Thursday, October 27, 2011

Commissioning

For the past week I have been working on our project site, commissioning equipment.

This means that construction builds or installs something, then our team fires it up and gets it running and tested.

I am working 16 hour days - but only because that is the maximum allowed by my employer. This makes for crazy shifts:
Saturday: 11am-1am
Sunday: 11am-4am
Monday: noon-3:30am
Tuesday: 1pm-5am
Wednesday: 2pm-6am
Thursday: 4pm- ???

See a pattern?

I haven't had time to see Robyn, my friends or my family since Saturday; I haven't even seen my roommate for more than 5 minutes this week.

On the upside, the work is very busy and I am learning a lot. I've probably learned more in this week than in the last year - it's just so hands-on, and there are so many problems to solve.

Despite the fun and interesting work, this is an unsustainable schedule. I am looking forward to things going back to "normal".

PS. Robyn and my parents are awesome; they both cooked a bunch of food for me that I've been bringing to site for my meals (since I have zero hours to shop, cook, or even do laundry).

Edit: I wrote this at 3:15pm in between a bowl of cereal, and going to work.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Banking Pro-tip: Automatic Fund Transfers & Multiple Savings Accounts

I have a banking pro-tip that I've been using for a little over a year now. It's nothing revolutionary, but I really like how it works and wanted to share.

My goal is to save pockets of money for infrequent but significant expenses: travel, gifts, and charitable donations. I bank with RBC, so I created a (completely free) e-Savings account for each of these expenses so that I wouldn't be pooling all of my savings in one big chequing account (which makes it too easy to forget about savings goals).

For instance, Robyn and I love travelling, but travel always takes a huge bite out of one's bank account. To combat instantaneous account drain before and after a trip, I set up an automatic transfer to send $100 to my travel savings account each time I get paid. Now I'm setting aside $2,600 over a year and I can avoid zeroing my chequeing account around travel time.

Similarly, I automatically set aside $40 every paycheque into a gifts account. I can dip into it during the year for one-off events like birthdays and weddings, and when Christmas rolls around I've got a buffer of a few hundred dollars set aside for holiday expenses.

Finally, I automatically set aside $20 every paycheque to give to charity. Like my other savings accounts, this account slowly buffers until I hear about an interesting cause. For instance, my buddy Kyle emailed me to ask if I'd support him in fundraising marathon, and I was able to donate fifty bucks without having to cut my weekly budget or dip into another pocket of savings.

I also contribute to an RRSP as well as set some cash into a TFSA each paycheque (saving for a house).

In total, over one-third of my take-home pay is automatically transferred out of my chequing account as soon as I get paid. Then I pay rent, car insurance, and phone bills, and what's left pays for my groceries and other weekly expenses. I really, really like this kind of budgeting - save what you need right away, pay your bills, and live on what's left. To make this type of saving easier, I aggressively paid down my (minimal) student debt as quickly as I could after finishing school.

Once Robyn and I buy a house we'll probably want to keep up a "household" fund - for all of those future broken dishwashers, re-shinglings, and deck repairs.

Any good finance or online banking tips to share?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Essential Apps for Android


Here are some apps that I think are awesome for any Android user - not just rooted users or SGS2 users.
 
Beautiful Widgets ($2.79) - I was looking for a nice-looking weather widget and - literally - every single weather widget in the Android Market is terrible except for this one. Simple and clean; I've got a 1x1 tiled widget under the calendar on the left-hand side (click for big):

Also pictured: Widgetsoid, taking up the rest of the space under the calendar.
 Also, plain black background is the way to go! 

Cubed (^3) Music Player (free) - A very smooth and intuitive music player. Highly rated and well-reviewed on the Android Market. Much better than the stock music app on Samsung Galaxy phones. 
That's pretty metal.

DelayedLock ($1.49, or try the trial version) - Tired of re-entering your passcode every time your display turns off? DelayedLock does exactly what you think - adds a delay between when your screen turns off, and when a passcode is required. Mine is set at 10 minutes.
 
NoLED (free) - this one is for any Samsung Galaxy S phone. So awesome I made a whole blog post about it. Every person I've told this app about loves it, so just trust me!
 
No Wallpaper (free) - Sets the background to completely black. Blacker than the blackest black, times infinity. On AMOLED screens, like the Galaxy phones have, black pixels don't draw a current, they're just "off". So if you're flicking around your home screen a lot, this will save you a bit of battery life.
 
