It’s Getting Chilly Out There – So Get Chili In Here…

But first, a Haiku:

Foodie conundrum –
Heats us in wintertime, yet
We call it ‘chili’

As the Missus finishes up her second novel (#2 in the Plant Lady Mystery series – quick plug here) I wanted to do something to free up her time. So I looked around for meals that I could do simply and easily (key for me).

The result is what I’m going to call Dave’s Drop Dead Default Chili:

  1. Put equal sized cans of beans and tomatoes in a pot
  2. Add chili powder to taste – level teaspoon per pair of cans is a good start
  3. Bring heat up slowly to a bubbling boil, then turn down and let simmer

I told you it was simple. Want a lot? Combine four cans of tomatoes and four cans of beans (I prefer kidney beans for the first can, but cannellini, pinto, and black beans have all worked so far.) Want a little? one can of each. Thick? Use tomato paste. Thin? Use whole or diced tomatoes.

This is a basic, simple to make chili – and once you have this down pat, there are many ways to enhance it:

  • I’m a vegetarian, but it shouldn’t be too hard to add meat – fry up some ground hamburger and add it, or cook up and slice in hot dogs (or just let them cook in the chili.)
  • I like to add oil to the pot and put in some diced onions first – cook them on medium heat until they just turn translucent, so that they are still a bit crunchy. I use one of those chopper gadgets to make the onion bits very small, cook some, and let the rest be a garnish (this was Gwen’s suggestion.)
  • My current variation is to add a lot of heat. I take a large jar of banana peppers in water, and split it into two portions for two batches, each with half the water and half the peppers. Then I add the 1/2 jar of ‘hot’ water along with the peppers diced into small pieces.
  • You can also add rice. A small amount of white rice added near the end cooks up nicely; you serve when the rice is soft. A big advantage is that rice+beans ends up providing all the protein building blocks your body needs. Called a Complete Protein, it’s useful for vegetarians who look for non-meat sources for protein.
  • Another alternative for rice: As I found out in one batch, rice needs 2X the water by volume to cook. So add too much to the chili and you end up with a a sludge or stew. Not to worry though, since that makes a great filling for tacos – just add a dollop of sour cream each (organic of course). Alternately, you can cook the rice separately, and pour chili over it for that complete protein benefit.
  • You can go all out – I actually got the original recipe from Joe Cross’s site, where the beans are soaked overnight along with many, many steps and ingredients. I really liked the recipe, but the fact is, if it requires too many steps, it won’t get done, so better canned beans and a hearty meal or two a week, than soaking beans and making a fancy dinner only once a month.

So far, I can make big batches that last three days and allow freezing of the extra. For that, it’s two big cans (28oz) of Tomato paste and whole tomatoes, along with 4-5 regular sized (14oz) cans of each type of bean. A 1/2 jar of pickled banana peppers gives it the perfect heat.

Give it a try – something this easy makes for a great last minute meal, and tastes far better than the simplistic recipe suggests. And it gives your other half time to work on her novel…

The Most Dangerous Bread Recipe on Earth…

Men CAN bake. And the dangerous part is that if you start with this recipe your wife (and your waistline) will want more…

I first saw this recipe on a cooking show with Michael Smith – check here for the original and other variations. However, it is dead simple:

“City Bread”
5 cups of flour
1/2 heaping teaspoon of active dry yeast
2 teaspoons of salt
2 1/2 cups of warm water

Mix dry ingredients together thoroughly, then add water and stir until dough forms. Cover with plastic and let sit in a warm place overnight (8-10 hours). Knock the dough down and move to the (large/2 liter) bread pan. Let it double in size (2-3hrs) and then bake in preheated oven (425F/220C) for 45 minutes.

It is that simple. Some things to watch out for:

  • The flour is always sticky – when making it, keep your hands and bowls as greased as you can or floured.
  • Likewise, put oiled baker’s paper in each bread pan before transferring – makes for much easier cleanup.
  • If you time it right, you can make bread for several days, and have the first one ready in time for supper. Michael says he does it daily timed with supper, but I’m lazy and prefer doing several at once.

