30 November 2006

Going in Circles with Freecycle

The circle in the title of this blog entry refers to a fruitless process, not the recycling circle. I love recycling and its siblings, re-use and reduce, and the idea of freecycling is great, at least in theory. Through Yahoo!Groups, such as http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BrooklynFreeCycle, one would post notices about wanting something or having something to give away. It's preferable that your first post is a give offer, not a take offer. When someone wants your offer, he'll contact you via email and the two of you work out the arrangement to meet in meatspace ( as opposed to cyberspace) to transfer the object(s). Someone gets something for free while you free up some room in your house (hopefully not to be filled up with other junks). Simple, no? Some years ago when my Kid no longer needed diapers I was able to meet someone in my neighborhood to give away his unused (of course!) diapers. It took a few email and cell phone calls, but it was a success in the end. My recent experience with the Manhattan and Brooklyn Freecyle groups is rather disappointing.

I figured the Freecylce sites would be a good place to go ask for a free internal CD burner for my "rescued" Friday PC. Sure enough someone wrote to me saying he had an unused burner that I could have. He even told me to write to him at another email address, different from the one he sent the email from. I wrote back but then there was no news from him ever since. It's a big city, maybe he got into an accident or moved to another city, but yet I'm still pretty miffed. Luckily, I already found a burner by other means. While in the Freecycle sites, I couldn't help reading the other posts. One lady asked for a set of equipments to go with her second-hand PeeCee. I happened to have just the things - keyboard, mouse, speakers, and power cables. We exchanged a few email and finally settled on a date and place to finalize the process. She never showed up. I learned later via email that there was some problems at home. So we made another appointment and again she didn't show up. The second time there was no email whatsoever. She probably figured her welcome mat had been worn thin and she should burn the bridge and never look back. Luckily, while waiting for her Godot I had my iPod with me and some Mac Geek Gab podcast to keep me entertained.

Two other Freecycle contacts also ended in failure. One lady had some toys offered, and even though my Kid already has too many toys, some of the items she had were something Kid really likes. Again, a few email and then silence. It turned out she had some deaths in the family and naturally had to attend to the more urgent matters first. Understandable. In the other case, someone else needed floppy disks and I was glad to offer her a bunch, I was hoping like one hundred, but she only wanted twenty. After I told her that I travel to work in New Jersey via certain transfer points in Manhattan, she said that she couldn't work out a plan to meet me. Oh well, I tried.

I've had enough of Freecycling this year. I'll lay low for a month and maybe get back in it next year. It's a worthwhile cause but it is so frustrating when things don't work out.

26 November 2006

Have A Blast With iTunes podcasts

I've heard of podcasting some time ago and even though it sounded like the greatest thing invented since the sliced bread, I never gave it a try. Until recently...

It started with NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams videos. Lately I do feel behind with current events. I used to stay up until 11 p.m. to watch Eyewitness News on Channel 7, with Kaity Tong and Ernie Anastos, Storm Field, etc. but lately between my Wife and my Kid, I don't have the time to watch TV. So watching news video seemed like the next best thing. Once I subscribe to the free service, the videos get downloaded to my hard drive and I can watch it at my leisure, no Internet access required. Then I ventured further and lo and behold, there's a whole world of interesting stuff out there. I am a junkie for tech news. I visit MacMinute and CNet News almost everyday. I would love to watch video shows about computer stuff but haven't found one. Even if I find the site, the process of going to some site, click on some link to watch the video, then maybe do some Ctrl click to save the video for offline viewing... too much work. Not to mention the delay of buffering the video, lest the video sputters on and off. The process with audio podcasts via iTunes Store is so much simpler. Browse the available podcasts, with attractive icons and descriptions, subscribe, then at certain time the podcasts are downloaded to iTunes on the computer. Plug in an iPod and sync then the files are ready for listening. Very minimal barrier to entry.

I already enjoyed listening to This Week In Tech (TWIT), some Mac podcasts, and part of a MacObserver Geek Gab episode. I like to listen to the news while driving, but after a while the news would repeat. With podcasts, I can easily fill a one-hour drive with stories about the dismal Zune premiere, Vista availability, Core Duo, etc. One minor problem is that the podcasts must be listened in one sitting. Once it's paused, I don't know how to fast forward to the place where I last listened. What I've done so far is to re-listen to the interrupted podcasts on the computer, where I can move the slider to various points in the file to find out where I paused the podcast.

