Spend! Spend! Spend!

Today, I am touching a subject which is to everyone’s heart. Money! (Or the lack of it!)

Granted, today we live in a consumer-centric society, and that the onus is to contribute more to the coffers of capitalism, but sometimes there are times when one has simply to stop and take stock of a situation that ultimately, threatens to run away with him.

I am of course, talking about the spending which occurs from the end of November to the end of December. Starting from the Black Friday deals all around the world, right up to the Christmas holidays and the New Year celebrations, people from all walks of life splash out on far more money than they have accumulated over the same period.

And let’s face it… some of the things on your wishlist suddenly become far more affordable than they could ever be. When is the best time to splash out if not on Black Friday? It’s true. I have fallen into the trap more than once myself. As an ardent gamer, I cannot resist really good deals. It’s inherent in all of us.

But are we really saving money? Is that gadget, service, whatever, really important to you? Will this purchase relieve you of a pressing desire or need? And most of all can we afford to buy this item instead of, say, food? Or clothing? Education even?

This goes on right through the Christmas season when it is customary for families to relax their grip on the kitty. Mothers and Fathers look on these occasions as the time of the year when it’s the ‘Time to be jolly, and forget the woes of a hard year.’

I tend to disagree. Many families splash out on expensive gifts, outings, meals with friends, using the same money they have worked so hard to put aside. While nothing illegal, it is totally illogical. You spend months slaving to save money only to splash it out on gifts which will (in my opinion) never make it past the first week of January?

This is nothing but madness. I am not adding to the mix something else entirely. People borrowing money via ‘soft loans’ on their credit cards. Money which has an insane interest on it, and where the minimum payment will not even scratch the surface.

It is quite common here in our country to talk to people who admit to having two debit cards each. Since it is laughably way to buy stuff online (you never SEE the money go out), we see families burdened with a ‘soft loan’ of around three thousand euros with little chance of paying it out completely.

So yeah, I could be called a grinch, but we are losing our ability to think clearly and realize that this constant bombardment of advertising is pushing us to limits that we will finally admit to have passed so many years back.

As an inquisitive person, I also nosed around to see what colleagues think about saving. Sadly, very little do any saving at all. And it’s not only because of the miserly pittance that passes as wages here, but also because we have lost the capability to do so.

Everybody wants a new car, a new computer, a new hair-do every week, nail technicians, gym memberships, a new mobile every year… but can we really afford them?

We are living beyond our means. WAY beyond it.

I cannot accept that. I cannot live in peace, laying my head on the pillow every night knowing that if the shit hits the fan, I cannot provide.

Sure, I spend money like everybody else, but at least, and this is thanks to a priceless lesson from a colleague at work, I first put away an amount of money from my salary for a rainy day, THEN a smaller amount for us to enjoy. After all, life is not all about work and saving. It’s about having the financial capability to make it through when the going gets tough, but also living comfortably.

And utilizing micro-management (for which an article will appear tomorrow), we are not only living better, we are also saving money easily. EASILY.

Live long and prosper.

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Leaving Linux by the wayside…

After a number of years pushing forward with Linux machines and anti-establishment operating systems, I think it is time to throw in the towel and concentrate on getting the best out of modern software and switch completely to Windows, despite its many flaws, as seen two days back with my notebook… which could simply be the fault of an errant hdd.

I will still be forging ahead with freeware for productivity. Weapons of choice in documentation remains iCloud with Pages and Numbers for Windows as well as the rather excellent Libre Office.

Visual Studio Express is a superb piece of software, as are my perennial favourites Blitz, Clickteam Fusion and Game Studio Pro which remain my go-to programs for creation and have had no qualms in purchasing. My favourite graphics package Paint Shop Pro get everything done efficiently, and with little fuss.

Creating virtual systems in virtual-box on a Linux System to test my creations simply defeats the whole purpose. My audience is Windows oriented. It is to them that I must play my tune. My recent XBOX ONE console purchase has also pushed me forward to perhaps produce an Indie game

Finally, recent restrictions to Ubuntu has made me question the whole Canonical concept. Performance has become sluggish, software cutouts are being enforced especially with codecs, and the constant switching has been bothering me. Moving to Mint, ArchLinux or other distros will still have the same end result.

It simply is not worth the effort any more. There comes a time when one must stop swimming against the tide and go with the flow.

My current Linux machine will be switched off on Sunday and the high-spec organs donated to a friend. In the meantime I have created a Raspberry Pi NAS for my huge collection of media. This means that my Dell Workstation will return to the lightweight, silent, blazing machine it once was.