Smooth Calendar (free) - The best calendar widget I can find - one row tall by four columns wide. Pictured above on my home screen. Customizable and it gets the job done! It could be sleeker though.
 
WhatsApp (free for 1 year, $2/year afterwards) - excellent messaging app. Works over WiFi, so it's ideal for my crappy basement apartment where I get no signal. It works a lot like BBM, and it's available for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Nokia phones! 

Widgetsoid (free) - Great app for making custom homescreen widgets. See the first image in this post - I have a 1-row, 3-column widget with shortcuts for airplane mode, screen orientation lock, flashlight (using camera flash), system volume controls, and a battery monitor! 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Canadian Toilets

I remembered something that happened on me and Robyn's Disneyworld trip.

I approached a Cast Member (what Disney employees are called) and asked, "Where is the nearest washroom?"

She gave me a puzzled look and said, "You mean... ... for clothes?"

I said "No, I mean a bathroom." She pointed me in the right direction.

According to Wikipedia, it turns out that only Canadians use "washroom" to describe public toilets. To Americans, a washroom is a laundry or utility room, and public toilets are called bathrooms or restrooms.

In my mind, bathrooms can only be in homes, because most public toilets don't have bath tubs. Restroom just doesn't seem like the right word to describe a public toilet - I try to be in and out, not hang around to rest.

And asking for a toilet just seems rude.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Samsung Galaxy S II: First Impressions & Tweaks


I broke my Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant yesterday... the phone just completely locked up. I was not too heartbroken, though. The Vibrant was a great phone, but the limited global availability of the GT-I9000M  (Bell, Virgin and SaskTel) limited the hacking/rooting potential - something I'm very keen on. Not many users = not many hacks. (And to be honest - I was itching for a new toy. I think I can revive the Vibrant eventually and sell it)

I knew I was eligible for a hardware upgrade on October 29, so I called SaskTel and pleaded: Will you let me upgrade two weeks early? Yes, they said! Immediately after work I bought a Samsung Galaxy S II (GT-I9100M) from Battery Boys on 8th Street. Samsung has sold millions of these phones already and there is a large, enthusiastic community of hackers hacking away to make them better.

First Impressions

This phone is FAST. The user interface is incredibly fluid and smooth - much more so than on the Vibrant. Finding and installing the ~30 essential apps that I had on my Vibrant took me all of a few minutes on a WiFi connection.

If you are a Vibrant owner (or have any other Android phone) and you upgrade to the SGS2, you may not notice any mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting changes in how you use the Android OS on a daily basis, but everything is just smoother and better. If the SGS2 is your first smartphone, you won't realize just how awesome it is compared to other devices.

Tweaks

I am a tweaker; I tweak. Switching to the SGS2 was awesome because other people have eliminated most of the risks and have written out great instructions. With lots of documentation and careful reading, there is virtually* no risk in modifying the phone.

*some

About 20 minutes after I opened the box, I decided to root the phone. "Rooting" for Android is more-or-less the same as "Jailbreaking" for iOS; it lifts any restrictions that the carrier (SaskTel) or manufacturer (Samsung) have on the device. The process was remarkably simple and fast - I was done in two minutes. I encourage new rooters to read and comprehend the first few posts in these threads (this, this) before attempting root. If you are unwilling to read, rooting is not for you!

After rooting I installed Titanium Backup. This app allows rooted users to uninstall some of the lame "bloatware" apps that waste space on your phone: AccuWeather, AllShare, Buddies Now, Days, Game/Music/Readers/Social Hub(s), Kobo, Mini Diary, Mini Paper, Music Hub, Polaris Office, Press Reader, Yahoo Finance, Zinio Reader. Titanium Backup can also back up these apps before you uninstall them - just in case you remove something critical to your phone (but all of the apps I listed are trash). Here's another list of apps that are "safe" to remove. Remember, just because you can remove them, doesn't mean you should.

Next I installed AdFree Android. This is a deep adblocker for rooted Android users - it doesn't just hide ads, it nullifies ad requests before they leave your phone - saving bandwidth and improving loading times of apps that have ads.

