An Amazon shopping trick

I alluded to this the other day, but some people might find it worth mentioning in its own right. As most people know, Amazon offers free shipping on orders over $25. And if you’re buying something small, shipping can end up being a large chunk of the total bill.

So when buying something sold directly by Amazon or fulfilled by Amazon, you can save the shipping by building a shopping list, if you can put off the purchase a little while.

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Dvorak: The future of retail is search

This week in PC Magazine, John C Dvorak said the future of retail is search. He’s right.

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How to solder

Soldering is an intimidating skill, but it can be learned. And with some practice, it’s not difficult to learn how to solder.

I’m not a professional. A lot of people are surprised to hear I’ve ever had to solder on anything computer-related, since many people my age haven’t. In spite of the disadvantages, I learned how to do it. If I can solder things that will hold together and conduct electricity, you can too.

Here are some tricks and tips, most of which I’ve learned the hard way. Read more

Advice on scraping by

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

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What I learned today about Black Friday sales

Although a lot of people, including money saver types, recommend against buying anything at all on the day after Thanksgiving, I rolled out of bed and fought the crowds early this morning.

I think I came out ahead.Having the ads ahead of time helps to plan out strategy. I don’t read Fat Wallet religiously like some people do, but earlier this week I found a link to a nice spreadsheet on Digg that listed all of the available deals, sortable by category, store, and everything else imaginable. That helped immensely.

A big part of the key is knowing what you want and sticking to it. Get into the store, get the biggest item right away, then go get the smaller items.

I nearly got burned by not planning for traffic. I figured since I left my house before 6, I should be able to zip through the commercial area to get to Office Depot in about five minutes. I was wrong; with the stoplights all on flash, it was worse than rush hour. My five-minute trip took more like 30, and the store was open by the time I got there.

I went in, but it was a waste of time. There were three things on my shopping list, and all of them were gone, including the little things. I grabbed a ticket for the printer I wanted, but when I took it to the register, I was told they were all gone, after I stood there by the register for 15 minutes. "Well, we’re a little busy now," was the smart-aleck reply I got from the stock guy when I asked why it took 15 minutes to tell me they were gone.

Lesson learned: If it doesn’t look like they have what you want and someplace else has it, leave. Immediately. It’s more productive to stand in line at a store that hasn’t opened yet.

I somehow managed to get to Office Max about half an hour before they opened. The line was already wrapped around the side of the building when I got there, but by the time the store opened, the line was much longer.

I know Office Max’s layout a lot better than Office Depot’s layout, so I actually managed to get everything on my list and get out of there quickly. The item I really wanted–the printer–cost $20 more there, but it was still a good deal at the higher price, and there weren’t any rebates for me to mess with.

If I’d been going to more than two or three places, it would have been a good idea for me to map out my route using Google Maps to eliminate any backtracking. That way, if two stores I wanted to visit were going to open at the same time, I could get to the nearest store.

The Office Max trip really drove something home: If you’re really serious about getting something, it helps to visit the store earlier in the week to get familiar with the layout, so you can get to the items on your list quickly.

Another important point: I didn’t mess with anything not on my list. Everything I bought came at a substantial discount. Part of the idea of Black Friday doorbuster sales is to get you into the store to buy other things because you’re there anyway.

And about that list: Before you put something on your list just because it looks like a good deal, ask yourself if you’d still buy it if it were full price. Last year I bought a USB flash drive and a spindle of DVD recordables because I needed them. This year I bought a bigger USB flash drive because I keep filling up the 1 GB drive I bought last year. These are things I would have bought anyway, but it was worth waiting for a good deal.

If you only use a printer once, it’s not a bargain, whether you pay $99 or $249 for it.

I also checked to make sure the price really was a good deal. Sometimes the prices at Newegg, Amazon, or some other online vendor are lower already. I didn’t buy anything that I could get cheaper online from the comfort of my living room.

