The Black-and-White of The 2014 Mac Mini

2014 Mac Mini ExplodedApple’s announcement of the new Mac mini last week was an immediate disappointment for those of us waiting two years for updated hardware. With the level-entry Mac mini corresponding to the lower hardware specs of the level-entry MacBook Air, and, being like the MacBook Air, unable to upgrade the hard drive and memory after purchase, was a deal killer for most folks. Since the CPU fan for my vintage Black MacBook (2006) died this past summer, I need an affordable replacement system. Apple failed to deliver this year, but Other World Computing (OWC) has better options that fit the bill.

OWC sells refurbished Macs and various upgrades to extend the usefulness of each Mac. The cheapest option would be a 17″ iMac (2006) for $149 USD. This is the same generation as my Black MacBook, compatible with my existing hardware (i.e., memory modules, OWC 120GB SSD and external 250GB FireWire drive), and should boot up the SSD in an external closure as if it was yesterday. However, I’ll still be stuck with an unsupported 32-bit CPU that won’t run the newest Mac OS X, Yosemite, which was also announced last week.

The best option is a White MacBook (2010) for $449 USD. The unibody design has a back cover that comes off after removing ten screws, exposing the battery, DVD drive, hard drive, and memory for easy replacement. I’ll be able to pimp out this White MacBook more than I had with the Black MacBook.

  • Battery — The first battery for the Black MacBook lasted six years, and the second battery (manufactured in 2007) lasted two years. The battery for a 2010 laptop will need replacement sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, this item can only be obtained from the Apple Store for $129 USD.
  • DVD Player — OWC sells a data doubler adapter for $35 USD to replace the DVD player with a SATA hard drive or SSD. I’ll install the SSD from the Black MacBook to serve as the primary boot drive. OWC also sells an external optical drive enclosure to continue using the DVD player.
  • Hard Drive — My FireWire drive has two 120GB partitions for backing up the SSD with SuperDuper!, and a 10GB partition as a programming scratch pad. Since the White MacBook doesn’t have a FireWire connector, the internal 250GB hard drive will replace it. As prices for the larger capacity SSDs drop over time, I’ll replace the hard drive.
  • Memory — The White MacBook has 4GB RAM installed, which is fine for another year or two. The 2010 model maxes out at 16GB RAM, twice as much as the 2009 model. OWC sells a pair of 8GB memory modules for $200 USD.

All this expandability in a compact system for slightly more than the 2014 Mac mini with AppleCare and sale taxes included (~$650 USD). I got eight years of useful life out of the Black MacBook. I expect the White MacBook to provide at least four years, perhaps longer with a 64-bit CPU. More bang for the buck.

Farting Around The Moon

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If you ever find yourself on the Moon, don’t eat a can of baked beans before suiting up. A rampaging kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”) might come out its hole, kill your team members and hunt you down after letting loose an errant fart. Never mind that the Moon has no air to transmit the sound of the tooty-fruity outside of a spacesuit. Farting around the Moon can get you killed.

Trashing The No Trash Sign

Bad enough that my apartment complex became pet-friendly a few years ago, granting the neighbors and their “small” dogs permission to piddle on my front doorstep in the hallway. Now my neighbors are dumping their smelly trash bags in the elevator foyer, expecting someone else to haul their garbage out. Since the sewer-and-garbage bill was no longer part of the rent, and the leasing office re-branded this 1960’s housing project as luxury apartments, maybe the neighbors want maid service. A laser-printed sign went up in the foyer: “TAKE TRASH OUTSIDE – NO TRASH IN HALLWAY!”

Not surprisingly, someone trashed the no trash sign. Colorful words in blue pen filled out the blank areas. Corners of the page got ripped off, as if someone needed paper to write a phone number in a hurry. The sign got ripped up into small pieces and scattered around the foyer like dead mice from a cat. Someone did get the message. The smelly trash bags stopped appearing in the hallway.

A bigger trash problem happened outside at the dumpsters around the complex, as overflowing construction debris—mostly 2×4’s and drywall from a remodeling—appeared during the summer nights. This is the most expensive type of garbage to get rid of in Santa Clara County. The maintenance guys had to break it up and move it by wheelbarrow over to their own dumpster behind a locked chain-link fence. A waste of time and money for everyone involved.

