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Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Trackpad travails

In breaking in my new keyboard, I’ve been having some issues with the built-in trackpad. There were a couple of occasions where it started glitching, the cursor dragging spontaneously to the side and the scroll strip (the equivalent of a mouse wheel) no longer working. I found I could reset it by unplugging the keyboard and plugging it back in, but it happened twice within the first few days, then again a bit over a week later. There was one time when scrolling worked intermittently and came on and off with no clear rhyme or reason. Also, the sensitivity of the pad seemed variable; sometimes it got so sensitive that I kept accidentally clicking on things while just trying to move the cursor across them.

So I was concerned I might have to swap it for a different keyboard, but when I went to Amazon to look into the return policy, I saw a troubleshooting page, and after looking it over, I realized the problem was probably that the driver hadn’t installed right, because I’d ignored the instruction to shut down the computer before plugging in the keyboard. I really don’t like to shut down or reboot my laptop, because it takes forever. I usually just hibernate it at night.

So I tried rebooting it at last, and after that, the pad seemed to stabilize. The sensitivity was normal again, and its behavior was consistent for a few days. It still tends to be slow to respond; I have to move my finger over it a bit before it starts to work, so if I try clicking or tapping it “cold” after not moving the cursor for a while, the click doesn’t go through. I wondered if this was another driver issue, but since it’s been pretty consistent from the get-go, I suspect it’s a built-in feature to guard against accidental clicks, or something. Not ideal, but I can get used to it.

But a couple of days ago, the scrolling stopped working again, and I had to unplug/replug the keyboard. I may have to try something more than just rebooting; the troubleshooting page suggested uninstalling the driver, shutting down, then plugging it in and rebooting. Of course, then I’d have to use the laptop’s own keyboard to shut it down, a bit more involved (since I keep the laptop sort of halfway under the desk on a wire rack for ventilation, so I have to kneel down and pull it out to access its keyboard). So I’ve been hesitating to do that.

See, I realized that the past couple of times the trackpad glitched, it was when I tried using it with damp fingers. (I’m a very frequent hand-washer.) So I’m wondering if maybe this is not a driver problem; maybe this particular trackpad just gets confused by the coldness or spread-out contact when there’s moisture on the pad. So maybe reinstalling the driver wouldn’t do anything.

Another possibility suggested on the troubleshooting page was interference with the USB port, suggesting plugging it into another port. The problem is that I don’t have a lot of options there. The ports in my laptop itself are taken or inaccessible. (The speaker jack stopped working several years back and I had to get a USB speaker/mic adapter that’s wide enough to block the adjacent port.) So my only real options are the ports on my USB hub, and if one of them had interference, they all might. And somehow it doesn’t really seem like an interference problem at this point.

I really should try the uninstall/reboot thing just on general principles, but I’m lazy. For now, I’m just waiting to see if the pad glitches again without moisture being involved.

I guess I put up with my old keyboard’s dirty contacts and responsiveness problems for so long, constantly having to fiddle with the left button and push it at just the right angle and pressure to get it to engage after multiple false starts, that having a keyboard that works fine aside from occasionally having to be plugged back in — or one that works fine as long as I keep my fingers dry — seems like a minor inconvenience by comparison, one I can live with in the same way.

Anyway, if anyone has any insights based on the symptoms I described, feel free to comment.

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My new (old) keyboard

February 13, 2022 2 comments

I’ve needed a new desktop computer keyboard for a long time now. I’ve had the same keyboard since 2007, and it’s gotten really worn out, but it wasn’t easy to replace. See, because of my shoulder tendinitis, I have trouble using a conventional mouse. Back in ’07, I finally found a special ergonomic keyboard, split in the middle and contoured, with a built-in wrist rest that has a touchpad in the center, which is much less strenuous on my shoulder than a mouse. (It’s also got volume and mute hotkeys built in, which is really handy.) But it’s a unique design, and I haven’t been able to find anything comparable. The only available option was to buy another of the original model, and that would run me around 70 dollars, quite pricey for a keyboard.

So I just stuck with my old keyboard and tried to put up with its increasing deterioration. The letters had worn off of many of the keys, which was okay since I can touch-type, but sometimes a problem when I was typing one-handed by sight while sipping tea or something. There was some kind of a glitch in the connection (I suspect in the USB adaptor for its original mouse and keyboard jacks) that occasionally caused it to disconnect for a fraction of a second so I’d have to retype. If it glitched while I was using Shift, Ctrl, or Alt, they would sometimes get stuck on and weird things would happen until I realized the issue and hit the key again to undo it. Worst of all, the left button on the touchpad had a very dirty or eroded contact and I had to push at juuust the right angle and pressure to get it to connect, so it often took multiple tries to highlight a piece of text or use a scroll bar, which was very frustrating. Still, I figured I’d just bear with it until something stopped working altogether.

But the other day, the E key suddenly became less responsive. I had to push firmly for a moment to get it to engage, and that really disrupted my typing rhythm, as you can imagine. So I decided that was the last straw. Despite the expense, I went ahead and ordered the replacement keyboard. I found I could pay on a 3-month installment plan, which is nice, but not really making much difference since I don’t expect to get much if any new income until 3-4 months from now, unless one or two pending things pan out within that time frame (or unless a lot more people finally start backing my Patreon). Still, I figured I didn’t really have a choice. How did I know the E key would keep working at all? I can’t be a writer with only 25 letters! (And yes, I know there have been whole novels written without the letter E, but that’s not an option for someone who writes about the starships Enterprise and Arachne, Troubleshooter Green Blaze, and the Tangent Knights.)

So I went ahead and ordered the new keyboard… and then I somehow managed to get the old one’s E key to work pretty much normally again, though I’m not sure whether it was by finally clearing whatever debris was sticking it or just by pushing down on it long enough to do… something or other. (It ended up permanently lower than the other keys, which had also happened to the T key a few years before.) Still, I couldn’t be sure it would last, so I didn’t cancel the order for the replacement.

I was initially told that the expected arrival date was Tuesday, but then I was notified that it had shipped and would be here Saturday (yesterday). It arrived yesterday afternoon, and it proved a simple matter to plug it in and start using it. The instructions said to turn the computer off first, but I wasn’t sure how that would work with plugging it into my laptop, and I figured maybe it was an outdated instruction that was no longer necessary. So I just plugged it into my active laptop, and the driver installed with no problem. I was using it within moments.

Though it’s the same model, it’s a bit more advanced, with a USB connector this time, so I no longer need the adaptor. The cord comes out further to the right, so it no longer goes into the cord clip built into my desk’s roll-out keyboard tray. But that’s fine, since it’s a heavy keyboard that doesn’t slide around anyway. Other than the brand logo being in a different place, it’s otherwise exactly the same as the previous one, except all the keys work normally.

Which is great, since I don’t have to adjust to a new layout. All my old comfortable typing reflexes still apply. The only habit I’ll have to unlearn is my expectation to struggle with the left touchpad key. Although I’m still getting used to the new touchpad, whose sensitivity is a little different than the old one. Sometimes it seems to need a bit more pressure applied to start responding, yet paradoxically, sometimes I accidentally select something when I think I’m just hovering over it and not pressing hard enough to engage. And I probably need to relearn that left-clicking may be a better option sometimes than tapping the pad.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the first thing I did with the old keyboard after plugging in the new one was to pop out a few of the keys to see if I could clean the crevices between/under them. I was always afraid to try that before, since I didn’t know if they were designed to be detachable. Turns out they are, and if I’d know that all along, I could’ve kept the crevices/contacts cleaner and probably kept using it longer. But I still can’t figure out whether the left touchpad key is detachable for cleaning, and that was my biggest problem. Plus cleaning the contacts wouldn’t have helped with the worn-out letters and the glitchy connection. At least I know that I’ll be able to clean out the new keyboard when necessary. Though I wish it were one of those newer models with an integrated surface so you don’t have to worry about crumbs or hairs getting under the keys.

But hey, my previous keyboard lasted through almost 15 years of heavy usage with poor maintenance. Hopefully this one will last even longer.

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Calculator update (further updated)

This morning, I decided to see if I could find a way to fix the blanked-out row of LCDs on my calculator, after determining that the batteries weren’t the problem. Looking it up online suggested that there was probably a dirty or broken connection in the ribbon of circuits connecting the display to the circuit board, and that it was theoretically possible but extremely difficult to fix.

Taking the long shot, I unscrewed the back of the calculator again — swapping the old batteries back in while I was at it, since they were still good after all — and tried to spot the problem. Seeing nothing, I just generally tried to fiddle with the connecting ribbon and push any loose connections back into place. I have an old irrigation syringe left over from my orthodontic surgery decades ago (since I’m a bit of a pack rat and I often hold onto things just in case they might prove useful someday), and I used it to puff air under the ribbon in hopes of blowing any dust free. But nothing seemed to make any difference. So I figured I’d done all I could and closed the calculator back up again.

Then, just as a last-ditch, token effort since I had nothing left to lose, I resorted to the ultimate fallback — percussive maintenance. I just tried banging the calculator around in hopes of knocking something back into place.