I went on a shopping spree and subscribed to podcasts about Learning Mandarin, vocabulary words, and comedy (The Onion and Comedy Central), but only listened to the techie stuff. So far, the podcasts haven't max out my 10-GB iPod's hard drive, but I'm afraid it will soon. There's so much free and interesting podcasts out there.

24 November 2006

Blue Friday

Black Friday shopping - it is indeed a crazy thing to do. I got up at 3 a.m., picked up my two nephews at 3:30ish, got to the Gateway Mall off Belt Parkway's Erskine Street exit around 4 a.m., an hour before the Circuit City electronics store's opening. There were already 200 or more people lined up outside the store, ending at Staples. We actually got into the store shortly after 5, after witnessing a bunch of people simply cutting right in the front at the store entrance. The entrance should have been roped off on one side so only people who were on the queue able to get in. A beefy security guard stationed at the rope would help, too, but neither guard nor rope was there. The store probably didn't care whether people behave decently or not, as long as they get to unload the merchandise. Inside, the same scenario occurred, only worse. My goal was to get the Kodak Z612 camera and a stack of it was in the camera corral, but the line never moved in two hours. Supposedly, one salesperson took down what the people on the line wanted and place the piece of paper on top of the merchandise. When the people advanced to the cashier, they would pay for and walk away with their loot. That's the theory. In practice, it was total chaos. People just jumped in front of the line and made all the fuss. Only a few people got to tell the salesperson what they want and had their notes taken, while the rest just stood on line. To make matters worse, two ladies held up the line for hours because of some problems with their credit cards. I'm a pessimist so I chalked that up as bad credit. The ladies probably blew their credit limits the day before and yet still went out shopping. My nephews managed to grab some blank discs and car stereo stuff so I had them pay for those first. By the time they came back, I was still in the same place on the camera queue so I gave up. Instead, I went to Staples and got an internal DVD burner and other items. Mission failed.

I wasn't tired while waiting on line but by the time I got home, a nasty headache set in and lasted all day. It didn't help that I had to drive my Kid and Wife to music class, plus my sister to her office in midtown to take home her personal belongings. Both Chinatown and midtown Manhattan are unfriendly places for cars. Inattentive pedestrians, horrible traffic, you name it. My sister and I tried to buy lunch at the Pathmark's in Chinatown but they didn't make sandwiches, even though some idiot Pathmark employee said so when we asked him. Instead we got a fruit plate, a manager's special, which is just another way to refer to rotten fruit. Half of the fruit chunks smelled and looked bad and had to be thrown away. The worst part of the day was when I came off the Manhattan Bridge and unintentionally ran the red light at the foot of the bridge. Maybe because of the insufficient amount of sleep, I simply didn't realize it was a steady red until I passed under the light. There was a traffic agent nearby with his back to me and he did turn around. He didn't flag me down and I didn't dare to make eye contacts - maybe he's lazy and would let me go. I secretly wished that maybe if he really wanted to ticket me, he could have either walked over or alert the other two agents at the next light. Shortly afterward, a few blocks away, a truck that had stopped at the red light that I ran came alongside me to tell me that the agent back there wrote me a ticket. Maybe he lied, just to make other people's life miserable, or maybe he told the truth. I'll just have to wait a few days to get the ticket in the mail. Or maybe never.

In case I lose my senses next year and plan to do this again, NEVER AGAIN! I'm too old for all this hassle. Six-hour special my foot! I just checked Amazon and it had the camera for $286, just $16 more than Circuit City's $270, but don't forget taxes.

Well, the evening is still young, what will happen next? I told you I am a pessimist.

23 November 2006

Black Friday

I plan to do something that, in my book, is considered crazy. I will get up early, really early, like 3 a.m., to drive to a shopping mall with two nephews on my wife's side to take advantage of Black Friday sale. In past years, I don't care much about the great price drops at most stores on the day after Thanksgiving, but this year I do have a couple of things in mind that I want to buy. I've been checking around on the prices for the Kodak Z612 digital camera. I was going to get it from Staples but now my first stop will be Circuit City. We will still go to Staples, since it opens an hour later than Circuit City. Other items I plan to get are DVD burner, flash drives, blank media, and maybe a label printer. I will charge my cell phone and iPod to the max in case there'll be a long line outside the stores. What a crazy idea, eh? Losing a few hours of sleep or wasting some time on queue to save $50 or more. Or maybe for nothing. What if the stores only have a few of the advertised items? I'm sure the salesperson will "recommend" other items for higher prices. That's how they make the money. Just pulling the customers into the store and they already won half the battle. Let's see if I can control myself and not buy anything if the things I want are not available. Well, I am going to go to bed soon to catch a few precious hours of sleep...

