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04/17/10 @ 20:01 by mccmikey
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Assorted News 29 - Away Mid May, and Winter Tips... :)

In this edition:

Assorted News:
Away Mid May

General Ramblings:
Picasa now doing Facial Recognition
A better free PDF program: PDF-Xchange

Winter Tips
Dash Cam ahoy :)
Telling lies ten times a day.

Away Mid May...

Just a quick note that I'll be off duty from 18th May to 3rd June. I'm actually going a long way away this time - some place called America. (Well I'll be...!) Of course, this will make me harder to contact than normal - I'm not even sure yet how I'll get online over there although no doubt I'll find a way... If you have any IT emergencies during this time I may have to reluctantly refer you to some of my competitors, but try the phone first. The two companies I currently trust the most not to rip you off are Armidale Computers 02 6771 2712 and Amac Digital Products 02 6771 2266. They are both Armidale-based businesses with limited callout capabilities, but their shop-based repairs are mostly reasonable - albeit often higher than my own and perhaps without the 'what it should have cost' clause - I'm yet to have a 'horror story' from either.

I will have a house-sitter during some of the time away so hopefully if you were planning on breaking in and stealing my precious goodies - all of which are second hand anyway - please think again :) Besides, you know I'm crazy by now - I can see my house on the 'net:) It's strangely relaxing being able to log in and watch the goldfish from afar.

Picasa now doing Facial Recognition

As some of you have already discovered, Picasa - the free photo management program - has begun doing facial recognition. What this means is that one day, if it hasn't already happened, you'll open Picasa and a new item will appear in the list on the left called "People" or "Unnamed"

A few people have freaked out when this happened, because suddenly it appears there are a few thousand extra photos on their computers. What's actually happening is that it's making a listing of all the faces it has recognised in your existing photos, but it's not making copies of them.

If you're on a laptop or a modern computer, you might also notice that the fan works overtime for a while when you first open Picasa after the facial recognition is first started because it's hard work looking at hundreds of faces a minute! It will eventually settle down, depending on the speed of the computer and how many photos you have.

If you haven't dared play with it, don't be too worried - it's quite fun really; although in my case it's embarrassing since I'm so cr*p with names!

Basically, it will show you a few photos of people it has recognised at first; and ask you to name them. As soon as you name one, suddenly a whole heap of photos will appear under that name; some with ticks and crosses where the computer isn't sure if it's got the right person. And as you name more, the list shuffles around as it finds more and more matches. It's quite entertaining.

Of course, if it's not for you; you can turn that feature off by clicking Tools - Options - Name Tags, and untick the "Enable Face Detection" box.

A better PDF program

If the words Adobe Reader, Acrobat Reader or Foxit Reader mean anything to you, you might be interested in trying a program called PDF-Xchange. It's a free PDF viewer like all the others, but unlike the others it will allow you to type onto PDFs and save what you've done - something that the others won't let you do without either buying them or installing a rubbishy toolbar. Of course, you can pick and choose between these programs so if you're already happy with the one you have but are curious to try it, it should not cause any harm :) Free download from

Winter Tips...

OK we know winter's on it's way. It's starting to get cold in the evenings. The long sleeve shirts are disappearing off the rack instead of the short ones. And for those of us with old cars, they're starting to get cantankerous too.

Of course, we've all heard about plans to 'put the power up' too... which is a bit of a pest. Thus, there are two tips I have this year.

One is the one I always have for cheap electric heating - and that is that halogen heaters are probably the cheapest electric ones to run. For example, this unit - - uses 1200 watts on high, which is half of what a typical fan heater will use. Since they heat you primarily and the room next, they can be quite effective. However they can come close to setting pets on fire so be careful.

The next is a new tip I'm trying out, using bubble wrap and water... Any ideas???

Well, many of us live in houses that are wholly unsuitable to our chilly climate. We have houses that have limited or no insulation, and certainly no double-glazing. And that's where the bubble wrap comes in :) I don't know if it really works - and after all I read it on the Internet - but I'll know in a few months.

It doesn't sound great of course - having windows that you can't see out of all that well because of a layer of bubble wrap; but it does mean you can leave the curtains open and enjoy all that lovely winter light :) Application is simple - just spray water on the window and apply bubble wrap. Done :) You can leave holes too so you can see out the windows - see my examples here: - no need to do all your windows - you could just try the bathroom ones for example - heck they're usually frosted anywayz.

I have a Dash Cam now :)

Well, for ages I've had this old cheap camera lying around. I've finally found a use for it - as a dash cam. A dash cam is a camera that sits on your dashboard - or probably more likely is built into the car - that records whenever you're moving; or whenever something unexpected happens. I figure that since I'm on the road a lot, it would make sense to have something like that set up just in case I ever am in, or witness to, an accident. There's been a few teething problems with it of course - like not being able to handle 2GB SD cards, and being about as good at night vision as a {insert animal that can't see in the dark}.

Telling Lies Ten Times a Day...

The cars have been pricey this year, so I've decided to try claiming all vehicle expenses since it seems likely that they'll be higher this year than what I can claim using the 5000km method. To do this requires a log book. And of course log books are a right PITA. So, after some experimenting I've worked out how to get my Navman GPS to do the work for me. Unfortunately it involves lying through my teeth many times a day since in order for 'her' to keep track of where I started and ended up she has to think I'm 'going somewhere.' Unfortunately she's a dumb bint who doesn't know Ollera Street from TIngha Road, so as far as she's concerned I'm going to Ebor every day; and I'm reaalllllyy bad at taking directions.

I end up with something like this at the end of the week:

12/04/2010 12:20 12:30:00 Toms Gully Road, Northern Tablelands, New South Wales, Australia New England Highway (NI15), Northern Tablelands, New South Wales 7.4
12/04/2010 13:19 13:30:00 New England Highway (NI15), Northern Tablelands, New South Wales Odonnel Street, Guyra, New South Wales, Australia 11.62
12/04/2010 14:04 14:07:00 Odonnel Street, Guyra, New South Wales, Australia Bradley Street, Guyra, New South Wales, Australia 1.28
12/04/2010 14:14 14:15:00 Bradley Street, Guyra, New South Wales, Australia Bradley Street, Guyra, New South Wales, Australia 0.71
12/04/2010 15:25 15:36:00 Bradley Street, Guyra, New South Wales, Australia Wards Mistake Road, Northern Tablelands, New South Wales, Australia 8.44
12/04/2010 18:00 18:15:00 Wards Mistake Road, Northern Tablelands, New South Wales, Australia Falconer Road, Guyra, New South Wales, Australia 9.16

One handy side effect of this is that it gives me an accurate record of arrival and departure times for jobs - something which I occasionally don't record accurately in the calendar since there's lots to do in a day.


Anyway that's about it for another newsletter - sorry it's a bit light-on in content. I have to get ready now - my sister and her partner came to visit a few weeks ago, but they're coming back tomorrow since they got stuck in Seoul and can't get home to the UK. They're apparently unwilling or unable to do a "John Cleese" - see for a laugh :) I never thought of Guyra being a sister city to Seoul! Here's hoping Mount Fwalakanjgjjinginging doesn't go bang while I'm away!

Cheers, Mike.

English (US)
03/05/10 @ 23:46 by mccmikey
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Categories: Assorted

Assorted News 28 - The only certain thing in life is Change? :)

In this edition:

Good News Week 2
The mobile plan to end all mobile plans? $1 a month, 10c/min...

Assorted News:
More Exetel Strangeness. (Ups some rates, kills PAYG on ADSL.)
Busy again...

General Ramblings:
Three people drop their landlines for Wireless VoIP...
Internet TV in the future?
Your New TV is a computer screen too :)

The Varnishing Act.
The Kingswood Lives...
Amusing Exam Cheating Stories
Gruesome Shark Game.

The Mobile Plan to end all mobile plans?

A company called TPG has released a new mobile plan. It is just $1 per month and 10 cents per minute to landlines and mobiles, with a 10 cent flagfall. No contract. No caps.

They use the Optus towers, so of course this may be an issue for some of you. I do have outdoor aerials that will fix this for some handsets and locations.

This is enough to make you wonder why you still have a landline. You'd have to spend at least four hours on the mobile phone a month before you'd even reach what you're paying just for basic line rental to Telstra.

Oh, and as I've said before - if you need Telstra's superior mobile coverage, why not have a Telstra mobile on a $15 or $20 a month plan, use them for incoming calls, and carry a second mobile for making calls on. The savings would surely be worth the extra hassle of carrying two phones :)

I am too small to be an agent for TPG unfortunately, so if you need help with signing up or setting up your phone, this would be at standard consulting rates.