Finally, you need to make sure you save enough money to make it worth your time. This year I saved more than $200, so it was worth getting up at 5:30 this morning to go do it. It’s not worth getting up at 5:30 and standing in line for 30-45 minutes to save $6 on a USB flash drive. Last year, since my savings amounted to about $20, I bought my stuff online and saved the trip. Of course the stuff ended up being backordered, so it took nearly a month for it to arrive. I was willing to live with that.

Today, I was home with my loot by 7:30. That’s as good as making $100 an hour. Actually it’s better, since it’s tax-free.

So, to recap:

1. Make a list of the things you want.
2. Make a list of the stores you’ll visit, based on the things you’re going to buy. Start with the store opening the earliest.
3. If possible, visit the stores earlier in the week and find the items on your hit list, so you’ll be able to find them quickly on Black Friday.
4. Locate the addresses of all of the stores, and plot out your route using Google Maps to avoid backtracking if possible.
5. Try to arrive at each store half an hour early. The less time you actually spend inside each store, the better. Most of the killer deals are gone within 20 minutes.

Some people recommend buying online instead of going to the stores, or buying the item earlier in the week and then price-matching it on Friday afternoon when the crowds are smaller. Make sure you know the rules; some stores won’t do this.

As for buying online, Office Max was selling its items at full price this morning. Office Depot’s web site wasn’t working, so they probably were honoring their prices but I wouldn’t have been able to buy them. Keep in mind that if you buy online, you’re at the back of the line, so you won’t get the item quickly and the store may weasel out of giving it to you at all.

Things to look for in a wireless router

It’s the time of year that a lot of people buy computer equipment, and wireless networking is one of the things people look for. But what things should be on the shopping list?

I was hoping you’d ask that question.Compatibility with what you already have, if possible. Routers are available that speak 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g, or all three. If you already have some wireless equipment, look for something that can speak its language.

Cordless phone interference. 2.4 GHz cordless phones will interfere with 802.11b and 802.11g. 802.11a works at a different frequency, but it might be cheaper to replace your 2.4 GHz phone with a 900 MHz phone.

Speed. 802.11a and 802.11g operate at 54 Mbps, which is considerably nicer than 802.11b’s 11 Mbps, although both are much faster than current U.S. broadband connections, which tend to top out around 3 Mbps. If you move a lot of files around, you’ll appreciate the 54 Mbps speed. If your primary use of wireless is sharing an Internet connection and a printer or two, 802.11b is probably fast enough, and it’s usually cheaper, with the downside of shorter life expectancy.

802.11g is currently the most popular standard, because it gives 54 Mbps speed and offers compatibility with existing 802.11b equipment. Use this information as you will. If you’re of the security by obscurity mindset, 802.11a is a better choice, as a wardriver is more likely to be driving around with an 802.11b or 802.11g card. If you want to make sure your buddies can hook up when they come over, or you can hook up at your buddies’ places, 802.11g is the better choice.

Brand. Match the brands of router and cards, if at all possible. This makes configuration and security much simpler.

WPA. The encryption used by older standards is relatively weak. You want to enable 128-bit WEP (256-bit WEP is better but still not as good as WPA), change the SSID and disable SSID broadcast, and hard-code your MAC addresses so that only your cards can use your router. This protects you from someone driving around your neighborhood with a laptop and using your Internet connection to send out spam or transfer illicit material that can be traced back to you. Do you want the RIAA suing you because someone used your Internet connection to download 400 gigs’ worth of boy-band MP3s off Kazaa? Worse yet, if that happens, word might get out that you like that stuff.

WPA adds another layer of protection on top of these (which are standard issue by now). Rather than the security key being fixed, it’s dynamically generated from trillions of possibilities. Sufficient CPU power to crack WPA and either monitor your transmissions or use your access point might someday exist, but for now it gives the best protection available, so you should get it and use it. This USRobotics whitepaper on security ought to be a must-read.

Built-in firewall with port forwarding. This is a standard feature on all brand-name units and ought to be on the off brands as well, but it doesn’t hurt to double check. Hardware firewalls are far superior to software firewalls–they don’t annoy you with popups and they can’t be disabled by a malicious process. Port forwarding is necessary for a lot of games, and also if you want to run your own mail or web server.