22 November 2006


The $100 gift certificate that I won at the AAARI dinner was really a receipt for store credit. I am used to receiving store credits in the form of a plastic card with bar code and magnetic strip, so it was somewhat strange to have paper "gift certificate". My first guess was that someone in AAARI bought something at the store and had to return it, but couldn't get cash back and instead got store credit. He had no plan of using the credit so he donated to AAARI as a raffle prize. Also, one of the worries the Wife and I had was that the store may not be in business any more if we don't use the g.c. soon. I don't have too much faith in the Asian businessman. One day the store's stuff fly off the shelf and the next it declares bankrupt, really just to cheat the government of some tax dollars. I'm a pessimist, what can I say. Maybe if I'm black, Hispanic, or of some other races and know the race well, I would view upon them, as an insider, the same way.

Fortunately, when I visited the store this past weekend, it was still there. Earlier, I decided to either get a digital camera, with optical zoom of 10x or more, or a portable DVD player. The store's selection of digicam was rather poor, mostly Sony stuff. The choices of DVD players were not that great either. On the one hand, we had an 8" JWin. On the other, there was this Sunia brand, model 900V, with a 9" screen. JWin I have heard about, but Sunia? I am aware that the DVD market has many largely unheard of brands, but Sunia is something I never heard about. What's attractive about the Sunia player was that it could play discs of all regions. Every now and then we would come across DVDs made for other regions and naturally they wouldn't play on our American-made player. What a pain this region thing! Properly just a scheme for the movie studios and manufacturers of DVD players to make more money. Anyway, at $199, I could get the Sunia model for half-price when the g.c. is used. The salesperson even made it $190 so in the end we paid only $90. He also told us to keep the box and receipt as the device could be replaced free of charge within a year.

On the past few road trips I had, I really wished we had a DVD player in the vehicle. I don't like the built-in types, as they are probably magnets for car burglars. I don't care what the statistics indicate, Brooklyn is still an unfriendly place to park the card outside with fancy electronics aboard. My Sunia does come in its own case with straps for attaching to the back of the car seats. Originally, I've wanted a 10" model, but 9" didn't seem to be too bad. The sound is good, not tinny like some other devices I have known. As you crank up the volume, on more inferior devices, you would notice the sound getting worse - but not so with the Sunia 900V. The rechargeable battery pack fits to the bottom of the player to tilt it up allowing some room for movement of hot air. The player can do both NTSC and PAL video signal. It is not a surprise that it has output for watching and hearing of video on an external display and speakers, but with a flip of a switch, you can also use the 900V as a speaker and display. I already used it as speakers for my iPod. I do have the portable JBL On Tour portable speakers, but it runs only either on DC connection or via four AA batteries. Anything that runs on non-rechargeable batteries displease the recycler in me, so the On Tour lose points for the AA batteries, even if its sound is very good. I am tempted to try to connect my Sony Playstation, the original one or PS/1, to the Sunia 900V, although I know very well the connectors don't match. I am pretty sure I can dig up the proper converter cable/plug.

I didn't know that on the box of the Sunia player there was imprinted the words Made in China. Instead, I searched the web and did come across Sunia.com. The web site made no mention of China and even declared that Sunia the company is based in Seattle, Washington. However, I then notice that under Contact Us the email address was not info@sunia.com, but was something else at malata.com. I went to malata.com and sure enough the site was written in Chinese, with pull-down menu to choose other languages. Seeing the Made in China on the box confirmed my suspicion. I must give them credits for having a properly written English user's manual. Lots of time, manual for things made in China are horrible literal translation from Chinese to English, or with grossly misspelled words through the document. Either Sunia hired native English speakers in the U.S. or they have very good writers in China, the Sunia 900V's manual is very understandable and contains no misspell or awful grammar.