More details are at - scroll down to find the $1 plan.

Busy again...

Work is back to being pretty busy. This has meant some delays in getting back to some people. My apologies for those affected.

More Exetel Strangeness...

As most of you know, I'm an agent for Exetel. This is because they're normally the best value ISP.

Unfortunately this appears to be changing a little...

They put a number of people's plans up by $5 a month this week, explaining that this was necessary because on average, people are downloading more now than they were a few years ago. This mainly affected long-time customers on older plans, and this was probably a legitimate need.

They also went and changed their plan offerings two days after this announcement, along with introducing a $10 plan change fee - without warning.

Charging $10 to change a plan is a simple money grab. Exetel brags about having an automated system so changing a plan should have no cost to them if it doesn't involve changing line speeds, etc. They don't see it this way. They did a similar thing a couple of years ago when they introduced an 'administrative fee' of $3 so they seem to be starting to want to make money just because they can rather than by providing a service to match that expense.

The plans they have introduced are aimed at moderate to heavy downloaders; so the 'pay for what you use' type plans are now history. This is a shame because it wipes out the most popular plan I was selling, making the nearest equivalent $10 a month higher, making them equivalent to pretty much every other reasonably-priced reasonably-reliable ISP out there for light to moderate users.

Fortunately, Wireless Broadband plans remain unchanged and are still good value within their own limits of usage.

Since most plans these days have no contract requirement, the good news is that if something really unexpected and catastrophic happened at Exetel, the time to recover would be quite short :) I am confused by what's going on there at the moment. I think it's related to growing pains as they have grown bigger than they had planned to in a relatively short time; but there's a sort of schizophrenic feel to it all.

Three customers ditch their landlines...

I have three customers in Guyra who have ditched their landlines since moving to an Exetel wireless broadband with VoIP setup, saving themselves about $40 to $60 a month plus an estimated $50 in calls per month in the process. (You could do similar without using Exetel.)

This isn't for everyone, but it works well for some.

The good bits:
- no landline rental any more - bye bye Telstra
- still use a standard landline phone
- call costs 10c untimed to landlines, 15c/min to mobiles
- still have a landline number of sorts*
- Internet costs between $20 and $37.50 per month roughly.

The bad bits
- requires strong coverage.
- requires $175 router plus $90 modem
- might require outdoor antenna $45 to $250
- will cost about $75 to have installed - quoted first.
- not guaranteed to always work
- *the landline number is not a Guyra / Armidale number,
- calling 000 won't tell them where you are, so not great for emergencies.
- doesn't work without power unless you hook it to a car battery or UPS :)
- fax machines don't particularly like it, but will usually work.
- sometimes has echoes when calling mobiles, partially fixable.
- Limited to 5GB per month.

The single biggest problem with doing this is that the wireless broadband system is not designed to do phone calls over the Internet. It will work, mostly, but if the tower is busy or the reception wavers, it will give you some rather weird results. However, if you're saving $60 or more a month then maybe you wouldn't care about the occasional problem.

Of course, combine it with the $1 per month TPG mobile and it hardly matters anyway since the mobile phone calls always have priority over internet users, and it's even cheaper than VoIP for calling other mobiles.

I can't really recommend it for Armidale as the Armidale towers are overloaded. Generally speaking, if Skype works well on your connection, then VoIP will probably work too.

Internet TV in the future?

Despite being way behind the US in what we have in the way of Internet TV services; I have a suspicion that they will become somewhat more important to people over time. For example, if there's "nothing on" on TV, it's quite convenient to go to and watch something. All the shows are categorised so documentary-fans for example can find something to watch quickly.

Why am I bringing this up again? Well, because it's the one thing that makes me feel a little uncertain about recommending wireless broadband to people. Each show is about 250 megabytes on average, so they can chew through even the biggest 5000MB plan appreciably over a month. (Of course, many people don't want to do this, ..yet...)

This means it's largely out of reach of people who can only get Satellite. It's doable on wireless but risky if you don't know your limits; and it's of no consequence at all to people who can get ADSL. It should soon get to the point where it is better to spend your money on a decent Internet connection rather than paying for Austar, etc.

In the US, it is apparently becoming common for people to not even have a TV, as they watch instead. To watch Hulu in Australia requires some creative cheating that I have not yet felt the need to work out - there are other ways to get what you want :)

Your New TV is a Computer Screen Too :)

Many people still don't know this.

Pretty much all flat screen TVs these days have one or two different connectors on the back that let you use them as a huge computer screen.

Just yesterday I helped a customer to hook her laptop to her TV after she had been decidedly hard on her laptop by dropping it, breaking off a corner, smashing the screen by mistake and melting some of the keys somehow. (Fortunately the TV has not yet been melted, smashed, or dropped, but I fear for the remote!)

If your computer and TV both have a socket labeled HDMI, then all you need is one cable to connect the two.

If instead your TV has something labeled VGA or D-SUB, then you'll need two cables if you want both picture and sound.

Someone has written a more comprehensive guide at

For both options, I usually have the required cables.

This will of course let you watch anything from the Internet or on a hard drive on your TV set. That's things like iView, YouTube, etc; and those hard drives full of movies that kids have these days - much to the chagrin of traditional media companies! Oh, and of course if you have Skype and a webcam, you can have a live wall into someone elses house! (With a decent broadband connection, you could actually do this 24/7 so you'd never be separated from your loved ones - SciFi becoming reality...)

The Varnishing Act.

OK, you all know I'm a bit mad. This won't help you with that assessment!

The '86 Bluebird had developed a problem. It was starting to go grey - like an old man's beard. Worse, the paint on the bonnet was turning white and spotty, and has been disappearing little by little, tiny flake by tiny flake. No amount of waxing would satiate its thirst.

An '86 Bluebird is not a particularly valuable car; so paying $2,000 or so to respray it would be hard to justify.

.. I bet you can see where this is going can't you ;-)

Some years ago I stumbled on a can of Marine Varnish hiding in the laundry. A year ago a small amount of this went on the roof to fix a small spot of clearcoat cancer. Now, a good deal more of it covers the entire bonnet and one of the mirrors too.

It will be interesting to see how this product ages. Certainly the bit that's been on the roof for a year hasn't deteriorated at all... It was particularly surprising how it turned the whitish plastic mirrors back to black.

Pictures are at

One customer said I should have seen an Armidale business who can match colours etc, and sells a clearcoat product. Perhaps later I will. For now, at least the deterioration has been halted.

The Kingswood Lives...

It's back from its brake, engine mount and gearbox seal repair. So far I am sticking with the Nissan because of the cheaper running costs, steering that doesn't wander around with tiny camber changes, likely increased safety and the ability to speed through a roundabout if something doesn't go to plan. (Not that it's perfect - it has its own cold weather quirks.) The Kingswood is now 39 years old, so perhaps it's time to give it lighter duties, and hope its value appreciates. (No I won't be varnishing it ;-) )

Amusing Exam Cheating Stories...

Another page that will take a few hours of life :) Find out all the ingenious ways people cheated in exams. A couple of favourites...

It is funny that this should come up, only last week, on the radio, a guy was on saying how when he was at college doing a marine engineering course (or something in that field) part of the course was Morse Code.

When they had external examiners in for exams on non morse parts of the course, he and his class mates would of course tap out not just the answers but have whole conversations.

A few times the whole exam room would erupt in laughter and leave the examiner clueless.


I went to a Catholic high school, and one of the nuns that taught there was pretty far toward senility. She'd always walk up and down the aisles during tests to make sure people weren't cheating, so a couple of kids started putting post-it notes on her as she walked by. Kid in the front corner would ask "What did you get for number 7?" Kid in the back corner would snag the note, write an answer, and put it back when she came by next. It went on like that all semester.

Gruesome but Simple Shark Game.

A ridiculous game that you play in your browser. (Nothing to install.)


Well that's it for another newsletter. I guess I better get back to work! I have some more time consuming projects on the boil, which explains why the December and January invoices were only sent last week!

Cheers, Mike

Old Editions
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English (US)
02/15/10 @ 19:24 by mccmikey
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Type: Post   Priority: 3  

Categories: Assorted

Backlight gets darker instead of brighter or lighter Toshiba Satelllite P500

I have had two of these over-sized laptops develop what looks like a screen inverter fault. What happens is that as you increase the brightness setting, once you get past half way it gets darker instead of lighter, and may even shut off completely.

