My Geek Weekend: Occam’s Razor

In between two birthday parties and various football games (U-M loses to Toledo?!?! ND loses, Redskins lose, MSU wins, good weekend for football) and other stuff, I hacked away at some computer stuff too.
Last week, I spent a lot of time trying to convert videos to watch on my iPod Touch. I figured that with winter fast approaching, I’d probably be riding the bus more often on those occasions when I wimp out on riding my bike. As such, catching up on all the stuff I have on Tivo would be cool to do while passing the time. Alas, all my efforts were frustrated by the fact that every video converter I tried managed to freeze up my computer.
I initially thought the problem was with a failing hard drive, so I spent part of the week backing up everything on the hard drive. I then checked the hard drive for errors, but it came back with no problems reported.
My next thought was that it was a heat problem. This was partially confirmed when I ran a tool called SpeedFan that monitored my CPU’s temperature. During one video conversion, the computer locked up with the CPU at a temperature of 98 degrees Celsius! That’s 208 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 degrees away from boiling water. In other words, hot! So, I popped open the case to take a look, and I discovered that every outlet vent of my case was covered in a layer of dust, preventing the fans from pushing air out, and trapping the hot air inside. I cleared out the vents, and while doing so rediscovered the fact that my CPU fan had a knob I could use to crank up the speed a bit higher, thus cooling the CPU even more effectively.
After this cleaning routine, I was able to grab a show off my Tivo and encode it into an iPod-friendly format. It was a little bit jittery, but not too bad. I’m going to play with the settings a little bit more to see if I can smooth it out some, but I’m calling the geek weekend a success as a result of getting it to work once.
It just goes to show you: if your computer is freezing up, the most likely culprit is the simplest one, overheating. Occam’s Razor in action.
Oh yeah, and did I mention, I succeeded in the One Hundred Pushup Challenge! On Saturday night, I powered out 100 pushups! I am still shocked that all my hard work paid off and I accomplished my goal.

Annoyances and Triumphs

I’m going to have to take a break from this tonight, since it’s getting so frustrating, but for the past couple of evenings, I’ve been trying to convert some videos into an iPod Touch-friendly format. There are a couple of reasons for this: I could potentially catch up on Tivo viewing while riding the bus; I could get an AV cable for the iPod and hook it up to the crappy DVD player we got (it is very finicky about accepting DVDs to play) and then have stuff for the kids to watch on those long drives to Michigan for the upcoming holidays.
This is not going well. I’ve tried just about every converter in the book and every single one of them freezes up somewhere in the middle of the conversion. Of course, most of them seem to use the same encoder behind the scenes, so this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But it’s still frustrating. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not something where my computer is limited in what it can accomplish. I even thought I heard an ominous clicking coming from the hard drive last night (luckily I backed up all my important pictures and music, as well as our Quicken files, so I shouldn’t lose too much of importance if something craps out. Still, my project has now turned into scouring the computer for things that need to be backed up.).
The one bright side of all this is that I discovered a true gem in the App Store: Mocha VNC Lite. It’s free, and it allows you to use your iPod Touch (or iPhone) to connect to a VNC server running on your computer. That’s all geek-speak for saying that you can remotely control your computer via the iPod. That’s pretty cool for when I don’t want to sit in front of the screen watching a conversion tick through slowly. Instead, I can connect via the iPod and watch on its screen as it ticks through slowly. Once I get it set up properly, I could even connect to my computer at home while sitting at a Starbucks somewhere.
So while I still have to figure out the video conversion thing, and I’m still trying to work out a way to sync my wife’s Palm with Google Calendar, I’ve still managed to get some fun things working. Oh, and the iPod is also pretty good at playing music.