And it worked!!!

I’m not kidding. It actually restored the display to full function, at least for now. Brute force did the job when delicacy failed. I have no idea if it will hold, but at least I have hope that if the problem does recur, I’ll be able to bang it back into place again. Though hopefully there was just a speck of dust or something that’s now gone, and it’ll be fine. Still, I’ll try to remember to be gentle with the calculator lest something get knocked loose again.

That left the question of what to do with the unnecessary replacement batteries I got. Amazon doesn’t let you return batteries, because they’re technically hazardous materials, but it does allow refunds. I didn’t feel right about getting a refund on perfectly good batteries I still had, but if the calculator had proven irreparable, I might’ve done it anyway. As it is, though, since the calculator is still working (for now), I might still have use for the batteries in the future. So no refund — I just put the batteries back in the pouch they were shipped in, taped it back up with a note saying “For calculator” so I wouldn’t forget, and put the pouch in the closet where I keep my other spare batteries. I figure if the original batteries have lasted for so many years (the manual is copyrighted 2003, apparently the last year this model was sold, so it’s probably about 18 years old), the new ones will keep. Though it’s just as possible that the old batteries will last longer than the calculator.

(Also, if I’d remembered earlier that the manual was still in my drawer, instead of just now when I decided to check the copyright date, then I wouldn’t have had to look online for battery replacement instructions. D’oh!)

EDIT: Well, that didn’t last long. I just tried using the calculator, and the LCDs went out again after a few moments. And no amount of banging was able to fix it this time. So basically forget what I just said an hour ago. Yeesh.

UPDATE 12/10: Turns out I can return batteries after all, as long as they aren’t defective. Since the calculator’s busted and the old batteries are still good, I had no reason to keep the new ones. I just had to print out the shipping and hazardous materials labels, tape them onto the return package, and walk them up to the Amazon pickup/drop-off center a few blocks away. I’ve been notified that my refund has been issued — all five bucks and a penny. Whee!

Return of the phone woes

You may recall that last year I had chronic problems with my landline phone and internet connections going out. After they were fixed last October 5th, the connection’s been stable, aside from one brief dropout that fixed itself after a short while and was probably due to some kind of work going on outside somewhere temporarily disrupting the system. So I’d thought the worst was behind me — until last Tuesday morning, when both connections abruptly went dead just after 9:40 AM. Remembering the previous brief outage, I waited about an hour to see if it would fix itself, and when it didn’t, I used my cell phone to call the help line. They thought it might be due to some work being done in the area, and said they’d have someone out to fix it within 24 hours. I figured I could make do without it for that long. I could still access the web through my smartphone, though my phone’s Gmail app is for some reason quite slow in updating mail from my other, primary address, and I’d have to do without streaming video, since the data usage without wi-fi would probably get expensive, if I could even get a good enough signal (I rarely get more than 3 bars out of 5 in my apartment, which is part of why I need to keep my landline). I figured if it were fixed by Wednesday morning, I’d be able to catch the Supergirl series finale just a bit later than I otherwise would have, and things would be fine.

By 10:30 AM Wednesday, it still hadn’t been fixed, so I called again. (I see now in my phone log that I called precisely 24 hours later, to the minute, even though I hadn’t planned to. Wow.) They told me someone would be coming that afternoon… then called back later to say they’d been delayed and would be here later that afternoon, no later than 4:30, I think. The technician finally called at 4:45 to say he was on his way, then showed up at 5:08 PM. He determined that the problem wasn’t in my modem or line and was probably in the electrical room downstairs… but it was after the building manager had gone home for the day (apparently she doesn’t live in the apartment adjacent to the office as previous managers have done, something I didn’t realize until now), so he couldn’t get into the electrical room to fix things. He went on his way, promising to have someone out to fix it first thing in the morning. Okay, then, I’d be a bit more delayed in catching my Arrowverse shows and the new Star Trek: Prodigy episode. Also, I wasn’t able to log onto my Patreon page because it didn’t recognize my phone, and it took hours for the confirmation code it emailed to my main address to show up on my phone, by which time it had long since expired.

Nothing happened all day Thursday. As I surfed on my phone, I was reminded that it was Veteran’s Day, and I realized the phone company was probably closed for the day. (It was later confirmed to me that this had indeed been the case.) Oh, well; I resigned myself to one more day without TV, filling the time by rewatching a couple of my DVDs and trying to get some actual writing done despite my frustration (and I did get some done, though not nearly enough). I figured they’d have someone out early Friday morning instead.

So on Friday morning, I called them again to make sure… only to be told that no appointment had been scheduled and the earliest they could fit me in was Monday. Monday?! I got angry, pointing out emphatically that I’d been promised it would only take 24 hours, and then promised again that it would be fixed first thing in the morning, and it was unacceptable for them to make me wait three more days when it should have been fixed already and it only wasn’t due to their delays and oversights. I ended up demanding to speak to a supervisor, but even then, I couldn’t convince them to get anyone out to me any sooner than Monday. I was left infuriated and unsatisfied, but resigned to three more days of this drought.

So I finally started to think about other options and realized I could take my laptop out to the library or the university to use their wifi. That hadn’t been an option on Tuesday or Wednesday when I was waiting for the repair tech, and I hadn’t realized it would be an option on Thursday until it was already too late (plus, in retrospect, it would’ve been harder to find someplace open on a holiday). But on Friday afternoon, after letting the building manager know about the Monday appointment and confirming she’d be there, I walked over to the library with my laptop, taking the opportunity to return some items and borrow a couple more DVDs to tide me over the weekend. But I didn’t see any good places in that branch where I could watch TV on my laptop (with earphones, of course) without distractions and without risk of patrons tripping over my cord. So I went over to campus instead — only to be unable to log onto their wifi! I figured it wasn’t my laptop that was the problem, since I was able to connect at one point to the university guest network’s access page, but kept timing out when it tried to log on anywhere else; it must have just been that the signal was too weak or something. Tired and frustrated, I gave up and went home, resolving to try again at the library the next day.

On Saturday, I decided to drive to the next-nearest library branch and see what they had to offer. I found a quiet place to sit and log on… and I still couldn’t connect to the wifi! Since it was a completely different service, I realized at last that it was my laptop that was the problem; sometimes the DNS recognition thingummy or whatever just stops working and I have to reboot. So I rebooted, noodling around on my phone while I waited, since rebooting my old laptop takes forever. Finally, finally, I got a connection. I had laptop wifi, for the first time in more than four days! I was able to download my emails at last, and to get my Patreon to recognize my phone, and do a bit of other stuff. But again, enough time had passed that I gave up on trying to watch streaming video and just wanted to go home for the day, since I didn’t want to spend too long in a public building even with a mask on. Luckily this was one of the only library branches open on Sundays, so I resolved to go back again the next day.

Sunday, I found a better place to set up at that library, a reading/study room with a nice empty corner table where I could plug in. And again, I had DNS problems and had to reboot. I’ve never had that happen twice in such quick succession, and it hasn’t happened in months, so I’m guessing it was somehow a function of moving the laptop around between different wifi signals, or something. Still, I finally made a connection and managed to catch up with a couple of shows including last week’s Prodigy. The laptop got a little warm without its cooling-fan platform (which I should’ve brought with me, but that didn’t occur to me, since this is the first time I’ve taken the laptop anywhere since I bought the cooling platform mid-pandemic), but I finally perched its back end on top of the little box that my earphone cord is stored in, which provided enough ventilation. Still, I didn’t want to press my luck with too much TV, and the branch was only open for four hours on Sundays. I regretted that I hadn’t figured things out sooner.

So then came Monday morning, and waiting for an appointment I’ve been let down for twice already is much more nerve-racking when I’m actually in the scheduled window and can’t think about anything except my fear of being disappointed once again. Luckily, at 9:50, I got a call from the tech to say he was 15 minutes away. After about 25 minutes, I got antsy and went out to look for his truck, not finding it. When I got back in, of course, the tech was waiting outside my apartment!

So I told him where to find the electrical room and went to get the manager, who opened it. This time, I stuck around to watch the tech working, and finally got to see inside this mysterious electrical/storage room. (To my annoyance, I noticed a couple of bottles of wasp/hornet spray, which means they could’ve helped me with my car’s wasp infestation a few months ago rather than leaving me to fend for myself. Grr.) It was rather alarming to see that the Internet connection on which so much of my life depends is reliant on a pair of virtually hair-thin wires in a mare’s nest connected to a old circuit box.

Still, the tech determined that the problem wasn’t a short in the wires like it had been the last time. He managed to trace a dead signal all the way to the substation that the lines lead to, and after calling up the staff there and checking some things, he determined that someone on that end had swapped some things around and attached my line to the wrong place, since they were using really old wires with lead insulation (I think) that wasn’t color-coded like the newer plastic. So not only did the phone company keep missing appointments and failing to live up to its obligations, but the problem was their mistake in the first place.