One night I heard a loud boom out in the parking lot. Looking out my balcony door, I saw a construction truck backed up to the dumpsters and someone tossing construction debris into the dumpsters. If I had a camera that could take good pictures at night, I would have gone outside and taken pictures for the leasing office to file a police report. I did talk to the maintenance guy breaking up the debris the next morning. He couldn’t understand why no one living in the apartment building behind the dumpsters reported anything. Their line-of-sight of the person and the license plate on the truck was better than mine across the way.

The leasing office didn’t put up any laser-printed signs to stop the illegal dumping. The maintenance guys built walls and a gate around each set of dumpsters. That stopped the dumping of construction debris. The neighbors, however, continued to ignore the posted sign on what can and cannot go into the garbage and recyclable dumpsters, dumping their smelly trash into the nearest dumpster or on the ground.

Code Monkey Re-visited

While browsing Slashdot (a techie-oriented news discussion website), someone posted a link for the animated music video of the song, “Code Monkey,” that came out in 2006. I haven’t heard that song in years. This catchy tune gave me hope of becoming a code monkey during my final grueling year of earning my associate degree in computer programming at San Jose City College, where I took special study classes because all my required courses got cancelled for the year. I graduated in 2007 by making the president’s list for maintaining a 4.0 G.P.A. in my major.

Ironically, I never became a professional code monkey.

After landing a help desk support specialist job at a financial Fortune 500 company in 2005, I made that my professional career and became a code monkey for my personal websites. My plan to go from black box testing with no programming to white box testing with programming went awry. Seven years later, and being unemployed on-and-off for three years, I’m in the middle of another job transition to information security. Maybe I’ll become a code monkey by writing security scripts. Or maybe not. There’s always hope that I can do something with my programming degree.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

FoxTrot-ALSA flood of Internet videos have shown celebrities pouring buckets of iced water over their heads to raise money and awareness for the ALS Foundation. My favorite videos were writer Stephen King challenging writer John Grisham, actor Patrick Stewart taking ice cubes from a champagne bucket, and actor Vin Diesel’s challenge to plant a tree for Groot from “Guardians of The Galaxy.” Even Jason from the “Foxtrot” web comic made an ice bucket video (sort of). This is a worthy cause. I took care of a roommate, Bruce Schalamon, for five years until he died shortly after his 39th birthday in April 2000 from ALS.

Bruce and I first met at a church workshop in August 1992, where we paired up for a prayer walk around the neighborhood. I was a newly baptized baby Christian in the college ministry; Bruce was a grizzled veteran of the singles ministry. We had very little in common. I didn’t get to know him until I ended up in the singles ministry and moved into his household in 1996, where we both passed kidney stones a month apart from each other and bonded over our shared misery. He told me about being diagnosed with ALS, how he would die within five years, and wanted to die with his spiritual brothers surrounding him.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that causes the muscles throughout the body to stop working. Bruce lost his ability to walk with his weakened legs and play videos games with his weakened arms. He never lost his ability to speak. Otherwise, he couldn’t angrily curse God for taking away his enjoyment of life. As spiritual brothers taking care of him, this was a difficult time for us. He left God in anger as things got worse, returned to God in repentance as he accepted his fate. On the night before he died, he confessed his sins for four hours straight. You really don’t know someone until you hear their deathbed confession.

The heart is always the last muscle to go. Bruce had a cardiac arrest the following morning. My roommates and I asked him if he wanted us to call 911. He shook his head. We called 911 anyway, feeling helpless that we couldn’t do more. The ambulance crew started working on him for the next 45 minutes. Since we couldn’t produce the Do No Rusticate paperwork, they worked on him for another 45 minutes before declaring him dead. Being on the forefront of the medical marijuana movement, which wasn’t legal in Silicon Valley at that time, I flushed his stash of marijuana down the toilet in the back bathroom while a sheriff deputy waited in the living room for the medical examiner to remove the body.

Bruce had his prayers answered, dying among his spiritual brothers and being right with God.

I’m not planning to take the ice bucket challenge, but I will donate money to the ALS Foundation in the near future. First, I’m not a well-known celebrity. Second, I live in drought-stricken California. Third, the ice-cube maker in my freezer doesn’t work. Hence, writing a check and maybe having a drink on the rocks is easier. The ALS ice bucket challenge has raised $70+ million USD so far this summer.