A Weekend with the iPod Touch

Almost a year ago, I had completed my latest freebie spree. Unfortunately, it took nearly all of that year to see any results. But I finally got my $500 Best Buy gift card last week, and promptly used it to order Wii Play, an 8GB iPod Touch, and preorder Guitar Hero World Tour. I was able to pick up the Wii Play at my local Best Buy (Ellie loves the cow racing game), and hopefully the preorder of Guitar Hero will arrive not too long after it’s released at the end of October. The iPod Touch arrived on Friday, and I had a lot of fun playing with it over the weekend.
The good: I can use any open wifi hotspot to get online. This includes my house, any Starbucks, and apparently some areas around the Smithsonian. The last two came in handy for getting directions from downtown to a church in Arlington where Lisa had Daisy Scout training. The “find my location” thing is super cool and works very well. It uses known wifi hotspots to figure out your current location and give directions based on that.
The bad: My old iPod used a Firewire connector to charge via the AC adapter. The Touch only uses USB so the adapter doesn’t work, and the only way to charge is through the computer. 8GB is good enough for now, but I had to take some music off to make room for apps I downloaded.
I was also able to set up my GMail through the Mail app and used NuevaSync to feed my calendar. The one problem I’ve run across is that, not having Outlook on my computer, I have no way to get calendar data from my wife’s old Palm m100 onto Google Calendar or the Palm. Well, that’s not totally true: there is CompanionLink, but I don’t know if it’s that important to spend $30 on the software. So if anyone has a free solution for me, I’m all ears.
All told, I’m very happy with the Touch, and looking forward to playing with more apps, as I’ve only had a short time to play in the App Store so far. I’m also checking out how to convert video to the correct format to play on the Touch, so that maybe I can catch up on some stuff that’s recorded on my Tivo. So far though, that’s been a frustrating experience and the converters I’ve tried repeatedly crash before finishing the conversion.

More on freebies, Guitar Hero

First, I’m absolutely puzzled about this Guitar Hero thing. No one has fessed up to buying it off my wishlist, so I’m baffled. What’s also strange is that Amazon shows that it ships in 1-2 months, while I have seen it in stores at Costco and Microcenter, but the Wii version is completely out of stock everywhere (tip: sign up for Nowinstock.net’s email alerts. They have a GH3 for Wii one too, and I could have bought it from Costco.com or Amazon yesterday if I hadn’t already been in hot water for buying the Wii).
I canceled the last of my freebie signups today. I’ve qualified and been confirmed for a $500 Best Buy gift card and a $500 Visa gift card so far, and I think I will try for a $500 Lowes card next, since we need new doors for our basement and upstairs. You can see what I signed up for on this spreadsheet (the first two sheets are what I did). To summarize, for the first card, I paid $13.94 net, which included 50 songs from eMusic (I bought Spoon’s latest and a bunch of versions “Jingle Bells” for Ellie, eMusic is also very easy to cancel by logging into your account on the website). I gave away the cat litter (and they canceled my trial via email without me really asking them to). Today I canceled Critic’s Choice, even though I was tempted to keep it so that I could buy some gift cards for Christmas at a discount. On the second card, I actually made $6.35, thanks to the $20 Exxon gas card that Great Fun sent me. They were also the most annoying to cancel, though it wasn’t horrible. They just offered more stuff for staying signed up, but I really wasn’t interested. Grant Consultant canceled via email, real easy. And Rising Star was a tiny bit of a hassle just because it required shipping stuff back to them.
So there you have it, all told, I spent $30.58 out of pocket, got a $2.99 refund and a $20 gas card, for a net $7.59 spent. And for that, I should be getting $1000 worth of gift cards in a couple of months.

Freebie Update

I mentioned a while back that I caught the freebie bug again, but that this time, it wouldn’t involve selling out my family. Not too long afterward, I tried out a couple of the offers: a $500 Best Buy gift card for 3 offers, and a $500 Visa card for 3. The cat got out of the bag last week, literally, when the kitty litter trial I signed up for showed up at our door. Did I mention we don’t have cats? Needless to say, Lisa was a bit confused. At any rate, it’s going really well so far. All my offers have been credited, and I sent in my confirmation forms. Now I just have to wait, and also make sure that I cancel the trials before they charge me again. So far, even that has gone well. The kitty litter people canceled my trial when I really only asked them how long the stuff was going to take to get to my house. I was also able to cancel the “Grant Consultant” trial over email, and the “Rising Star” deal was easily canceled over the phone with no hassle (I just need to return their CDs now). I also received $20 in gas cards from signing up for “Great Fun.” So far, I’ve spent $16.93 on one gift card, and $10.74 on the other, and gotten that $20 in gas back, so net, I’m out $7.67 at this point, and while I still have to spend a small amount shipping CDs back, I’ll be just over $10 to potentially get $1000 in gift cards. Not bad for a couple of hours of my time. Now the most frustrating part, the waiting, begins.
I know it’s going to take a while to get the gift cards, butt I do really wish I had the Best Buy one right now, because they have a nice deal on this 26″ LCD HDTV that I might have been using the card on. Oh well, I knew I was going to have to be patient, so hopefully I’ll get something in time for maybe the Super Bowl, otherwise, I’ll settle for my birthday (yes, 5 months from now).