Despite that, though, the tech explained some things that eased my anger. Apparently there aren’t that many techs still working that are qualified to fix the older copper wiring instead of the newer fiber optics. That’s why it was so hard to get one of them here in a timely manner — they’re just spread too thin, especially in bad weather when there’s more damage to repair. My building complex hasn’t been rewired for fiber optics because it’s just too big, and it would be hard to access all the old lines and replace them.

But that might be a tradeoff for something good. I mentioned to the tech that this week’s frustration had made me think about switching to the building’s wifi service, which I think would be added to my rent, but might cost less than what I’m paying for the Cincinnati Bell service. But the tech nodded to the Spectrum wifi router that was attached to the wall and said that it would get really slow when multiple tenants were using it at once. He opined that the lines originally set up for cable TV had gotten a lot slower since all these other services were piled onto them. Although now that I write that, I have to ask why the same thing wouldn’t be true of lines originally set up for telephone conversations. Still, it might have something to do with each apartment having its own separate phone line, to which individual modems would be attached, rather than everyone drawing on the same modem/router/whatever. It occurred to me at the time that the tech had a vested interest in promoting his service over a rival, but as he is on the technical side rather than the business side, I’m more inclined to trust that his assessments come from a practical place, a mindset that’s more about understanding mechanisms and their abilities and weaknesses than about trying to sell people things.

Bottom line, the tech successfully got my phone and internet back on, and he did good work and reassured me about some things, in contrast to the disappointing service I got over the rest of this week. I could finally start getting back to my normal routine, though I spent most of yesterday catching up on the shows I missed last week. I’m probably going to stay nervous about my connection’s reliability for a while, but it helps to know that last week’s outage wasn’t from the same cause as last year’s, so hopefully it was just a fluke. Apparently there are downsides to relying on the old copper wires, but there are advantages too. And at least now I have a better idea of my options for wifi elsewhere if I need it.

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Braving the garage

Last time I reported on my car battery situation at the end of January, I was cautiously optimistic that I might have dealt with the drain on my battery by removing the charger from the power socket. No such luck — the last couple of times I went for groceries, I had to jumpstart it again. Luckily, I still had a few weeks left on my battery’s 18-month free replacement warranty. Still, I waited for the weather to improve a bit (both so the car would be easier to start and because I’d have to walk from and to the garage after dropping off my car). Plus I was hesitant to go to the garage because of COVID and all. Finally I noticed that Google now gives health precaution info for businesses, and it confirmed that my garage had sensible precautions. I was still a little concerned about indoor ventilation, though. People are still preoccupied with disinfecting surfaces, but the scientific consensus now is that surface infection is vanishingly unlikely and the real risk is from being indoors with other people for any length of time, particularly in a poorly ventilated space. But when I thought about it, I figured that an automotive garage would pretty much need to have good ventilation by default. Well, maybe not so much in the office, but it’s a small office and it usually has at least one door open.

As it turned out, there have been some procedural changes as well — when I called, I was told to schedule a dropoff time online, and the online form asked me to describe the issues, so I didn’t have to do it face to face. And I didn’t even have to come inside, as it turned out; I just dropped the car off and left the spare key on the front seat. Picking it up today, I was able to call the guy from outside and he brought the credit card scanner out with him. He offered to take my card info over the phone, but I figured just being outside was enough.

As it turns out, while I did get a new battery, new wiper blades, tire rotation, and other servicing, it turns out that the battery problem is what I feared. The electrical issues the car’s been having for well over a year now, which are beyond the local garage’s ability to address, are evidently causing some kind of “parasitic draw” on the battery. And I don’t see how I can get that taken care of anytime soon. The garage they referred me to is too far away to get back from except by bus, which isn’t an option I’m willing to take in a pandemic. And though my money situation has begun to improve, it’s an incremental improvement and I need to keep my spending relatively constrained until the next big paycheck comes in a few months. So as it stands, my options are either to drive the car more regularly to keep the battery charged (even though I have zero other reasons to drive anywhere besides grocery pickup), or just keep using my jumpstarter pack to start it up like I’ve been doing for the past few months. Hopefully at least the new battery will make some difference, or will drain less as the weather warms. But I have no idea what to do about the problem in the long run.

So my walks from the garage yesterday and to it today are the longest walks I’ve taken in quite a while. I’m glad I was still up to it; my fitness hasn’t deteriorated too much from the lockdown. I even managed to keep my glasses from fogging up too badly with the mask on. Still seeing a lot of people going unmasked, though among those who were masked, I didn’t notice anyone with their noses sticking out.

Oh, speaking of electrical problems, we had a power failure here yesterday afternoon, just after 5 PM. I was able to check the power company’s outage map on my phone, and it gave an estimated repair time of 9:30, which I hoped was just a placeholder and that the power would be restored before the 4-hour safe limit for food in the fridge. I passed the time reading a paperback book by the window before the sun set, and to avoid opening the fridge, I had supper consisting of a peanut butter sandwich (no jam) and potato chips, and cracked open a new, room-temperature bottle of apple juice (then forgot myself and accidentally opened the fridge door for a few seconds to put it away).

I’d just settled down to do some writing work on my laptop (which still had a full battery) when the power came back on, about 2 hours or so into the blackout, so my food was safe. So of course I blew off the work and went online again. I didn’t really feel up to doing much anyway. Although moving my laptop to the table did finally let me brush the dust off the cooling-fan platform it sits on, something I recently realized I should try to do periodically.

Still, it’s frustrating how often the power goes out around here. I wish we could really modernize the power grid — build in more redundancies, give buildings backup generators or batteries, stuff like that.

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I have a new(ish) printer!

February 5, 2021 3 comments

My old printer has been acting up for a while. Something was wrong with the paper feeder that made it feed jerkily so that there were gaps and overlaps in the printout, and that made the printer act as though there were a paper jam when there wasn’t, so that I couldn’t get past the paper jam warning on the printer’s own screen to work the controls. No matter, then; I had software on my computer that let me control the scanner function and keep using it for that purpose, at least. But it turns out that software was dependent on Adobe Flash, so it stopped working at the start of this year. No matter, then; at least I could still control the printer from Word or Acrobat or whatever. Except that when I tried that, it wouldn’t print at all!

If not for the pandemic, I might’ve tried taking the printer in for repairs before replacing it, but I figured it probably wouldn’t cost much more to get a new one. So I went looking online. I hit a snag when I realized that all the modern printers from the makers of my old one require a software app that isn’t compatible with my old refurbished Windows 7 laptop. So I had to look into other brands, and I found an older model that was compatible and not too expensive. I actually thought I’d be able to get it for under 40 bucks from a local store, but then I noticed it didn’t have a “Buy” button, just a “Notify me when it’s available” button. So I ended up getting it through an Amazon vendor for 100-plus. Not great, but at least I’m in a position to afford it now.

So the printer came yesterday, but I didn’t feel like going to the trouble of installing it until today. I almost hit another snag, since I keep my printer up on top of my computer hutch and I wasn’t sure the supplied cords would reach. The power cord turned out to be just long enough, but the USB cord (since it’s not wireless, being old and cheap) was way too short. Luckily, I still have an old USB hub/extension cord thingy that I replaced years ago with a faster one. It seems to work just fine despite the slower data rate. The printer doesn’t seem to work that fast, but I think that’s more of a hardware issue. It’s not like I use my printer much, so it doesn’t need to be great, just functional.

So now I finally have a working printer/scanner again, which is good. The reason I decided I needed to act now was that tax time is coming up and I wanted to be able to scan and upload my tax forms. I should be able to do that now. Although I’ll have to remember that the scanner plate has the reverse orientation from my previous one — the top of the document goes on the left side now. Also the control buttons are on the top instead of the front, which isn’t great for a printer I keep up high.

Also, I think the printer control software slows down my browser after I use it, heaven knows why, but closing and restarting the browser clears it up. Another thing to remember. The software itself is a bit annoying, putting up this whole weird control panel on my screen that it was hard to figure out how to turn off, but at the same time, the controls seem more easily accessible and intuitive than the previous printer’s control software.

Aside from these minor snags, the installation went pretty smoothly. Yet I’m having a weird reaction. Part of the reason I waited a day to install it was because I was worried that it might be difficult and frustrating. I deal poorly with tech going wrong, or just in general with new problems I can’t figure out. I tend to get really flustered by such things. Yet even though the installation went fairly smoothly, with nothing going wrong aside from a couple of setbacks I quickly solved, I find myself feeling emotionally drained and edgy, much as I’d feel if it had been hard and frustrating. I didn’t feel upset or agitated while I was installing the printer, but I’m kind of feeling the aftereffects as if I had. It’s as if my brain and hormones reacted to what I feared would happen instead of what actually happened. Weird.

Meanwhile, as long as I was getting stuff from Amazon, I finally got around to buying a new toilet flapper valve to deal with the “ghost flush” problem I talked about back in August, i.e. the slow leakage through the deteriorating flapper that caused the tank to slowly drain and spontaneously refill every few hours. That problem has come and gone over the past few months, but it’s been fairly steady lately, so I was glad for the chance to fix it at last. I was surprised by how decayed the old flapper had gotten; when I drained the tank and pulled it out, the crumbly rubber stuck to my fingers like I was holding a moist brownie, and there were cloudy wisps of black particulates dislodged into the surrounding water when I moved it. So definitely way, way overdue for replacement. The new one fit perfectly and seems to be working fine now, although it didn’t quite close at one point last night and I realized I’d hooked up the chain a bit too loosely so that it got caught underneath the valve. I realized that was why the previous chain was attached over the top of the lever instead of the bottom, so I adjusted it accordingly.