I also carrier-unlocked my phone with the app Galaxy_S Unlock. Again, this requires root. Carriers like SaskTel and Bell "lock" phones to their networks so you can't use them with other providers, should you decide to switch. Sometimes you can pay your carrier a fee to unlock your phone for you. I'm not switching from SaskTel anytime soon, but why shouldn't my phone be carrier-unlocked, and why should I pay to do it? :-)

Finally, there is an annoying "play a notification when the battery is done charging, even if it is 3AM and your phone is muted" setting programmed deep into all Galaxy S phones. I found a helpful post on xda-developers with instructions on how to erase the sound entirely for rooted users. No more 3AM wake-up notifications, hooray!

I am not quite ready to install custom ROMs on my SGS2 since that's how I broke my Vibrant. But lots of people are happily running custom ROMs on SGS2s, so I will get there eventually.

EDIT: October 13/2011
I found two more bugs (well, found discussions about them) that affect SGS2 users.

The first is a persistent but unnecessary process that sucks up a lot of CPU time, and drains the battery. If you press Menu on your homescreen to go into Settings -> About Phone -> Battery Usage and you see "Wi-Fi Sharing" as an app that consumes a significant (>2%) amount of your battery, you're affected. There is a long discussion here, but to summarize, you can use Titanium Backup to "freeze" the processes named "Wi-Fi Sharing" and "Wi-Fi Sharing Manager" to prevent them from running. Yes, root is required. This will not affect your phone's ability to use Wi-Fi or tether via Wi-Fi. This is a dumb Samsung process run amok, wasting your phone's resources.

The second is another persistent but unsolvable bug, as of today. If you go back into your Battery Usage menu and see a process called "Android OS" that's using a significant (>2%) amount of your phone's resources, you're affected. There is a long and geekily-fascinating discussion here, and users of xda-developers have narrowed down the cause to a bug in the Linux kernel. There is no sure fix yet.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Shit Night Before A Midterm

Some people haven't heard this true story yet. I think it's a story told best with rhymes.



'Twas the night before a midterm, little Brahm sat in his house,
Reading textbooks on Hertz, Maxwell, Ampere and Gauss.

As the clock struck ten-thirty - the signal for bed,
Little Brahm packed up his books, and laid down his head.

Little Brahm drifted asleep, but a sound jolted him awake!
A drip-drip-drip in the bathroom - did the plumbing break?

He threw back the covers with a frustrated wrath,
But found no leaks in the shower, sink, toilet or bath.

The drip-drip-drip continued, and little Brahm's eyes grew wide,
He pressed his ear to the wall; the sound was coming from inside.

What did this mean? Had a pipe split in the wall?
The apartment was ancient, so the odds weren't so small.

"I SUMMON YOU, DAVE!" Brahm bellowed into the night.
Well, 'twas a phone call, and it was slightly more polite.

As Landlord Dave confirmed he was on his way over,
Little Brahm mopped the water that was pooling on the floor.

Landlord Dave burst through the door just in time to consume
The sight of water pouring from the light switch in little Brahm's room.

Little Brahm pulled the breaker and Landlord Dave ran out back,
To turn off the water, disabling the aqueous attack.

While Dave was out, little Brahm knelt to feel the pool,
Trying to glean whether the burst pipe was hot or cool.

As Brahm arose, Dave returned to give him a scare;
"It was the toilet," He exclaimed, "It was the toilet upstairs!"

The neighbours above had plugged the toilet before sleep,
The water in their unit hadn't roused them in the least.

Little Brahm looked at his hand, which he'd just dunked in shit,
Shit water from the walls, simply a maelstorm of shit!

Brahm cleaned up the shit water with his trusty mop and pail,
and washed the shit from his hands, trying not to inhale.

So if you hear dripping in your walls, there's a lesson, of course:
Don't touch the water to diagnose the source.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

New House, New Server


I've decided that once Robyn and I buy a house - sometime next spring - I will need to dedicate a closet somewhere to housing a (more) powerful media server. I am getting too nerd-excited about this already.

I've got my eye on this rack-mountable enclosure that can hold 11 hard drives:

And some type of real - but tiny - server rack from these guys like this:

In terms of components, I'm thinking about something along these lines:

  • Windows Home Server 2011 (I have Version 1 on my current server and love it. So easy to use, super easy backups, and easy music/video streaming to Xbox 360)
  • 750 Watt PSU
  • 2x 2TB Hard Drives (just for starters - then I'll move over the 5TB of capacity I have in my existing server, READY2SERVE).
  • 4GB RAM (but RAM is so friggin' cheap - I've seen $30 for each 4GB, so 8GB would be $60)
  • Some dual or quad-core CPU (not too fancy - this server will mostly serve media, run backups and download things)

I think I can do everything but the server rack for under $700. In my opinion - totally worth it!

