Friday, February 28, 2014

Books read in February 2014

New books:

1. Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey by Emma Rowley
2. The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass
3. Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz
4. Dexter's Final Cut by Jeff Lindsay
5. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

From my ongoing comfort-food reread of In Death:

1. Imitation in Death
2. Remember When
3. Divided in Death

Dell XPS 15 / NVIDIA GeForce GT 435M / external monitor issues

I've recently had some curious computer behaviour that appear loosely related to my video card+external monitor  combination.  I have no idea if they're related to each other, I have no idea if this is the whole story, I have no idea if there's some other underlying issue I can't see.  I'm just documenting what I know here for googleability in case it's helpful to someone.

The computer: a Dell XPS 15, running Windows 7
The video card: NVIDIA GeForce GT 435M
The display: a Dell E178FP LCD monitor, connected to the computer via a Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter (because the computer doesn't have VGA output and the monitor only has VGA input. However, sometimes I unplug the external monitor and instead use the built-in screen, which has widescreen dimensions.

The monitor blinking out problem

Every once in a while, it seemed randomly, the monitor would blink out, as though it had gone into sleep mode even though I don't have a sleep mode set.  Moving the mouse or pressing the keyboard wouldn't work and opening up the laptop wouldn't even work.  It would be completely frozen and I'd have to do a hard reboot. The appearance of this problem correlated with appearance of the monitor occasionally flickering when I was shredding paper (about 3 feet away from the monitor) and with difficulty switching back and forth between laptop screen and external monitor - when I connected the external monitor, it wouldn't pick up the picture (even when I pressed Windows key + P).  It would take multiple pluggings and unpluggings to make it work, and sometimes even a reboot.  And it got worse as time passed.

After this had been going on for some time, I noticed that the monitor blinked out when the Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter got jiggled.  I therefore bought a new adapter, and the problem stopped happening.

The Windows 7 Action Centre mystery

Shortly after I bought the new Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter that could withstand jiggling, an alert appeared in my Windows 7 Action Centre saying "Solve a problem with NVIDIA Graphics Driver."  However, when I clicked on it, it said "This solution could not be downloaded."  It's been saying that for months, always when I did in fact have a full and active internet connection.  The problem that it claims to be solving correlates with times when the computer crashed because of the adapter problem, so I don't know that there is in fact a driver issue (when this first appeared, my driver was the most recent one available).

The bad Windows Update

I don't routinely install all Windows updates, because in the past I've had problems with them conflicting or causing problems. Once my setup works, I prefer to keep it that way.  But, just recently, I noticed an update called "nVidia Graphics Adapter WDDM1.1, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.2, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.3,  released in October, 2013". I thought this might be the NVIDIA solution that the Action Centre was trying and failing to deliver, so I installed it.

And it completely disabled my external monitor.  No matter how many times I unplugged and replugged and switched back and forth between the monitors, nothing would display on my external monitor.

So I did a system restore, and the external monitor started working again.

The takeaway
(to the best of my knowledge):

- If your external monitor is connected using a Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter and you lose monitor signal, freezing the computer, try replacing the adapter.
- If this has happened and there's a useless Solve a problem with NVIDIA Graphics Driver" notice in your Windows Action Centre, this might be why.
- If you have installed a Windows update called "nVidia Graphics Adapter WDDM1.1, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.2, Graphics Adapter WDDM1.3,  released in October, 2013" and lost the use of your external monitor, try undoing the update.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Once again, a clever detail in the most recent Dexter book (spoiler-free)

When I first saw the Dexter TV series, I thought Michael C. Hall was too attractive for the role of Dexter. I've been reading the Dexter series since the first book came out, and I didn't see the character as anywhere near as conventionally attractive as Michael C. Hall.

So I was quite delighted to see, in Double Dexter, that Dexter seemed to have noticed for the first time that he's rather handsome. That totally resolve that very minor, completely subjective, inconsistency between the books and the casting - Dexter didn't seem handsome on paper because he's a non-omniscient narrator and he never thought to notice before!