I thought it was a hardware problem, but a BIOS update from the Toshiba website seems to have fixed the problem. A Windows 7 update might have caused the problem. The affected machine was a pspg8a

English (US)
01/21/10 @ 23:45 by mccmikey
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Type: Post   Priority: 3  

Categories: Assorted

Assorted News 27 - Good News Week? :)

In this edition:

Good News Week
Surprise wireless internet price reductions at Telstra.
Nokia gives many people free phone GPS maps

Assorted News:
ExeSMS broken - how to fix.
Back on deck: Most happy, some not.
Pricing Revisited.
IE (Internet Explorer) in the news...

General Ramblings:
Affectionately Mauled
Embroidery - a new skill for CCC?
Portable Landline & cheap diversions.
Turning Right.

FMyLife and Uh Oh moments.

Surprise Wireless Price Drops at Telstra / BigPond:

As many of you know, I sell wireless broadband with Exetel; and where there's good coverage it's a well priced product. However, there are several cases where Telstra has a good signal and Optus (which Exetel uses) does not; meaning I have not been able to help those people get better-priced Internet Access.

Telstra / BigPond is often an option in these places due to their superior coverage; but up until now the prices have been so ridiculously high that they were simply not competitive. In addition, their horrendous excess usage charges could scare even the most savvy user. (One last week got a bill for over $2,000; but was subsequently able to get it reduced significantly.)

Last week, Telstra announced the complete removal of excess usage fees on their wireless broadband for home users, and some significant reductions in mobile internet usage costs for business users.

Of course, like any telephony and internet product these days you have to read the fine print; but as an example of what you could do if you're out in the sticks with a mobile that gets at least one bar of coverage in the window and have an ABN:
You could get 1GB of Internet for $19 a month using your mobile as the modem.
You could get 3GB of Internet for $29 a month using your mobile as the modem.

Similar pricing is available for residential users as well, with the advantage of no excess usage fees but the possible need to buy a modem.

That's cheaper and usually faster than satellite. For those of you with suitable NextG phones, you can sit the phone in the window (if necessary for coverage) and your computer will talk wirelessly via bluetooth to it to get you online. Alternatively, for those of you with 'country phones' you have the advantage that while connected to your computer, the phone also recharges, but last I looked they won't do internet via Bluetooth.

So there you go. It's nice to see that for home users, Telstra has dropped the unconscionable excess usage fees; and for business users it's great to see some realistic pricing; albeit tied to contracts.

For BigPond Residential's pricing:

For NextG Business pricing:

Note: I'm not affiliated with Telstra or BigPond in any way, so while I can help you get these services up and running; it will be at the normal consulting rate :) (I can't be a rep for them as they require exclusivity.)

Unfortunately all my efforts to get Exetel to offer alternatives to their admittedly small excess usage fees on their wireless broadband product have so far failed - apparently on technical grounds, but at least they're still cheaper and have no contract: See - use code N040 if you want me as your agent for support / installation.

Nokia gives many people Free GPS!

Now here was a pleasant surprise that came in yesterday... Nokia offering free Maps for most of their current and recent phones - even going back as far as the old Nokia E51 that many of you still have. For more information go to

If you don't see your phone listed, click here - - for the full list.

This will allow you to do one or two things. Firstly, it means you have a relatively up to date street directory always in your phone. (And not just for Australia either... although you might need a new larger memory card if you want to store the US maps!) Secondly, it means that you can use your phone as a GPS provided it has a GPS receiver built in. For phones that don't, you can buy a bluetooth GPS receiver that will work with your phone, such as - which is available from AMAC Digital Products in Armidale.

Note that I believe, by law, if you're going to use this in your car you need to have a means of securing your phone to the dashboard / windscreen.

Why is Nokia doing this? Probably to compete with Google after they announced the same thing for their latest phones recently. No more buying those ridiculously expensive map upgrades for your Garmin / NavMan / TomTom. (Side note - I used to recommend TomTom for cheap updates, but that has since passed.)

ExeSMS Broken: How to fix.

If you use the PC based SMS program "ExeSMS" with Exetel, you might have found in the last couple of days that it stopped working. The problem is that whoever wrote the program has disappeared - or at least part of his website has - and the update checker crashes the program. If you want it to work again straight away, try the steps at

Back on Deck :)

Well there have been winners and losers this last two weeks since I returned to work. Due to the higher than normal number of calls, I've had to prioritise who gets attended to based on the type of problems they were experiencing, and location. The order of priority has been:

No Internet / Phones --> Business computers down --> No Phones --> Virus --> Storm Damage --> New Internet Connections --> New Computer setups --> TV Tuning / Set Top Box tuning --> Websites --> Dialup Internet support --> Fax Machines --> Problem Customers.

This unfortunately has meant that people in the last five categories have sometimes gone with unanswered calls as there hasn't been enough hours in the day to cover them all. The sheer number of calls has also meant that a few accidentally fell through the cracks - typically where two people had the same type of problem and I lost track of them while on the road; or simply because I've stuffed up while shuffling calendar events in Outlook / Symbian. I think I caught up with most of those on Friday :)

Calls come in via email, the landline, the mobile and SMS so co-ordinating them all can be tricky as I'm yet to find a way to unify them. This past week I've been trialling spending an hour each morning working out what needed doing that day and the next, and answering email queries; so most callouts have been from 11am onwards, with the latest one being 8:45pm last week. (A TV tuning job that had been waiting a few days.) I can see why some people have secretaries, but it'd be hard to do that in my case since only I can really guess how long each job's going to take.

Pricing Revisited

Well it happened again. One customer this week was adamant that I don't charge enough, and then a couple of days later another cringed at the already slightly discounted $90 bill for a new laptop setup. Admittedly one customer lives in a house in town, while the other had a rambling farming property :)

I am toying with the idea of redesigning my invoices to have five totals ranging from $45 per hour (my low income / not for profit rate) up to $85 (which is what some Tamworth IT consultant quoted me) and giving the payee the choice to pick what they felt comfortable with. Not sure how that would go really... Interested in your thoughts on that one...

I guess it's the fun of being in a relatively small town - I have developed the skills of a system engineer / programmer and yet I still look after those who have simple needs too as we're all human :) .. and I like the variety!

IE (Internet Explorer) in the news...

I've converted most of you over to using Firefox since it's faster and safer than Internet Explorer; and can be set to block all ads as well as display your Internet Usage meter. (A handy side effect of this is that it tends to block fake ads that trick people in to thinking they have a virus and need to buy whatever fake cleaning program they're selling.)

However, many people still prefer Internet Explorer out of habit or for other reasons I haven't quite worked out. I guess that's good for me in a way as it keeps me employed killing bugs, but it's not good for your online banking, etc. The most recent case in the news was where the holes in Internet Explorer were used to attack Google. A side effect of all this was that Google is considering shutting down operations in China; and also the German government recommend people stop using it... - although now that Microsoft has fixed the problem that may no longer apply.

Google's Chrome and Safari are other alternative web browsers you can try as well, if for some reason you don't like Firefox :)

Affectionately Mauled.

Here's an amusing tail, err tale, for you. One of my customers has a number of animals on their property; and a number of computers too. One of their animals is a very tall dog - a bit like the one pictured at but with a lighter coloured face

While I was sitting down working on their computers, it decided to come and have a chat, meaning I was now head-hight with it. I knew it was a friendly dog because whenever I visit it always bounces around excitedly - and slightly alarmingly as it just wants to play, but it's a bit like a short-necked giraffe bouncing around the yard with long straight but slightly splayed legs.

Anyway, it turned out that it's favourite position was to sit there with gently holding the side of my chin in the side of it's mouth while I worked away transferring files between computers - a relatively surreal experience! Eventually the owners realised it was inside and sent it back out again, leaving two of their tiny dogs to run around and occasionally jump on me instead. I get on well with most animals, so it doesn't worry me; provided they stay off the keyboard. (I did leave the customer to clear off the 1cm wide ball of slobber the big dog flicked onto their monitor however!)

Embroidery - a new skill for CCC?

When my other half asked for car seat covers with frogs on for Christmas, I thought it was going to be easy enough - just go to SuperCheap Auto and buy a set. Problem is, no one makes them in Australia. There are now websites selling them. Nothing on eBay. So I asked the various Armidale embroidery companies if they could put one on for me, and the answer was a unanimous no from all of them - too hard; our machines can't use the material because it's too thick, etc.