Hackability. By this I don’t mean the ability of an outsider to get in, I mean your ability to add capability to it. The Linksys WRT54G is based on Linux, so it has a big following with an underground community adding capabilities to it all the time. If you want to take advantage of this, look for a WRT54G or another device with a similar following.

It’s time for a more holistic approach to depression

Standard disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or a psychologist. I’m a systems administrator by trade and a journalist by training. I write this as a survivor of depression, not as an expert on its treatment. Combined with the experiences of others, I think it’s worth listening to. But it’s no substitute for seeing a specialist.
Earlier this week, after I mentioned my experiences with depression in passing, my mom e-mailed me and asked me a few questions. Thought-provoking questions. Then Dan pointed me to another person’s experience with depression.

It’s been my experience that some people just seem to have a natural tendency towards depression. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Some people are moodier than others, and that moodiness can be exceedingly difficult to be around sometimes, but there’s also a gigantic upside to it. Think of the most creative people you know. I’ll bet most of them are also pretty moody. That’s one factor.

While a student at Mizzou in late 1994 or early 1995, I had a conversation with a girl about depression. I knew she’d struggled with it, and I was curious. We had a long talk one day about it. Initially, in the back of my mind, I thought I’d interview a couple of other people who’d battled it, then interview an expert or three, and write a story about it. It was during that first talk that I learned that depression was sometimes caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. (Interestingly, I don’t remember my lone college psychology class–that’s science of behavior to Dr. Dave McDonald and his students–talking much about depression. Or maybe we did and I just forgot it.)

Over the years I met a lot of people who were put on Prozac or Paxil or any number of other drugs intended to treat a chemical imbalance in the brain. In most cases they didn’t get the dosage right initially. In those cases the adjustment was difficult. In one case, a good friend of mine had been on it in the past and it helped, then he started to feel himself relapse. He called me one day and told me he was going back on treatment. A few months later, I started to hear stories. Stories that were very out of character. My friend, a gentle giant type if there ever was one, was supposedly very detached from reality and sometimes even dangerously violent. His dosage was wrong and it was destroying him. One night he called me, distraught. He was on the brink of losing everything, and it didn’t seem like anyone understood.

I was mad that the stories of his behavior had become public knowledge. I was also a little irritated with him that when his family and friends suggested there was a problem, that he didn’t go back to see his doctor until it reached crisis stage. But I was livid about how the people around him handled the situation. When there’s a problem with your Paxil dosage, it’s a matter between you and your doctor, and you have to be patient about it and so do the people around you. There is no way to measure brain chemistry and figure out exactly the amount of Paxil you need to get the dosage right. (This was news to him and to his family, and when one of his friends, who happens to hold a PhD in psychology, got involved but didn’t mention this, I was more than livid when I found out about it. If I’d known how to call him on the carpet about it, I would have.)

I haven’t been very good about getting to my point here. There’s a lot of guesswork when you get drugs involved. They don’t necessarily kick in right away. Sometimes they kick in too hard. Sometimes they have undesirable side effects. I mentioned the possible psychotic side effects, but they can also increase your sex drive to an uncontrollable level, and they can lead to very excessive weight gain. Those television commercials showing people playing outside on a sunny spring day while extoling the virtues of those drugs don’t mention anything about their dark side. Since brain chemistry isn’t measurable, you’re playing a guesswork game. Hopefully it’s an educated game of guesswork, but unless you manage to get a referral to a psychiatrist, it may not be.

The late, controversial Dr. Atkins took a different approach to treating chemical imbalances. Where do your brain chemicals come from? Your body makes them. What does your body make them from? The nutrients you take in. What happens when your body doesn’t take in the nutrients it needs to make the necessary brain chemicals? Chemical imbalances that lead to depression. What happens when you change your diet and/or start taking supplements that provide those chemicals?

Atkins said, “no more depression,” then moved on to his next topic.