Accessing all the media I own on a low-power efficient little thing is a ‘dream’ I have managed to achieve. I know that I could have easily purchased a NAS, but what’s the fun in that?

Live long and prosper … o\\//

No parties thank you!

So, our 25th wedding anniversary has come and gone. And frankly, I feel happy that it is over and done with. Lately I have become very skeptical of celebrations and parties and similar shit. To say that I have a phobia for them is an understatement.

I have, for the most part, become an ‘honorary hermit’… or rather, a quieter person.

Perhaps it is the maturity leap we all go through, or perhaps I have lived the last few years in comparative panic that has led me to seek the peace and quieter places for the majority of the cases.

My in-laws had been pestering me for some time to re-bless the rings, hold a commemorative mass to renew our vows and hold a party.

I do not know where my wedding ring has gone (probably exchanged with a hard-disk), and as for holding a mass, I have renounced my religion, and I no longer care at all. I made my vow once, there is no hope of reneging on it. When I promise something, it is a promise I keep forever.

Moreover, lately, both with my illness and later on, my wife’s (far more unsettling), I have become a bit skittish at hearing the word ‘Party’. I hate them, and I hate attending parties, weddings and other stuff like that.

For too many years I have attended these shindigs purely out of respect, but in reality, these days, I do not care what others think of me.

So for our anniversary, we shunned everything and spent a most wonderful day on the beach, just my wife and I, with a few mojitos, a couple of beers, and a nice meal at a sea-front restaurant.

We spent the day in peace, just talking between us, snapping a few pics, and generally chilling out.

That cannot be beaten.

Is Microsoft shooting itself in the foot?

Working in IT certainly has its benefits as one can keep his pulse on a number of improvemets or ‘evolving’ in the technological world.

One thing that has always bothered me however is the fact that with all this ‘cloud’ thingy, one simply has to give up all his rights to privacy.

I understand that if one is to embrace and immerse himself in social media (like I do), then it is a given that recognition in the social media world is important.

However I draw the line at certain practices pushed forward by the big M. While Microsoft has made a big stride towards pushing Windows10 to its customers (and even to those who don’t want it!), I am mostly concerned about its Office suite.

Big, bloated, power hungry and plain unwieldy, there is no way that one can install Office without signing in to the softie’s cloud.

But what if I simply want to write to my heart’s content without logging in or making an account? The answer is simple. You can’t. And what I write, to whom I write and who publishes my work, I really don’t want people to know.

Yes, it is a secret. Suffice to say that over 1 million readers have read my texts, articles and stories. 950,000 of those people do not know WHO wrote particular works, or if the one credited as being the author really did pen the words.

Thus, I am loathe to divulge my account even in the most secretive way.

I am not including my reluctance to pay over 260Euros for an Office system from which I will only use the Word Processor. And from that, I will only probably be utilising 5% of the power under the hood.

Thus, for the past year, I have been using Libre Office exclusively. It is a small download, does not require me to log on to any cloud based services, and is available for free or for a small donation. I always donate 10 dollars when downloading this software, and my clients are always happy with the package.

Now the next thing is to totally eradicate Windows from my notebook computer. My journey to Linux is almost complete. Ubuntu fits my needs perfectly, and runs so quick it is absolutely astounding. For the odd windows program I use WINE , and even that is increasingly rare!

So why is Microsoft insisting with high prices for an Office suite that is increasingly difficult to install on a corporate machine? Foot forward. Shoot. Bang.

 

2015 in review

Well, WordPress has prepared a site report for this blog, and I cannot believe I posted so little this year… I will make an effort to increase my output.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 840 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 14 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

So much to do…

At the moment , there is so much going on in my life, what with work and free-time devoted to development of computer systems and programming, that I sometimes simply forget to write or update my blog.

This is a bit strange since writing is one of my hobbies as well. Be that as it may, I thought I would share some of what I am doing at the moment.

Well, as most of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know, at the moment I have three perhaps four projects that I need to finish so I can enjoy them.

These include 2 Raspberry Pi projects, and a larger more expensive build that needs some more ‘spare’ cash to finalize. However, I am getting there and it will soon be feasible to start serious work on this unit.

Let’s start by looking at the circumstances and what leads me to this work… My friends say I have an endless passion for these things, my kids say I’m nuts, while my wife is happy that I devote so much time to things that keep me happy. I will not quibble with any of the views.

I have to point out that many of my projects are done with the intention of teaching or inspiring younger children to take up programming and electronics not only as a hobby, but also as a starting point for a career that is hectic , but very rewarding…

So I actually need to start explaining the situation from the very start. Since changing desks some years back to a more modern (but very basic) type , I have been beset by a number of problems, namely, no drawers… and we all know that drawers are a safe-haven for the electronics enthusiast. This usually meant that my desk (in our TV Room, I might add) is always cluttered to the point of being a mess.

