren’t sufficiently alien for me to feel their alienness. More like humans in wookie costumes.

English: Footprint of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

It’s worth reading just for the first half obviously written by Buzz Aldrin. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to our space program and why, this book will make it all clear as a freshly washed window. As science fiction, it’s a long and complicated book — 596 pages. And it’s really two books, the one Aldrin wrote and the one Barnes wrote.

The theory it postulates is troubling. If you accept the book’s premise, the failure of our space program will ultimately doom us to extinction. All of us. Not tomorrow, but eventually. The foundation principle of the plot is in the end, that everything dies.

Planets and stars have a life span. Worlds get old. Stars wink out. If a sentient species has no way to escape its dying planet, it will die with the planet. It’s enough to give one pause. If you never thought about it before, Encounter With Tiber will get you thinking in new directions, perhaps worrying in new directions.

Think of this as two separate book fused together, related, but not the same. It will make more sense and be easier to read. Essentially, that’s what it is. Two books. Two authors. Related, but not the same. Everything you never wanted to know about NASA and then a trip through the stars in an alien ship looking for a new planet to call home.

Related articles:

GIVE YOUR BLOG SITE A PAINLESS FACELIFT

Usually when I switch templates I do it because I’m in the mood for change. This time, I had to change after my site went all wonky. The main text font turned pale — nearly invisible — silver and I couldn’t get it back to black. When I realized I couldn’t fix it, I migrated into SUITS. It is similar enough to ZOREN so migration was simple and quick.

Suits

SUITS solved my immediate problem. My text was black again and it looked pretty good. No need for major surgery. But the main column is narrow compared to ZOREN — not photo-friendly — and I decided I didn’t like the way the header image displayed. I returned to ABLE, a theme I used for months before ZOREN.

If you go back to a theme you’ve previously used, it usually remembers your settings and header images. ABLE remembered me, so it was painless. One click and it was a done deal. It picked up all my recent changes too. Like coming home.

A lot of folks go into a tailspin when they decide to change templates. Yet it’s easy. If you understand what elements you use, what elements you need, all you have to do is pick a template that has those same elements, preferably arranged in a similar way.

Able

For example ZOREN is very much like ABLE. It lets you use a full size image in the header and it’s a wide format. It includes a bunch of different post formats and is widget-ready. Flexible and good for photographs, but also attractive for text — until it went bonkers yesterday. I’d have stayed with it otherwise.

ABLE has  the same basic design. I put the sidebar on the left since ABLE lets you put the sidebar left or right. ZOREN, SUITS and ABLE all use the same layout. Only decorative elements and proportions are different.  As soon as a new theme is active, I can customize it: change the header, modify colors and fonts because I have the customization package. But even if you don’t, you can make small adjustments to make it uniquely yours.

I made the initial switch from ZOREN to SUITS in about 2 minutes using a slightly broken laptop while I was in bed. Really. In bed. In my jammies. And I still had time to read before lights out. I switched to ABLE today and it took me literally a single click.

ZorenChanging templates doesn’t need to be scary. Pay attention to what elements comprise your site. Decide what’s important to you and what’s not. Pick a template that has the features you want. Use the preview to see how it will look. Too narrow? Don’t like the way your photos display? Too wide? Don’t like the way text looks?

Preview a different theme. I’ve sometimes tried a dozen or more before I find one I really like. I wasn’t particularly picky last night because I needed an instant fix. Fortunately, SUITS worked.

What elements are important to me?

  1. It must be wide enough to display photographs well. Pictures are important.
  2. The fonts have to be easily readable, with good spaces. Never white or light on black — too hard on the eyes. I’m too old to squint.
  3. The page must show at least 50% white space. White space includes empty margins, line spacing, column spacing, empty areas around the header and pictures. Any space that does not contain graphics or text is white space, no matter what color it is. Without adequate white space, your site will be cluttered, hard to read and many people will find it annoying — but may not know why.
  4. I prefer a header which lets me use a picture, but I’m flexible about that.
  5. I prefer a left-hand sidebar, but can live with one on the right if the main column is wide enough. We read left to right, so I like to have my important stuff on the right side of the page. Note: Right hand pages cost more when you are buying print advertising for this reason.
  6. I want my widgets in a sidebar. Therefore, I can’t use any of the single-column templates, some of which are otherwise very attractive. I also won’t use any of the magazine-style multi-column templates. They are too busy. Clean and easy on the eyes are my goals. Also, multi-column themes don’t display photographs the way I like.
  7. I want a low maintenance format. Intense graphical formats require a lot of tweaking and tuning. They are prone to inexplicable glitches. I don’t have time to diddle with formatting nor do have I enough interest in the technical aspects of blogging to devote myself to the care and maintenance of a fussy design.