I think there’s something to that. When carpal tunnel syndrome threatened to destroy both of my careers, one of my readers pointed me to Atkins’ vitamin book. I started taking, among other things, Flax Seed Oil or Fish Oil (buy whichever is on sale; chemically, they offer the same benefit) and Vitamin B6 and B complex. I was surprised at the effect they had on my mood. But that combination promotes a generally healthy nervous system. Vitamin B1, Atkins said, is especially effective in treating depression. The B vitamins work best in the presence of each other, so a trip to the local discount store for a bottle of Vitamin B1 and B complex could make a world of difference.

Battling depression via nutrition is imprecise, but the nice thing about that is that you’re not messing directly with brain chemistry. You’re providing your body with the raw materials to make what it needs. Your body knows how to dispose of excess B1. What’s it supposed to do with excess Paxil?

The best thing you can do for your mental health may very well be to visit a nutritionist. Get a copy of
Dr. Atkins’ Vita-Nutrient Solution
, make yourself a shopping list, get a nutritionist’s opinion, then buy. And avoid processed, commercial food if at all possible. I know my moods are much more consistent when I buy fresh fruits and vegetables and actually cook than when I eat tons of fast food or buy heat-up instant meals from the grocery store. Highly processed foods lose most of their nutritional value. They hurt your mood, they hurt your waistline, they hurt your energy level, they rot your teeth, and who knows what else. And when you’re not happy about how you look and you don’t have a lot of energy, and your teeth are falling apart, none of that helps your mood. Nice vicious cycle, eh?

You hear a lot more now about depression than you did in the 1970s and early 1980s. But there were a fraction of the number of fast-food restaurants and grocery stores were much smaller because they were catering to people who cook, whereas today grocery stores seem to cater to people who heat stuff up because everybody’s too busy to cook. I’m thoroughly convinced that these factors are related.

And cooking isn’t as hard as people make it out to be. I can stir up some mean dishes in about half an hour. Trust me, if I can learn how to cook, anyone can. I’m impatient and clumsy and accident-prone. But I’ve still learned how to cook well enough to impress a girl. Not counting my mother and sister, but I’ve impressed them too.

Remember that most doctors have no special training in nutrition. A lot of people are distressed to hear that and think it’s a conspiracy. It’s not. Medicine and nutrition are related, but they’re too complex for most people to be good at both. Asking your regular doctor to be a nutritionist is like asking him or her to be proficient at surgery. He or she is certainly capable of understanding it, but there are so many things a doctor would like to understand, and there are only 24 hours in a day to learn it all.

I believe that counselling and self-help are overrated, but both helped me to a limited degree. I found
I Ain’t Much Baby, But I’m All I’ve Got
by self-help pioneer Jess Lair to be helpful. It’s sadly out of print but widely available used. The biggest gem out of Lair’s book is a question: Do you have five friends? Lair said that if you have more than that, your friendships aren’t very deep. If you have fewer than that, you’re putting too much burden on them. With an inner circle of five or so, the burden seems to be about right.

But when that’s not enough, counselling helps. The problem with counselling is that sometimes people rely too much on it, or solely on it. Often people have issues they need help resolving. Sometimes that means just listening and offering a few suggestions and sometimes it means re-enacting traumatic experiences in order to finish up some unfinished business. It’s work. But it can be helpful, if you’re willing to do the work. But depression is a complex, multifaceted problem, so a one-pronged attack won’t be very effective. Remember the basic difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist: Psychologists can’t prescribe medicine, and psychiatrists don’t do a whole lot of counseling. Both are aware of the work of the other, and an honest practitioner of either profession ought to know the limits and know when you need the other. But you may have to ask when it’s time to see the other. Human beings tend to get overconfident in the abilities of the tools they have.

Finally, there’s a spiritual aspect. Virtually everything I’ve ever read says you should believe in something. If you’ve ever had any exposure to Christianity, read the books of Luke and John (they’re not terribly long–read a chapter a day and you’ll be through both of them in two months) in a modern, readable translation. You can read them for free at bible.crosswalk.com. For readability, I recommend the New Living Translation. It plays really fast and loose with the translation sometimes, but the point isn’t to make you a Bible scholar–it’s to present the words of Jesus in understandable fashion. Or you can read an out-of-print modern blending of the four Gospels by Charles Templeton titled simply Jesus, online, for free.

