Microsoft sues the tech support scammers

I’m all torn up this morning. I’m torn up because Microsoft has sued a couple of tech support scam outfits for misrepresenting themselves and violating Microsoft trademarks.

I’m torn up because it’s taken this long. I’m also torn up because this may mean I’ll never get to see what kind of hilarity would ensue by telling a scammer with a fake western name that my name is “Suchita.” In the deepest voice I can muster, of course. Keep in mind that if I sing in falsetto, I’m a tenor. Also keep in mind that nobody wants to hear that.

But torn up as I am, I understand.

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My boys and the Hot Wheels Shoebox

I took the boys to Toys R Us the other night to do some Christmas shopping and buy a little (very little) something for them. I ended up finding 99 cents worth of something for me, too, in the diecast aisle. I like to buy Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars and un-hotrod them for my train layout. And the Hot Wheels shoebox, with a small amount of work, looked like it would make a very passable 1949 Ford. So I bought it.

The next morning, my youngest brought the car to me as I was getting ready for work. “Daddy, will you open it?”

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In the city, a $6 antenna is all you need

There are a lot of good plans for DIY antennas on the web that you can make for less than $10 worth of parts, which is good considering the flood of $50 antennas on the market that are little more than hype.

A couple of years ago I made a Gray-Hoverman antenna. I had no complaints about how it worked, but it wasn’t very durable. And in St. Louis it was overkill–it picked up everything tvfool.com said I could get indoors and nothing more. No SIUC PBS station for me. A Gray-Hoverman is probably more useful along the eastern seaboard where the cities and TV stations are closer together.

Rather than fix the Gray-Howerman yet again, or build something else, I bought a basic, traditional-looking RCA ANT111F for $6. Even the simplest DIY antenna, made primarily of a cardboard box with aluminum foil, costs $3-$4 in materials to make and my time is worth more than the difference. If my kids were a bit older, a DIY antenna would be a great science experiment to do with them, but they aren’t.

I did find my reception in the basement, below ground level, was pretty abysmal. The range seemed to be less than five miles, and I could only get about five channels. But on the first floor, with the antenna about seven feet above ground level, my range is 10-12 miles, depending on the strength of the distant signal, and I could get 30 channels. To improve reception in the basement, I connected a longer cable to the antenna (using a cheap keystone jack as a coupler) so I could put it up in the ceiling, closer to ground level. When I did that, I could get 24 channels, though the signal strength wasn’t all that good.

One thing to remember when changing or repositioning an antenna: always scan for new channels afterward.

How I blog

I’ve had a couple of people this year express admiration at the frequency and quality of my blog posts. I know the quality isn’t always where I’d like it to be, but I appreciate their sentiment.

It occurred to me that I’ve been doing this a little more than 15 years now–I don’t remember anymore exactly when I started and that early material is long gone, but I know it was sometime in October 1999–and in the last couple of years I think I’ve finally come up with a method that works reasonably well.

Yes, I have my methods. Read the full post »

How to build a Christmas day cable emergency kit

Most consumer electronics don’t come with the cables, because cables are a high-margin, high-markup item. Many people don’t know that. And many people give and receive consumer electronics on Christmas day.

If you want to be a hero, I recommend paying Monoprice a visit. Monoprice sells all of the most common cables at deep discounts. I recommend picking up a couple of the most common types of USB cables and at least one HDMI cable to start with. If you think of others, go for it. For around $20, you can build up a sizable emergency kit.

And if this is the first you’ve heard of Monoprice, pay them a visit. They’re the best source I’ve found for inexpensive cables of reasonable quality, and if you want premium cables, their premium offerings are still reasonably priced.

I fought the white screen, and I won!

WordPress occasionally suffers from the dreaded “white screen of death,” where you visit an admin page and, instead of being able to do what you want to do, you get a blank white screen. Meanwhile, the blog continues to function. If you have scheduled posts, they keep going. But with no admin access, the blog essentially becomes a ghost ship.

Several of the causes are pretty well documented, so I’ll talk about mine instead of rehashing old advice you can easily find elsewhere. Read the full post »

Another creative source for S gauge figures: Liberty Falls Americana

In the 1990s, there was a brand of collectible village called Liberty Falls Americana, made by a company called International Resource Services and sold in department stores. The product line consisted of porcelain buildings that are close to HO scale, but the figures are pretty close to 1:64 S scale.  Made-to-be-collectibles tend not to hold their value very well, which means they’re still inexpensive today, and not hard to find on Ebay.

Set in the American West in the late 19th century, the figures are passable on a train layout even if your layout is set in a later era. Women in long, formal dresses won’t look out of place near a church, for example. Perhaps there’s a service or a wedding going on. Men in suits and hats work in that setting as well, and men tended to dress much more formally up to the 1950s than they typically do today, so the male figures in suits and hats wandering around the commercial district are perfectly believable on a traditional American Flyer toy train layout.

Then again, if you want Western figures to complement an American Flyer setup featuring a Casey Jones loco, the Liberty Falls figures are the very best thing you’ll find.

Sometimes the figures come painted and sometimes they’re just stained pewter. If you can score some painted figures, of course, they can go straight to the layout. Painting unpainted figures can be part of the fun too.

The dwindling writing market

I get the occasional query from people who say I should promote my blog more, so that I can get an audience and write a book about this or that, and then I read stuff like this. Basically, writing is getting more and more commoditized, and writers are making less and less, not that they ever made much in the first place. And then I heard on a podcast that the average technical book sells 5,000 copies.

Fifteen years ago, I was in the home stretch of writing a book–my first, and so far only book. All told, I made around $13,000 off that book, between book royalties and publishing derivative articles in magazines, all before taxes, of course. I wrote about 20 hours a week for six months to do it, so, perhaps if I’d made it my full-time gig, I might have been able to make $52,000 a year. But that was when computer books were hot and big-box book stores were booming. I’m not confident I could make $52,000 as an author today. Read the full post »

How I repaired a bathtub for $5

At the hardware store, I spied Super Glue’s porcelain repair kit for $5. Anything like it I’ve seen was a two-part epoxy, which is tricky. Since this stuff required no mixing, and promised to clean up with nail polish remover, I thought I’d give it a try on my bathtub, which had four chips in it, the largest about the size of a dime.

It worked pretty well, after some experimentation.

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Bringing back old HDTVs

Over Thanksgiving weekend I picked up a discarded 23-inch LCD HDTV, a Samsung LN-S2341W. The television’s biggest problem, it turned out, was that it didn’t have an ATSC tuner so it couldn’t pick up over the air broadcasts after analog broadcasts came to an end in 2009. Read the full post »