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This summer I decided to take the plunge and build a new system. After trawling around onthe ‘net, I finally took it upon myself to build a ‘pipe desk’. It was to be a basic affair in which water-pipes would replace the structure of the old one. The strength of the pipes would be able to take the weight of people leaning on the side of the old desk, threatening to tear it down, as well as give it a rustic look. For the top, I used the same desk-top I had before.

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A gloss black paint , purposefully hand-applied

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Pipes and Sockets make up the desk

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Using a hacksaw to cut pipes to length

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Hanging the sockets to apply primer spray easily

               As shown below, the finished product is beautifully and simply done. This thing could easily withstand anything thrown at it. Naturally, I underestimated the srength of the pipes. It can easily hold up a truck!

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               However, having such a desk meant that I STILL had no storage or working area, and that is when I decided that it would be a great idea if I had a stand-up type of desk to the left of this one. Naturally, it would be higher as well as being larger. I procured a couple of wardrobe sides (don’t ask) that I screwed together, added side supports (Dixon L-steel) and included a corner pipe support that rested on the pipe-desk.

Two new shelves beneath the newer desk completed the project. But, you might say, you still have no storage available. Well, I decided to do away with traditional drawers, and use motherboard boxes as storage.

Working in IT provides me with endless cardboard boxes to dispose of. Motherboard boxes are sturdy, neat, and colourful. Just what the doctor ordered.

That takes care of the ‘workstation’ part. Keep in mind that this desk is in our TV Room, and while we do not have many visitors (and I really couldn’t give a fig what they would think anyway), I would like to keep the place tidy, even if it is for my sake. I will post a photo when it is done and tidy!

So now that has been taken care of, let’s see what I have in mind.

Going home, I saw somebody throw a box of electronics stuff away. I picked two Commodore64 micros from this skip. Three datasettes, one power supply, one action replay cartridge, and what seems to be a brand new arcade joystick (ebay price 40bucks!) completed the package in the box. WOW! Both C64S micros were faulty, but I soon fixed them. One of the 64s I exchanged with a mate of mine from the Vintage Computer Club.

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               Victor gave me a Spectrum 128k+ that seems to be malfunctioning. The board on this seems well cooked, and i have an idea that I might stick a Pi in it.

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One of the repaired Commodore64s

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The dead Spectrum 128k+

               The membrane on the ZX is shot and the computer itself is not in a far better shape. The case is supremely clean though, and that gives me an idea or two… More perhaps in another post. I still look on this micro as a seminal point in the world of computing in general. I have already become so fond of it that I have no firm direction what to do with it. Repair or salvage the case for other uses? Perhaps an emulator inside would make this indistinguishible from an original… hmmm.

I have also refurbished an Amiga1200 that I also found thrown away. This badly needed cleaning as it seems that a cat (or some other animal) peed in it. The metal shielding was totally rusted, and the floppy drive was clogged.

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I sanded and repainted the metal shielding, now in a pristine light grey coating, and gave a good old wash and brush up to the plastic case. I fixed the floppy drive and added a 500MB hard-drive. The mouse needed new buttons, and the power supply had a 33k startup resistor replaced as well…. tick tick tick , there she goes.

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The Amiga is a beautiful machine that I intend to keep together with the C64S. They represent my childhood, and I loved the games and the old AmigaOS.

Next up is an absolutely excellent condition Oric-1. I have never owned an Oric, or even knew one who did, so this is a stranger to my colection. The motherboard still works perfectly on this computer, so I took a long time to come to a decision on this. There are a number of factors that led me down the road to what will happen with this. This British computer was very popular in Europe during the early 1980s and only cost £100 when it was released. The Oric operated at 1 MHz and had two flavours… 16 or 48 KB of RAM. Something different in this system was that it proved that secure communication lines could be established between systems.

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People take strange stances, and I cannot understand why certain devices are sold more than others. The Oric was far superior to anything designed by Sinclair. Extremely good PCB design, better keyboard, great build quality, better sound, and cheaper. Whatever the reason,but most probably because it was released before, the Spectrum outshone anything in sales. In another post I will detail the final Oric destination. It will be a portable multimedia client for use with our bedroom TV. Wifi will provide the network. The system has been tested and is great for what I need. It will look nice and smart in its pearl-white case too.

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Meanwhile I also have a TI-99/4A that is begging me for repair, as well as for a great build I am planning… The Texas is looking at me everyday… hopefully I can come to a solution that satisfies us both…

’til next time!

