2019-07-20

What to do with those stupid Visa gift cards

Visa gift cards can be a real risk because they can lose value.  First, they can be lost, and in that case the card has zero value to you.  Just as bad, I can forget about the card in a drawer or wallet, and soon enough it expires and loses all of its value.

And even if I do manage to use a gift card, it can end up with some weird remaining balance like $3.31, and again I forget about it and its value decays to zero.  MY LOSS AGAIN.  SAD.

The same problem applied to gift cards branded as MasterCard, Discover, or Amex.

The other day I received a product rebate in the form of a $100 gift card, but I didn't want to lose that money. And so I figured out a way to immediately convert my physical gift card into something else of equal value.

Here's how it works:

Now when I receive a gift card I immediately log into Amazon and buy an Amazon gift card with 100% of the gift card's value.  This way I move all of the gift card money into an account that I will definitely spend quickly, and I eliminate all the liabilities and risks of a physical gift card.

Sadly, it doesn't work the same way with store-centric gift cards.  In that case, I have a different strategy: I immediately shop. After all, if a store goes out of business, there is a good change that the card will become valueless.  The best policy is to spend it as soon as possible.

2019-07-06

My A1342 MacBook is much worse than yours

I am now using a really bad Mac for everyday use!  It's bad because a lot of its parts are broken - but it still soldiers on.

It's a late 2009 vintage A1342 white polycarbonate model.

Full disclosure:  I have repaired many A1342 MacBooks, and so I have a bunch of mediocre spare parts laying around.  I would never put mediocre parts into a customers' machine, but I don't want to throw them into the recycle bin.  So I took the parts that somewhat work and assembled a "good-enough" Macbook out of them.

Before jumping into the bad, here are the positive highlights:

1. 8 GB of RAM installed
2. 1 TB SSD drive installed
3. It all works for my use

Saved from the Recycle Bin

Yes, my MacBook is made from many bad parts saved from the recycle bin.  So I guess I am REUSING D-grade components instead of RECYCLING them - at least for the next few years.

Here's what's been saved from the recycling mill:

Battery
The battery is a weak, cheap aftermarket device in "service battery" mode.  Normally I'd recycle this battery, but instead I am using it.  (Like many MacBooks, the A1342 operates very slowly without a battery, so it is usually far better to have a weak battery than no battery.)

LCD & Display Housing
The display LCD freezes up when tilted the "wrong" way. I replaced the cable, and it turns out the the problem isn't with the cable - the problem is with the display electronics immediately below the LCD.  The LCD screen sports a 30mm scratch on the right side of the screen.  I put the LCD into a display housing that has exceptionally long and ugly hinge cracks.
Keyboard
The keyboard was from a water damaged MacBook.  It has four non-functional keys: ENTER ,  ], \, and EJECT.  Since I need these keys, I installed and use the Karabiner utility to remap the keyboard.  I miss the ENTER key the most.  I have the right-OPTION key act as ENTER.  Left-OPTION + / is backslash, and left-OPTION + [ is close-bracket.  The re-mappings can take a while to get used to.

Magsafe Adapter
The Magsafe adapter came from a MacBook Pro that wasn't charging properly.  The LED on the MagSafe cable does not work.  The magsafe adapter only powers and trickle-charges the Mac.  It does not charge the battery like a normal charger.  This is due to bad electronics within the magsafe end of the cable.

Bottom
The bottom was from the ugliest, most disgusting MacBook I've ever seen.  I cleaned off the remaining peeling rubber, and so now it's just an aluminum plate with holes.  Now it has floor felt protectors to prevent it from scratching up my desktop.

Assembly
Several screws are "wrong" or "missing", but I didn't want to worry about minor details.  It's good enough.

Conclusion

Now before you get all upset and question me about how much effort I put into assembling this sad MacBook  - the answer is "something like 15 minutes" - I am very experienced dealing with the internals of these Macs.  And in the time since then, I have a computer that I'm am likely to use for at least 18 months, if not much longer.

You got to love these oldie Macs - they keep on running until Apple abandons them, and then you can run Windows or Linux on them.  Once I decide to replace this old Mac, I'll likely repurpose it as a media server.

Things that I have *never* seen broken on an A1342:
  • Fan
  • iSight Camera
  • Hinge cable
  • Antennas 
Things that I have seen wonky on an A1342:
  • Wifi card (spotty behavior (rare))
  • Trackpad (spotty behavior, water ingress?)
  • Keyboard (always water ingress, pretty common)
  • Top case damage (due to battery swelling)
  • Logic board (always water ingress)
  • DVD (usually due to user-inserted debris; often repairable)
  • RAM (usually aftermarket garbage)
  • Batteries (usually aftermarket garbage)
  • Bottom rubber failure (common, was a recall repair at one point)
  • Hinge cracks (very common, but usually harmless)
  • MagSafe burn-out (due to using a fake adapter) 
  • Damage due to poor repair/upgrade attempts 
  • Damage due to hard drops or abuse (usually plastic damage)

2019-07-02

Adobe Flash in 2019 and 2020: You are behind the times.