So bit by bit, things in my household are getting long-overdue fixes. There are still some other fixes needed, like a new desktop keyboard and car repairs. But those can wait until more money comes in over the year ahead.

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An automotive addendum

December 23, 2020 1 comment

Since it was fairly warm this afternoon (which meant I didn’t have to worry about my car being sluggish to start due to cold lubricants or whatever), I took that drive I mentioned above, to recharge my car battery and test the GPS on my new phone. Turns out the battery ran dry again even in just the two days since my grocery trip, so said trip was nowhere near long enough to charge the battery. And for a few moments, I was worried that my jump-starter battery pack wasn’t working. The cable bit that plugs into it is supposed to go from flashing red and green to solid green to let you know it’s working, and it wouldn’t go green. It eventually did, though, when I happened to tilt it 90 degrees from the way it naturally rests, though I don’t know if that was cause and effect or coincidence, since it stayed engaged when I tilted it back. Anyway, I started the car and moved on to the next thing.

The USB adapter worked fine, letting me plug in my 6-foot charging cable, and the GPS worked smoothly too. But I’m out of practice at looking down at the screen as the phone rests in the cup holder, or else the angle was less amenable with the new phone somehow, even though it’s a bigger and brighter screen. I’ve never felt particularly safe doing that anyway. What I really need now is some kind of phone mount for my dashboard or dashtop or whatever you call that flattish surface under the windshield. The cable is easily long enough to reach even from the outlet in the back seat (the lighter in the front doesn’t work as a power outlet, I guess because the designers figured only passengers would need one, since the car predates smartphones).

Not that I expect to need it anytime soon, as I said above. I thought about maybe going to some store or other, maybe pick up some food at a drive-thru, but I decided I’d rather not deal with exchanging cash with anyone, and I only have a few bucks in my wallet anyway. I ended up just driving around the neighborhood, including some areas I haven’t been to in years if at all, just so I could experience the change of scenery. I was willing to risk getting a little lost since I had a working GPS again. But I didn’t need it. I still have a fairly good sense of the layout of the area and knew which way I needed to go.

Although the same can’t be said for everyone. As I was coming up along the one-way street leading to my home street, another car was approaching me the wrong way in the same lane! But they were on the other side of an intersection and they turned off before they and I got too close — also going the wrong way into a one-way turn lane. I hope they got back on the right side of the 2-way street they turned onto after that. At least, I didn’t hear any evidence to the contrary.

Given how effective my little pocket-sized jump-starter pack is, I wonder why car batteries need to be so big and heavy anyway. I guess a car battery is meant to hold a greater amount of charge, though, since it’s used for more than just starting the ignition. Isn’t it? Also, the pack always needs at least two tries to start the car. I guess you want a larger charge in the battery to make it more reliable — providing you use the car often enough for the darn thing to hold onto its charge.

I didn’t really think I was using the car that much less frequently than I did before the pandemic. Maybe about half as often, at a guess. But I suppose the distance I drive is much less, just to the neighborhood grocery store and back, which is only about a mile every couple of weeks. That was still my most common destination before, but it wasn’t the only place I drove to.

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More phone notes

November 10, 2020 5 comments

Still getting to know my new smartphone…

  • I’ve settled on using the vinyl bank book holder as a protective sleeve for my phone. It really works surprisingly well, though it would be perfect if it were about a centimeter shorter. Indeed, it’s easier to grip than the phone’s somewhat slippery case. I have my doubts about its durability, but I definitely prefer it. I did have to cut a hole in the clear plastic to accommodate headphone and power cords; the first time I did that, I subsequently found there were some numbers in ink on the inside of the clear layer, transferred from a bank book or something, and they wouldn’t come out. Luckily the thing’s symmetrical, so once I checked that the other side was clear, I had to cut a hole in that side and use it instead. And then I determined that it’s best not to charge the phone while it’s in the sleeve, since it gets kind of hot. Also I prefer to use the glasses case to hold it when I’m listening to an audiobook. So maybe I didn’t need to cut a hole at all.
  • I discovered that MS Office (Word included) is pre-installed on the phone, so theoretically I could save my prose files on the cloud and write or edit them on the phone. Although they open in read-only mode by default, and it took some research to figure out how to make them editable (you have to save a local copy on the phone). I’m undecided whether to try it. I’m not very practiced at typing on a phone screen — I’m not much of a texter — so it would probably be slow and not very comfortable. But making a change in where and how I write can help against writer’s block, so it might be worth a try. At the very least, it could work as an emergency backup if something happened to my laptop.
  • I found that the phone has a “side screen” that you can open that has various built-in tools like a compass, level, ruler, and flashlight control. Oddly, the directions the compass claims as due north and due south are only 143 degrees apart (I checked with a ruler and protractor). Several attempts with the “Calibrate” button failed to correct the problem. Either the app is inaccurate, or my apartment is a space warp.
  • Followup: I looked into it online, and apparently you’re supposed to calibrate the compass away from magnetic objects. It was a nice day, so I took a (masked) walk up to the local park to get as far out in the open as I could, and my recalibration attempt there was successful. I don’t know if I’ll ever actually need a compass — I never have before, and there was actually a time way back in the day when I did carry a small compass in my backpack just in case — but if I have one anyway, it might as well actually work.
  • I’ve discovered that a number of the New York Times puzzle games are easier to play on a smartphone than a computer screen. I’d wondered, in particular, why the Spelling Bee game was so unwieldy in that you had to click on the letters instead of being able to type out the words. It makes sense if it was designed for a touch screen.
  • This phone’s native weather app doesn’t auto-update when you unlock the phone like my old one did. You have to tap it, or set it to update on a schedule. The weather radar app I use has an alternate widget I could try, but I don’t like its design.
  • I also miss the light on my old phone that blinked to alert me to a new text message, e-mail, voicemail, or whatever. Now I don’t see any notification without turning on my phone. There’s a notification sound when a message arrives, at least if I have it turned on, but that doesn’t help me after the fact if I miss hearing it.
  • Plus it annoys me that the ringtones and notification sounds on modern phones don’t have any nice, simple rings and beeps, just these annoying musical phrases. I did find a ringtone that sounds like an ’80s telephone, which is tolerable. But when I tried using the timer, there were no nice, simple “ding” or “beep” options for the notification sound.
  • I have to retrain my muscle memory for turning the screen on. My old phone had a front button I tended to use for that, but this one only has a side button. It goes on if you tap the front a few times, or if you move it suddenly while touching the screen, but I’m still figuring out its triggers.
  • There’s also an “Always On Screen” that shows the time and charge level and such on the black screen when I tap it once, as well as the temperature from my weather radar app. I wish I could increase its font size, since I often don’t have my glasses on when I want to take a quick look at it. But I checked, and apparently there’s no way to do that. The font can be enlarged elsewhere, but not there.
  • I’m getting more spam calls and texts than before. I think it must be because I failed to back up my old phone’s data, which might have included my block lists.
  • Battery life seems comparable to my old phone. I’m generally charging once a day, and that’s to keep it in what I gather is the recommended charge range for modern phone batteries, between 50 and 80 percent. It charges pretty quickly, at least as fast as the old one did with the newer cord I bought last year.
  • Oh, I’m so glad that I’m now able to have a fully functional Firefox app on my phone with access to all my desktop (or rather laptop) bookmarks. Before, I could only get Chrome to sync bookmarks between devices, but it’s inconvenient to keep importing updated Firefox bookmark lists into a browser I rarely use, so I only occasionally got around to doing that. Now that’s no longer necessary. The Firefox app doesn’t let me access my bookmarks as easily as my laptop browser, but I’ve already found that the phone lets me view a couple of sites that my older, refurbished Windows 7 laptop has trouble with (including FiveThirtyEight’s election update liveblog, which sometimes fails to load on my laptop).
  • I discovered a surprising new quirk of the phone — its calendar widget not only popped up a notification of my upcoming deadline on the phone, but somehow transmitted one to my laptop as well. I didn’t know it could do that and didn’t ask it to. I’m not sure how it did. From the placement of the message’s tab on the bottom bar, it was associated with my e-mail client somehow, evidently through the Gmail account connected to my cell number, but I’ve never seen the client display that ability before. Anyway, I’ll have to try to remember to set it not to do that anymore.
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New phone notes

October 31, 2020 2 comments

This is a collection of discoveries and observations I’ve made about my new phone. I figured I’d let them build up over a few days before I posted them.