21 November 2006

The One That Got Away

Every now and then, the Wife's zheng musical group is asked to perform at some social function, whether for money or not I don't know. Most recently the group helped provide entertainment for some CUNY Asian group called AAARI at a banquet. Someone close to the group was a student in the music school so she made sure the performers and their entourage had their own table. During the dinner, AAARI sold raffle tickets so I bought three, just to show my support for the group. Later, one of the three tickets was actually picked and I won a $100 gift certificate to some electronic store in Flushing. The top prize was a Dell Inspiron 6400 laptop but before the winning number was called, many people started to leave the banquet already. I suppose most people there already had decent jobs and didn't need yet another computer in their houses. At my table, the performers and their families also started to go home. When I told them the grand prize hadn't been drawn, they even gave me all their raffle tickets. Not long after ward, I myself wanted to go and just left the raffle tickets on the table. Before we got out of the dining area, the winning number was called and some elderly woman in the general direction of our table had the winning ticket. The winning number sounded very much like one of my tickets. Let's say I bought tickets numbered 200119, 200120, and 200121. 200119 was the winner of the $100 gift certificate. I was almost sure 200121 was the number that was called. The winner probably sat next to our table and helped herself to the abandoned tickets. If only I stayed for a few more minutes, I would have won the Dell laptop. While it's not a MacBook Pro, it's still a new, free laptop computer...

I tried to convince myself that it was just fate. Maybe I wasn't meant to own a Dell laptop for free. I already have a PowerBook, the Amiga, plus Dee Dee's Friday XP PC, so it's not like I really need yet another computer. I told myself not to be so materialistic, not to be what's called in Vietnamese a túi tham không đáy, or bottomless greed bag. After all, I already won the $100 gift certificate.

I should be thankful for what I already have. Family, work, and health. Besides, this past weekend I used the $100 gift certificate and the device that I got is pretty good...

19 November 2006

Friday Up To Par

With the addition of a CD-RW burner this weekend, my Friday 'puter is finally up to par. When I found it on the street about a month ago, nestled between a trashcan and a TV, ready for pickup by a Department of Sanitation truck, it had only 256 MB of memory, no network card, and only a DVD reader. I named the computer Friday because I found it, sort of like Robinson Crusoe found his Friday, well, on a Friday. I went through my collection of electronic spare parts and found for Friday a SCSI card, the Jaz 1 GB external SCSI hard drive, a network card, and another hard drive (a puny 4 GB compared to the existing 20 GB). Elsewhere I also found an additional 512 MB of memory to boost its total memory to 768 MB, still not the 1 GB I would like, but memory is so expensive and I wasn't going to spend a few hundred dollars on a machine I found for free on the street. The last piece of the picture is a burner. I try to keep my data backed up but without a burner Friday's data won't have a safety net. I have a friend who is in the computer retail business and asked him if he would have some spare computers lying around. Sure enough he had some spare optical drives, but maybe because he needed the space, he just threw out a bunch of them! If only I asked him a few months earlier. He offered me an external Firewire DVD burner, but Friday isn't equipped with a Firewire card. Adding one will set me back maybe $40, whereas if I cash in the two $5 Best Buy gift cards I got from two past Electronics Recycling events, I could get myself just the internal IDE CD-RW drive I need for about $15. Sure, it doesn't burn DVDs, but all I want is a CD-RW burner. Then this past weekend, I came across an old computer with a burner. Took it home and plugged it into Friday but alas XP didn't detect the new hardware. After checking the IDE cables and power cables, then swapping around the DVD reader and the CD-RW burner in the two drive bays, I managed to accidentally knock loose one of the memory modules. The computer wouldn't boot up at that point and I thought I somehow killed it. All that work in outfitting it with spare parts and getting rid of the viruses and spyware! Finally, after re-seating the loosened memory module, I discovered that one of the pins on the IDE interface was bent all the way down. There was no way to tell if it was like that before I removed it from the host PC, or if I damaged it while freeing it from the host. I managed to pry it into an upright position and amazingly the thing actually worked! I tested the "new" burner by copying a bunch of VCDs and haven't encountered a single error with all the burning. What a relief!