Aw (“Free”) Crap!

Beware, I have been bit by the bug again. It was just about 3 years ago that I sold out my friends and family to get myself a free iPod. And thanks to an innocuous post on Consumerist that linked to Josh Clark’s website, I’m being tempted to get back in the game. On the plus side, this time should not require any referrals from other people. Most of the places that he links to simply require you yourself to sign up for enough trial offers to earn your free crap.  Although, the Macbook Pro offer that got me started on this does require one referral, so let me know if you want to get in on that!  While you should take this all with a very large grain of salt, you can’t argue with his results:

Item What I Paid Retail Value Site/Company Used
MacBook Pro $98.69 $2,000 NuiTech
Xbox 360 $35.82 $400 Netblue
iPod Nano $11.95 $200 Shop FreePay
iPod Shuffle $2 $79 Shop FreePay
Apple AirPort Express $5.87 $129 Shop FreePay
A book $1.87 $10 Shop FreePay
Parallels software package $0 $80 Shop FreePay
$50 Visa card $1.95 $50 Netblue
Xbox 360 games & accessories $21.80 $195 Trainn
$580 check for Apple iPhone $5.45 $580 Trainn
$250 check $2.50 $250 Trainn
$500 (two $250 sites) $13.95 $500 Trainn
*Nintendo Wii $18.98 $250 Netblue
$55.80 check $0 $55.80 FusionCash
42″ Plasma HDTV $53.63 $1,499 I-Deal Direct
†$100 in gift cards $0 $100
Total:  $274.46 $6,377.80

 
* Items that are in process, but have not yet arrived
Received for signing up for certain offers

I think I’m getting back in the game.

Roundup

Did anyone else see the MSU men’s and women’s basketball teams get trounced this weekend? No? Good. Moving on.
Good to see Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn get into the Hall of Fame. And only those two. They are among the last of an era, guys who played their entire careers with the same team. Both are worthy entries. But really, who were the 8 guys who DIDN’T vote for Cal Ripken? The newspaper this morning said there were two blank ballots turned in, including the guy who said he wouldn’t vote for anyone who played anywhere between 1993-2004 (the “steroid era”). So who were the other 6 guys that basically voted against Cal? Ridiculous.
Switching gears a bit, you may have heard a wild cheer from the San Francisco area yesterday as Apple announced its new iPhone. I admit to being a fanboy in the past, and I think that out of everyone, Apple has the best chance of making a “smartphone” like this work. But damn, $500 WITH a two-year contract on Cingular/AT&T. That’s steep. According to this morning’s Washington Post, there are only 6 million smartphones in use in the US today, and Jobs pegged 10 million iPhones as his target number. Hard to see that happening, but then again, people were dropping $500 on the RAZR when it first came out, and it was nowhere near as revolutionary or feature packed as this.
The bigger disappointment came with the Apple TV. It’s essentially a dumb box that outputs content stored on your computer to your TV. I’m still hoping they introduce some kind of PVR functionality in the next version of OS X, because the stuff they offer at the iTunes store isn’t cutting it. They sell movies and TV shows at 640×480 resolution, while touting the Apple TV’s ability to output 720p HD. Hello? A bit of a disconnect there. Especially when I can go out now and buy a Windows Media Center PC with an HD tuner card and a huge hard drive for cheap, add an XBox 360 for $299 to use as a media extender, plus even the new HD-DVD add-on ($199) if you’re so inclined, and get a lot more out of the fancy HDTV in the living room than Apple can give. In short, I guess I’ve tired of waiting till Apple’s next big announcement to see if they bring it all together in a package I can love, while other companies and devices can do the job nearly as well for a lot cheaper, today.