  • It turns out that the power cord uses a USB-C plug rather than MicroUSB. The battery pack gizmo I got earlier this year for jumpstarting my car uses the same connector, so I was able to use the phone cord to recharge the battery pack. It looks like you can get Micro/C adaptors online for only pennies more than the cost of shipping, but the cost of shipping is a bit high.
  • As I mentioned in reply to a comment on my previous post, I figured out how to get the music player to display the files in device memory. I had to look it up online. Why don’t electronics come with proper instruction manuals anymore? I guess because we can look it all up online.
  • Well, whaddaya know? The hands on the icon for the clock app actually tell the time! That’s clever, for the icon itself to be a functional source of information. I prefer using the digital clock widget, though. Some people are good at reading analog clock faces by the hand positions, but I prefer having numbers to look at.
  • The screen automatically brightens and dims with the light level. That’s very useful.
  • I got an email from Google Play offering me the chance to reinstall apps from my old phone — including some I’d uninstalled long ago. Anyway, I took the opportunity to do something I was planning to do eventually anyway, and install my bank’s mobile app which wouldn’t work on my old phone. It works on this phone, so now I have the ability to mobile-deposit checks. Of course, most of my publishers pay me by direct deposit now anyway, but it could be handy.
  • I noticed a free compass app on Google Play and tried it out. For some reason, it defined north as whatever direction the phone was pointing when I opened the app. That one got uninstalled quickly.
  • I’ve discovered that the phone fits almost perfectly into an old pouch-style glasses case I have, which would be good for carrying it around outside, except the pouch doesn’t close on top. I’m debating between that and the alternate option of a vinyl bank book holder. The phone is about the size and shape of a checkbook, so it fits perfectly inside the clear plastic sleeves, and I can even work the phone through the plastic cover. That could be very handy for outdoors use, but I’d have to take the phone out to use headphones, charge it, or take outward-facing photos/video.
  • Following up on that, I tried the glasses case when I went out for grocery pickup, and it was a bit awkward to pull the phone out of the case without pulling the case out of my pocket. That’s a point in favor of the bank book holder, although I’m thinking I may need to reinforce its spine with some tape so it holds up to frequent opening and closing. I realized I could also cut a hole in the plastic for the headphones and power cord.
  • I was also finally able to get the Kroger app to work and use it to notify them of my arrival. I had a bit of trouble hitting the buttons, though; I had to hold my finger on them rather than just tap. I wonder, was the app running slow, or was the screen having trouble reading my finger’s heat because it was warm from being in the pouch in my pocket?

Meanwhile, my shopping trip was a bit harrowing in another way. The main reason for my rush to get a new phone this week was because I was running out of my heartburn pills that I take daily, so I needed to get groceries before they ran out. But it turned out they were out of stock at Kroger and I wasn’t offered an alternate option. And I only had one pill left. So I decided to brave the Walgreens across the lot from the Kroger store, reminding myself that the risk is minimal if you’re only inside for a few minutes with proper safeguards. It’s only the second time during the pandemic that I’ve been inside a public building (the first being the post office), and though everyone was masked and distancing, I still wish there had been fewer people.

And yes, I did look into the possibility of curbside pickup at Walgreens, but it looks like they only offer it for certain items, which is weird.

Anyway, I got to use my new credit card’s “tap” payment function, where you just hold it against the scanner. I’d gotten the impression that you just waved the card over it briefly, but you have to hold it against it while it checks and approves the card. Took me a couple of tries to figure that out.

So weird to live in a world where we have such technological advancements and conveniences undreamt of by our forerunners, but have regressed a hundred years when it comes to public health and pandemic response.

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Phoning it in, Part 2

October 29, 2020 2 comments

Predictably, despite my hopes of getting back to work today, I’ve continued to try out my new phone and get to know its features. It’s good to be able to listen to audiobooks again, and a couple of apps that didn’t work well, or at all, on my old phone are now installed and working fine on the new one — including Firefox, which means I can finally consistently have the same bookmarks on both devices’ browsers. Also the Kroger app, which should make it easier to notify the store when I arrive for a pickup. (My impending need for groceries was the main reason I needed to get a new phone before much longer, since you kind of need one to let them know you’ve arrived, unless there already happens to be a clerk outside in the waiting area.)

So mostly this is an improvement so far, but there are some disappointments. I find the phone’s Gmail app more limited in functionality than the old Android mail app. It won’t let me default to showing all mail from both my addresses (my Gmail is secondary), so I have to remember to select that manually each time. And it won’t let me select a whole day’s worth of emails and mark them as read, as far as I can discover. Nor can I scroll from one open email to the next by swiping horizontally. I see there’s also an Outlook app pre-installed, which might be worth looking into as an alternative, but I don’t know if it’ll be any better.

The music player is frustrating. My old one just played the music files I had on my SD card. The one here is YouTube-based and assumes I want to download music from online, which I don’t, at least not now. When I started it for the first time, I briefly saw some option listed for playing files on the device, but it went away before I could select it and I haven’t been able to find it again. I find that, outside of that app, I can just hit the “My Files” icon and navigate to the music folder to select tracks manually, but that only plays one track at a time. What am I missing?

So far, the battery life doesn’t seem any better than my old phone’s. But then, it’s been pretty active what with all the app installations and software updates and such, so maybe the battery won’t run down so fast on normal everyday use. Also, this phone has a dark mode, which could be easier on my eyes as well as on the battery.

And now I’ve lost the whole day on this, and lost track of how late it’s gotten. Hopefully I can refocus on work tomorrow.

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Phoning it in

Well, I decided this morning to go ahead and order a new smartphone. I’d just about settled on the model that charged the least monthly fee, and I called the store this morning to make sure I could keep my current number. So I went to my account page, hit the upgrade button, and picked out that cheap/discounted model.

However, to confirm the order, I had to enter a code that they texted to my old phone. Not a good idea when my old phone barely worked. I still had some charge left, though, so I turned the phone on and waited for the text — although the first two texts I got were spam. It took a long time before their code finally came through, which was a relief. Still, it’s annoying that they didn’t have the option to e-mail the code or something. How do people manage if their phones are broken even worse than mine?

Unfortunately, it turns out there are a couple of up-front fees I’ll need to pay after all. It comes out to roughly 80 extra dollars I’ll have to pay by the end of the year, and I just have to hope that fits within the very, very tight budget I’m operating under until late December at the earliest. (I still welcome Patreon subscriptions or PayPal donations.)

To my surprise, I was told the phone would be delivered to my door within a couple of hours. Again, they said they’d use my mobile phone as the contact number, and it was tricky to find a way to ask them to use my landline instead, but I finally achieved that through e-mailing their help address.

This was supposedly “contactless” delivery, but it took a fair amount of near-contact through my open front door, for they (the guy brought a trainee along) had to install my SIM card and transfer my MicroSD card and so forth to get it set up out in the hallway. Apparently it’s not as easy for the customer to do those things with this model. I don’t think it opens up at all; there’s actually a special pin included that you need to use to eject the SD card, and I didn’t even see how it was done. Anyway, we all had masks on and I had my windows open and the ventilation fans going, and I used hand sanitizer as appropriate.

Annoyingly, they’ve changed the design for the charger plug port. There was a charger included, but the new phone is not compatible with my existing charging cords, including the long one I need if I want to use the phone as GPS in my car, since the outlet is inconveniently placed. Well, it’s not like I was planning a trip anytime soon.

Another inconvenience is that it turns out my old data wasn’t backed up after all. Luckily that was mostly just my contacts list, and I don’t know that many people, so it’s a short list. I wasn’t sure the old phone retained enough charge to let me copy the list manually. But it turns out I still have an older, non-smart phone, and though its soft plastic shell has gotten decayed and sticky, it still functions, and once I charged it, I was able to access its contacts list and copy the numbers manually. I still needed to turn on my old smartphone long enough to add or update newer contact info and double-check the older info, but it reduced the amount of time I needed to have the phone turned on.

One odd loss of function: The new phone only lets me enter one contact number per person, as far as I can tell. Both my old ones let me enter more than one.

Luckily it’s proven easy to set up other things, since my e-mails, Kindle books, library rentals, etc. were stored in their respective clouds and I just needed to install and sign into the apps. So I’m mostly set up now, at least the essential stuff, though there are still some things I need to sort out. For instance, hopefully the new “Notes” widget is downward-compatible with the memos I backed up onto my desktop just in case I couldn’t transfer them directly from my old phone — which I can’t.

The phone is not much wider than my old one, but surprisingly a good deal taller. I was able to fit the old one entirely in my shirt pocket, but this one sticks out of it more and is more likely to fall out. It’s a weird aspect ratio, maybe designed with watching widescreen movies in mind, though I doubt I’ll be doing any of that on the phone. Still, it should be good for reading e-books or Facebook or the like.

The best news (aside from actually having a working phone again) is that I’m once again able to play audiobooks from the Hoopla library service on my phone. I’ve been going through their catalog of Doctor Who audio dramas for a few months now, and I’d come to enjoy listening to them on headphones while I did other stuff around the apartment or stood out on my balcony. But they suddenly stopped working on my phone a while back, and they didn’t always play on my desktop either (I found I had to shut down and restart Firefox to get them to play, and even that didn’t always work). It might’ve been a software compatibility issue, or maybe the first sign of my phone’s recent breakdown. When I contacted tech support, they could only tell me that they didn’t support my old phone anymore, but I wasn’t sure if that was the cause of the failure or just a statement that they couldn’t advise me on the cause. Anyway, it’s a moot point now. I can listen on my phone again! Although for some reason, the headphone jack is on the bottom edge now. I’ll have to keep it in my pocket upside-down.

