30 May 2008

Optimus Prime, NOT!

I am good at math, computer, history, and words, but finance is something that I don't have a strong grasp of. I work in a financial firm as a network administrator and everyday I would come across phrases like investment bank, fixed income, and primer brokerage. To me they are just network resources to have permissions set for or data to copy from point A to point B. All the talk about the subprime crisis in the news got me interested, somewhat, in finances.

I listened to This American Life podcast #355, The Giant Pool of Money, then happened to read the article Mortgages and Madness in the June 2, 2008 issue of Newsweek. I now know a little more about the whole mess. So there was this giant pool of money that is the sum of all the money the world put away and it needed a place to invest to grow. One "new" area for it to go into was the mortgage market. In the beginning, it was standard practice for the lenders to verify the borrowers' incomes and so on, then the rules got relaxed so that more people would qualify for the loans, and someone got more commissions. It did not matter that some borrowers, or actually, many, could no way be able to re-pay the loans. New home owners lost their homes, Wall Street got too many houses to unload, houses' values drop, etc.

It is amazing that the whole thing actually happened. That after all these years there are no checks and balances to prevent the mess to even start. On one side you have the borrowers who should know better not to take on debts they cannot possibly pay back. Perhaps some of these people regularly rack up large credit card bills and pay the minimum amount because the money appeared to be free at the time of the purchases. On the other side you have Wall Street not caring who got the loan as long as there was a place for the available credit to be spent on. What a mess...

27 May 2008

Sink Or Swim

I have to believe my Son more when he tells me things. He has not learned to lie or accustomed to lying, which I am sure is a good thing. He recently told me that he could swim unassisted by any flotation devices. Just a week ago he finally made a big leap at swimming lesson, literally. For weeks he would come home from swimming lesson looking downcast because he did not make the jump. His cousins, boy and girls, jumped into the pool but he didn't. Not being the typical Asian parent who push their kids hard, I just told him to try again next time and not to feel bad about it. Again and again he would not make the jump. Then one day he did it. He even said that the first few did not count because the instructors pushed him into the water. I later learned that the instructors did do that. It took two of them, probably because, at 100 pounds, he was too heavy for any one of them. He looked very pitiful, I was told, caught between his fear of making the plunge and at the same time also afraid of being tossed again. Somehow he went through with it and on a recent stay at a hotel, I witnessed him as a swimmer. Just last month when we went on vacation west of Poconos, he was swimming around with a noodle float. He let go of the noodle every now and then to submerge then came out of the water to grab for the float, but never swam without the noodle. This time he was a totally different person in the pool. He jumped in a few times, at first sort of just walked off the edge of the pool but near the end literally jumped in. He even reached for the bottom of the pool. He could swim on his stomach or lie on his back and paddle backward, for the entire length of the pool. I am so happy for him.

Growing up as a city kid, I did not know how to swim. I can sort of swim, but only briefly, at most the length of the pool. I learned how to swim from my cousins, on mother's side, during summer vacations in maternal grandmother's countryside village. There was a canal in the front yard of the fruit orchard where I stayed. I know I started with an inner tube but cannot remember when I started to swim freely unassisted. All my cousins already knew how to swim when they were little. They lived near the river and there were houses right on the waterfront, literally on the water. Not your fancy American version of waterfront, mind you. Garbage and such would go right out the window, and other orifices, into the water, but the country kids would start to learn how to swim by going from one column to another, right underneath these houses.

I will try to get my Wife sign up for some swimming lessons. I myself can use some proper training. It is a great form of exercise and a useful skill to have.

25 May 2008

Go Yankees Go!

The title of this blog entry is just to goad any nearby Bostonians to give me a dirty look, or worse. I'm in the lobby of the Sheraton in Downtown Boston. Supposed to be a vacation but it's really just visit friends and distant relatives with the in-laws. Not much fun expected, but at least I got 2 hours of free parking in Chinatown and now 45 minutes of free 'Net time courtesy of Sheraton. Woohoo!

14 May 2008

Toto, We Are Not In Kansas Any More

So my colleague Lone Gunman became a Mac owner for the first time. He's been living with Windoze for the longest time and naturally there are differences to be felt when he made the switch. At least he said it's just different, nothing bad.