One agreed to putting a pattern onto some material for me to sew on later, but the quote for that came back at - if I read it right - $170 to convert my drawing to a mostly two colour computerised pattern, and $75 each copy.

I decided to ask around locally as I have two customers I know of with domestic-grade computerised embroiding sewing machines as I've repaired and installed the software for them before now. One thought she could do it, but didn't know how to get the drawing into the machine. So, for a couple of days there you might have seen me parked in the Bluebird under a tree in Guyra while I taught myself how to 'digitise' images.

Final product in hand on a quaint floppy disk - as these sewing machines are now getting on a bit! - and 12,000 stitches / 45 minutes later each, the car seat covers were done :) They weren't perfect, possibly due to an error on my part in telling the software how to handle stitches leading to different image segments; and probably due to the 'stretchy' nature of the material; but they were sure good enough; and a damn site cheaper than what the others wanted to charge. They also had to be slightly smaller than planned since the material was not flat - these were pre-made covers. You can see the images here:

Original image:
Final product:

(The flash made the reflective purple look white.)

Portable Landline / Cheap Diversions.

The Billion 7404VGPX is an expensive little bugger at $175, but combined with a wireless broadband service with strong coverage, it affords a portable VoIP landline. I'm still testing it with some customers to see if it's reliable enough to be considered a landline replacement service, with reasonable results so far. Unfortunately local Guyra / Armidale numbers are not available for use with this device as a phone number for people to call you on, but the 10 cent per call untimed rates make up for that a bit. (The phone numbers are all Sydney / Canberra / Adelaide numbers.) Optus has a similar product but charges traditional line rental and call rates.

Another box I am experimenting with - the $80 Cormain GW211 - allows you to connect it to your existing (Telstra) landline, and forward your calls via VoIP to any other number you choose. For example, if you have a mobile phone for your business; when you divert calls from your landline to it with Telstra you pay hefty call costs. With this unit, the diverted call costs whatever a VoIP call to that destination would be - so typically 15 cents a minute for mobiles or 10 cents untimed for landlines.

You could use this:
- to transfer business / home calls to your mobile cheaply
- to transfer your business / home line to another phone line cheaply (like when on holiday, etc.)
- to transfer your phone calls overseas for 3c a minute depending on destination.

The three downsides:
- there is an added delay of about .1 to .2 seconds.
- Incoming CallerID is not passed to the phone.
- There might be an issue with volume being a bit quiet.

I might trial this some more - the loss of CallerID is a slight problem for me.

Turning Right.

Some of you have spotted the ghost of the Kingswood doing the rounds in Guyra. Most of the problems are fixed, but the mechanics are struggling with its tendency to turn right when you put the brakes on. It's often done this when first taken out in the morning, but gets over it by the time it gets to the railway line. Perhaps it's some latent damage from when it had no membrane on the master cylinder reservoir 15 years ago and was thus sucking dust into the fluid, making it muddy orange instead of green. I fixed that long ago. The Nissan is going well, with it's only party trick at the moment being occasional idling at a very low 500rpm and the odd stall at the lights, etc. I really need to get the dash apart one day and resolder all those bad connections so the rev computer behaves :)

Entertaining Sites

Think your life's bad? You could try

It's a listing of things that have gone wrong for people - so if you get depressed easily it might not suit you; but if you find the perverse comedy in the situations instead you might enjoy it. Some of them might be a bit rude / off-colour. For example:

"Today, I texted my college boyfriend to tell him how terrible I felt about cheating. He replied saying he was so relieved because he had been cheating on me with a girl in his dorm. I was talking about my math exam. FML"

Uh Oh Moments

A great post on Whirlpool about all the things that people have done wrong at work. This could keep you reading for hours...

Some are a bit techy, but others - such as setting KFC cookers on fire, plugging in the wrong cable, crashing forklifts, cutting open softdrink cases by mistake, changing in an elevator, spilling hundreds of litres of ice cream, etc we can all understand :)

Well, that's it for another Newsletter! I better get back to work now. I hope 2010's going well for you all. So far, so good :)

As a PS, the electric bike is still going well, no breakdowns at all yet and still getting over 17km to a charge on the Black Mountain roads. The electric mower likewise is still doing a great job. A customer gave me an old FlyMo they didn't want - and it lasted 5 minutes before it ceased to work. They are worlds apart in performance.

Cheers, Mike

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01/04/10 @ 21:35 by mccmikey
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Songbird fills E51 memory

Just a quick note that SongBird does not support the E51 very well via Bluetooth - it opts to fill the phone memory rather than filling the add-on card.

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12/26/09 @ 17:12 by mccmikey
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Gator ABT300 Review

Also Gator ABT-300 review, Gator Bluetooth FM adapter review. (Manual lists product as a BS300B or BS300A)

The ABT300 is a small box that receives bluetooth audio, transmits FM audio in stereo, has a hands free microphone built in, along with line output and line inputs. A great little gadget; but it has two serious flaws if you want to use it a lot...

I bought one of these for my other half for Christmas from WES Components. It is a mostly good design but has two serious design flaws that may make it unsuitable for it's intended purpose.

1 - You cannot use the FM transmitter while it's connected to a charger. (It does still function as a bluetooth hands free but only to a wired output.)

2 - The charging socket and external line input share the same socket. Thus you can't charge the device and use it as a transmitter for a non-bluetooth audio source at the same time.

This basically renders the device an annoying addition because to use it fully you'll have to remember to recharge it at least once a week, and you can't use it for the two hours that it's recharging.

You can partly work around it's limitations by connecting it to an always on 12V source and hard wiring its output to your audio system; but what a disappointment to have such a nifty device rendered with such a flaw :(

Cheers, Mike.

Edit: Here's another problem.

Walk away from your car for a little while, the bastard turns itself off. You have to hold the power button for 3+ seconds to turn it back on. Three seconds is a long time if you're going to be doing it every time you get in the car. Sometimes the power button gets stuck down too. Hold it a little too long and you're in pairing mode.

FM Output is really weak - if you place it in the middle of your dashboard, you'll get audible FM Hiss if your antenna is an above-the-drivers-door type.

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12/18/09 @ 23:43 by mccmikey
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Assorted News 26 - Holiday Special :)

In this edition:

Holiday Special

Podcasts for your Travels.
Websites for a laugh.
Smoker? No warranty for you.
Lick It!
Statement Fun.
Google Desktop
Watching TV Online
Gmail Saves The Day
Inkjet becomes one pin dot matrix
Vitamin D
Rant on Greed V2
Any web designers out there?
Computer Table wants a home...
E-Bike review.
A week off...

Podcasts for your Travels

Chances are some of you will be embarking on some long trips this holiday season. Taking some podcasts with you will help make the journey more enjoyable.

Podcasts are basically radio shows that you can download and listen to; with the exception that you can tell your computer to get them automatically if you have iTunes or other podcasting software.

Here's a few of my faves:


Two funny American guys who spend at least half of the show laughing constantly. Whether or not you're mechanically inclined; you'll probably enjoy this weekly one hour show . They'll try all sorts of tricks to get you out of trouble with your car, or to pass the blame onto someone else; or simply tell you that your car is going to blow up any minute...


Warning: Not entirely safe for kids - uses bad language now and then.

Three crazy British people (two guys one gal) answer some of the craziest questions that people submit to them online and by phone.

The Moth.

Warning: May use bad language or discuss themes that may offend.

OK so that's a weird name for a podcast. It is "Real Life Stories told Live, Without Notes, in under 20 mins." There is an amazing variety of stories here, from accountants, to strippers, to prisoners with dying rellies on the other side; and more. Some excellent listening here. Experience the full variety of people that exist on this earth.

TED Talks.

No, it's not "Big Ted" from Sesame Street :) TED Talks are described as "Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world." Most of them are pretty good; although since they cover a huge spectrum of ideas, some are bound to be of more interest to you than others.

Note: Most podcasts tend to be between 20 and 50MB to download, so for those of you on limited download plans; you might need to keep an eye on your usage while downloading these gems.

Websites for a laugh.

Here's a couple of gems I've run across in the last month that you might enjoy:

"What's the Funniest thing you've done / seen someone do in a classroom?"
Warning: Some of these posts are likely to offend. (Bad language, politically incorrect.)
Another Warning: You might get nothing done for 5 hours reading all these!