17 November 2006

Tuổi Trẻ

To maintain and encourage the use of Vietnamese literature and culture, VAYO periodically published the magazine Tuổi Trẻ, which means Young Age in Vietnamese. The articles were mostly written by VAYO members and some were translated from English sources. I cannot recall if the children who learned Vietnamese through VAYO contributed or not. What I do remember is the tedious process involved in getting a set of pages that consist of the magazine, usually the Lunar New Year edition, ready for photocopying. Probably all the articles were submitted handwritten so the first thing to do was to type them into the computer. In the beginning, we didn't even have Vietnamese input software and had to add the diacritical marks after printing out the articles. The arrival of VNI Ta^n Ky` was a welcomed relief. Desktop Publishing, or DTP for short, was already well-known back then, the early 1990s, but because we didn't want to make the most of the freely available manual labor, or perhaps we didn't have the DTP software, we produced the magazine one page at a time. I think each page was made from Microsoft Word, with illustrations either pasted on or drawn directly onto the page AFTER the page came out of the laser printing. No fancy online page layout here. Again, because I'm not skilled enough with the Vietnamese language to contribute articles, I helped out with the typing and illustrating. The picture above is from the cover of the 1993 VAYO Tuổi Trẻ magazine, some year of the chicken. When I first saw it again today, I recognized my own drawing style and handwriting, but had no recollection that I drew it. It took me a few additional minutes to locate my signature. The moniker of Qaptain Qwerty hadn't been invented back in 1993, or at least it wasn't used for this particular picture. I think I drew it based on some greeting card or similar source. Likewise, many pictures in the magazine were "borrowed" from other source, usually straight classic cut-and-paste.

So the work was tedious but we had the manpower, or woman-power, in some cases. It's amazing how much could be accomplished when ones didn't have family responsibilities - not that family responsibility is a bad thing! We would stay at H's office late at night, I think one time even overnight, to help ourselves to his office's equipments such as photocopiers, laser printers, and of course computers. From time to time, while rummaging through my worldly possession, I would re-read some of the articles in Tuổi Trẻ and get a smile out of them.

16 November 2006


This past weekend I visited an old friend, H, back in my VAYO days. VAYO stands for Vietnamese-American Youth Organization. Surely we are no longer youths, both "old" men with wife and children. Seriously, the youth in VAYO refers to the people for which the group was founded, not its founders.

It is amazing how time flies. Not too long ago I drove out to South Brunswick to visit H and his wife because they just had a son. This past weekend's visit the son was already three years old, running all over the house! Every time I visited H, I want to move out of New York City, to some place bigger. He has a front yard, a backyard big enough to house a trampoline, guest bedroom, the kids can play on the street, etc. That's H's daughters and son having fun on the trampoline. The older daughter, in pink, is really good at it and can even do forward flip.

I knew H from my college days. I don't remember the exact circumstance, but I do recall he had a limp at the time, probably from some recent accident. I was a bona fide Cooper Union engineering student while he was a in a dual-degree from New York University. Yes, when he graduated, he had a degree from NYU and another, Electrical Engineering, I think, from CU. And I thought Cooper was difficult enough.

H and some friends of his founded VAYO to provide a place for Vietnamese-American kids to hang out, instead of getting into troubles with the law or worse. It was the 1990s with Born To Kill gang giving Vietnamese a bad reputation. I am not sure if Vietnamese gangs still exist today, probably just not as violent as back then. Some things just never go away.

My involvement with VAYO started with its Vietnamese school in the Bronx. I was living in Long Island City and a VAYO member, DD, lived in nearby Astoria. Almost every Saturday he would drive me to St. Nicholas of Tolentine church at University Avenue and Fordham Road in the Bronx. The church provided the space for free or for a nominal contribution. The primary teacher for VAYO was Tr, who lived not far from the church. Together, we taught kids of various ages the Vietnamese language. I only learned Vietnamese up to the fifth grade so I stuck with teaching the little kids the basic stuff. My drawing skill came in handy at times to keep the kids entertained. Some kids were with the program for many years and became teenagers capable of reading and writing Vietnamese. Sadly, when we tried to raise money for VAYO by asking for donation, most parents stopped sending their kids to the Vietnamese school. With almost zero attendance, the VAYO school was closed. Fortunately, I heard from H this past weekend that Tr still teaches Vietnamese at St. Nicholas for some other school programs run by the church. Good for him!

14 November 2006

The Human Touch

How else would you refer to masseurs? How about, "People who knead people" ? Need and knead, capiche?