The art of the steal…

Recently I had the good fortune of finding an iPad air for sale at a paltry price of 250 Euros. I contacted the guy, and two Sundays back, around 7am, was toodling along to Birkirkara to view the item, with my elder daughter Rachel tagging along. (She cannot resist technology, especially when it comes to Apple products. “You’ve spoiled me!” is her favourite quote.)

So, after a quick exchange of brand new cash, the iPad, still under warranty, and in excellent nick, was mine.

Arriving home and synchronising the device took but a few minutes, and with that, my trusty original iPad was consigned to the electronics jungle present in our house. (A comparison between the ipad and ipad5 will follow in a few days).

I offered it to my younger daughter who refused on the grounds that it was too old, and indeed, way too large. She instead took fancy to an Asus Nexus 7 inch tablet, conveniently provided by a friend after a repair barter. (I haven’t seen the Nexus again, since invariably, Roxy has slapped a password on it).

So I call a mate of mine and inform him of the good news, at which point he yells ‘Stop the synchronising! Quickly!’

Suitably taken back, I ask him why…

The answer? ‘You won’t be able to jailbreak it if you upgrade to the newest OS!’….

(Jailbreaking is the art of going round a phone’s system to unlock it… Cracking and Rooting are other examples, used in PCs and Android operating systems… Once cracked, apps can be downloaded and side-loaded. It is perfectly legal to JB or Root your devices, quite illegal to install illegally obtained software).

I replied that I did not really want to Jailbreak my ipad. Of course, my mate on the other side of the phone replied that I was, indeed, batty. Mad. A crank.

‘How could you NOT want free stuff on your device?’ was his final call…

Why would I want software that I did not pay for? True, with an iPad you get all you actually need for free… Great Office software, video creation, photography manipulation and music creating software for free. But there over a million free apps, and another million that rarely cost more than a beer.

Unhappily (and this is the whole point of this post), as a general consensus we take these things for granted. Wedownload music, programs, videos, books…or watch satellite TV for free. This is, to all intents and purposes, stealing… Much as one would steal a handbag, or a pie…

It does not matter if the apps cost 75c (which the majority cost!), there is still the thrill, the challenge, the attitude…

And while it is easier to download pirated stuff, in the long run, we are hurting nobody but ourselves.

A week’s incarceration…

It’s been nearly 9 days since I started feeling a bit iffy… I had prepared myself with loads of real Vitamin C from real fruits, been careful not get caught in rainy weather, but nothing can convince me that influenza is not brought about by viruses.

Since being unceremoniously handed an HR related role at work, I need to naturally keep in contact with a load of people, mostly operators, nearly all of them girls.

Now as can be imagined, January has seen a dreaded attack of the snuffles here in Malta. Just as luck would have it, both girls I was training 9 days ago were still waaay out of order to attend work. Needless to say, being in close proximity to them while teaching them soldering has severely hit me….

Three days of incubation, and there I was on a Sunday, wheezing like a pet snake without a hiss… the previous years have been heavy on me. Why?

It is a known fact that I suffer from Ankylosing Spondilytis, well under control with inoculations, some chemotherapy, and a lot of care and attention. The chemo in form of pills, naturally robs your body of the much needed antibodies…

Actually these antibodies are the feckin problem in my life. The bad bugs attack the good bugs, preventing them from doing the work, ie… healing.

That is where the inoculations come in…

However, I am living comfortably with this treatment, and I have not had a day of sick, related to my back, for over 15 months now…. brilliant!

Last year though I had this terrible chest infection (remember, I have no immune system, even a bruise takes ten days to fade away), where I simply could not even laugh without fainting due to loss of oxygen in my brain.

This year, fortunately, due to my pre-emptive strike of taking antibiotics and even more steroids, I have evaded this fate. My doctor said that five days inside, taking it easy, would enable me to make a good recovery. I talked him out of it, insisting that after three days I would be good enough.

So it was that yesterday I called him, and boy was he pissed at me… “Didn’t I tell you that you need five days of total rest?”

Ah well… he does know best.

But I am so bored in here… it’s incarceration in a top hotel… that’s what it feels like.

I have every conceivable gadget, huge TV, massive sound system, lovely tv room with xbox, blu-ray, computers everywhere… but I find myself wandering to the kitchen and look longingly at people simply walking in the street.

Can’t wait til I get out!

Black ‘n White

I have been struggling with my feelings these last few weeks on whether to put pen to paper (so to speak), and let this post loose on my blog.