Here goes another entry that I can refer my current and future Mac converts to:

  • The Start button is no more. Back in 1984 when the first Mac came out, there was already an Apple menu to reach "special" things, like Recent Items and Control Panels. A new Mac convert may think of the Apple "button" as the equivalent of the Start button, but in reality it's really the Dock. To me, the Start button is where you mostly go to to launch apps, whether from Programs or some shortcuts above that. The Dock is where shortcuts to apps are supposed to live in.
  • No more C: or any of its alphabet brethren. The hard drive is whatever you call it, on the desktop and everywhere else. I stressed that fact because in Windoze, on the desktop you may have My Computer but if you go to some Windows Explorer open window you may see it as C: drive, in addition to being My Computer. The nice thing with not using the alphabet for your drives is that you are not limited to the 20 or so letters of the alphabet. I know of a company that uses a letter of the alphabet for many network resources and is constantly out of drive letters or has drive conflicts. I wish I have the pleasure of working in a large Mac network but I can guess that it is not an issue. Whatever network resource to be connected to would be referred to through its name and would appear as such, like MP3 Collection, not as F: drive to some and Z: drive to others.
  • No right mouse button. Many people complain about the lack of a right mouse button on the standard Mac. The key word here is "standard". I think it's a good thing not to have right mouse button by default. I cannot recall the many times I have to tell Windoze users to press the left mouse button and not the right mouse button. There will always be more inexperienced computer users to the less they have to learn the better. If the mouse has only one button, how hard can it be to press it, instead of having to even think about which button to press? There's only one button! Months or years later, the beginner becomes an expert and by then he can move on to some fancy programmable mouse or trackball.
  • No DOS box. So you are an intermediate computer user and occasionally go into the belly of the beast to compute purely via the command line, i.e. you have to type exactly what you want or get the dreaded "Bad command or filename" or whatever the error message is these days. Mac OS X, being based on Unix, has the Terminal to handle your archaic desire to type. ls is your DIR equivalent, cat is TYPE's cousin, and grep is synonymous to FINDSTR. Note that I listed the Unix commands as lowercase because case matters. At some jobs I once had, I spent a little time on the Unix workstation customizing the command line to suit my DOS-oriented brain. dir (upper or lower) would automatically translate to ls with some switch, etc. On the Mac, I rarely find the need to go into the Terminal. On some rare occasions, certain apps would require doing tweaking some config file, but chances are those apps don't deserve to be used. On the Mac, that is.

06 May 2008

Macs Cannot Do...

Much as I love my Macs, there are certain things that the Macs just cannot do. As a Mac evangelist, I do tell people that I preach to about the sad fact. This is more like a list in case I need it. I don't do false advertisement.
  • Can You See What I See? - Scholastics published many I Spy games for both Macs and Windows. The latest in the series, not necessarily from Scholastics, so far is available for Windoze only. Although my Son already has a few hidden object games, the I Spy series is still his favorite, especially in CYSWIS Seymour plays a bigger role. Or so it seems.
  • Platypus 2 - I played Platypus 2 on a Windoze machine and really like all the extra weapons and the three-player mode. On the Mac with the original Platypus, I can get only so far so I hope that with three players against the computer, I may get further.
  • Citrix - One option to connect to the office is to go to some web site and connect via a Citrix connection. Unfortunately, you need more than the Citrix client to work. Whatever behind the scene requires ActiveX and the site specifically declares that it does not support Macs. I verified by installing a Citrix client on my Mac and failed utterly. Oh well, might as well keep work and fun separated.
  • Hap Hazard - My Son play many games at miniclips.com but some games, such as Hap Hazard, does not work on the Mac. Windoze with Internet Explorer only, supposedly. I even tried to use it on my lowly Win XP PC but there too it failed to run. Whatever. Luckily, so far Son has not asked about it any more.
  • Cantonese data entry - The built-in Chinese keyboard method works fine, but I can only use its pinyin method. You need to know Mandarin in order to use pinyin. I know the Cantonese dialect better than Mandarin so this does not help me. On Windoze, I used to use UnionWay for Chinese data entry and it does support Cantonese. Lately I have almost no need for writing Chinese so, while it would be nice to be able to write with Cantonese sound, no major loss there.
On a good note, I distinctly recall Cartoon Network's videos of recently aired shows used to be unavailable to Macheads but I just checked and it worked fine. Maybe someone at CN realized that there is a sizable Mac audience out there to cater to.