How Godzilla 2014 Should Have Begin

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As much as I love the new “Godzilla” movie, I never liked the official trailer where the story was about a distraught husband who loses his wife and seeks revenge on the monsters. The distraught husband (and father) bites the dust about 30 minutes into the movie, setting up the adult son to save his wife and child from the monsters. When How It Should Have Ended did their video re-take for Godzilla, the conceit from the trailer got dispatched immediately. Tossing in the Jaegar from “Pacific Rim” and Superman from “Man of Steel” was a nice touch.

The S-U-I-C-I-D-E of Robin Williams

Robin WilliamsAs a young child growing up in the 1970’s, I loved watching “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV about a band of misfit POW’s running a resistance operation from inside a German concentration camp during World War II. Bob Crane, who starred as U.S. Air Force Colonel Hogan in the TV series, died in 1978 under mysterious circumstances. My mother proclaimed his death a S-U-I-C-I-D-E by hanging in guarded whispers to my father. (Actually, according to Wikipedia, someone murdered Crane and tied an electrical cord around his neck.) S-U-I-C-I-D-E was a taboo word in my family, as my paternal grandfather committed suicide years before I was born. I didn’t understand how Crane died, but I knew he was gone. That saddened me greatly. When I heard that Robin Williams committed suicide, the same level of sadness overwhelmed me.

A new TV show, “Mork & Mindy,” starring Williams and Pam Dawber, premiered a few months after Crane’s death. I immediately fell in love with the first episode. Mork (Williams) arrives from a different planet in a business suit worn backwards, giving him the appearance of being a minister to innocent human, Mindy (Dawber), who discovers his extraterrestrial origins and takes him in like a lost puppy. This was the first TV series that I ever watched from beginning to end over four years. I was surprised to learn that his recent TV series, “The Crazy Ones,” got cancelled after one season, which I haven’t seen except for the opening scene of Williams and Dawber being reunited for the first time in 30 years.

My mother committed suicide by breast cancer in 2004. She refused to seek treatment despite knowing that the disease would kill her. My father and I drove up to Boise, Idaho, that summer, to bury her ashes with her parents. He gave me a grand tour of the land. We went up to Lucky Peak Dam, where my paternal grandfather, a carpenter, committed suicide after falling off a roof and injuring his back on a wooden stake (back surgery in the 1950’s was remarkably crude), and, surprisingly, my father explained to me how his father died. I was always under the impression that my grandfather drove off the roadway and tumbled down the earthen dam to crash in a fireball, as some relatives claimed that it was an accident. Not so. My grandfather drove his car down the boat landing at full speed to drown in the reservoir. That’s no accident.

I found out about William’s death after I got off work and took my iPhone out of airport mode. An email from the Huffington Post made the announcement. I felt that intense sadness overcoming me as the death of Bob Crane once did, thinking that 63-years-old was too young to die. His picture got plastered on the front page of the Palo Alto Daily the next morning. News that he committed suicide and had early stage Parkinson’s Disease came out over the next several days. The world didn’t lose a talented comedian, but a truly great human being who showed us our humanity.

The Return of Howard The Duck

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Howard the Duck rose from the cinematic graveyard of the 1980’s to make a cameo in the post-credit scene for The Guardians of The Galaxy,” appearing as a newly released specimen in the wrecked museum of The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). The foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking duck from Duckworld, featured in one of the worst movies ever made by George Lucas, has returned to the big screen. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Reviving The Windows Gaming PC

The Apple Store revived my vintage Black MacBook (2006) several years ago after the CPU fan started screaming like a banshee, replacing the CPU fan, battery and keyboard. I hoped to get another six years of usage before getting a replacement system. Alas, the CPU fan started acting up several months ago. The system would shut down in 15 minutes after starting up. I could no longer use it to look for a new job, or, after being unemployed for nearly eight months, get it repaired or replaced. I had to switch over to my Windows gaming PC, which spontaneously reboots whenever I needed to do something.

Like most users who switched from Windows to Mac, I only turned on my PC to play video games. The last rebuild was in 2007 to upgrade the motherboard, CPU and memory for Windows Vista. That system was quite stable. A few years ago I replaced the dual-core processor with a quad-core processor and the video card from an ATI Radeon 3870 to an ATI Radeon 6790. That system wasn’t quite as stable. Upgrading to Windows 7 and Windows 8 over the years didn’t help much.