Four ingredients – and two of them are water and salt. It’s also inexpensive, since you use hardly any active yeast (unlike with a breadmaker, which goes through yeast like crazy.) That’s because you give the bread time to ferment/create more of its own yeast, by letting it go overnight.

And the result: Best bread I’ve tasted. Nutty and slightly brown throughout (using white flour no less). I eventually had to stop making it, since it was too easy to sit with a hot loaf and some butter and make it disappear ASAP.

But someday, when I am thinner, the most dangerous bread recipe will be cooked yet again in this home…

A REAL VB .net Equivalent To The C/C++ atoi()

For awhile now I’ve used the following code that I got from here to translate text into integers without too much fuss in Visual BASIC:

Public Function ToInteger(ByVal s As String) As Integer
    Dim i as Integer
    Integer.TryParse(s, i)
    Return i
End Function

It’s pretty straightforward: The TryParse() tests the string and places the numeric value into ‘i’ if valid, else 0. It doesn’t exception like CInt() would, which makes a difference when processing large amounts of data – exceptions take a fair bit of time to process within try/catch blocks (and one would argue even more outside!)

There’s a catch, though: TryParse() is not exactly like C’s atoi(), and the difference is quite irritating since I come from that background. Specifically, if there is any trailing non-numeric data in the string, it fails. And since I like to use this to convert combo or listbox entries, you can imagine how annoying it is to fail on a string like “212 (Temperature of boiling water”)” or similar: Whereas our ToInteger() function would return 0, atoi() would return 212, stopping after the number.

So, time to get a bit more complicated – meet ToInteger() Mark II. It’s in VB, but it shouldn’t be too hard to convert to C#:

 Public Function ToInteger(ByVal s As String, Optional ByVal result As Integer = 0) As Integer
        Dim i As Integer = 0
        Dim valid As Boolean = False
        Const Asc_0 As Integer = Asc("0"c)
        For Each c As Char In s.TrimStart
            If (c < "0"c OrElse c > "9"c) Then
                Exit For
            End If
            valid = True
            i = i * 10 + (Asc(c) - Asc_0)
        Next
        If (valid) Then
            Return i
        End If
        Return result
    End Function

This version takes in the string, processing digits until they end, then stops with that value, so text following it is ignored. As well, you can (optionally) specify a default value other than 0, useful if you need to know if the input is invalid (no digits input at the string’s start). And despite being longer, it actually timed 25% FASTER than the previous routine – go figure.

Enjoy!

Have You Mastered Doing What You Love? (An Accidental Part 2)

As I mentioned in my last post of the same name, I was narrowing my focus on tasks to get some more programming done, which is arguably my ‘passion.’ ‘Nuff said.

Not so fast. This month I read a book on NOT following your passion, which made some interesting arguments:

  • Following your passion is awkward when you aren’t sure what you want to do yet (think of choosing a major in college).
  • People change, and what your passion is right now may not be in the future.
  • Passion is only one part of the whole job, with a lot of room for non-passion (my word) in the day to day grind.
  • Passion without experience is likely doomed to failure.

The arguments make sense, but sure put a damper on what we’ve told about following our ‘bliss!’

However, all is not lost. He contrasts passion with work ‘capital’ – for example, years spent learning a craft. And not just learning, but getting good – extremely good – at it. This capital means you have options for the future, and can more easily aim for your dream job.

Serendipitously, I wrote this last month with the title ‘Have You Mastered Doing What You Love?’ because I firmly believe doing something is one thing, but doing it well is quite another.

However, I likewise can’t take credit for this observation, since I learned it from a much older source:

“Do you see any truly competent workers? They will serve kings rather than working for ordinary people.”
-Proverbs 22:29, New Living Translation of the Bible

So we’ve known that quality trumps passion for a long, long time. But which should come first?

I (im)modestly think the issue is one of what ‘bliss’ really is, and that it is really a hint of what to do, rather than a full-fledged job description.