I work a lot with computers and think I know a lot about them. I frequently use web-based self-service instead of calling some toll-free number and wander through voice mazes to reach a human being. It's all well and good as long as I get the info I need. Yesterday I need to look up info about my company's medical benefits. The web site was simply an amazing web! In the past, we used to get a packet of pamphlets and booklets about the various choices of medical plans to choose from. Nowadays, the info is available online only, but I searched and searched but there was no such thing. I knew the enrollment period was over for me but at least let me know what are the choices that I miss. A call to the benefits center, with a not-too-long wait, and I learned that I was among the first wave of employees to get to select/change benefit plans. Even though the enrollment period ends for everybody on Friday the 17th, on the web, probably based on my login, I couldn't even see the choices of medical plans. Sure I knew that there were United HealthCare, Aetna, maybe some other, and the Oxford HMO, but there was no way for me to see what each of those plans offer - the web site was designed to ensure that to be the case. What a pain! I still can make changes, but it must be done over the phone. I dread poring over the pages and pages of info in medical lingo. Fifteen minutes on the phone with a human being answered all my questions that an hour on the web couldn't. Sometimes there's just no substitute for consulting with a knowledgeable person. In such cases, I know I am among the people who need people.

12 November 2006

Veterans Day 2006

Almost every year the media laments the low turnout of spectators at Veterans Day Parade. Well, at least for this year, they cannot blame me for not being there. My brother-in-law completed his term with the Navy and is in the Navy Reserve as well as some local veteran's group in Chinatown. The group had its own parade along Mott Street in Chinatown yesterday, with colors guards, service guards, marching band, family members, and American Legion Auxiliary (women's group) at the end. I was hoping they would join the big parade on Fifth Avenue, but this would have to do. The timing was perfect, as I had the day off and went to pick up my Kid from Chinese school only a few blocks from the parade route. Next year, I'll keep better track of any re-enactments of the Battle of Brooklyn to take my son there. He likes soldiers and such and it would be good place to teach him a little bit of American history.

09 November 2006

P.M. B.S. ?

At my job, we are required to take x hours of training classes per year. Much as I love the few days out of the office on training, the past few years I've been really busy with all kinds of project works. Only recently that things cool down and I was able to sign up for some courses. I figured since I devote most of my time to project work, I should take a course on project management and see from the project manager's point-of-view.

This week I spent three days in the course called Project Management Fundamentals for I.T. Professionals. While the instructor was quite fun to be with and was knowledgeable on the subject, the course itself was so dry. It was mostly about learning a new lingo, the words and phrases that take on different meanings when applied to the Project Management world. For someone who loves words and their meanings, it was a pain to re-learn many of the words as understood in Project Management. Example: agile means able to move quickly and easily and its noun as agility, as in "He multitasks with the agility of a monkey on branches." In the P.M. world, agile refers to a type of project in which the team is well-formed, everyone knows everyone else, all members are on the same technical skill, minimal amount of documentation is needed. Duh. Then there are also many different phases of the projects or stages of communication that we had to know. When a team is first formed, the members must go through the five stages of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. There was a short side trip about the stages of various reaction to changes: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, and Acceptance. Oh, don't forget the five options to conflicts: Forcing, Confronting, Compromising, Avoiding, and Accommodating. I know it's all about options, but it sounds like every problem can be resolved. Oh, yeah, the instructor repeatedly pointed out that multitasking is a no-no. He had us do the following exercise: On a piece of paper, write down the numbers 1 to 26, three numbers at a time, and then also write the English alphabet, A to Z, three letters at a time. Then on a different piece of paper, we wrote the numbers and letters in one shot instead of flipping pages and switching minds. As expected, the time it took to write in "multitasking" mode for some teams was up to 50% longer. Interesting.

The course is a stepping stone toward a certification in Project Management, to become a Project Management Professional. I don't know if my mind will be different in a few months/years, for now I'm glad I'm not managing projects. I do work on a lot of projects but on the execution ends. It's a lot more fun to get into the action and actually doing the work.

07 November 2006

Voter Apathy?