Find out about the Cow Button, the 8.5 by 11 foot sheet of notes, the fake suicide out the window - with the chair, the "Thank you for last night" comment, Spontaneous Spiderman, the teacher with the Bull Whip, DENdoodahBAHdoo and more :)

"What is Love"

This chicken thinks he knows :)

"One Man Band"

Well, if your low on income, and have musical skill, you could copy this guy:

Hmm - I'm sure there are more, but I'm short of time. The phone keeps ringing. And I want to get this out by 1:45pm.

Smoker? No warranty for you...

.. or your Apple computer.

First, let me congratulate those few of you who actually did quit smoking this year. I'm proud of you! (It also makes working with you more of a pleasure, as second hand smoke is one thing that I'm not fond of.)

Anyway, earlier this year Apple made the decision that it would not do warranty repairs on laptops belonging to smokers. This was because they were classed as hazardous materials; and also because the residue gums up the cooling systems. It's actually been quite a while since I've repaired a heavy smoker's computer - the worst I remember was a Gateway 2000 machine that was yellow inside from the front-mounted fan dragging the smoke into the computer's innards.

Lick It!

OK a slightly less hygienic computer tip for you. Many computers now have finger print readers. For most people these work OK but sometimes you may find it just refuses to acknowledge you giving it the finger. If this happens to you, try this simple step. 1 - lick your finger. 2 - wipe your finger on a nearby fabric. 3 - swipe your finger on the reader.

If your skin is dry, it makes it harder for the computer to see it.

Statement Fun.

You know the old saying about the plumber's house having leaking taps. Well, my accounting is a bit like that sometimes. I'm pretty good at entering the information in as it comes in, but chasing up old accounts is not something I give much priority to. I knew for the last few months that something was up with my system not sending accounts under certain circumstances; and it turned out that through a logic error I introduced to it, anyone who had an unpaid account less than one month old would never get a statement.

As a result, a few got away from me. The worst ones being an ex Internet customer who racked up $700 before shooting through, and another guy who has $600 worth of wireless internet gear. (Another guy appears to have stolen a $145 modem from me too.) Fortunately such occurrences are quite rare as most people are pretty good about keeping up to date with things. The challenging counter to this is that each 6 months I receive about $1,000 in electronic payments to my bank account that have no payee reference - so I have no idea where that money came from or who it's for. Since quite often people pay multiple invoices in one transaction, it's very difficult to reconcile those amounts to a customer.

Google Desktop.

I think I've covered Google Desktop before. It allows you to search all your files for key words in a matter of seconds. This can be quite handy when trying to find information in documents that you no longer remember the name or location of; or emails.

One other useful feature is the ability to view your 'timeline' which will show you all the things you did on your computer on any given day. This has proven to be quite useful recently where a customer had many different web pages on the boil, but wanted to bill each to a separate entity and I had not recorded accurately which web site was worked on when. (Accounts are entered into a calendar daily, but transcribed into the accounting system monthly.) The history button gives me a minute by minute rundown of what page was worked on when :)

Google Desktop is not for everybody as it can slow down the computer a bit with it's constant indexing; but for some of you in office environments it might be quite handy. (Microsoft has similar features built in which I've not fully tested as they do not work with my email program, Thunderbird.)


You might see this written - typically at the end of a long article. It stands for "Too Long; Didn't Read" and is usually followed by a one or two sentence summary of the article it accompanies.

Watching TV Onlne

Some of the TV channels are starting to get with the times and allow you to watch shows you've missed via the Internet. ABC is probably the most well known of these with their iView service.

Channel 10 has a similar feature at

NBN does not have it on their main site, but you might be lucky with some of the individual show websites.

Prime doesn't seem to have it at all yet.

SBS has done a good job with theirs at

With all of these sites, they use quite a lot of downloads - around 400MB an hour as an estimate - so be careful if you're on an expensive low usage plan. (If you're on slow ADSL, you might not be able to see them in real time - you can always call me for a better deal ;-) )

Of course, for the 'naughty' ones among you there's always channel BT. Oh, and YouTube is legal and handy too once you work out how playlists work.

Gmail Saves The Day.

A few days ago, a customer called because some of his email had disappeared. A number of possibly zero day viruses had conspired to somehow nuke the outlook data file and it wasn't readily retrievable. (A rare occurrence, possible question as to whether Avast contributed to it.) Fortunately some time earlier I had set up gmail to poll his address and capture a copy of his email to their server; so a copy of all received email was still there available to be re-downloaded.

So, if your email is important to you and you want a free backup - register an address at and then under Settings, click Accounts and Import and give it the details for your current email address. (If you don't know your password, I have a program that can usually retrieve them.) You may need to set your PC to leave a copy on the server for one day too.

Inkjet becomes one pin Dot Matrix?

A customer called last week with a problem. A single drawing pin had fallen into their fancy Canon printer / copier unit and was not retrievable since it had been swallowed along with some paper.

Usually retrieving foreign objects from a printer is relatively simple - with other recent occurrences being a crayon in a laser printer, and dried flowers in an inkjet. However, this one was quite a challenge, taking over an hour to get out. The pin was slightly wider than the gap it had fallen into so it wasn't as simple as 'turn over and shake'. It had also cleverly wedged itself near the flap that is used to determine whether the paper comes from the upper tray or below; and also serves as a duplexing chute.

In the end, we got it back together, and then it refused to print saying error 5010. Turned out that the scanner ribbon was the wrong way around. (It came out of it's socket before I had a chance to see its orientation.) Customer was happy.

Vitamin D?

This item missed last newsletter. The host of one of my regular podcasts - Security Now! - decided that he was so convinced of the benefits of Vitamin D after doing some research that he devoted an entire show to it. (This was out of character since all previous 203 shows were about computers.) It seemed to have some reasonable evidence behind it so I've listed it here. (Mainly as an anti-cancer product.) Listen or read at

Rant on Greed V2

Another item that missed the last newsletter.

One of our two cats disappeared for a few days and came home covered in fleas. This of course meant it was time to buy more Frontline. However, while Frontline is quite effective it's also hideously expensive; so I did a little research to find out if there were any ways around it.

The primary discovery was that the formula for dogs and cats are pretty close matches. (a 25% difference in one of the active ingredients.) Thus with some careful mathematics it was apparent that you'd get almost as good a result by using 0.5ml of Frontline Plus for extra large dog to treat a cat - meaning roughly 24 doses for the price of three. So, one in the eye for Merial then; trying to charge almost the same for a tiny packet as for a large one.

Any web designers out there?

My web design skills are fair, but not excellent. In particular I'm a little lacking in graphic design aesthetics. So, if any of you are into web design work and are looking for work; let me know. You'd need to be familiar with Joomla, Drupal, CSS and HTML.

Computer Table Wants a Home.

A new Guyra resident has found she has one too many computer desks. If you're after one, let me know and I'll put you in touch. Pretty sure it's going cheap.

E-Bike Review.

Just a quick note that the bike will get me from home to the roadhouse and back without going flat. If I get it to do most of the work, it takes 17 minutes to get there, covering 8.5km at average 25kph and peak 50kph down the hills. I'm quite happy with it :) I haven't tried a return trip to Guyra yet.

$429 reasonably well spent; although of course it would be more useful if I lived in town. If I worked at the tomato farm for example it'd be a huge saving compared to buying a car and paying rego.

By the way the Kingswood's still in at the doctor's. It's leaking oil out of the shifters for the gearbox, etc; and turns right when you put on the brakes. And speaking of rego, I don't think we'll see people adopting electric cars in Australia until they change rego laws. Why should I pay full price to rego two cars when I can only physically drive one at a time. (Most electric vehicles don't have enough range for holiday commutes, etc.)

A Week Off.

I'm having a week off from on-the-road repairs in the first week of 2010. This will give me some time to fix some issues around the house and car, such as fixing the gauges on the car, upgrading the service desk computers, etc. I'll still be available for remote assistance calls during this time :)

Have a great Christmas / Holiday season all :)

Cheers, Mike

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12/05/09 @ 19:15 by mccmikey
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CD drive letter changes after reboot

OK every now and then I have this problem where after a reboot the CD drive letter changes back to E: thereby thwarting TrueCrypt from mounting it's faves in that place.

While not technically a solution, I have solved this problem in my case by using the command %windir%\system32\devcon.exe disable IDE\CDROMTSSTCORP_CD* at boot, then of course re-enabling it on a timer after TrueCrypt has done it's job.

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11/20/09 @ 01:05 by mccmikey
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Freeware Ping Logger / Plotter / Grapher

For many years I used a program called Big Brother to monitor the history of connections for a number of host computers. However it was only compatible with Windows 98; so to keep using it I had to run it in a virtual machine.