However, stuck inexorably behind a waste pick-up truck, watching the black workers scurry around like worker ants, I simply had to do it. I am not apologizing for the word black. I’m white, pasty white….. a friend of mine is burnt a crisp brown, another is yellow… and after all, black is my favourite colour… I hate all this political correctness shit.

So yeah, it started me thinking again… Not too long ago, following another landing (or rescuing) of illegal immigrants on our beleaguered island, a Facebook page was set up… ‘Daqshekk ghall-immigrazzjoni llegali’… loosely translated, it means ‘Enough with illegal immigration’. As a person who thrives on fairness and clarity, I have to give the founders of this page a lot of credit. After all, our tiny island, a few square miles in area and smaller than many American farms, simply cannot handle the weight of these new arrivals.

However this page has something sinister that is disturbing me. In it we are seeing the selfishness and pure bestiality of the Maltese population. While the page’s creators were probably righteous in their message, the typical Maltese guy or girl isn’t…. it is nothing but a spew of bigotry and hate…and this is coming from a country that specifies itself as being catholic/christian… whatever the hell that means these days.

I wonder if the comments would be the same if the boatloads of immigrants were buxom blonde babes, or a bevy of handsome Brad Pitt look-alikes…

I am all in favour of legality to the point of pain. People coming here MUST have papers and passports. Their arrival MUST have had approval and veto. Unhappily, and here we must call a spade a spade, we are being overrun by the lowest common denomination in the gene pool from Syria, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea who are haphazardly escaping their war-torn countries….

But besides this point (and the fact the little, if any, even want to integrate into our society), one has to realise something that to me would be akin to calling Scotty and telling him to ‘Beam me up’ to another planet.

The immigrants come here practically with nothing except the clothes on their back.

I cannot even imagine being somewhere without my iphone, or my ipad, and yet here they are, but for the grace of whatever god they follow… dispirited and destitute, thankful only that they have survived the voyage over concrete jungles, the treacherous dunes of the Sahara, and the deceitfully placid waters of the Mediterranean. The average crossing costs them seven-hundred Euros, most likely their complete lifelong savings.

These people come here with nothing!

…and despite my misgivings and the knowledge that we are burdened to the point of snapping, one simply but cannot feel sorry for their trials and tribulations.

To boldly go…

   Every year in Malta, something out of the ordinary occurs, unprecedented on the scale, and possible elsewhere only because of the huge amounts of populace in a country. Mid-September is when it happens, and this mass congregation is nothing short of stupendous.

   For those attending this event, now over sixty years old and increasing in popularity year by year, it is nothing if not an extraordinary experience. Should I decide to do it once again, it would be my 25th participation.

   I am, of couse, referring to the Cycling Pilgrimage that takes place a week or so prior to the celebration of ‘Our Lady of Graces’, or ‘Tal-Grazzja’ as it is called here.

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   Thousands upon thousands of cyclists of all ages congregate at Rabat to wind down to Zabbar, a cacophony of colour, noise, mix of bikes, creeds, religions, sentiments, and of course crazy fun.

   Some eight years ago, falling badly ill, it seemed as if it was the end of not only my ‘walking life’, but pretty much everything else associated with the vertical. Until a cure, or a slowdown was available, I found it was difficult to do much, and essentially, my life as a mobile person was over. I needed to depend on others to do even the bare necessities.

   So even thinking about once again ever participating in this ride was as far removed from my mind as reaching for the moon. There… but not for the taking.

   After a year, I began to improve health-wise. I started taking to the bicycle once again. As a cycling nut, I couldn’t resist the lure of my trusty steed. I recall March being the month of my rennaisance.

   When September came, and with it the first pangs of remembrance, I decided to take a gamble and try the pilgrimage once more. I wasn’t even mentally prepared for it, less alone physically. Cycling up to Rabat leaving home at 6am was definitely off the cards. So I drove up to Zabbar in my old van, with the bike safely ensconed in it. Buses took us up to Rabat, with trucks taking the bikes.

   The pace on these things is obviously quite slow, and I started out only with the greatest fear, but as the miles sped by beneath my wheels, seeing thousands of people egging us on, my heart began to soar. I could do this. I actually began sobbing with happiness as this new found courage flowed and encouraged me onward…

   As we arrived close to our destination, the crowds swelled immeasurably, and I could recognize family, friends and colleagues on the sidelines who knew what I had been going through. Their shouts of encouragement was way more adrenaline than I needed. It spurred me on.

   I will always recall that day as my new birth. So this year, while undecided whether to attend or not, I will still probably rush down to the garage and grab my bike for this outrageous event once again…

   … to boldly go