You need to know yourself. What you like, what you want, what you need. Keep an image in your mind of how you want your blog to look. Don’t get distracted by every pretty face you see. I’ve found the more complicated the template, the more problems it develops. There are more than enough glitches without adding more.

Following are some of the other templates I’ve used successfully. The differences are fewer than their similarities. Look past colors and decorations to the structure. If you’re tired of your template, not really thrilled with the way your site looks and you’d like a facelift, consider a new template. It needn’t be a difficult process of rebuilding. Pick one that has the same shape and elements you already use — and want to keep. Then do a some previewing and see if you like it. Next? Just do it.

Voila. A whole new look!

Yoko

Twenty Eleven

SnapIt-191

Adelle

crafty

splendio

ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION, GET A SIMPLE — WRONG — ANSWER

I bought a small Dell tablet that I hope will serve a purpose … something compact that I can use to connect to the larger world, but tuck in my bag for quick excursions when I’m not going to be processing photos or writing posts for my blog. It has been ordered, but not yet received. When I ordered it, I was told it accepted a standard SD memory card up to 128 GB in size. Cool. Adorama was advertising a sale on memory today, so I popped over to see what bargains were to be had. I figured I’d get — depending on price — one or two 64 GB cards. And realized that anything larger than 32 GB is XC, not HC.

So I used Dell’s chat to ask a question. I thought it was a simple question. Will the Venue Pro 8 read an SDXC card?

This is how the first call went. After this, I went to working the phone.

This is an automated email sent from Dell Chat. The following information is a log of your session. Please save the log for your records.
Your session ID for this incident is …
Time Details
01/20/2014 11:07:21AM Session Started with Agent (A-D)
01/20/2014 11:07:21AM Marilyn Armstrong: “.”
01/20/2014 11:07:27AM Agent (A-D): “Welcome, my name is A-D. I can be reached at … How may I help you?”
01/20/2014 11:07:45AM Marilyn Armstrong: “I have one question about the Venue Pro 8 which I’ve already ordered”
01/20/2014 11:08:15AM Agent (A-D): “No problem you are free to ask questions Marilyn”
01/20/2014 11:08:19AM Marilyn Armstrong: “I know it takes an SD card, but does it read the newer SDXC cards?”
01/20/2014 11:08:55AM Marilyn Armstrong: “HC is the older format, but all the larger cards – 64GB and up — are SDXC, not SDHC.”
01/20/2014 11:09:42AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Hello??”
01/20/2014 11:10:15AM Agent (A-D): “Yes you can still use other SD card …”
01/20/2014 11:10:24AM Agent (A-D): “I mean other brand”
01/20/2014 11:10:24AM Marilyn Armstrong: “SDXC?”
01/20/2014 11:10:34AM Marilyn Armstrong: “This isn’t a brand. It’s a FORMAT.”
01/20/2014 11:10:46AM Agent (A-D): “Yes it can”
01/20/2014 11:10:53AM Agent (A-D): “It is back ward compatible”
01/20/2014 11:11:21AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Are you sure? Because this is a NEWER NOT AN OLDER FORMAT and I don’t think you understand what I’m talking about”
01/20/2014 11:11:50AM Agent (A-D): “let me double-check for you”
01/20/2014 11:11:53AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Please connect me with someone who understands the technology.”
01/20/2014 11:13:27AM Agent (A-D): “Upon double checking the format can only support SD, SDHC only”
01/20/2014 11:14:08AM Marilyn Armstrong: “So it can’t actually accept a 128GB card because they are ALL in SDXC format. The bigger cards are all SDXC
01/20/2014 11:14:16AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Is there someone I can really talk to?”
01/20/2014 11:14:27AM Agent (A-D): “yes it is …”
01/20/2014 11:14:54AM Agent (A-D): “you can go on this link http://support.dell.com/support/topics/global.aspx/support/en/chat?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs&~ck=mn for you technical support”
01/20/2014 11:14:56AM Marilyn Armstrong: “Where? Not on dell, not on Amazon, not on Tiger Direct, not anywhere.”
01/20/2014 11:15:01AM Agent (A-D): “You’ll be able to contact our Technical Support Department at 1-800-624-9896, they are open 24/7″
01/20/2014 11:15:39AM Marilyn Armstrong: “This is a simple question. I don’t want to spend hours on the damned phone. Just have someone who actually knows the specs of the item I already ordered.”
01/20/2014 11:16:41AM Agent (A-D): “I already give you the information that you want…”
01/20/2014 11:18:38AM Agent (A-D): “that is the only format that can support the tablet is SD, SDHC only”
If you require further assistance, please visit us at support.dell.com

Two phone calls later:

The Venue Pro 8 only accepts micro SD cards and only SDXC format. Wow. There’s nothing like really terrific customer service to start the day off right, eh?

The previous is an actual transcript of the conversation. Only the name and other identifying information have been changed to protect the guilty.