Well the good news is that it's been upgraded to be compatible with XP and possibly higher.

It's different to things like Ping Plotter in that it basically just shows you the history for the last x minutes or hours for a your specified servers.

You can see here for example that many of my hosts are offline and have been for the last four hors, and a couple are having a tough time with wireless broadband connections that aren't working well.

It's still free, and it's from

Their webmaster appears to have an amusing sense of humour :)

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11/02/09 @ 23:42 by mccmikey
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Assorted News 25 - See the E-Bike Tuesday.

In this edition:

Quick Update

See the E-Bike Tuesday night.
Update on Microsoft's Free Antivirus
Short Rant on Greed.
Windows 7 is out :)
In the Holiday Mood - KeyBored.

See the E-Bike Tuesday.

A couple of newsletters ago I hinted that I was installing an electric bike kit that weekend. A surprising number of my customers are alternative energy / green types, and others are prolific bike riders, so I have chatted with a few people about it. One of them has invited me to show it at some "open forum" thing in Armidale on Tuesday night, where there will be a display of electric cars and bikes. ( More info on this event is at )

So, if you'd like to see what $429 buys you in the electric bike conversion kit department, or to check out what people with more money than me have been up to with their electric cars, drop in to the Kent House carpark at 6:30 Tuesday night.

It will probably be on the back of the Bluebird all Tuesday so you might also see it in the main street of Guyra.

My review of the kit itself is at

Oh, and if you'd like to see a 9kg easyish to carry bike in a bag that costs $3,500 and is illegal in Australia due to our slightly backward laws on these things, check out

I was considering selling the bike kit as a retailer, but have decided against it due to possible legal liability if someone installs it poorly then blames me! However, it's an opportunity if anyone is interested in it :) The nearest rivals in Armidale are double the cost.

Update on Microsoft's free Anti Virus.

I see AVG's up to their usual tricks, trying to force users into yet another new version of their now rather slow program. So a reminder that there is a free one from Microsoft, and a free one from Avast. Last newsletter I praised the Microsoft one for being a good product. It is :) But the one downside with it that has come to light is the size of some of its update files. They can be in excess 30MB every few weeks; so if you're on a really slow connection this could be an issue. Avast updates are much smaller but of course they require the 12 monthly free registration.

Microsoft Security Essentials is at
Avast is at

Short Rant on Greed.

Last week, a customer was caught in a booby trap that was set by Microsoft back in the year 2000. (Subsequently removed in 2003) This trap is that if you store more than 2GB of email in Outlook 2000, it will crash; taking your mail with it. (In this case, about 17,000 emails.)

I've heard of this glitch in the past, but most people have upgraded to newer versions of office since then; so I'd never actually enountered it first hand until this day.

Microsoft fortunately had a solution that was supposed to work, but was a bit hit and miss and quite time consuming to run. There were many other companies peddling solutions to this problem as well; and for some reason they were almost all identically priced at $49.99 US, with a couple up as high as $250+

It annoys me somewhat when people do this. My opinion is: If you consider how vast the world is; if you create some simple tool that can do the job, sell it for a small amount and you'll make it back on volume, and for the greater good of humanity. If instead you stick a high to ridiculous price on your software, people will just go straight to or and solve their needs that way.

This practice has at last caught up with the likes of NavMan and Garmin, with Google now announcing that their newest mobiles will include fully functioning turn-by-turn navigation GPS built in for free. NavMan in particular I'm glad to see now suffering as their update price of $160 for new maps can not be thought of as anything other than a rort.

Windows 7 is out :)

For those of you who have been holding off buying a new computer because you couldn't stand Vista, the good news is that Windows 7 is out. It uses about half the memory of Vista, and is not really all that much different to XP. The main difference is that the task bar now has buttons instead of long tags. I have it on my laptop so if you'd like a preview, flag me down :) As per the 'greed' article above, however, it's a bit overpriced to upgrade from XP and Vista.

DIE-al up.

I received a notice last week from M2 Wholesale that advises that I am no longer commercially viable for them and that I have 90 days left before our contract terminates.

What this means is that I will soon cease offering dialup internet services under my own brand. Instead, I will be migrating the service and customer balances over to another company, Beagle Internet. They have some of the best rates going for dialup, are active and well respected in the community, and because they are also an M2 Wholesale customer they can take over the operation seamlessly. They have offered to maintain the same accounting methods as Auzzie Internet for the migrating customers - accepting cheque payments and not expiring credit.

Auzzie Internet started as a dialup business in November 1997 charging $2 per hour for Internet service in Bourke, NSW. At its peak it had 24 lines. (22 at 33.6k and 2 at 2.4k for prolific chatters) The dialup service was outsourced to KBS Internet around 2002 when wide area numbers were introduced. KBS was taken over by WCG (Wholesale Communications Group) who in turn was taken over by M2 Wholesale. At this point we're now down to just 6 lines.

Please note that this only affects dialup customers. Wireless Internet, ADSL and Web Hosting is not affected :)


Christmas and the holidays are coming soon. The next newsletter will contain a collection of things to keep you amused!

To get started, here's two "Piano" programs. The first, C-Magic's Virtual Piano requires no downloads to play. Just go to

Now, if you want to play the competition, you'll need to download "KeyBored" instead. (Although it might drive you mad heheheh.)

Free from (You will need to unzip it and run keybored.exe) Only tested on XP. Then, open Notepad or Word or a blank email and type away :)

Once you have KeyBored running, you can then learn to play the songs at by typing the letters.

The First person to reply to this email with the correct name of the following song (which is not in that list) wins $20 and their name in the next newsletter :)

hhhgfhh z
hhhhhghj z
jjjhgjj z
jjjjkjh v
hhhgfhh v
hhhjkj m
lklkj kjkjh gggjhgf

Cheers, Mike.

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10/12/09 @ 23:09 by mccmikey
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How to fix a Southern Cross Windmill

(Also known as "how to fix your southern cross windmill" or how to fix a southern cross wind mill or "how a southern cross windmill works".)

My Windmill broke after many years of good service; and lacking the tools and knowledge to fix it myself (nothing easy to find on Google prior to this post) I procured a pair of professional windmill repairers to do it, asked them some questions and observed the process. So, here's some second-hand tips on how to fix your own Southern Cross Windmill.

(work in progress October 2009 - pictures coming soon)

Before we start:

Wind mills can be a bit dangerous and fiddly. They're often damn tall, and may have 30 metres of (heavy) metal pipe hidden from view under the ground; so you'll need to be careful working on one. If you're not confident with heights, heavy tools, etc then this probably isn't the job for you - proceed at your own risk! Things that could go wrong include:

- getting half way up the windmill ladder and suddenly discovering you don't go well with heights. (Take your phone with you just in case.)
- getting all the way up, then getting knocked off by a suddenly spinning windmill.
- Undoing something at the wrong time and losing bits for ever down the hole.
- Grabbing at something that is rapidly falling into a hole, taking part of you with it!
- Winching up a pipe, hitting the top of the windmill by mistake and breaking something. (Hopefully not winching your ute up the windmill!)

How they normally work.

Well the top bit is kind of obvious. The fan-shaped bit spins around, and some metal rod moves up and down with it. (If these two things don't happen together you might have a gearbox problem. I didn't so unfortunately I can't give you any tips here. There is oil in it 'tho so it could be worth checking if you're up there.)

A metal rod then travels down the centre of the pipe that you can see, all the way to the bottom where it joins into the 'pump'.

The pump is actually quite simple. It's just a 2 foot long hollow metal cylinder with a plunger in the middle - a bit like you'd find if you took apart an old bike pump. And, just like how cars have cylinders and rings; this plunger-thing has a couple of rings made of either Neoprene or Leather to form a seal. (Those in the know seem to refer to these as 'buckets'.)

Of course, this design would not quite work without some sort of valve - because you want to lift water 'up' the pump but not push it back out again on the down stroke. There are two parts that work together to solve this problem.

At the end of the pump is a non-return valve. It lets water into the pump from the bottom, but (ideally) not back out. So, this means on the upstroke the plunger bit can suck up some more water.

Now, on the downstroke the water can't get out, so in the centre of the plunger there's another valve that lets water flow past it on the downward stroke, ready for the next big suck & lift.

In some cases, they may have added a second non return valve to a section of pipe below the pump - presumably as an insurance against one getting stuck open with a bit of grit, and / or to allow any crud sucked up on the up-stroke to have a chance to settle back to the valve and out at a later stage.