Something similar happened with the most recent book.  In Dexter by Design, Dexter says "Of course, for some bizarre reason, we don't have a National Registry of Who Your Friends Are".  As I pointed out when I read it, Facebook serves that function.

And in the most recent book, Dexter's Final Cut, Dexter and Debra are shown Facebook by a civilian, and it turns out they weren't previously aware of it!  It doesn't address why they weren't aware of it (maybe the books are set a few years ago?) but it does make it apparent that it wasn't a tool they had in previous books.

I love how this author closes tiny little plot holes that aren't even really plot holes!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Helpful household hints

1. Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is good for degriming shower tiles

Based on the colour, the grime seemed to be related to my hair conditioner, and normal cleaning products plus elbow grease wouldn't budge it.  But the Mr. Clean Magic eraser wiped it right off with only slightly more than the absolute minimum of effort humanly possible.

2. How to declog a paper shredder

The problem: the shredder wouldn't "grab" the paper, not even when set on "Forward" (i.e. run regardless of whether you think there's paper poised to be shredded.)

 First I ran the shredder forward and backwards like the instruction manual said, but that didn't work.

After switching it off and unplugging it, I tried manually removing the bits of paper I could see stuck between the blades, but I couldn't get at all of them.  I then tried blowing at it with compressed air (i.e. this sort of thing), but that didn't get rid of all the bits.

The ultimate solution: take the long, skinny straw-like thing on the compressed air can, and stick it down the slot of the paper shredder where I could see the bits of paper still stuck in there.  (Making sure the shredder was still turned off and unplugged, of course!)  It's skinny enough to get into the slot, flexible enough to get in between the blades without damaging them, and inconsequential enough that it didn't matter if I damaged it in the blades (which I didn't).  And it got all the cloggy bits of paper out of the way, and now the shredder works more enthusiastically than ever.

3. How do get rid of bird poo without touching it (and without a hose)

The problem: bird poo on the outside of the glass outer wall of my balcony (i.e. the bit under the railing.)  I can see its ugliness, but I'm too vertiginous to reach over the railing to clean it off (and would be too squeamish to touch it even indirectly with paper towels and rubber gloves even if I could reach it).

The solution: first, wait for a rainy day when the rain is beating rather heavily against the surface to be washed.

Spray some OxiClean Spray on the surface, above the bird poo.  It will drip down, cover the poo, and the enzymes will get rid of a lot of it.

Next, after the OxiClean has either all dripped down below the mess or the rain has washed it away, squirt a dab of dish soap (the hand-washing kind, not the dishwasher kind) above the poo.  It will drip down and cover the poo, and the rain will make it into a lather, which will wash the rest away. 

The last step is to take some Windex, and spray a generous amount over as much of the area as possible, focusing on the top so it can drip down.  This will clean off the build-up left by the Oxi-Clean and dish soap, so once everything is dry you won't even be able to tell anything happened there.

If you have a bird poo problem somewhere where you have access to a hose, you obviously don't have to wait for it to rain.  But the approach I've described here works in cases where a hose isn't possible.  As an added bonus, if you're very careful to spray the stuff only directly on the wall, it won't land on any passers-by who might be walking below.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Things They Should Invent: a way to save non-stressed feelings for later

As I've mentioned before, my stress levels have been really low (and quite often zero) since I started working from home.  However, my lease renewal recently came up, which reminded me that in a bit over a year I'm going to be moving into my condo, which is surely going to be stressful - not just from the moving but from the stuff related to the condo purchase, some of which, I'm sure, I haven't anticipated at all.

Despite the fact that, at condo time, I will have had nearly two years of a zero-stress day-to-day, I'll still get stressed then.  It's just not possible to bank non-stress for when I need it.  I can save money for when I need it, I can eat sparingly today so I have room for a good pig-out tomorrow, but stress is Tetris pieces, and no matter how good you are at Tetris, you can't move the bottom of the playing area any lower, even though you know the pieces will start coming too fast to handle when you reach Level 9.