Also, I used to wish Vietnamese keyboard method on the Mac could have more option. On my old PowerBook G4, there is only one choice, but I see that with Leopard, on the Wife's laptop, there are many choices, including VNI, with the diacritical marks at keys 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. It has been a while, but I think it's sắc, huyền, hỏi, ngã, nặng.

So, if you can live without certain Windoze apps or web sites, make the switch and enjoy computing without all that baggage Windoze brings!

05 May 2008

Computing Without Piracy, Mac Version

This blog entry is for my colleague The Lone Gunman of Dallas. LG recently became a Mac owner and has been busy with importing videos into his iMac. LG also wants to know if there's any office suite software for the Mac. I already told him about NeoOffice but here goes the whole enchilada, specifically all about free software for the Mac.

  • NeoOffice - A competitor to Microsoft Office, NeoOffice gets the job done. I have Office Mac X but it cannot handle Chinese characters so I use NeoOffice for all my writing and spreadsheet needs. Neo can read and write in MS Office file format (doc, xls, maybe even ppt, but I don't do much presentation so I don't know for sure), in addition to its own format. I have a template in NeoOffice Writer for my monthly ATPM review. Writer has the usual spell check and web linking, etc. I am sure it does not have every feature that MS Word does, but so far it met my needs. Likewise, NeoOffice Calc, the Excel counterpart, with support for SUM and other functions, does just fine for me. NeoOffice is updated regularly and you are usually asked to donate a few dollars from the update web site. You do not have to give but it would be nice to do so. Other than that, the whole shebang is totally free. Hooray for Open Source!
  • Audacity - Another of my favorite open source software is Audacity. It somewhat works on sound files as Photoshop to images. Let's say you somehow record music and other sound sources into the Mac. With Audacity, you can increase or decrease the volume, make it fade out or in, play faster or slower, etc. With the free LAME library installed, you can export your handiwork to other formats, such as MP3.
  • Phoenix Slides - Most likely you have your digital photos collected by iPhoto. Sure you can have fancy slide show from within iPhoto, what with Jesus Joy of Man's Desire as the background music, but what if somebody hands you a CD full of photos. You may not necessarily want to import those photos into your iPhoto library but you do want to see the pictures. Enters Phoenix Slides. As the name implies, Phoenix is little more than a slideshow software. Just point it at some folder with lots of pictures and voila you get a whole bunch of thumbnails to see. You can do some manipulation of the images and file maintenance, like deleting, but showing you what a bunch of photos look like is Phoenix's forte.
  • Frozen Bubbles - You have to take a break sometimes from all the hard work. The open source Frozen Bubbles is somewhat a clone of Bust-A-Move, one of those games where you line up 3 or more bubbles of the same color to bust them. The Mac version does not support full-screen game play and is still at version 1.0, but it is still a good way to waste some time.
  • MacOSaiX - As the contrived name suggests, the software is used for making mosaic, or photomosaic to be exact. You can use your own photo library or randomly grab photos off Google. This is the software that I used to make the mosaic of my ex-colleague Monika as she left the I.T. industry for the nursing field, http://www.flickr.com/photos/qaptainqwerty/55847224/
These are just a few programs I use regularly, or at least would like to use them more often, like MacOSaiX, that happen to be free. There are certainly a few web sites out there that list hundreds of free Mac programs, free as in free to use forever, not just free to download, but I like to give personal touches whenever possible. A long list can be overwhelming, whereas a short list with more info has some warmth to it.

Most likely whatever you need the Mac to do you can find the software to do it, free or otherwise. It is true that some apps are not available for the Mac platform, but it is a small price to pay. I will probably make a future blog entry called... Things The Mac Can Not Do (and How To Go Around It, If Applicable).