So basically you have a reverse bicycle pump, lifting water out rather than pushing air in. The column of water is eventually ejected from the pipe - usually via a T piece, and drained into a tank.

What can go wrong

A few common things that go wrong:

1 - Rust in the pipe causing a leak underground.

Assuming your pipe is metal, it is possible that over time the pipe might rust. If the pipe rusts, then it may develop a leak. You'll probably hear this as the sound of water being pumped and then immediately drained back down the hole. This would lead to a reduced output, with you only getting water on particularly windy days; if at all.

The rust point is generally near the depth of the water line, and may also be encouraged if the bore casing is metal as well due to electrolysis. (You can now get Poly pipes instead to reduce this risk.)

2 - Buggered Buckets?

Like the piston rings in your car, if the buckets are no longer snug, they'll have a reduced lifting ability.

3 - Non-return valve stuck.

If your non return valve (or foot valve?) has become stuck open it will let the water back out. I guess you'd have to be unlucky but it can happen.

4 - Siezed pump

If the bore runs dry, it's possible that the buckets will get hot and sieze. (Apparently more common with neoprene ones.) This then puts significant force on the central rod which might bend it to buggery.

5 - Others.

Other possibilities could include the rod joins rubbing a hole in the pipe, gearbox breakdown, pipe getting a swing up underground, etc.

How to take one apart?

You're gonna need some fairly heavy duty stuff for this job. Since I'm an IT guy I don't know all the jargon. You'll need at least
- a winch or (block and tackle)
- possibly some sort of pulley if you're winching from ground level.
- a stilson, looks like a wrench, might actually be a wrench
- a pipe grabbing thing. (looks like a motorbike chain on a stick) (Maybe a second stilson / wrench would do - you want to grab two bits of pipe and twist y'see.)
- Some sort of grabby thing so you can attach your winch / lifting thing to your pipe. (They had some special tool for this.) [edit: Advised this might be called a pipe clevis or pipe dog - I can't find an exact match on the 'net but you might get some ideas from ]
- A second grabby thing that can hold the weight of the remaining pipe while you unscrew the section above it.
- One or two vice grips. (Google 'em.)
- Other stuff.

The most important thing here is to have some way to lift the rather heavy pipe out of the ground. You might use a winch and a pulley for this purpose.

You'll also probably need to remove one or two of the side supports so you can get enough room to get the bits of pipe out and have easy access to the bore area.

1 - Secure the fan so it can't spin. (I guess a rope will do.)
2 - Unbolt the gearbox from the rod.

3 - Unscrew the T-Piece going to your tank. (It's probably just resting in the tank's opening so there's nothing to stop you just unscrewing it and pushing it away.
4 - Unscrew the top section of pipe from the bottom section of pipe. Lift this a couple of feet and you should find the first join on the inner rod. This also unscrews. You do not need to worry about the inner rod falling into the hole unless there's a major problem down below already (such as a pipe having completely rusted through.)

5 - Unscrew this inner rod using two pipe grabby tools and then remove the upper portion from inside the now suspended bit of pipe.

6 - Now, lower and remove the bit of pipe.
7 - Devise a way to lift the remaining length of pipe.

In my case, they positioned a pulley at the top of the windmill which they threaded a winch through, with a grabby thing on the end.

My suggestion would be to try to have some sort of backup grabby thing down below too just in case the one up top let go.

Proceed to lift the pipe until you get to the next join. Note that the length of pipe might be taller than your windmill, which is a pain as it will mean you'll need to clamp the pipe and lower your grabby thing. You'll also need to be careful that the top of the pipe doesn't hit the top of the windmill; and that if your grabby thing has a remote release rope you'll want to make sure it doesn't get caught on something and release when you really don't want it to.

When you finally get to the next join, you repeat the process by somehow twisting the two pipe segments apart. You might have to do a bit of swearing at them. Applying heat might help them loosen, or just allow you to burn yourself.

Once they are separate, lift the top section a little further so you can now hopefully see the next inner rod join. Unscrew this and like before, remove the rod from the bottom of the suspended pipe. (This might be fiddly so you might need to lift the suspended pipe fairly high to get enough room.

Repeat the process until you finally get to the pump.

You can disassemble the pump by unscrewing the bottom end and then pushing the rod out of it.

If you elect to hone the pump (that is to resurface it) you may need to use new leather buckets as these will expand to fit the new surface. Neoprene ones may not.

Putting it back together?

Umm, I didn't take it apart. You did ;-)

I'll cover that later. Suffice to say you might need some of that magic plumbers tape that they put on thread. (Probably known as thread tape?) You'll also need all your fancy lifting gear but in reverse this time. Actually you might be able to cheat with some ropes and a horse knot, but not sure. (A horse knot is where you just wrap a rope around something three times and friction takes care of the rest!)

A possibly useful and interesting site is at

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10/02/09 @ 22:48 by mccmikey
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Can I add a USB2 PCI card to a mac?

Maybe :)

I did, with an old G4 running OSX 10.3 and it was happy.

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10/01/09 @ 23:02 by mccmikey
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Assorted News 24 - Microsoft's Free Antivirus.

In this edition:

Quick Update

Microsoft's Free Antivirus
Price Reduction on Wireless Broadband
Lightning reminder

Microsoft's Free Antivirus.

As of yesterday, Microsoft has released a new free AntiVirus program for all genuine windows users. Initial testing by myself and the media seem to be giving it reasonable results.

In my opinion it's good enough for most people.

What it doesn't include is a firewall, but Windows has one built in, and most broadband modems have one built in as well so for the majority of people this is not a concern at all.

So, if your Norton, Trend, CA, McAfee or other antivirus product is up for renewal and they want money from you; you can probably get the free no-nagging one from Microsoft instead. You can get it by clicking here: -->

If for some reason Microsoft claims your computer does not have a legal copy of windows - which often happens on computers that have been wiped and reloaded at some point in their lives - the next best free scanner at this stage still appears to be Avast - free from

Price Reduction on Wireless (Mobile) Broadband.

Exetel Wireless broadband modems (as you might have seen on TV under the "Exetel Country Broadband" brand) have come down again to just $95. If you want mobile internet access that works wherever an Optus mobile works, with prices starting at $5 a month plus usage; give me a call for more info and a demo.

For October only I'm doing a free on-site installation (excluding parts) for up to 1 hour and within 10km of Guyra, Armidale or Black Mountain.

Lightning Reminder:

On the assumption that we'll actually get a traditional non-dust storm again in the near future, here's a quick reminder about how to prevent your computer being blown up in a storm.

The single most useful thing you can do is to unplug the phone line from your computer or modem, as most storm damage comes via the phone line. Any gadget that has both power and phone provides a path for lightning, which is why fax machines are usually the first to go.

Of course, it's not always possible to be home to unplug things, so the next-best option is to buy a power board or adapter that has a phone line filter built in. These will save your equipment most of the time, often sacrificing themselves in the process. For example,

As a side note, computers using wireless access to the Internet are mostly immune to storms; although if you plan on using a laptop in a storm, it's probably a good idea to disconnect the power cord and use battery just to be on the safe side. Cordless phones are also almost completely safe to use in a storm, but the base station could still get fried.

Well, that's gotta be one of the shortest newsletters ever :) Have a great long weekend! I'll be busy doing an electric bicycle conversion...

Cheers, Mike.

Old Editions
You can find old editions of this newsletter on the CCC Blog.

You can also subscribe or unsubscribe at

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09/14/09 @ 01:02 by mccmikey
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Hmm, looks like CastleCops died in 2008. Fortunately I have a firefox snapshot of this page via the Scrapbook extension.

So here it is:

I have not yet found the attachment but it's not usually needed anyway I think.

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09/13/09 @ 23:00 by mccmikey
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Assorted News 23 - Speedup Tips.

Speedup Tips

Time to remove AVG.
A new defragger
How much RAM, how many brains?


How to edit PDFs for Free.
A New Virtual Machine.

Stories & General Banter

Bluebird's over the mountain, still.
Yagi on board.
Other Trivia (Chooks of Doom, Scooter Broke, Mower Mod.)

Time to remove AVG?

One thing that is certain in life is change. And one thing that has changed in the last few months is AVG. It has slowly become a slow memory hog. Not as bad as the evil Norton / Symantec, but certainly no longer the zippy thing it was in version 7. So, if you have an older computer (say 2+ years) or a computer with one brain or low RAM (see later for how to tell) then I think it's time to change. (You can partly test how much it's slowing down your computer by temporarily disabling the "Resident Shield" part and restarting your computer.)