Dear Decision Maker:

My shop eliminated Adobe Flash by 2009.  You are a decade behind.  It will cost you a lot of money if you don't heed my advice:
  • Explicitly prohibit all employees and contractors from using or deploying Adobe Flash in any way. 
  • Immediately assign someone the responsibility to fully eliminate Adobe Flash from all your systems and services.
Yes, this costs money.  Suck it up.  If you want to be professional and responsible, you have no choice.  You're already looking like an irresponsible idiot if you still use Flash.
Why:
  • Adobe Flash is end-of-life.  Adobe, the makers of Flash, is shutting it down Flash development and support in 2020.  Any web site requiring Flash today will not be usable in 2020. 
  • All of today's mobile platforms, smartphones, and tablets are incompatible with Flash.
  • Modern web browsers are beginning to fully block Flash due to its extreme security risks and its pending retirement.
  • Adobe Flash is the biggest security risk on the web.  Do you want your computer services to be used for security breaches?  No.

2019-04-21

The Price of Electricity

I'm sitting at home here looking at my electric bill.  My bill says that electricity costs 21¢ per KWH.  But that's not true.

The price of electricity is highly variable.  For me, electricity costs AVERAGE to 21¢ per KWH.  The reality is that some of the electricity is perhaps 5¢ per KWH, and other electricity is $1.23 per KWH, and the nice people at the electric company average it all out for me to 21¢ per KWH.

Is my electricity cost really all that variable?  Yes.  Some power plants are super-cheap to own and fuel.  Those plants are used as much as possible, and their electricity is very cheap.  That's like hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear.

Other plants, like Oil and old Gas burners, are very expensive to operate.  They only run when there isn't enough of the efficient plants available to service the demand.  The expensive-to-operate facilities might only run for 80 hours a year, but at a whopping $1.23 per KWH.  And since it costs several billion dollars to build any new large electricity plant, replacing infrequently used facilities is not a priority.  That'd be like replacing your 23 year old gas guzzler truck that you drive 1000 miles a year with a new hyper-efficient truck that you'll drive 1000 miles per year.  Not a economically (or ecologically) smart way to go.

The beauty of rooftop solar is that it provides significant power during the day, shaving off the daytime peaks when electricity is stupidly expensive.  Daytime solar power generation greatly reduces peaks, which in turn lessens the need to run the expensive, inefficient power plants.

2019-04-18

Dishwasher Buyer's Guide

Here are the features I look for in a dishwasher.

Food grinder.  A dishwasher without a food grinder has filters that need to be periodically cleaned fairly frequently (YUK!).  Most people never clean these filters, and therefore their dishwasher stops cleaning well.  A dishwasher with a grinder eliminates the filters and associated required maintenance.

Quiet Operation.  All dishwashers get noisier over time as their insulation and bearings age with time and use.  Buying a quiet dishwasher out of the gate means that it will be noisier in the future, but not as noisy as a non-quiet model.

No Stainless Steel Tub.  A stainless steel tub does not muffle noise, and lasts no longer than a plastic tub.  All things being equal, I'll always go for the plastic tub.

Energy Star rated.  I run my dishwasher at least 3 times a week.  I never hand wash, except for the few things that demand it (greasy fry pans and aluminum items).  An energy efficient washer will save me money over time.


2019-03-02

Hot Water Temperature

There is a lot of garbage out there in terms of how hot domestic hot water should be.  The standard advice is 120 °F, and I agree with that.

Some amateurs are trying to convince people to turn up the heat to dangerous levels, or even to replace their hot water heater due to "Legionnaires' disease".  But legionnaires is all about warm air being blown over an poorly maintained air conditioner's stagnant waste water, and has nothing to do with a very low oxygen environment within an enclosed heated vessel.  Some pundits also claim that minerals at the bottom of the tank will somehow cause legionnaires, unaware that the cold water pipe releases cold water at the bottom of the tank.

The short of it is: 120°F is correct.

If 120 °F isn't hot enough, then the shower valve hot limit setting is mis-adjusted, or the tank is grossly undersized and cannot properly provide for the home.  A call to the plumber to fix the issue is in order.

2018-12-29

Greener Charging by Waiting for Off-Peak

So I've been thinking, so I've invented the following:

There is a most efficient time to use electricity, and that's when the least efficient power plants are not in operation.  Generally, that's overnight, when demand is low.  At that time, most of the lowest-efficiency power plants are off-line, and only the highest efficiency plants (those that run 24 hours a day) are in operation.

In my neck of the woods, I feel that's roughly 1 AM to 5 AM, but there is likely some variability to that based on the details of the local electricity supplier.

Given that situation, I figure that there is a best time of day to charge electronic devices, and that's generally very late at night.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to put a control (manually or with AI and/or algorithmic decision making) into battery charging devices so that the bulk of their charging is done during the "most efficient" hours.  This time-to-charge feature could use local knowledge of electricity generation, your personal calendar, and your historic usage at specific hours... or it could use "rules of thumb".

For example, let's say that you go to bed at 10 PM and wake up at 6 AM.  To be most efficient, your smartphone's charging system should start to seriously charge your phone from, say, 2 AM until 5 AM, when grid efficiency is at its highest.

Although waiting to charge up likely only saves a tiny amount of power, if you multiply it out by, say, 500 million smartphones, laptops, and tablets, the energy savings would be very significant.

Say each charger runs at 10 watts.  200 million chargers would be 2 Gigawatts.  Let's say off-peak power is 50% more efficient than otherwise, and that's a tremendous 1 Gigawatt savings.

What to do with those stupid Visa gift cards

Visa gift cards can be a real risk because they can lose value.  First, they can be lost, and in that case the card has zero value to you.  ...