Last night I told someone it’s healthier to be an atheist than it is to be in a cult, but it’s healthier to believe in something than nothing. I’m a Christian and make no bones about it. If you’re a not a Christian and you believe something else and you’re struggling with depression, then my advice to you if you’re not really practicing is to get serious. And if you find it’s not helping you, try Christianity.

No single thing will conquer depression for you. But the combination of diet and nutrition, counseling, and spirituality can be potent. Pills are a brute-force approach, and after watching my friend’s bad experience, frankly I believe they ought to be the thing you go to when the other things don’t work, not the thing you go to before trying the others. I know they work because I’ve seen them work, but if anything, the other things can make them more effective, and if you can get by without pumping man-made chemicals into your system, that’s a very good thing, and I don’t think anyone will disagree with that.

Where does faith come from?

Following closely on the heels of the question of how to pray, people often ask me where faith comes from, and where they can get more of it.
The best response to that question, usually, is, “Why do you want more faith?” Read more

A nice Sunday surprise

I had a big surprise Sunday night. A couple of months ago, I was up at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in north St. Louis, and they asked me if I’d come to their Christmas banquet this year. I said I’d love to come to their Christmas banquet. They said they’d send me tickets. “Some” ended up meaning five. They’re generous people. I ended up using one–I didn’t feel like looking too hard for a date, and I felt weird asking a bunch of my friends who’ve never been up there to go with me on a rainy Sunday night.
My relationship with Bethlehem goes back several years. I moved to St. Louis in Nov. 1998, and immediately started going to a church in Oakville, a semi-ritzy, very white-middle class suburb in south St. Louis County. I was driving 30 minutes to go to church every Sunday because I had connections there, and I’d never seen a church that was so on fire. I liked it there. It was a church that made me better, and, as I would quickly learn, it was more than willing to let me make it better too. Mark my words: When you find a church like that, keep it. They’re harder to find than you might think.

In Faith Lutheran in Oakville and Bethlehem Lutheran in St. Louis, I’ve found two. And I’m much the better for it.

The north St. Louis neighborhood around Bethlehem is about as opposite of Oakville as you can get. It’s not ghetto, but the buildings are well past their prime. A number of them are condemned. Many others are boarded up. It’s lower-middle class at best. But there are people there who are trying to make a difference.

I’d been going to Faith Lutheran in Oakville for a couple of weeks when I started receiving its newsletter. And in that first newsletter was a blurb from The Rev. John Schmidtke, the pastor at Bethlehem. Faith is one of five suburban churches that has partnered with Bethlehem to reach out to its community. Pastor Schmidtke’s letter was a wish list of sorts, but he wasn’t wanting money or objects. He wanted people. “Who can help us build a computer lab so we can teach elementary computer skills to the people of our community?” he asked. “Who can help us give our children a safe, welcome place where they can sit down at a computer and do their homework?” At the end of the letter, he gave his phone number.

The next day, I called him.

He said he already had some beat-up PCs that had been donated to him. I asked when I could come look at them. I don’t really remember many specifics anymore, other than driving into north St. Louis in a snowstorm one night to come look at a pair of beat-up Compaq Proliant servers. They were DX2-66s, decked out with external SCSI CD-ROM towers. One of them had three SCSI drives. The other had five. They were pretty snazzy servers… in 1993.

It was a humble beginning. Pastor solicited some obsolete computers from other businesses, and since this was the midst of the Y2K crunch, he was able to find plenty of people willing to give up some 386s and 486s they’d just retired. The best catch was a pair of non-compliant Pentium-75s. One of them even had a hard drive–a 40-megger. No, not a 40-gig drive. A 40-meg drive, like most of us had in our first AT clone.