Was the quad-core CPU that came out years after the motherboard got manufactured and enabled with a BIOS update incompatible? Was the video card defective? Was the power supply failing in a mysterious way? Or was it all of the above?

Troubleshooting the PC was never urgent as I rarely played video games after getting serious about writing and suffering bouts of unemployment from my non-writing tech job. With the MacBook out of commission, I needed another computer system to continue my job search. The easiest solution was switching over to an old Dell system. However, I never take the easiest path if a harder—more educational—path is available.

After opening the PC and the Dell to lay side-by-side, I started switching out the video cards. With an old Nvidia Quadro video card in the PC and the 6970 video card in the Dell, both systems ran without problems. I then started checking the power requirements for the video cards and looked up the specs on the power supplies in each system.

The PC still had the power supply from 2007 with 20A on the 12V rail, but the Dell had a newer power supply with 40A on the 12V rail. Most new video cards required at least 25A on the 12V rail. The 6970 needed the extra juice for graphic-intensive applications. The solution became obvious. I switched the power supplies and put the 6970 back into the PC. (I didn’t bother putting the Quadro back into the Dell since the motherboard had a built-in AMD 4200 video chipset.) After wiping the hard drive and re-installing Windows 8.1, the PC was no longer spontaneously rebooting.

It didn’t take long to get the PC up and running with email to resume my job search. A few days later, I landed a new job. The only Mac-specific applications that I’m missing from the PC are Photoshop CS3 and Bento for ebook publishing. I can boot up the MacBook to complete any tasks within 15 minutes before it shuts down. Despite transferring operations over to my PC, I’m going to save up to get a replacement Mac later this year. Like most users who switched from Windows to Mac, the Mac is the better computing device.

Finding California Second Chance Lotto Scratchers

CA Scratchers 2nd Chance HeroI picked up many discarded California lotto scratchers in the parking lots of shopping centers around my neighborhood following the Great Recession. Someone bought a scratcher, went back to their car, discovered that it wasn’t a winner, and tossed it out window. These people don’t know that discarded scratchers are eligible for a second chance drawing on the Internet. I found 500+ scratchers, entered the numbers, and never won anything during a two-year period. And then the scratchers disappeared in recent years. As I take public transit to my new job after being out of work for eight months, I’m finding scratchers again at the bus stops and parking lots.

When my father and I played of scratchers, we could always count on at least one winning ticket for every $5 USD spent. (The holiday-themed scratchers were the most generous and frequently sold out of all the scratchers.) The most my father ever won was $500 USD, and I won $20 USD from time to time. We almost always break even when playing, seeing how long we can play multiple scratchers after getting back our five bucks. One time I played 22 scratchers in a row as I kept getting free ticket winners.

From what I read elsewhere, scratchers are less generous than before and less worthwhile to play. That could explain the dearth of scratchers in the parking lots. I’ve seen people entering a huge stack of scratchers into their laptop at the Starbucks cafe inside Safeway. Like people who collect bottles and cans from garbage cans and dumpsters before dawn, perhaps these people roam the parking lot to collect scratchers.

As for the second chance drawing, it doesn’t cost anything to play except for a few minutes to enter the numbers. Sometimes the website refuses to accept the number because the scratcher is a winner. One time my father gave me a poker-themed scratcher that was a winner, but we couldn’t figure out why it was a winner. The winning poker hand was quite obscure. I got a buck back when I turned it in at Safeway. If I couldn’t win a second chance drawing after entering 500+ scratchers, perhaps no one else can either.

Does finding scratchers in the parking lot indicate that people are now confident in the economy?

I don’t know. I’m not going to rush out to play scratchers again. Since I had four jobs in the last four years, and unemployed for three years out of the last six years, I haven’t financially recovered from the Great Recession. I’m reluctant to spare five bucks for scratchers. I have no problems in picking up someone else’s discarded scratchers to enter the second chance drawing and removing litter from the environment.

Enduring One-Half Of A Weird Brownout

The familiar “POP!” sound from outside of my apartment on a hot summer day meant that the power transformer out on the street gone kablooey, plunging the complex into a brownout that produces enough power to run small appliances and flickering lights, turning on the hallway emergency lights in the hallways (if the batteries weren’t dead), and making the filter in my fish tank gurgle loudly in protest. This time around my apartment suffered a brownout that affected only the kitchen and the bathroom. Poking my head out into the hallway, the overhead lights were still at full power. No flickering lights or dead batteries. It didn’t make sense.