Another apparent loss of function: My old phone let me scroll through the home screen pages in either direction; I could go forward from page 1 to 2 or backward from page 1 to 3, as needed. This one doesn’t have that “wraparound” capability. If I hit one end, I need to go back the other way. But since it’s a bigger screen, it looks like I’ll be able to fit all the stuff I need on just the first two pages.

So anyway, I’m mostly back in business now, much sooner than I expected. It’s my first real taste of how the retail industry has adapted to COVID — now they make house calls. I wonder if that might persist even once things go back to normal.

And while it’s good to have a new phone, I’ve now lost pretty much the whole day dealing with this instead of writing. At least I’ve sorted most of it out by now, so I can put this behind me and get back to work.

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Phone woes again: Now it’s the OTHER phone!

October 27, 2020 5 comments

This is getting ridiculous. Just weeks after my land phone line (and Internet line) finally got fixed, my mobile phone started acting up. Its apps started crashing randomly, giving me “Unfortunately, X has stopped.” messages whether I was using the apps in question or not. It also started rebooting itself at random, often freezing on the boot-up screen. This got rapidly worse until I could barely use the phone for more than a few moments.

Folks on Facebook suggested that I might have malware or a bad app, which could be purged with a factory reset and restoration from backup, or that I might have a loose connection I could fix by fiddling with the battery and SIM card. The latter didn’t work, and I didn’t feel ready to tackle the former. The timing is bad — I’m two weeks from deadline on a major project and really need to focus on that.

So I set it aside for a couple of days to concentrate on my writing, and it was interesting to realize how little I actually need my smartphone on a day-to-day basis, since I don’t go out often these days. Mainly I use it to play backgammon and other games, and as an e-book reader — and I was using it for audiobooks borrowed from the Hoopla online library, until they suddenly stopped working on my Hoopla app a while back. I couldn’t get any tech support because my phone is 6 1/2 years old and they no longer support its software.

Because of that, and because the case is kind of worn out, I was considering getting a new phone anyway. If this had happened early next year, when my money situation is better, I would’ve just gone ahead and upgraded. Right now, though, money is extremely tight. So I gave some thought to just riding it out for the next couple of months, not using my phone except when I go out to get groceries, and hoping it would at least keep working enough to let me call the store to notify them I’ve arrived.

This afternoon, though, I figured I should turn the phone on just to make sure I hadn’t gotten any voicemails (which are almost always spam anyway). I saw the battery was low, so I decided to plug it in to recharge.

And the plug wouldn’t go in.

I realized I was very stupid the other day. Remember how I fiddled with the battery and SIM card? Well, it’s been so long since I opened the back of my phone that I confused the charging port for the bit where you stick in a screwdriver to pop the back open. When it wouldn’t open, I got kind of aggressive with the screwdriver. And apparently I bent the pins inside the charging port, and now I can’t recharge the phone anymore. Aggghhh!

So me am dumb, and now I have no choice but to replace the phone. Fortunately, it looks like there are a couple of decent upgrade models I can get for only an extra $5-$10 per month on my current bill. I could cope with that for the (probably) 2-3 months remaining before my income begins to improve. However, looking over the terms, it looks like there might be an up-front lump-sum charge as well, and that would be more of a problem. I’ll just have to hope I can weather it somehow.

Ugh, this would also be easier to sort out if I felt free to just drop into the phone dealership a couple of blocks away. They could answer my questions about an upgrade, smooth the process, or maybe even help me fix my existing phone (although I doubt that — my past experience is that the people at those stores are only salespeople rather than repair people). I suppose I could at least call them and ask some questions.

This is rotten timing on a couple of levels. But I guess it could’ve been worse. If I had to have both my phones fail within a month, it’s a good thing they at least took turns.

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Phone/Internet repairs again

Over the weekend, my phone line remained dead and my Internet connection was uneven. On Saturday, it was dropping in and out for much of the day, then stabilized for a few hours, then went spotty again. On Sunday, I had a consistent but very slow connection; in the past, I would’ve tried rebooting my modem in hopes of a faster connection, but this time I didn’t want to risk losing the stability I had, so I lived with the slowness (it was a bit nostalgic, actually). Late in the day, it suddenly got faster again, and worked fine through this morning.

The phone guy came a bit after 9, and as the equipment room downstairs was locked this time, and as the previous maintenance people hadn’t found the solution, I had to let him into my apartment at last. I made sure to wear a mask, to open the balcony doors, and to have the bathroom ventilation fan blowing, and I kept my distance and stayed out on the balcony as much as possible. He was masked too, of course. He fiddled around with my phone jack for 15-20 minutes before determining he needed to be let into the equipment room, so I called the building manager on my cell. Fortunately, she was in, and she came around to unlock the equipment room (though she was not masked, grr).

Before he went downstairs, I asked him if he knew what the problem was that the others couldn’t diagnose. He said there was a short between my phone and DSL lines somewhere, and the others couldn’t find it because I didn’t want them to come in. I would have if they’d told me it was necessary. Anyway, he said it wasn’t my modem’s age at fault, just the short causing the interference between the two lines. Which makes sense.

I hung out on my balcony for a while waiting — not only did I not want to be inside the apartment for long until it had aired out for at least an hour, but the Internet was down so there wasn’t much else I could do. He called on my cell and said he had a problem and had to go out for a while, so I didn’t know how long I’d have to wait. But then, about an hour after he left, I stepped inside for a moment and saw that the modem lights were on again, and the “Check TEL Line” notice was gone from my desk phone. A moment later, he called on my landline and said he’d fixed the short. Hopefully that’s for real this time. The Internet connection is stable and fast for now.

I’m still wearing my mask inside my apartment, and I have the balcony door open and both the bathroom and kitchen vent fans blowing. I even took the spray bottle of diluted detergent that I use to spray gnats (it coats their wings so they can’t flit away from a swat) and squirted it around the room a couple of times, on the theory that the soap might help negate any aerosolized viruses in the air. (I don’t have any disinfectant spray, alas.) I’m sure it’s an excess of caution, and it’s getting kind of chilly in here, but better too much caution than too little, as recent news events have driven home.

Anyway, the disposable surgical masks I bought are too small for my face. I have a long chin, and opening my mouth tends to pull the mask down from my nose. Also, I find that I’m psychosomatically imagining my vision fogging when I exhale in my mask even when I don’t have my glasses on!

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Minor website update

I’ve been getting acquainted with WordPress’s new editing software, which is frustratingly more limited than the old software in its ability to edit image size and placement, but which has a few useful features I’ve been discovering. One of those is the ability to insert hashtag anchors inside a page, so that I can create page jump links within a single page, or link to a specific part of a different page. For instance, here’s a link to the discussion for “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” on my Troubleshooter fiction page:

https://christopherlbennett.wordpress.com/only-superhuman/#StuffDreams

So despite my ongoing Internet connection problems, I’ve managed to update my pages covering multiple works (such as my pages for Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation or Among the Wild Cybers) with page jump links for easier navigation to the individual entries, usually in the form of tables of contents at the top.

Speaking of the Internet problem, it stabilized yesterday afternoon and evening, but went out again this morning. (Phone line is still dead.) As I mentioned in a comment to my last post, I noticed that the dropouts seemed to fit the pattern of my modem overheating, though that couldn’t be the only reason, since they didn’t start until after the technician did his failed repairs to the phone line on Monday. Still, I tried blowing a fan into the modem vents to dislodge dust buildup, and it was stable all day after that. However, I can now rule out the overheating idea, since I tried the fan again after the first dropouts this morning, and had another dropout just moments afterward. Nothing I can do seems to fix it; I’m just trying to work around it as best I can, to take advantage of the moments of connection I get and hope it eventually settles down again.

I have to say, I really am much calmer about this today than yesterday. I realized yesterday how agitated and frustrated I was getting about what’s really a relatively minor inconvenience, albeit an annoyingly persistent one. I mean, things are improving in my life lately. The new project that I hoped to announce this week (well, maybe next week) should finally get me out of the financial mess I’ve been in for the past few years, though I still have to scrape through the rest of this year first (and more Patreon subscriptions would help me with that, even if you just try it for a month or two). And while I’m well behind schedule on my current novel assignment, I’ve finally been catching up and getting back on track. So I have good reason to feel better about my life situation now, and you’d think it would be easier to put more minor crises into perspective.

But I guess I’ve just been in panic mode for so long that it’s my default reaction. The little frustrations feel the same as the huge setbacks. I hope in time, as things continue to improve for me, I’ll be able to settle back into a more stable state of mind. (Well, as close to stable as a neurotic sort like me can get.)

And now I really should get back to work on that book…

Phone woes again, this time with Internet

Back in August, I posted about how my phone line went dead, and how worried I was about letting a repair person into my apartment, until it turned out he could fix the problem in the downstairs equipment room instead. Problem solved! Or so I thought.