Someone should really come up with a workaround for that.  (Or, barring that, a Tetris cheat that moves the bottom of the playing area lower if you clear lines well enough.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why would police have to search a hospital patient?

From The Ethicist:
My emergency unit handled a man who had been shot in the leg in the early hours of the morning. The trauma surgeons refused to have him transferred to the ward for wound management because they believed the victim would be pursued by his assailants, thereby posing a safety risk to staff members and patients. The police in the E.R. declined to pat down the injured man for weapons, as they were not legally empowered to do so. The man was retained in emergency for 12 hours. The emergency unit, which has an open-door policy for all comers 24/7, would most likely be the first place that assailants would look for an injured man. Are there ethical ramifications with the transfer of violent risk?
I was surprised that the letter-writer was focused on whether the police could pat down the injured man, because it seems to me like the medical professionals could undress him (and thereby disarm him) or otherwise determine what he's carrying in the course of medical care. I don't know how medically ethical this is (which is probably why it wasn't mentioned in the Ethicist column), but from a purely logistical perspective it seems perfectly feasible.

He's been shot in leg, so it's perfectly reasonable to remove his pants. And people usually remove their footwear as part of removing pants. They could then put him in a hospital gown so he's not sitting around undressed, and logistically they'd probably have to remove, at a minimum, all but his bottom layer of shirts - perhaps all his shirts.  If the hospital gown isn't necessary, they could also ask him to take his jacket/sweater/everything but t-shirt off  to take his blood pressure or something.

Once he's down to a t-shirt and undies they'll probably be able to tell if he's carrying a weapon.  And if they can't, they could do the "put the stethoscope on the patient's chest and have the patient breathe deeply" thing, which will allow them to lift the patient's shirt enough to see if there's anything underneath.

And all that's before we even get into the possibility of checking the patient's body for more wounds, which seems like something you might do when treating a patient who's been in a gunfight! Or x-raying a gunshot patient to verify the location of all the bits of bullet.

If the patient isn't searched by police officers and instead simply receives medical care from medical professionals, he's more likely to perceive the hospital as a safe place where there's no threat to him.  And the police in the ER would hopefully be able to keep out the people who are trying to kill the patient, so the patient would have no reason to draw any weapons he might have on him.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Downton Abbey thoughts (up to S04 E06)

Spoilers:  This post contains spoilers for Downton Abbey up to Season 4, Episode 6 (i.e. the one with the pigs).  However, I haven't watched any further (I'm watching along with PBS) so please do not spoil me about future episodes.

When it was revealed that Edith is pregnant, my first thought was "Did they have abortion in England in the 1920s?"  I knew that if it existed it was illegal, but I wondered if it was an option at all and, if so, how it worked.

So I was very disappointed that she just changed her mind at the last minute.  That simply wasn't a good, interesting use of this plotline, given the setting and the era.

Given the setting and the era, it would have been really interesting to cover how abortion worked.  I know they couldn't actually show it (even Call the Midwife had to do it by symbolism) but they could have taught us something about the reality of this era.  But by having Edith ultimately choose not to go through with it, they missed that opportunity, and rather wasted precious limited screen time setting us up for it.  If they need her to stay pregnant for long-term plot purposes, they could have her leave after the doctor explains the procedure to her, perhaps because she's afraid to go through with it or because the doctor wants to be paid in sexual favours or something.

Given the setting and the era, it would also have been interesting to see Edith attempting to procure the abortion, by which I mean attempting to find a place to have it done.  Perhaps she first asks her doctor, who is shocked and appalled that she should suggest such a thing.  Then she has to explore different and shadier avenues, providing us with a lot of interesting historical insight along the way.  It's a time-sensitive secret mission!  If they need her to stay pregnant for long-term plot purposes, they could simply have her not be able to figure it out in time.  It's certainly not implausible for a sheltered upper-class lady of her era living in a country house not to be able to figure out how to obtain something illegal.  But instead they just had the information fall into her hands offscreen (more telling rather than showing!)