After checking the circuit breakers, my initial assumption was that one-half of the circuit breakers went bad. This happened shortly after I moved into my apartment nearly nine years ago, where the circuit breakers for the kitchen went bad and the maintenance guy replaced them. Fortunately, this assumption was wrong. The power came back on 90 minutes later. A PG&E truck drove around the complex to check out the power meters in the outdoor utility boxes.

Why did the brownout affect one-half of the circuit breakers?

The answer that made sense was that one-half of the circuit breakers were on a separate power circuit. The maintenance crew enlarged the utility boxes around the power meters earlier this year, allowing PG&E to replace the analog power meters with newer digital power meters. If the apartments got wired with two main lines running into each circuit breaker box, one of the main lines got re-wired to a different path to the power grid.

The construction work done within the complex over the last few years had to do with running utility lines through the emergency back entrance. When the complex got built in 1969, the utility lines ran from the street in front and represented a single-point of failure. When I lived in my apartment during the early years, an outage that required a major repair job to the utility lines affected the entire complex. One winter I had to endure five days without running water and took showers at the gym. That doesn’t happen anymore.

The apartment complex now has dual utility lines that make a single-point of failure less inconvenient. Well, almost. I can get used to enduring one-half of a brownout, especially if it impacts the part of the apartment I’m not using at the time. The water pressure in the bathroom is strong, consistent and tastes great, but the water pressure in the kitchen is weak, inconsistent and taste like a rubber hose.

A Very Loud Fourth of July in Silicon Valley

Explosion Day @ Penny ArcadeDuring the nine years that I lived in my Silicon Valley studio apartment, most Fourth of July fireworks celebrations were quiet affairs. With the fireworks celebration at the Children’s Discovery Museum being a few miles away, I normally heard the air cannons thumping the earth and a distant boom in the sky. Not this year. Seemed like everyone got multiple boxes of Satan’s Orgasm and blew the neighborhood to Kingdom Come. Fireworks exploded loud enough to set off car alarms and rattle my windows. One idiot lost both hands from lighting a “mortar-type” firework.

Selling, buying and lighting fireworks are illegal in most parts of Santa Clara County. A wise precaution since California is officially in a severe drought and most lawns are various shades of brown. A wayward firecracker could easily set off a grass fire. My friend and I recently tried to get on to the 280 from Meridian Avenue when a fire truck blocked the ramp. As we drove around the fire truck, we saw that the fire started at the base of the embankment, as if a passenger flicked away cigarette, to blacken the dried grass and send plums of white smoke into the air. Fortunately, this stretch of embankment wasn’t large enough to snarl the rest of the freeway.

If you really wanted to get some fireworks, you drove down to Gilroy to get the “safe and sane” fireworks that are nothing but the pale whimper of the fireworks I lit as a child in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s. If you wanted some serious fireworks, you drove down to Mexico City to buy firecrackers by the bricks, bottle rockets by the grocery bags, and cherry bombs by the fistfuls. Some of my friends did that several times in the 1980’s. I’m not even sure if that can still be done today in post-9/11 America.

While going to college in the 1990’s, I visited my parents for Fourth of July in Sacramento. The ubiquitous firework stands of my childhood are still legal there. We bought a small box of fireworks that contained my favorite fireworks: the Ground Bloom Flowers that looked like spinning roses and shifted colors three times before burning out. Alas, the fireworks stands no longer sell the Ground Bloom Flowers or anything else individually. You must buy an entire box set even if you don’t want the sparklers, snakes and screamers.

As I ran errands over the weekend, I talked with the assistant manager at my bank. She lives in a different part of my neighborhood. Not only did she confirmed that fireworks were unusually loud this year, but people were shooting them off on the street in front of her apartment. Walking through the parking lot for CVS, I spotted the burnt out remains of fireworks. It’s one thing to find an empty dumpster to toss a cherry bomb into for a really loud boom or exploding a few fireworks in the front yard. (Or, God forbid, shooting bottle rockets off the balcony as one idiot did several years ago.) Shooting off fireworks in a public parking lot was something else. It certainly wasn’t quiet.