I'm in training in midtown Manhattan this week and theoretically can get home earlier than usual, e.g. 6:30 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. It's Election Day and last night I mentioned to the Wife that we should go vote, for whatever good it does, if not anything, at least buoy the number of voters turnout. The plan was when I get home we would go vote, eat out, and buy a gift certificate at Babies 'R Us for some colleague of hers. I haven't been in midtown Manhattan for years and couldn't resist the chance to wander around a bit after class dismissal at 4:30. I love walking and feel the best way to know an area is to walk all over. So instead of being home at 5:30 or 6, I got home at 7. Still an hour earlier than my normal 8, no? Not according to the Wife. Whereas we normally eat at 8 or 8:30, tonight she decided we should eat early, instead of dining out. And no voting either, no time for that. Had I known that earlier, I would have gone to vote early in the morning. Not that I closely followed the races. I try to keep better tab of the news by subscribing to 1010 WINS and Yahoo! News, but still I don't feel well-informed to make a decision one way or another. Oh, well, maybe next time...

05 November 2006

26.2 Miles, 74,000+ Feet, 1 Finish Line

It was a beautiful day for the New York City Marathon, now in its 37th year. 26.2 miles, 37,000 pair of feet, but I used 74,000+ feet in the title because some of the runners have only one real leg or some none at all, but they all have the one goal of reaching finish line. For runners/joggers fast or slow, a marathon is the ultimate challenge. The Joy of Victory, the Agony of De Feet. I'm currently in no shape to run the marathon, but twelve years ago I actually finished not one, but two, the 1994 and 1995 races.

Back in those years, the surest way to be in the NYC Marathon was to spend a day in Central Park, some day of the year I cannot remember, waiting in line for an application. After those x thousands of guaranteed runners, the remaining people would have to go through a lottery process. If you don't get picked by the lottery, you go on a waiting list and would be considered when someone cancelled their entries. For the 25th anniversary race, 1994, I was picked via the lottery process. For the training, I got up not too early, definitely not 6 a.m. like I've been doing lately, and jogged to Astoria Park to do laps. I never quite reached the recommended training distance as recommended by the New York Roadrunners Club. I think the longest distance I ever covered during the preparation was ten miles. The toughest part of the race was actually the long wait before the race. I do recall getting up before sunrise to get on the bus outside the New York Public Library's Research Center, for the long ride to Staten Island's Fort Totten (?). The 2006 Marathon's staging area is Fort Wadsworth, but the name sounds very weird to me. Perhaps twelve years ago the fort was called Totten? Anyway, once at the staging area, we had plenty of time to do stretches. There were many people so no number of portable johns would do - instead they had long troughs, similar to those horses drink from, for use as urinals. I think I read somewhere those urinals held the world record for being the longest. One year, it rained the night before the race so the grounds at the fort was mostly muddy. Still, I found some patch that wasn't too wet and took a nap during the wait. There was only so much stretching I could do and I did get up way too early.

Eventually, the time came for the race to start. Slowpokes like me were queued up way behind while pro runners were up in the front. By the time we crossed the Verazano Bridge into Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue, it would be like an hour after the race started. In one race, I needed to relieve myself while crossing the Verazano and just joined the other men right on the bridge. A gust of wind blew our "stuff" all over ourselves!... The run along Fourth Avenue is probably the best part as far as audience was concerned. There were bands playing music, people giving out drinks and food, in addition to the official stands. By the time I got into Queens, the runners have thinned out much. Somewhere on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, some Jewish girls even made fun of me for being so slow. The Pulaski Bridge was known as The Wall, as it was the 13.1-mile marker, where some people simply couldn't go on anymore. From Queens the runners would cross the Queensborough Bridge's southern walkway to get into Manhattan. During my 1995 run, my late father, then a taxi driver, saw me crossing the Queensborough Bridge and we exchanged greetings. The joke of the next few days was that he gave me a lift to the finish line. To make the Bronx happy, because the race was supposed to be a five-borough challenge, after getting into Manhattan we would run uptown to cross the Third Avenue Bridge to get into the Bronx. One year, I got locked in a portable john by some kids. Luckily, other runners heard my banging and opened the door for me. If I hadn't stopped running and started walking before, the second time into Manhattan was definitely the time to walk. The 20-mile mark had been reached, but those last 6.2 miles seemed like forever. Finally, the finish line was in sight but even after we got the medals and blankets, it was another long walk, in the dark, to get out of Central Park. Walking downstairs to the subway station, the pain was excruciating. In five days, I was all good again.