But if Edith is going to have the baby, they could also simply not present abortion as an option.  It's illegal, and Edith is a sheltered upper-class lady who lives in a country house.  It's perfectly plausible she wouldn't even know abortion is an option.

If it's necessary for plot purposes to make Edith deliberately choose to have the baby, they could simply have someone discreetly mention to her that there are things you can do (Isobel would be a good candidate for this), and have her say "Oh no, I could never do that."  Done and done, in one 30-second conversation, then we could get into the interesting part of what she'd actually do with the pregnancy and with the baby.  (Hide it?  Own it?  Be disowned?)

But setting up all this intrigue and using all this screen time on a shady illegal abortion only to a) change her mind and walk out and b) do so without giving us any interesting historical details is just a waste of our valuable screen time. And our screen time is in fact valuable, because there are so few episodes and each season covers years.  I'd much rather have it used on something other than "Look a, wait, no, we're just going to walk away from that." Like they did with "Patrick Crawley might be alive or it might be an imposter...but he just wandered off so never mind." Or with "Downton is dying, no wait Matthew inherited money, no wait he won't take it because he left Lavinia for Mary, no wait she was okay with that."  Or with "Mary's, wait, fixed it." Or with "Sybil is getting a new and interesting life in Ireland...but we're not going to show it to you."  All this taking plotlines away rather than resolving them, and telling rather than showing.

Which makes me think this is all going to go away with a soap-opera miscarriage.  (And if they wanted to do that, why not have it simply be a pregnancy scare?)  If they can't resolve big, live-changing plots, why not just stick to smaller stories?  Stories on par with Mrs. Hughes's old beau turning up at the fair or the courtship of Anna and Bates or Lady Mary saves the pigs are the kind of thing  Downton does well, so just keep doing them!


This will never happen on the show, but I think the ideal person to solve all Edith's problems is Sir Anthony Strallan.

In the setting and era of the show, the way a lady secures her future is with a good marriage.  Edith did everything right in that respect by getting Sir Anthony to the altar.  Moreover, she was (given the reality of her era) very sensible in her choice.  She wasn't holding out for a knight in shining armour or a handsome young duke with no war damage or Rudolph Valentino.  She chose someone she gets along well with, who makes a good match pragmatically, and didn't blink an eye that he's older and disabled. 

By the standards of her era and setting, she did everything right.  So, by the standards of her era and setting, she deserves to be married - and, by extension, to be able to honourably have sex and have a baby.

But Sir Anthony left her at the altar - not because of anything she did wrong, but because he thinks, in a sort of romantic idealization - that he's not good enough for her and her life would be worse married to him.

But now she's in a situation where she would clearly and by all standards be better off being married to him.  Being married would allow her and her child to live comfortably and respectably.  It has already been established that Sir Anthony doesn't have children so this arrangement wouldn't be stealing any rightful inheritances from anyone (with the possible exception of some distance male cousin à la Matthew Crawley - and not even that if Edith's baby ends up being a girl).  Yes, his estate would be inherited by someone who isn't his biological child.  Fair penalty for abandoning Edith without thinking about her actual, practical, real-life needs and wants.  And he still gets companionship and sex and caregiving and family connections with an earl and all the other benefits of an attractive younger wife. All he has to do is provide respectability for a woman he cares about and her child

Sunday, February 09, 2014

How to see the number of results with Google verbatim search

I previously blogged about how Google's Verbatim search function would be more useful if they showed the number of results.

I just figured out how to see the number of results.