For example, say you love working with horses. Sounds good. But which aspect? Vet, trainer, owner, racer? All of these people work with horses, and all jobs might have pleasant aspects. So does that mean one of them is the winner while the others aren’t?

The book uses the example of Steve Jobs, who was quoted as following his passion. However, as was also pointed out, Jobs was interested in becoming a guru around the time he started selling Apple computers. It was a matter of timing and success that he went into running Apple versus working at an Ashram. So how can only one be the ‘one’ passion?

But what if both jobs were part of the same passion? If we limit passion to running a computer company, only one works, but if we talk of a strong passion for molding people’s lives and influencing others, then both jobs are viable, including many more jobs besides.

To give another example, an older post of mine recommended testing to decide what your strengths are. In my case, one top item was focus, or staying with a problem until solved. Not a surprise, as I enjoy programming. But problem solving is satisfying in many areas. I enjoy inventing (solving problems with devices), and also writing, where I enjoy wrapping my head around a new topic (‘solving’ it for myself) and then explaining it to others. My ‘bliss’ is tied up in those aspects of all three of these things, not each job individually. If I had to choose just one, I’d likely refuse. The common thread, as the testing showed, is that I enjoy the focus involved in each.

So to apply it forward. If I looked for a job, the one that allowed me to focus for long periods on problems would be more satisfying that one that (for example) allowed me to interact with lots of people. So I can still try different jobs, just keep an eye open for how my strengths work best for me (and by extension, for the business that hires me, which makes me more valuable.)

The conclusion: I still think we can follow our passion. The key however is to understand that passion is not a ‘carved in stone’ absolute, but more an inclination of the direction you’d like to go in.

After all, you can have a sweet tooth, and there is a lot of food that appeals to you; but decide you’re eating just cheesecake forever, and you’ll soon wonder if you ever had a sweet tooth at all!

So figure out what kind of ‘tastes’ YOU have, and pursue them – life’s too short for not following your passion – some book authors notwithstanding.

Have You Mastered Doing What You Love?

As I write this, I’m aware of two things: 1) I have not written anything yet in April, and 2) I probably would have if I really wanted to.

None of this is earth shaking (I’ve been extra busy since April is a peak month in the world of radio.) But it harkens to something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now – and something I think would be of benefit to my readers (all five four three of you.)

It’s an old bit of advice, so you’ve likely heard it.

Ready?

Jack of all trades, master of none.

Now of course that’s a bit whimsical/glib, and not entirely accurate. For example, if you’ve read anything by 4 hour week writer Timothy Ferris then you know mastering something is more a matter of how much focus/planning you apply to it, and less about the years spent.

On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote of the 10,000 hours experts need to master something, shows that deep single-minded mastery of something does takes time.

Confused? To balance the two extremes, we need only realize that if you want to play classical piano in a concert hall it will take many, many hours to train. But if you want to entertain people on your guitar, the bar to mastery – and the effort needed – can be mightily reduced with planning and focus.

So yes, you can master quite a few things in your life – but should you?

Lately, I’ve been thinking that the opposite may be true. Master one thing first; then move on.

I once saw a video by Paul McCartney called ‘Coming Up‘. I had heard he played all the instruments himself. Impressive I thought. I’d like to do that.

However, he spent years mastering just the bass guitar in a little Hamburg-based band called the Silver Beetles (although I think they may have renamed themselves soon after) In any case, he had some measure of success, and so then could devote himself to learning other instruments.

The key: Succeed first, then diversify. Learning for learning’s sake can be enjoyable, but if your core strengths are valuable, perhaps focus on them for awhile.

In my case, I enjoy writing, and I enjoy programming, and I think I’m good at them. You may disagree (after all, you’re reading this, so your opinion is valid) but I’ve had a measure of success. I still make a nice bit of coin from software I wrote over twenty years ago (OK, 21 years, but that’s still ‘over’) and I’ve done well with my writing, both as a column writer and a self published writer (I still remember fondly my first $1,000 day soon after I released my book “Top 10 Tricks to Conquer Your Niche With WordPress“)

However, when I form a business around them, I bog down. My core strengths get diluted with customer support, advertising, management, sales, financials and much, much more. So my core strengths bring in the money, while my non-core ones dilute how much I effectively make per hour of my time.

