It’s Alive!

November 4th, 2016 by Potato

Wow, it looks like my desktop is back from the dead! It’s a Halloween zombie miracle!

If you’re just joining us, last night my computer gave me quite the fright when it refused to turn on (no power to the keyboard, nothing on the screen, not even POST error beeps) — it looked like I had a dead motherboard. At the moment cashflow is a bit tight, and I also don’t have time to try a million fixes, and I need my computer working well so I can work from home, so there was no clear choice on whether to try to replace the motherboard/other components and rebuild the system (or a new system from parts, minimizing cost but maximizing effort), or to just order a new PC (which would cost more).

As I was searching for information on which motherboards could replace this one (a Dell XPS 8500), I came across a forum post about troubleshooting motherboard issues on this system. One poster (thank you anonymous poster whose link I lost!) suggested the most insane possible fix, which I will repeat here both for how unbelievable it is that this should actually fix things, and in case others have similar issues in the future and come across this post in their search: unplug the computer. Press and hold the power button. Pull the CMOS battery (a little CR2032 coin battery on the motherboard, just above the graphics card). Plug the computer in, attempt to start it. Unplug the computer. Press and hold the power button. Put in a new CMOS battery. Plug in the computer and attempt to start it.

I have no idea what in the CMOS/BIOS could have been so badly broken that it wouldn’t even return an error, but I’m so glad that random internet post saved me from buying a new computer (or a new motherboard and all the time needed to unmount and remount all the components).

It reset my BIOS settings (which took some attempts to get back to make all the other stuff work) and threw some weird errors, but hey, I am back online now! Weirdest damned fix I’ve ever done (but not quite to the level of “more magic“).

I still have one super weird and unsettling symptom: my computer doesn’t boot up right away when I press power. The lights come on, the fans spin up for about 5 seconds… then the lights go off, the fans turn off… then the fans spin up again and the monitors and peripherals come on and it boots. No idea why it has a false start there, but I’m just grateful it’s up and running now.

Speaking of random fixes, here’s another recent one that might make more sense:

I keep my phone in my pocket. That means it will pick up lint, including in the headphone jack.

My headphones haven’t been working lately, and it’s been very frustrating. They weren’t working at all with my phone, and occasionally would cut out on my computer. So I got new headphones. They work fine on my computer, but still cut out on my phone, and that just kept getting worse, until three weeks ago they wouldn’t work at all. I tried jamming them in as hard as I could, and they’d work for a minute or so.

Finally a tip on the internet said to clean out the lint. So I have the little floss pick things in my desk here, and they’re actually perfect for cleaning that out. Took out a fair bit of lint packed down at the bottom, and now the headphone plug goes all the way into the jack and clicks into place. Huh, it’s supposed to click — I had forgotten that.

So if your headphones start becoming funky, check for lint in your jack.

Because I Need This Right Now

November 4th, 2016 by Potato

Because I obviously need more crap in my life right now, my desktop died last night. I have a laptop so I’m not completely cut off from the world, but it is still a massive pile of suck. I’m pretty sure all the important stuff on the computer was backed up (and the drives should still be working anyway), but it’ll take time to get going again.

So on top of the other reasons for me to be bad about replying to stuff, there’s this.

Update: It’s alive!

Where’s Potato Been?

August 16th, 2015 by Potato

You may have noticed that the blog is even quieter than normal the past few weeks. To start with there’s the subject of the last two posts: my cat dying didn’t put me in much of a mood to write. Then last week my desktop computer died (hard disk failure), so I’ve been spending the past few days trying to rebuild it and recover some data.

First of course the public service message: back your stuff up. I’ve been very lax about backing up the last little while, and it’s biting me now. My last full system image is from December 2014 — eight months ago!! I have a partial backup of some important folders from June. Thankfully that means I won’t have to repeat all my year-end bookkeeping and taxes, but it still sucks that I’ve lost two months’ worth of work (plus eight months of whatever files weren’t important enough to include in the partial backup — things like media and saved games). I’ve been trying to think of what’s been lost and thankfully can’t come up with much. I know I totally reorganized my book business accounting excel file just last week to make it easier to track unit sales (before I was only tracking revenue and expenses), but given how much time I’ve spent on recovery at this point it’s just easier to re-do the work (and that was open at the time my drive blew up so I guess it’s gone for good).