I woke up Saturday morning to find the phone line dead again. Once again I e-mailed the phone company, and they sent a guy out on Monday. This guy wanted to come into my apartment until I told him the last guy had done his repairs downstairs. It seemed to work — except then my Internet connection started to get unstable, periodically dropping out, with the DSL and Internet lights on the modem going out.

Six hours later, the phone line went dead again — after which the Internet stabilized. The next day (Tuesday), they went back and forth — the phone line came back and the net became unstable again (and there was a crackling noise on the phone line on top of the dial tone), then later in the day the phone went out again and the net was fine. It was like they were interfering with each other somehow. But by that evening and into the next morning, the phone line was intermittently working and the net was fine.

So the third repair guy came on Wednesday and did his repairs downstairs — in fact, though he called in advance to ask about the problem, I didn’t even know he’d arrived until I got an automated call that afternoon asking what I thought of my service. He didn’t bother to check in or confirm the repair or anything, but both phone and Internet seemed to work just fine after that. In fact, the Internet connection was faster than it’s been in a while.

This morning, the Internet started dropping out again. Ugh. And after the third or fourth time I unplugged the modem and plugged it back in to reboot it… the phone line went dead again! Huh????

So I called them again, and they tell me they can’t get a tech out here until Monday. I called Friday morning, before 10 AM, and they still couldn’t get anyone out here today, even though this is an ongoing problem that they’ve repeatedly failed to fix.

I’m still nervous about the idea of letting someone into my apartment what with COVID risks, but at this point I’ll accept it if it actually gets the problem diagnosed. I should be reasonably okay as long as I wear a mask and ventilate the apartment effectively. Really, it shouldn’t take that long to completely exchange the air in my 480 square foot apartment, right?

So anyway, I tried looking up things that could cause an Internet connection to drop out. Most of them don’t seem applicable, because the connection was mostly fine until last Saturday. There had been a time a few months back when the connection became unstable for an hour or so in the mornings but was back to normal by 11 or 12. I figured maybe it was some outside interference, like that recent story about the guy whose old TV was shutting down a whole town’s Internet. But that hasn’t been happening for a while.

Still, there was one thing I couldn’t entirely dismiss as a possibility. Apparently a modem can lose its connection if it overheats. Now, I think my modem is pretty well-ventilated. Due to the distance between my computer desk and my phone jack, I need to have the modem on the floor by my bookcases, and I keep it upright on its side, with both its broadest faces exposed to the air. And it’s right underneath my ceiling fan, which I keep going pretty much constantly when I’m awake and at home. Still, the way it drops out seems like it could be consistent with overheating — namely, it tends to drop out when I’m trying to access a page that’s slow to load, as if it’s processing a lot of data and overheats from doing so. And sometimes, it seems more likely to stabilize if I walk away from the computer for a while, which could be giving it time to cool down. I haven’t had the opportunity to test whether it feels warmer when it drops out, though, because I only just read about this as a possibility.

Still, it doesn’t add up. Why would it be a modem heating problem if my modem was working just fine (usually) until the first failed phone repair attempt on Monday? Could it be that some interference or slowdown elsewhere in the phone/DSL wiring is somehow forcing my modem to work harder and heat up more? And what could be causing the phone and DSL lines to interfere with each other? And why can’t they fix it?

These are not rhetorical questions. I’m open to any informed replies on the subject.

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Quantum teleportation revisit: Now with wormholes!

December 12, 2017 1 comment

Six years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on this blog musing about the physics behind quantum teleportation — first proposing a model in which quantum entanglement could resolve the philosophical condundrum of whether continuity of self could be maintained, then getting into some of the practical limitations that made quantum teleportation of macroscopic objects or people unlikely to be feasible. I recently came upon an article that offers a potential new angle, basically combining the idea of quantum teleportation with the idea of a wormhole.

The article, “Newfound Wormhole Allows Information to Escape Black Holes” by Natalie Wolchover, was published in Quanta Magazine on October 23, 2017. It’s talking about a theoretical model devised by Ping Gao, Daniel Jafferis, and Aron C. Wall, a way that a stable wormhole could exist without needing some kind of exotic matter with arbitrary and probably physically unattainable properties in order to keep it open. Normally, a wormhole’s interior “walls” would attract each other gravitationally, causing it to instantly pinch off into two black holes, unless you could line them with some kind of magic substance that generated negative energy or antigravity, like shoring up a tunnel in the dirt. That’s fine for theory and science fiction, but in practical terms it’s probably impossible.

The new model is based on a theory that’s been around in physics for a few years now, known in short as “ER = EPR” — namely, that wormholes, aka Einstein-Rosen bridges, are effectively equivalent to quantum entanglement between widely separated particles, or Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen pairs. (Podolsky, by the way, is Boris Podolsky, who lived and taught here in Cincinnati from 1935 until his death, and was the graduate advisor to my Uncle Harry. I was really impressed when I learned my uncle was only two degrees of separation from Einstein.) The EPR paradox, which Einstein nicknamed “spooky action at a distance,” is the way that two entangled particles can affect each other’s states instantaneously over any distance — although in a way that can’t be measured until a light signal is exchanged between them, so it can’t be used to send information faster than light. Anyway, it’s been theorized that there might be some sort of microscopic wormhole or the equivalent between the entangled particles, explaining their connection. Conversely, the two mouths of a wormhole of any size could be treated as entangled particles in a sense. What the authors of this new paper found was that if the mouths of a wormhole were created in a way that caused them to be quantum-entangled — for instance, if one of them were a black hole that was created out of Hawking radiation emitted from another black hole (it’s complicated), so that one was a direct outgrowth of the other on a quantum level — then the entanglement of the two black holes/mouths would create, in the words of the paper’s abstract, “a quantum matter stress tensor with negative average null energy, whose gravitational backreaction renders the Einstein-Rosen bridge traversable.” In other words, you don’t need exotic matter to shore up the wormhole interior, you just need a quantum feedback loop between the two ends.

Now, the reason for all this theoretical work isn’t actually about inventing teleportation or interstellar travel. It’s more driven by a strictly theoretical concern, the effort to explain the black hole information paradox. Conservation of energy says that the total amount of energy in a closed system can’t be increased or decreased. Information is energy, and the universe is a closed system, so the total amount of information in the universe should be constant. But if information that falls into a black hole is lost forever, then conservation is violated. So for decades, physicists (notably Stephen Hawking) have been exploring the question of whether it’s possible to get information back out of a black hole, and if so, how. This paper was an attempt to resolve that question. A traversable wormhole spinning off from a black hole provides a way for information to leave the interior of the black hole, resolving the paradox.

I only skimmed the actual paper, whose physics and math are way beyond me, but it says that this kind of entangled wormhole would only be open for a very brief time before collapsing. Still, in theory, it could be traversable at least once, which is better than previous models where the collapse was instantaneous. And if that much progress has been made, maybe there’s a way to refine the theory to keep the wormhole open longer.

There’s a catch, though. Physical law still precludes information from traveling faster than light. As with quantum teleportation, there is an instantaneous exchange of information between the two ends, but that information remains in a latent, unmeasurable state until a lightspeed signal can travel from the transmitting end to the receiving end. So a wormhole like this, if one could be created and extended over interstellar distances, would not allow instantaneous travel. A ship flying into one end of the wormhole would essentially cease to exist until the lightspeed signal could reach the other end, whereupon it would emerge at long last.

However — and this is the part that I thought of myself as an interesting possibility for fiction — this does mean that the ship would be effectively traveling at the speed of light. That in itself is a really big deal. In a physically realistic SF universe, it would take an infinite amount of energy and time to accelerate to the speed of light, and once you got fairly close to the speed of light, the hazards from oncoming space dust and blueshifted radiation would get more and more deadly. So as a rule, starships would have to stay at sublight speeds. In my original fiction I’ve posited starships hitting 80 or 90 percent of c, but even that is overly optimistic. So in a universe where starships would otherwise be limited to, say, 30 to 50 percent of lightspeed, imagine how remarkable it would be to have a wormhole transit system that would let a starship travel at exactly the speed of light. Moreover, the trip would be instantaneous from the traveler’s perspective, since they’d basically be suspended in nonexistence until the lightspeed signal arrived to “unlock” the wormhole exit. It’s not FTL, but it’s L, and that alone would be a damned useful stardrive. You could get from Earth to Alpha Centauri in just 4.3 years, and the trip would take no time at all from your perspective, except for travel time between planet and wormhole mouth. You’d be nearly 9 years younger than your peers when you got home — assuming the wormhole could be kept open or a second temporary wormhole could be generated the other way — but that’s better than being 2 or 3 decades younger. Short of FTL, it’s the most convenient, no-fuss means of interstellar travel I can think of.