In 1995, I was downsized from my first job out of college and supposedly had more time to prepare for the marathon. I didn't get picked during the first lottery process, but then was selected from the waiting list, so I had to run. Sadly, my time was a bit longer than the first run. Well, there isn't that much of a difference between six hours and 6:32. As long as I finished the race and earn a medal, my goal is reached.

I've been running more regularly, starting from 2K and slowly working up to 2.5K or 3K per run. That translates to a measly 1.5-mile, so I have a long way to go to be in shape for the 26.2 miles of the Marathon, but I'm seriously considering it. I'll join the New York Road Runners Club early next year and participate in the various weekend races, just to keep myself in shape and to be out of the house. I sort of miss working in Manhattan and can use the excuse to walk around the city every now and then. Hopefully this time next year I'll add a third NYC Marathon medal to my collection. Third time's a charm!

02 November 2006

Computing Without Piracy

Because I work with computers, many of the people I know automatically assume they can get "free" software from me. Microsoft Office, Windows XP, Photoshop, etc, they think I have them all. The truth is, ever since becoming a Mac user, I don't have much software, or Windows software to be exact, to "give away" to all these freeloaders. Plus, it's wrong to get software this way. What's more, especially with the Windows world, there are plenty of free substitutes for the popular and popularly-pirated software. As I slowly add software to my Friday PeeCee, I've come up with the following list of totally free and legit programs to have. Some are totally free while others are for non-commercial use only.

  • Google Pack - Google has bundled many of its popular software into this package. I use it solely for Norton Anti-Virus (virus checker) and Ad-Aware SE Personal (spyware remover), although in six months when Norton's free virus updater expires I plan to switch to AVG Anti Virus Free Edition.
  • OpenOffice - Microsoft Excel and Word are not the only spreadsheet and word processor out there. There are many compatible products and even clones, which look and act like MS Word and Excel, and OpenOffice is a good example. For basic number-crunching and writing of term papers, OpenOffice is fine.
  • EditPad Lite - As a power user, the built-in Notepad is too underpowered for my need. Thanks to my colleague CRR, I became aware of EditPad Lite. Line-numbering, recent file list, and tabs are features I use often.
  • CutePDF - While for years users of Mac OS X have had, out of the box, the ability to convert any documents to PDF format, Windoze users still don't have the feature. Buying Adobe Acrobat Pro is overkill if all you want is to be able to save documents in PDF, so the next best thing is to have something like CutePDF printer driver. With the free CutePDF installed, your printer list contains an entry for a virtual printer. Select that instead of a real printer and whatever you tried to print would be saved as a PDF.
  • SuperTux - In the fashion of Super Mario, SuperTux is a side-scrolling game featuring Tux the Penguin. Collect coins, get powerup, stomp on bad guys, dodge falling icicles, etc, all for free.
  • TuxType - Being Qaptain Qwerty, I still think knowing how to type is an important skill to have. TuxType has a small module that allows one to practice typing. The module tells you which finger to use as letters appear on the screen. When you feel ready, try out the game. Fishes fall from the sky and you must move Tux the Penguin by pressing the correct key(s).
  • TuxPaint - Pretty decent painting program for kids.
  • Gimp - Photoshop alternative. As I bought Photoshop Element 2 for my PowerBook, I haven't had a chance to try out Gimp. Maybe I'll play with it more on the Friday PC.
  • IrfanView - Mostly for viewing images of various formats, IrfanView can do some rudimentary image processing, which may be fine for your need.
  • IZArc - Winzip alternative. I don't know if Winzip still allows it, but its trial period is very generous - something like forever. In my firm, we have a licensed version of Winzip, but elsewhere I have seen people who keep using the trial version and never get the real thing. Each time Winzip start, these people would be told that Winzip has been used xxx times, where xxx is some very large number, like 2,143. IZArc is totally free and its main attraction for me is that it can handle the LHA compression format, which most of my Amiga compressed files are in.
  • RealVNC - Lacking some of pcAnywhere's features, RealVNC is otherwise fine as a remote controller. On the Mac, I use Chicken of the VNC (love that name) to control the XP PC.
  • WordWeb - For a wordy person like me, having a dictionary a click away is important. WordWeb fits the bill. It's totally free but should you need even more features, there's WordWeb Pro, which supposedly is a great assistant when you play crossword puzzles.