I was greatly let down by the windows restore tools — my backup boot CD wasn’t able to restore windows, refresh windows, or reinstall windows. The drive had somehow become locked and many of the files were supposedly corrupt in the recovery command prompt environment, but I could still see the directory listings which gave me hope for recovery. So I popped in another hard drive and restored my December backup image (the one I thought I made in April — not much better — was unreadable) so I could boot to windows and see what was going on. I hooked up the original system drive as a secondary drive and fired up the computer. Before I knew what was happening, Windows was running chkdsk on the damaged drive, which wiped out most of the directory structure that I was able to see before. Ugh. Then I wasn’t able to access any of the contents because I wasn’t the “owner” of the folders. When I tried to take ownership the system bluescreened and I was back to the command prompt from the recovery CD. There was a very brief “if you don’t want chkdsk to run, press any key in 1 second” message, which is not enough time to actually hit the key. Given that I’m pretty sure chkdsk made my life more difficult here, I have to recommend that if you’re trying to repair a drive that you find a way to disable auto-chkdsk on startup.

So, days later now, I have a system that thinks it’s December 2014, with some of my files from the June backup. I still wanted to see if a more advanced recovery tool could pull anything from the borked drive, so I googled around and tried a few.

Pandora Recovery was able to scan the drive for document files (.doc, .xls, etc.), and found a lot of files and fragments of files. However, it was a lot of work to sort through the results — the original filenames and creation dates were gone, so Pandora created names based on header information (e.g. file creator). That let me cut out a few to search through, but I was still left with hundreds of documents to open and see what they were. I ended up finding a few invoices that I would need to rebuild my accounting spreadsheet, but no accounting spreadsheet. Most of the documents appeared multiple times, likely an artifact of how Windows saves a new version behind-the-scenes (or in some cases, an artifact of how I’ll go back to a website and re-download a document rather than try to find it in my recent downloads folder).

So I moved on to Recuva. This tool didn’t turn up as many potentially recoverable documents, but what it did pull out of the damaged drive had original filenames and dates modified, which greatly helped me exclude the ones I didn’t need to check in detail (for instance, anything before 2014 would already be on my xmas backup image — I was mostly hunting for recently completed documents). This helped turn up one other document file missed by Pandora (though I can’t say whether Pandora missed it, or if I missed it because the meta information wasn’t helpful), as well as some email files (eml) that Pandora doesn’t seem to check for.

It’s a few days later now and I still am not yet up and running on my desktop. I figured I would take advantage of this “opportunity” to upgrade to a solid-state drive as my boot drive, so I’ve got some more work to do on that (which I was hoping to finish tonight but looks like I will likely be offline until Wednesday).

To get the blog back on track, I have an exciting post coming up for tomorrow.

The Paradox of Advice

November 5th, 2014 by Potato

I was on Because Money recently, and the podcast and transcript are now up! We got together to discuss anonymous advice available on many online forums and blogs.

Leading up to the day of the podcast, I started with the assumption that there would be a lot of bad advice and we could spend a half hour lampooning it. But when I started to tabulate it I was amazed at how much good advice was there. These communities are so giving with their knowledge. In some few cases it will lead to sales leads, but mostly not (Reddit, for example, doesn’t even allow signature lines with links back to your website). Yet people with knowledge still give of their time — whether they’re paying it forward from getting helped when they were newbies themselves or just being altruistic, it’s kind of amazing.

There is bad advice too, just not as rampant as we thought it might be. So you have to use anything you read online as a starting point for more research because it’s hard to know whether the advice you’re getting is wrong (or some minor detail of the facts even if the main point is right).

And that leads me to the Paradox of Advice: those most in need of advice least able to discern who should give it.

The other major issue is that if you’re paying a few thousand dollars for a planner or money coach you can just unload everything and let them sort it out. You can’t do that to strangers freely giving of their time on the internet — you need to focus in on what your main question is. And in order to do that, you need to have some idea of the field so you can ask intelligent questions. Good, focused questions are key to getting good advice out of forums. So you have to keep in mind that any question you pose is not going to present a full technicolour image of your situation — it will be a stick figure at best. It’s up to you to make sure the right details are highlighted. As an example of what not to do, back when I was on RFD there was a standard response to questions of the form “what should I do with $X?”: “hookers ‘n blow.” There is no sensible way to answer it otherwise. To a large extent the amount of money a poster has makes very little difference, and “what should I do with it?” is just so open-ended. These blow-off answers were of course reserved for the (many) cases where the poster gave no other details or indication that they had read any of the other thousands of similar questions — or done any other background reading. The unfortunate conclusion is that you need to do some homework on your own before seeking advice.