Don’t get me wrong – learning it all is fun. But focus is the key to success. So in my case, I’ve decided to keep my eye out for partners that can fill the gaps in my strengths with their strengths, like sales people who enjoy promoting products, or people who enjoy the minutiae of business. That way, I can focus on programming and writing. And the timing is right, since I’ve picked May 1st to start my own annual Summer of Code.

The takeaway from all this? Perhaps you should examine your strengths, and find someone to balance them. It may mean paying out a wage or commission or sharing a company, but the result is the two of you (or three or four or whatever) work at peak efficiency, and more gets done faster.

And if you become successful like Sir Paul, THEN you can learn the piano…

Trick: How To Get (Lots Of) Multiple Views Of The Same File

We all know how to get 2 split views of a text file when editing – but what if we want 3, or 4, or more?

I recently edited a file I wanted to see several views of. Keeping a window open for each section of the file made cut and paste very easy. Problem was, I couldn’t find any editor that did that. Notepad++, PSPad, even that editor in Visual Studio seemed to only split a single time – so two views of a single file at most.

Eventually, I downloaded the Windows version of emacs, which does offer this option; however, it kept crashing on exit, and the keys are non-standard to Windows, which made it annoying to set up Ctrl-V, Ctrl-C, etc (not impossible, mind you, just annoying – check their menu option ‘Options; Use CAU Keys’ if you go this route).

Today while idly browsing the web (and avoiding work) I came across another option – Visual Studio once again. Tried it, and it worked a treat. Best of all, it’s an environment I’m familiar with so no cases of “why did this happen?” when I pressed familiar keyboard shortcuts.

Here’s the steps to set it up:

  1. Load the file you want to edit in VS (I use VS2015, but I’ve read VS2010 and on supports it) or drag and drop from explorer.
  2. Click on its tab.
  3. Use menu option Window; New Window to duplicate the contents into a second window. Same file, but two views of it (you can prove it by typing in one and watching it change in the other.)
  4. Right click on the tab you want to move and select New Vertical Tab Group (or New Horizontal Tab Group). Whether you pick vertical or horizontal is up to you, but apparently once you do one window this way, all the subsequent windows need to be the same orientation.
  5. Rinse and repeat: Duplicate the window with New Window, then move it with New Vertical Tab Group or New Horizontal Tab Group.

One other point: If you’re using wide scroll bars (I like the “Wide” Source Overview option,) just right click on the scroll bars to change them via Scroll Bar Options to make them thinner, with more room for text. But if you turn them off like I did, no more right clicking, so just go to the same option is found via the menu Tools; Options; Text Editor; All Languages; Scroll Bars.

Enjoy!

A Review of HobbyKing’s Fabrikator Mini 3D Printer (AKA ‘Tiny Boy’)

I finally did it.

I got a 3D printer.

I have spent the past five years or so looking at the various devices out there, trying to figure out how to justify buying one.

Then HobbyKing had a shipping sale, and shortly thereafter I was the proud owner of a bright orange Fabrikator model 3D Printer.
3d printerThe orange Fabricator printer, or as I now like to call it, ‘MINE’

It’s based on the ‘Tiny Boy‘ model of 3D printers, and sells for under $200, a bargain in the printer world. And while its print volume is only about a 3 inch cube, for beginners it’s a great introduction to printing.

So why should you consider it?