04 May 2008

185 - Citrix and Kids

I love Citrix. Working in an environment supporting different networks and having to have different network accounts, with Citrix I can go into all those other networks with the proper accounts to do my job. In the ideal world, one network account can access the entire corporate network, but one side effects of all those mergers the firm had is that some networks are accessible only to accounts in those networks. For the casual user, Citrix provides a lightweight connection to the corporate network from outside. You may have your home drive and a few essential apps like email or office suite, which suffices most of the time. On days that I work from home, I usually have one Citrix connection to do data transfer when needed. I have the choice of using some Terminal Service connection but there are only 2 TS sessions per server so sometimes they get used up. Citrix is the better way to go most of the time.

I recently noticed a colleague, JB in the Citrix Admin group, using a white board as a writing surface. Or to catch peanut shells. What a waste of a good asset. He knew about my drawing skill as I gave him a Qaptain Qwerty qalendar this year. I offered to trade him something for the white board. He was reluctant at first, but then another colleague somehow convinced him to at least loan it to me.

It makes a big difference to have a board right then and there when the idea strikes. I made 184 - Text Twirl using a hand board then added text via Comic Life and Photoshop. The outcome is good but it did take a few hours. With JB's board on my desk, I was able to complete the drawing in minutes. JB himself thought it is a pretty good approximation of his appearance. The ponytail is his trademark.

Ever since I started using Citrix I had wanted to make a pun with Citrix and the Trix commercial. FYI, ica is the extension for Citrix files. Double-click on such files and you are prompted to log into the other network, all while still running apps with your native login.

03 May 2008

184 - Text Twirl

Some months ago someone, a relative or friend I cannot remember, invited me to join Facebook. I joined the social network and did not think much of it. OK, so there's a blog-like thingy called Notes, a bunch of groups you can join, a bunch of other apps. As a matter of fact, it seemed there were too many apps to go through. I figured I would try it out for a few weeks and perhaps it would become abandoned like thoseGeocities web sites I setup in the early days of the web.

One day I decided to check out the word games in Facebook. Perhaps I read about the Scrabulous lawsuit and wanted to see what other word games are out there. I played Scrabbles before and found it not that great as a vocabulary-builder. You can have be a crossword wizard but if you don't know the handful of Q words without U you may not make it far with Scrabbles. I enjoyed playing Super Text Twist before so naturally I gave Text Twirl a twirl. Then my good friendTello challenged me to a game or two of Text Twirl as well. Not just Text Twirl, as it seemed Tello spends most of his living minutes checking out Facebook apps. We played Scramble, Word Twist, and of course Scrabulous. I even started playing Text Twirl against non-friend Facebook players. In short, I became addicted without knowing it.

Here is one positive thing to come out of the addiction - a cartoon from me after a brief hiatus. It is true - each game takes only 2 or 3 minutes to complete, but together they all add up. Like any addiction, once you are hooked on Facebook word games, your productivity is sucked into the void.

01 May 2008

The Thirtieth of April

Today, April 30th, or ba mươi tây tháng tư in Vietnamese, meaning the thirtieth of April, is a historical day in Vietnam. April 30, 1975 was the day that the Vietnam War was over. There was no more South Vietnam and North Vietnam, just one unified Vietnam. Sounds nice, but it wasn't. On the surface, all Vietnamese were brothers and sisters again, but I heard stories of revenge, which were more likely the case when a government is overthrown by another. But seriously, I didn't have any personal experiences on that day. I was just a mere teenager tucked away in the countryside, away from all the actions.

This year's April 30 turned out to be an important day in my life, too. My old department, LAN Account Admin or LAA for short, finally got the official word from HR that their job is, for all practical purposes, done with. All LAA functions in the Northeast and Mid-West will be transferred to Tampa and Houston. I suppose they will have the chance to move to those cities to keep their jobs, but I doubt that many people will move. People have roots where they live and it is a major change. From the firm's point of view, of course, change is good, that everyone should embrace it.

Some consultants already got their fateful phone calls. They only have 30-day notices, versus employee's 60. Some time in the third quarter the employees will get their notice. That put their last day of work, at most, around September 1. For sure I'll come out to Jersey City to visit them for some farewell dinner before then. I will miss them.