Basically, we had a whole lot of nothing, and I did a whole lot of nothing with it. Sure, I was able to impress a few people by taking hard drives out of 486s and putting them in those Pentiums and booting up DOS, but as far as doing anything useful, we didn’t have much. So the project pretty much sat there, a pile of beat-up PCs in the corner of a storage room.

Then one day in the summer of 2000, I got a voice mail message. It was Pastor Schmidtke. He sounded excited, but there was a certain plea in his voice. He had a grant for several thousand dollars, and it was pretty much there for the asking, assuming he knew what to ask for. He didn’t know what to ask for. So he asked me if he could have five minutes of my time to tell him the wisest way to spend a few thousand dollars to build a computer lab.

I hopped on the ‘Net and checked it out, then faxed him a shopping list. For the budget he gave me, I figured I’d be able to get several name-brand PCs and a laser printer. The grant needed three competitive bids, so I priced systems from IBM, Compaq, and Dell to give him ballpark figures, plus phone numbers to call to get hard quotes if that was what he needed.

A few months later he had the money. A couple more months after that, we’d turned that money into eight new Compaq Deskpro PCs. I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry at that point–what good is a room full of computers when no one there knew how to make them go? A couple more months after that, some volunteers had turned that storage room into a nicely laid-out computer room. So then I set about taking those PCs, installing network cards, cabling and hubs, configuring them identically, and connecting a printer. We had a usable network. An Internet connection was the tough part. I took one of those Pentium-75s, installed a 56K modem and an Intel 10/100 NIC, and configured Freesco. We were live. While 56K dialup split among 9 PCs isn’t fabulous, it’s better than it sounds–while people are reading pages, after all, their computers aren’t loading stuff. I tried setting up a Squid server to help ease congestion a little, but Squid seemed to hurt as much as it helped, so I scrapped that idea.

So now, three years after we initially met, they have a working, useful computer lab. Neighborhood kids come in and research and type. Pastor’s family comes in, and with that many computers at their disposal, the kids can play around all they want for hours and his wife can get work done. It’s not the best, but it’s worlds beyond a pair of Pentium-75s. And in a neighborhood where a Pentium-200 is considered a luxury item, it’s doing a lot of good.

So I got to the banquet Sunday night and sat down at a table. There was a program sitting there at every place. I looked at it. “That’s nice,” I was thinking. “Star of Bethlehem Awards.” There were two people listed. Then I saw people were picking up the program and flipping pages. So I picked up mine, turned to the inside, and saw there were more than two people listed. Two more on page two, and then I turned to page 3 and saw my name. With a really kind write-up to go with it.

They read the write-up, along with everyone else’s writeup, after dinner. They gave each of us plaques and asked us to say a few words. I don’t remember exactly what I said–I’m not very comfortable giving impromptu speeches. It was Pastor Schmidtke who had the vision and who got the money. And it was Cathy, a member of the congregation, who made all the phone calls and made all the runs to Office Depot to get things like power strips and network cables when I ran out of power outlets or didn’t have quite enough reach. Maybe I could have done it all without them. But chances are I wouldn’t have. No one would have. One person can’t take on a project of that magnitude alone. It’ll kill you.

The speaker who read the write-up on me was interrupted by applause a couple of times. I got a round of applause as I walked up and another one as I sat down. Helping people like them is easy, because they appreciate it so much.

I hung the plaque up right after I got home. I guess that says something about priorities–I have an expensive Jesse Barnes print I bought more than a week ago that isn’t hung yet. But the sentiment behind that plaque is worth more than a room full of Jesse Barnes prints. It’s a nice plaque. It reads:

New Birth at Bethlehem

We Thank God For You

David Farquhar

For your ongoing support, encouragement, and Christian love to the ministry of Jesus Christ through Bethlehem Lutheran Church. You are God’s Star for the ministry of Bethlehem.
…Daniel 12:3

December 16, 2001
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO

Daniel 12:3 reads as follows:

“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

There’s just one more thing I wish I’d said Sunday night. They’re a group of people trying to make a difference in north St. Louis. A lot of them are there by choice. They didn’t have to give me an opportunity, but they did. I’m glad they did.

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