  • Prebuilt. I many times considered making my own printer (even buying some parts), but always shied away from starting. The fact is, getting a ready-built machine was the deciding factor here. I wanted to print things out, not assemble a device and then maybe – maybe – get it working fine after. Don’t get me wrong, I may assemble my next printer, but one step at a time works best for me right now.
  • Small. Small can mean bad, but it’s good too – I can place this beside my computer and run it while I work. Far more convenient than running cables to another table, or dedicating a couple of feet square for a huge device I use only occasionally.
  • Quiet. I can actually run this at night, it’s so quiet. I don’t have experience with many printers (just the ones at the local Makerspace) but based on those I know this one is well on the low end for noisiness.
  • Ideal Starter. I like the idea of a 3D printer – but will I use it? For around $200 I’m able to test out just how convenient it is, and how best to use it on projects. Much better testing things out for $200 than spending $1,000 and finding out I’m not a ‘3D print’ kind of guy!
  • Safe(r). Unlike some printers that use ABS, this one is exclusively PLA. PLA is a plant-base plastic, and its fumes while the printer runs are actually quite pleasant, which makes it easy to run in a room without the the windows wide open. Also, it means the printer doesn’t require a heated plate to print on, reducing the chance of burning yourself (note that in both cases the print head is hot, so you still need to be careful.)

Now a word of warning: 3D printers are not for absolute beginners. I’ve taken a couple of printer courses at the local Makerspace, and I’ve run several projects on their printers while there. You’ll also want to look into some training, to at least understand how they work, and how to put together a print.

As well, the printer uses Repetier-Host for the printer management software. This lets you upload the code for your design and it processes it, converting your .stl format file into a series of movement instructions that lets the printer create the object.

And design? I use Sketchup, but I’ve heard good things about Blender. One warning: Sketchup’s license does not permit the free program to do commercial designs, so you may wish to spend your time learning Blender, which is completely free and unrestricted. Of course, if you’ll never do a part for a commercial project, either will be fine to use.

3d legOnce up and running, I immediately set about to create – legs. It turns out they recommend raising the printer up a bit for improved air circulation, and from their site you can get a design for little square feet that the printer rests on. At about 10 minutes printing time each, my first project was a success, plus a great introduction to using my printer.

Since then, I’ve done other prints, and can recommend you start slow with small parts, watch the prints in the beginning very carefully, and be sure to follow the instructions for starting and stopping (such as feeding in plastic until it squeezes out the head to be sure it’s primed properly.)

One more caution: Buy the right color plastic! I’m not sure why I picked up a spool of purple (on sale, perhaps?) but I wish I hadn’t. It’s a big spool, and I know I’m going to be using it a long, long time. I’d recommend instead either a neutral color (black/brown/grey) or a vivid color to make the detail in your parts easier to see, such as orange. Still, at the price it sells for I suppose I could just order another spool…

So, if you’ve been wondering about 3D printing, and you have a hankering for a printer of your own, consider this one from HobbyKing. At this price, it is a very inexpensive introduction to the topic, and a great gift for someone when you move on to a bigger printer…

A Very Low Cost Deaf Alert Device

Although many of my assistance projects on this blog involve the blind, I’ve been keeping alert to other group’s needs. For example, I’ve spent a lot of time planning a sound/light display for the deaf (and not incidentally, for use when I have my headphones on). Sounds flash lights, and so you can know when there is noise around. Handy for parties, handy for the deaf, handy for me when ‘plugged in’.

Anyhoo, I was slowly planning a fancy audio meter with Fourier transforms using an Arduino to create a spectrum display, and perhaps an app as well, when I found a simple on eBay. Using the LM358 chip, it puts a microphone, 10 LED power display and everything you need minus power supply for under $10.

So – program a Fast Fourier Transform on a RISC chip and add DIY hardware, or use a ready made component I just plug in? Tough choice. I

According to the specs, it runs under 100mA and 5v, so I literally hacked a USB cable to provide the power, and hooked it up (use a meter to test for the outer two power wires, and then connect just them up.) USB is supposed to be OK up to 500mA, but just in case, I first plugged it into a cheap and then plugged that into the computer.USB pinout

Now, several months later, I’m finally writing my observations:

  • It’s bright. The green LEDs are easy to see, they are by any means NOT underpowered, and there are 10 of them. It’s very visible – ’nuff said.
  • It’s adjustable. There is a tiny potentiometer on the device for level adjustment, and at the full setting I’m watching the bottom LED flicker as I type. And of course with 10 LEDs, it’s also good for picking up a wide range of quiet to loud sounds.
  • It’s sensitive. If the room is dark, it flashes quite the green lightning storm from any sound, so it does the job very well. It picks up sounds from other rooms and outside, so I suspect it would be fine to use as baby cry alert or fire alarm alert.
  • It’s distracting (but not too much.) I thought a flickering light would be quickly annoying. It wasn’t. There’s something relaxing about having it flicker gently while I type, and of course it does pick up the louder sounds for me and alerts me about the ‘big bangs’.
  • It’s neat. Although you can (and probably should) make a case for it, I preferred to keep the circuits exposed and just did some 3D printed legs to display it with a slight tilt, and to provide strain relief to the USB cable.
  • It’s convenient. Small (about four inches long), it fits well on my desk and doesn’t get in the way. With a long enough cord I can position it near me, or keep it far away (or place it face down to turn it ‘off’.) While it could probably be battery powered, I only need it at my desk, so the USB cable is fine. Of course, if I wanted to make it more portable I could buy a

All in all, a great experiment, and a very low-cost way to try out a sound meter alert. For someone hard of hearing or deaf, it could be a very, very useful tool. Or plug one in at your next party and watch the ambient noise move the meter. Well worth the low cost!

How To Avoid The Most Depressing Day Of The Year

According to various websites (and at least one I will actually link to) the third Monday of January (also known as Today) is the most depressing day of the year.

Although there are many reasons, one of the best (or worst?) I’ve seen is a mathematical formula calculating the date based on several factors: weather, debt, income, time since Christmas, time since last aborted ‘quit’ attempt (oh, those failed New Year resolutions!), and a few other things related to mood and motivation.

Of course any calculation can, at the very very best, only approximate the average mood. And we are not an average, we are individuals, so any date is guaranteed to be too soon for some people, and too late for others.

The idea behind is sound though – many people tend to “give’er a go” in January, only to have it fail in a week or two (or three). That, plus the lousy Winter weather, the bills finally coming in, and the first paychecks being cashed and disappearing immediately to handle aforementioned bills, means it’s understandable this is a more depressing time, than, say, sunny July.

So let’s move past the detailed analysis, and skip to the good stuff – how to ignore it.

Here’s Dave’s Procedures For A Great Most Depressing Day Of The Year – feel free to apply to the rest of the year as well:

  • Slack Cutting. No matter what you’re doing, scale back. How many of us try to lose 10 pounds and get annoyed at ‘only’ 7? Aim for 5, and it’s a win. It’s only in your head, so get your head on your side. Remember, a number/goal that keeps you going is MUCH better than a number you get ticked at and give up on.
  • Wagon Mounting. As in get back on the wagon. Not trying again means no more progress. So you fail, you try again. Good for you.
  • Positive Being. They are called ANTS – Automatic Negative Thoughts. ANTs usually begin without something like “you are no good because…” and go downhill from there. They can completely irrational, but that doesn’t stop them from dragging you down. I read about A.N.T.S. and liked the image so much I printed out a big ant with a red slash through it. Do it too, and realize we have some automatic glitch in our system – and need to be ever vigilant to fight them when they pop up.
  • News Fasting. Think of all those websites and TV programs reminding you that the world is burning. No news, no scare, right? It’s not likely you can give up cold turkey, but cut back on some. Avoid the most sensational websites and stations on TV (they know who they are), and pay attention to how much better you feel. Who knows, you might start cutting back in a big way – and feeling better for it in a big way, too…
  • Health Watching. Exercise (as you are able/allowed) can be good for you. Eating good food is likewise a step in the right direction. Get some sunshine. Hang out with nice people. Start (or continue) a favorite hobby. And so on. Break the bad patterns/habits/trends that interfere with feeling better, both mind and body.

I admit these a bit tongue in cheek, but let’s be honest: Isn’t a bit of levity good this time of the year?

And one more thing: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. If you think you have a serious issue, please look into it immediately; real chronic depression is a serious matter, and needs more treatment than just skipping the news.

But for the rest of us, take Monday in stride, look to the positive, and we shall persevere…