Or, looked at another way, it’s a method for interstellar quantum teleportation that avoids all the scanning/transmission obstacles and impracticalities I talked about in my second 2011 post on the subject. No need to use a technological device to scan a body with a level of detail that would destroy it, then transmit a prohibitively huge amount of data that might take millennia to send in full. You just pop someone into one end of a wormhole and make sure the handshake signal is transmitted strongly enough to reach the other end. I’ve long felt that wormhole-based teleportation would be a more sensible approach than the disintegration-based kind anyway. Although we’re technically talking about black holes, so it wouldn’t be the sort of thing where you could just stand on a platform in your shirtsleeves and end up somewhere else. Also, there might be a little problem with getting torn apart by tidal stresses at either end. I’m not sure the paper addresses that.

This idea could be very useful for a hard-SF universe. My problem is that the universes I have established are a little less hard than that, though, since I tend to like working in universes with FTL travel of one sort or another. But maybe some idea will come to me for a future story. And maybe some other writer will read this and get an idea. We’re all in this together, and any worthwhile SF concept can inspire multiple very different stories.

Michigan trip followup

November 5, 2017 3 comments

Well, I’ve been back from my visit to the Detroit area for a couple of days. I had a pretty uneventful drive both ways, taking about 6 hours each way, what with stops for rest breaks, lunch, and fuel. (I had half a tank when I started, and I realize in retrospect that if I’d waited to fill up until it was low, I could probably have made the round trip with just one refill. But I didn’t.) The only problem is that my GPS shut down on me a couple of times, including while I was in the middle of Detroit rush hour traffic. That’s the second trip I’ve had where that happened — I wonder what the problem is. My smartphone is a few years old now, so maybe planned obsolescence is starting to kick in. Anyway, I don’t really need GPS for most of the trip, since it’s just straight up and down I-75. It was just the last leg getting to Huntington Woods, and getting from there back to 75 South, that I still need a reminder for.

So I had a nice little visit with family, and the book signing at the Huntington Woods Public Library was on Wednesday evening. It was a much smaller group than I’d hoped for. Apparently the World Series was in its seventh game that night or something, although I wouldn’t think there’d be that much overlap between my audience and sports fans. But whatever the reason, there were only about a half-dozen or so people there. So we all sat around one round table and had a nice little chat about writing and Star Trek and stuff for 90 minutes. I gave away most of my giveaway copies of Patterns of Interference, but I only sold one book. I was hoping for more financially, but otherwise I can’t complain. I guess I shouldn’t have expected a huge group (although the library reserved a really big meeting hall for me).

The one other thing of note I did on my trip was to visit the Cranbrook Institute of Science, a natural history museum that’s part of the larger Cranbrook Educational Complex, itself a historic landmark. Alas, I couldn’t afford the extra fee for the chocolate exhibit they’re currently showing, but the rest of the museum was interesting, particularly the geological specimens. I quite liked this iridescent fossil shell in the lobby, which came out really nicely in my photo, with a fiery glow seemingly from within:

Cranbrook fossil shell

And here’s an item from the geology exhibit that’s close to my heart:

Beryl, var. Emerald(I think I once briefly considered using Beryl as Emerald Blair’s middle name. I figured it was too on the nose.)

They had a section on meteorites too, including a really nice Don Davis painting of the Tunguska event, which can also be seen here. There was also a replica T. rex skeleton that you can get really close to — I’m not sure I’ve ever really gotten a sense of just how big they were. That would’ve been scary. There was also a Michigan-centric section about Ice Ages and glaciers carving the landscape, and an anthropology section with items from various world cultures all displayed together. That section had a video presentation using that so-called “hologram” technology that projects what looks like a freestanding, translucent flat image in open space. I ducked down to the side to take a closer look at how it works, and it’s quite simple — there’s a horizontal video screen in the ceiling and a glass plate at a 45-degree angle reflecting it (basically a beam splitter), so that the reflection looks like it’s floating upright in the air behind the glass. They set it up so that the “holographic” characters (of course this has nothing to do with actual holography) appeared to be occupying the 3D physical display behind the glass, with the hostess standing on the carpet and a little towheaded kid right out of ’60s sitcom central casting sitting on a chest and listening to her lecture about human diversity. Since they were both in the same plane, the perspective of the illusion held up well as I moved from side to side, as long as I didn’t move far enough to see how flat their images really were. The bench in front of the display was not so wide as to spoil the illusion for kids sitting on the ends. But this is me we’re talking about — when I see an illusion, I want to see how it’s made. I was always more interested in knowing the magician’s point of view than the spectator’s.

As I mentioned, the drive home on Friday was pretty uneventful, but one weird thing happened: I got 4-5 spam calls on my smartphone within just a few hours, an astonishing number. Most of them I just rejected because I was driving at the time, but there was one that went to voicemail that was an incredibly inept scam, an obviously synthesized voice speaking in hilariously ungrammatical English about how I had to pay my overdue IRS bill or something or I would get arrested “by the cops.” I wonder why there were so many calls on that day alone.

So now I’m back home, caught up on my missed TV shows, and trying to get back to work. I’m doing copyedits for a project I should be able to announce soon, and expecting copyedits for another project I hope I can announce before much longer. Plus I just got a phone call reminding me that Election Day is on Tuesday, so I should remember to research the candidates and issues before then. (I’ve been getting a ton of election fliers in the mail, but I prefer to get my info from independent sources.)

And of course, I’ll be at Erlanger’s LibraryCon this Saturday, November 11, from 11-4. This should be a bigger event, so hopefully there will be more folks around to buy my books.

Laptop followup: No joy

I just got back from a trip to Best Buy (through whom I ordered my refurbished laptop) to see if they could help me get my headphone/speaker jack working. I would’ve done it days ago, but I’ve been a bit under the weather. According to the tech guy there, the fact that the laptop doesn’t shut down its own speakers when a device is plugged into the jack means it’s not even reading the jack, which is a hardware problem rather than a software problem. Which is very bizarre, because it’s a huge coincidence that a hardware malfunction would happen at the same time I swapped out the hard drive for a new one. Unless I jarred something loose during all the flipping over of the laptop to get to the underside, or something.

Anyway, they said they’d have to send it out for a week or more to get it repaired, and I can’t afford to be without it that long. There is another place about a half-hour’s drive north of me that might have the parts in stock, but the guy suggested (I think, if I understood him right) that I could also get an RCA-to-USB adapter and plug my speakers into the USB port, which seems simpler. Unfortunately the guy said they didn’t sell them there, which seems odd. I looked around when I got home to see if, by lucky chance, I already had one, but I don’t appear to. So I guess I need to get hold of one. That probably shouldn’t be too hard.

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Laptop II: So far, so good…

After I hit a snag with the expired activation key on my replacement hard drive the last time, the refurbishers sent me another key, so I once again wielded my screwdriver to uninstall the old hard drive and put in the new one… only to find that the key I’d been sent used a letter that was disabled during installation, don’t ask me why. So I swapped back to the old drive yet again and informed them of the problem. I got a third key promptly, this one with no disabled letters, but after two failed starts (and an inadequate night’s sleep), I just didn’t feel up to trying again right away. But today, I finally went ahead and reinstalled the new one yet again.

This time, the activation key worked fine… and I found I didn’t need the MS Office activation code, because apparently Office was pre-installed on this drive and I just had to re-enter my e-mail and password. So that saved me some trouble. Then it was a matter of installing all the other basics — antivirus, e-mail client, browsers, Acrobat, and a couple of my other most-used programs, along with Windows security updates. I’m now basically functional again, and it took only about 3 1/2 hours. I still have a few nonessentials to install, but they can wait.

I have noticed a couple of odd things, though. Like, when I installed new programs and tried to put their icons on the taskbar or desktop, they didn’t show up right away, though they did after I rebooted. And there have been a couple of times when I’ve minimized and re-expanded Firefox and the buttons in the top right corner have either vanished or been replaced with fatter buttons. I really hope these aren’t warning signs of something wrong with the new drive or its software. This is my third hard drive from this refurbisher in the year and seven months (almost to the day) since I bought this laptop. I really want this one to work!!

EDIT: Annnd…  there’s already a problem. The headphone/speaker jack won’t work anymore. Hoo boy.

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Laptop: Good news and bad news

Well, since I had a lull between other projects, I decided that today was the day I would finally go ahead and replace the iffy hard drive I’ve been using with the second replacement drive the refurbisher sent me after the first replacement crashed.

First off, though, I decided to try reinstalling the crashed drive, just on the off chance that I could get it working long enough to back up the files I hadn’t backed up at the time of its crash. I wasn’t really expecting this to work, so imagine my surprise when it started up perfectly normally! I wasn’t willing to trust in that, though, so I hastened to back things up onto my thumb drive. The recovered files aren’t anything really urgent, just a handful of pictures and personal documents, but it’s a relief to have them back.

So then I put in the new drive and tried to start it up — and I hit a pretty big snag. The drive came “imaged” with the same Windows 7 copy as the previous drives, so it had the same activation key — but what I didn’t realize was that I apparently had to use that key within 30 days of getting it, and it’s been something like twice that now. I guess I’ll have to contact the refurbisher and ask if they can reset it or something.

In the meantime, I’m making do with the original drive, which has been working mostly fine for the past couple of months, though I don’t know how much I can rely on that. Wish me luck.

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