Also on my wish-list for the magical server closet (extra costs):

  • Have a 120V AC outlet installed inside this not-yet-existent closet;
  • Slatted closet doors for easy ventilation;
  • Have the internet wired directly into the closet, where a router will feed a gigabit switch. The switch can feed hard-wired ethernet ports beside the entertainment centre (Xbox 360) and an office/den, if we have one. I also want to hide a wireless router somewhere in the house (maybe on the ceiling) for maximum wifi coverage. 

And most importantly: does anyone have any good ideas for a server name? And is it crazy that I put a lot of thought into naming computers? My current server is READY2SERVE, my laptops BRAHMTOP (died last summer) and DETHPAD (current, named for Dethklok), and my desktops have been PERCEPTION, DECEPTION, INDUCTION, and PERSUASION. I feel like it's bad form to use a name twice.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ugh, Brad Trost.


Saskatoon-Humboldt MP Brad Trost made headlines this week by loudly criticizing his own Conservative government for funding the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) (Star Phoenix, CBC). He's upset that the government is spending $6 million dollars over three years to support IPPF.

Let's put this in perspective. For one, regardless of what your feelings are on the act of abortion, Planned Parenthood is a counselling and family planning service - not an abortion factory. They educate people about safe sex, work to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and educate women (and men) on pregnancy and babies. And yes, they fund abortions - but as a safe alternative to so-called "back-alley" abortions that desperate people can and will seek out without a safe alternative. Read more about what IPPF does here. This is not an organization that is unworthy of funding.

Brad is upset about $6 million over three years - or just $2 million per year. On a government scale, the value of $2M/year is nothing, which means Brad is openly challenging the abortion issue and only that issue.

Trost and the Conservatives are pretty good with putting token tax rebates and deductions in the pockets of Canadians, but Brad takes a lot of positions that would negatively affect many of his constituents:

  • Supporting the omnibus crime bill that would build more prisons for Canadians, despite the fact crime is down (I sent a letter to his office with my concerns and it was ignored);
  • Supporting mandatory minimum sentences for (arguably) harmless acts like possession of small amounts of drugs. Let's say that 30% of Canadians have tried smoking pot (that's about 10 million people - source). Now let's say 1% of that group still smokes regularly. Are we prepared to imprison 100,000 Canadian stoners? Portugal legalized all drugs and offered rehab instead of prison, and they're doing great.
  • Blindly supporting copyright laws and agreements that would have harsh repercussions on constituents (I've also written to him on this issue and my concern was dismissed). I don't think fining consumers hundreds of thousands of dollars for downloading mp3s and movies is working in the USA - why import that legislation to Canada?
  • Running a petition to defund the CBC. Really, Brad?! CBC is awesome. Like BBC and the UK, Canada should be proud to fund quality news and entertainment programming.  

There's a great column in the Leader-Post from this Friday that sums up Brad Trost nicely:
"Let's set aside the quaint, old notion that MPs should be representing the interests of the constituents who voted for them rather the interests of their party or the [Prime Minister's Office...] What he's doing [...] is representing only that small minority of his constituents who share his religious beliefs and care whether IPPF is funded or not. This is appalling."
I'm not a huge fan of the Conservatives in general, but Brad Trost is an especially terrible and dangerous Conservative - one who is willing to push is own agenda in the House of Commons, and one who is apparently willing to bring in a lot of extreme right-wing, American-style opinions into Canada. In interviews, he justifies all his actions by claiming that he is Saskatoon-Humboldt's "democratic voice" and that he represents his constituents, but in my experience he ignores the voices of his constituents when their views are different from his own.

Blarg. I don't even know a good way to end this post; it's frustrating when your MP doesn't represent you and is closed off to feedback. I suppose that, no matter what your opinion on anything, it's difficult to deal with people who cannot and will not change their mind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

To express my frustration I've sent a donation to the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (Canada's member of the IPPF) because I know any feedback I send to Brad Trost will fall on deaf ears, just as it has in the past.