Another area where anonymous advice can run into problems is the central theme of personal finance: “it depends.” There are so many answers, and none will be precisely right or helpful.

Think of the problem “I’m cold and there are wolves after me.” One very useful, straightforward answer might be to get a house or cabin and go live in there. You’ll be warm and it will keep the wolves out. One that might also work for someone is to get a lightsaber, and pretend it’s a tauntaun. Engineers might then go on a side rant about the R-values the wall insulation should have to properly keep out the cold and the howling, but that debate doesn’t necessarily invalidate the solution.

One point I didn’t think of during the podcast is how anonymous advice can be good: because it’s anonymous, free advice on the internet you should be immediately and automatically critical and skeptical of what is said. Whereas similar advice from a non-anonymous person who doesn’t have your best interests at heart (e.g. a salescritter with conflicting incentives and impressive-looking letters after their name) may not raise any warning flags for you.

“Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.” — Douglas Adams

There is a lot of ‘us’ out there. Amazing and wonderful, the lot of you. Freely giving of time and wisdom to help those with questions and doubts.

For those with questions, do try to make it as easy as possible on the volunteer counselors by doing some research first, and crafting good questions. For complex situations or even simple ones with overwhelming detail where free anonymous advice won’t do, there are always advisors, planners, coaches, educators, and geeks with spreadsheets available for hire.

I Don’t Understand Twitter

March 24th, 2014 by Potato

A little while ago a social media guru in our pubic affairs team said that you had to maintain a “presence” on Twitter by posting at least three times a day. We just wanted a place for people to get updates on a new project, which with lecture announcements might mean one quantum of content per month.

John Scalzi said that he was culling his follow list by removing the people who rarely tweeted.

I don’t get it. I check my Twitter feed about once a day, and though I only follow 36 people my screen is always full. Those accounts are carefully curated so that I usually want to read to the end of a day’s updates — but the general signal-to-noise on Twitter is atrocious. What finally got me to write this rant was friend of the blog @barrychoi tweeting about a new post on his blog eleven times in a single day! When people have really active Twitter accounts, especially with high levels of noise (like live-tweeting just about anything in depth, or just seeing half a conversation) it really turns me off. Following a couple dozen accounts like that and unless I just camped on the Twitter app I would start missing content — even at a miserly 140 characters the tweets add up.

And maybe that’s the problem: so many people are so swamped by the uproarious nature that they just sample their Twitstream at random intervals, which forces people to re-post their tweets again and again hoping to catch the eyeballs of their so-called subscribers, which exacerbates the high noise level. Ugh, that’s just not a game I can play.

Maybe it’s because I use the default web-based interface rather than a 3rd-party app with more capabilities (i.e., doing it wrong). I believe the way people use Twitter is to politely follow anyone who follows them first, then mute them with the list functions of the 3rd-party apps. Or else there’s something I’m just not understanding about the whole thing — which is likely given how incredibly difficult I find expressing anything in 140 characters. Seriously, my whole stream is basically poor-man’s-RSS announcement of new posts, and tweets full of [1/3] multipart markers.

As long as I’m ranting: hashtags are really annoying. When used sparingly they can be used to tag tweets, particularly when trying to tag that tweet to something in particular that might not show up in a general search (such as #becausemoney for questions and commentary directed at the podcast). But just adding the symbol in the middle of a sentence makes it harder to read and doesn’t help at all with the intended function — no one is out there searching for highly generic terms like #money or #Canada… and if those words were in the tweet anyway a search would pull them out without wasting a character and reducing readability. Without careful, conscious application, hashtags just become more noise. Oh, and “via” means “by way of; by means of” and is usually used to indicate who sent you a link you’re passing along to your followers — putting via [yourself] is like talking about yourself in the third person, it’s weird and off-putting.