First, a review of how to do a Verbatim search:

1. Do your search normally.
2. On the results page, click on Search Tools
3. Under All Results, choose Verbatim

To see the number of results, simply click on Search Tools again.  The results page won't change, but the menus that dropped down when you clicked on Search Tools will pull back up, revealing the number of results.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

How Google is making me not want to use Chrome

When they cancelled Google Reader, I wrote:

Google Reader and iGoogle are my primary gateways to the internet, and now Google has cancelled both of them.  This makes me fear for the future of Gmail and Blogger.  (Or search, for that matter).

Google just cancelled another thing that I use: Gmail Notifier.  It's a tiny, harmless little program that runs in your tray and alerts you when you have an email.  And the other day, it just randomly stopped working, and googling around the problem told me that Google had discontinued it.

The internet tells me they apparently sent out a message telling people about this discontinuation, but I didn't receive anything!

However, the part that annoys me is:
If you want to continue to receive notifications, you can use any of the following alternatives to Google Notifier Beta, using the Chrome browser. To see the number of unread messages in your inbox at a glance, install the Gmail Checker Chrome app. To preview new messages on your desktop, go to Gmail's settings and enable Desktop Notifications.
So basically they killed Gmail Notifier in an attempt to force people to use Chrome if they want to be notified when they have new email.

Originally I started using Firefox instead of Chrome because at the time the Chrome interface looked kind of "wrong" to me.  No big attachment or anything, I just tried two and I found one a wee bit visually irksome, so I went with the other.  However, since then, Google has been killing off things I use in an attempt to get me to switch to Chrome.  They killed the Google Toolbar for Firefox in an attempt to make us use Chrome exclusively if we wanted that kind of toolbar interface.  They killed iGoogle and suggested a range of Chrome apps as a replacement.  And now they kill Gmail Notifier and suggest a Chrome app as a replacement.

And every time they do this, it makes me more determined not to use Chrome.  I don't want them win!   I've found Firefox add-ons and websites to replace everything Google has killed, and I'm determined not to let this strategy of theirs be successful.  Before they started doing this, I had no objection to Chrome, I just chose to use Firefox.  But every time they kill something to get me to switch to Chrome, I dig in even more so they won't win.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Things They Should Invent: "if you may like..." for beauty products

I use Beautypedia, but I don't always agree with their reviews.  For example, they give my favourite eyeliner a poor rating, saying that the long skinny brush is hard to control.  But I find that the brush is easier to control specifically because it's long and skinny, and I vastly prefer it to every other brand I've tried, whose applicators are all too thick for the look I'm going for.

This means that when I'm in the market for eyeliner, Beautypedia is useless for me.

And it might also be less than perfectly useful for other products, and I'm just unaware of it.  The perfect product for me might be sitting under some pile of average reviews on Beautypedia and Makeup Alley etc., because it isn't optimal for most people in the world but is perfect for my non-standard needs.

So I'd like to see a beauty product review site that compares products to other products.  If you find Product A and Product B very similar, you say so, and perhaps articulate how they differ from each other.  If you find Product C far superiors to Products A and B, say so and explain why.  If you find Product D far inferior, say so and explain why.

If they can get a critical mass of reviews, they could even match up users with similar skin types or other similar makeup needs.  For example, if several people have the same favourite masacara and the same favourite eyeliner, it might be helpful to know what each other's favourite eyeshadow is.  Or, if a product gets discontinued, you could find out what other people who liked that discontinued product also like and dislike, and avoid some irritating trial and error.

So how do we get all these people to write all these comprehensive and detailed reviews? My idea is: what if this website was sponsored by a retailer that sells a wide range of brands of cosmetics, like Shoppers Drug Mart or even Amazon?  Users could earn points for writing reviews, and the points could be redeemable for free cosmetics at that retailer.  To encourage users to populate the site quickly, the first X reviews (where X is the number of reviews they need to make the site useful) can get exponentially more points.  They could also have easy one-click links on the review site to buy reviewed cosmetics from the retailer.