If your computer is slow, I'm recommending changing to Avast. At this point in time it is still quite light on the computer, and is comparable if not better than AVG in detection; and arguably better at removing bugs. The free version is available at

The one drawback with Avast is the need to register every 14 months. This involves filling out a form on a web page at - if you want to cheat for the first 14 months, you can use the code W27115188H1400A0811-9DW8UF5R - they don't notice if a few people share the same key.

Don't forget to remove AVG first or you'll get a double dose of the slow as the two fight with eachother :)

One of the great advantages of Avast over AVG is that if you do get a bug; it has a special way of restarting the computer and killing the bug before the computer finishes starting again. Some newer bugs, especially the sneaky ones known as rootkits, can start up before the computer is ready and then hide themselves from Windows and the antivirus program; and Avast can often kill 'em.

A New Defragger!

Defragging is a mystery to most people, but it's something that can make a huge difference to the startup and operating speed of your computer. In short, here's what happens.

Imagine I have three files called xxx, yyy and zzz. Here they are sitting on the hard drive next to each other:


Now, lets say file yyy gets bigger. It might be a letter you're writing, or an email storage file, etc.

It can't fit in the space any more so here's what the computer does:

[xxx][yyy][zzz][yy] (it sticks it in the next gap it can find.)

Now file zzz gets bigger...

[xxx][yyy][zzz][yy][zzzz] (same again...)

Now file xxx gets deleted.

[ ][yyy][zzz][yy][zzzz] (there's a space where xxx used to be.)

Now file zzz gets bigger again.

[zz][][yyy][zzz][yy][zzzz] (Now zzz is in three parts, the last one being the first on the actual drive.)

As you can see, the file zzz is now stored in three 'fragments' and to open it, your computer has to find those three bits. On old computers, you can hear this rattling sound as the hard disk drive head jumps from place to place trying to find it. (It's a bit like trying to play three bits of a song on a record player - a lot of hard work, and slow too.)

Most computers have a special program called "Disk Defragmenter" which will go through and put all these bits back in order. You can normally find it by clicking Start --> Programs --> Accessories --> System Tools --> Disk Defragmenter.

The built in one does a fairly reasonable job of it. However, there's one thing that it, and almost all over defragmenters seem to ignore; which is that the disk is usually faster at the beginning than at the end! (If you ever played with marbles on a record player you'd know they spin much faster towards the edges. You can test this with if you're curious.)

Now, there is a free defragmenting program that does this, as well as making space for often-chopped-up files to grow and moving the big but rarely used files (like videos, etc) towards the end where you don't need speed. It's called "MyDefrag" and you can get it from

Once you have it, choose the Slow Optimise icon and then go to bed as it may take a long time. You can then use the Fast Optimise option to keep it up to speed, and maybe use the slow one every few months.

Vista machines and laptops in particular can see a big difference in speed after using this program.

How much Ram? How many Brains?

RAM. A kind of Memory. It's like the table you're working on. If it's too small, you'll be working hard to make space. It makes no difference how many photos are in the cupboard (Hard disk) since they're not on the table so having a stack of photos won't normally affect your computer's memory...

Not having enough RAM is one of the main reasons for a slow computer. Here's an easy way to tell if you have enough RAM.

1 - Hold down Ctrl + Alt + Delete.

2 - Choose "Task manager" if asked what to do.

3 - Click the Performance tab.

You'll see something like this:

4 - (For Windows XP) Compare the PF usage to the Total Physical memory. If it's nearly the same or higher, then your computer doesn't have enough memory for what you are asking it to do. (In this example, PF usage is 114 MB, which is roughly 114,000 KB, The Total Physical Memory is 237,040 KB so I'm OK :)

Note: For Windows Vista you need to compare the two items I've underlined in the picture at
(Compare Physical Memory with the first number next to Page File.)

Ram is not terribly expensive for modern computers, but for the older ones it is getting harder to find and thus the price can sneak up a bit.

Note that you often don't need more RAM but instead need to kill off some background programs, which you might not even realise are there. Common memory hogs that run in the background are HP updater, Skype, Limewire, etc. You can turn off the ones you recognise by clicking Start, clicking run (if it's there) and typing in msconfig ... Then, untick the items you don't want starting in the "startup" tab. Note that this does not remove programs from your computer.

Oh, and to determine how many brains, if you see one chart next to CPU usage then you have one brain. If you see two, then you have two, etc. The advantage in having more than one brain is that it means your computer can be thinking about two or more things at the same time, at full speed. This is more useful these days than in the past as it means your computer can be doing virus scanner updates, etc with one brain while your work is done with another.

How to edit PDFs for free.

Method 1

If you don't know what a PDF is, you probably won't be interested in this next bit. Suffice to say they're a kind of file that was invented so that it would look the same on any computer irrespective of brand, etc.

It's often the case with PDF files that you can't easily change them. This can be annoying if you ever need to!

Previously I've mentioned Foxit Reader - a free program that you can use for viewing these PDF files. (Much better than Adobe reader in speed and size.) You can use this program to make changes, but unless you pay them money to buy a fancy version, they won't let you save the changes. However, there is a way you can cheat.

If you don't already have some sort of PDF printer listed in your list of printers, there's a free one called CutePDF writer; which I've also mentioned before. This program lets you make PDF files by 'printing' them. It's free from

So, the trick is to make the changes in Foxit reader, then cheat by printing the changed version with CutePDF writer. You end up with the new copy with your changes.

It won't technically be as efficient as being able to save from Foxit reader, but it's almost always good enough.

Method 2

Another solution to this problem has recently come to light in the form of an addon for Sun's OpenOffice program. (OpenOffice is a free alternative to Microsoft's relatively expensive Word, Excel, PowerPoint group of programs - free from

Once you have OpenOffice installed, you can grab the Sun PDF Import addin from

Your results with this combo can sometimes be a little unexpected - but in cases where you want to add logos, remove words or whole pages, etc you may find it does what you need.

A New Virtual Machine.

A Virtual Machine is a computer that lives inside another computer! It uses some of the computer's brain, memory and disk space to simulate another computer. That second (virtual) computer is blissfully unaware that it doesn't really exist! (A bit like the Matrix movie.)

This is for the more IT aware among you - and for those of you with Apple Macs that want to run Windows. Sun has released a new free version of VirtualBox which is significantly better than Microsoft's free program and comparable to the non-free Parallels program for Mac. With it, you can run almost any operating system on your computer that you desire, without replacing your main one - and they both run at the same time. Free from

For others among you it might mean you can run your old Windows 98 programs on Windows Vista if you really want to.

Bluebird's Over the Mountain?

Well, the stealth Bluebird is behaving itself after some preventative maintenance in the form of a timing belt and water pump change... and I was amazed to find not one but three instrument panels at Guyra Motors. (Needed some new lamps and an idea on how it was designed as it's like a disco with gauges turning on and off because of a design flaw common to that series.)

The Kingswood is still resting. I took it out for a short run last weekend and of course the evil sounds have gone away for now. Nonetheless I'll still be getting it seen to soon - money permitting of course.

Yagi on board?

A few of you might have spotted this strange sight some weeks ago, especially up near Ben Lomond: - a car with what looks like a TV antenna sticking up behind it.

I decided to do a bit of an experiment with targeted advertising - driving to properties, getting a wireless broadband speed reading, taking a photo of the mailbox, printing it and the results out from a printer inside the car and depositing it in the mailbox.

There were some teething problems, and it was a bit slow going but the results were good. The car itself certainly attracted people's attention. (Admittedly a little too much possibly when the boys in blue flashed at me one night on the way home - didn't pull me over but perhaps they didn't like the fact the number plate wasn't illuminated. The aerial itself was folded down level with the tow bar when not measuring.) What really surprised me was how agitated people get when you take a photo of their mailbox and give it to them! (The concept of fear of recording devices, whether sound, image or video, in public places, is alien to me.)

Anyway, the whole project was predicated on the notion that like any other broadband connection I make through Exetel I'd see 10% of the revenue - as this has been a handy backup income source lest I get sick, etc and covers offering free support. I later discovered that for the majority of the wireless broadband connections I earn 45 cents a month irrespective of usage. (This is for the $5 per month plus usage plan which is popular with light to moderate Internet users.) Given I don't charge like a wounded bull for installation, this makes the surveying project unviable.

As a side note to that, I'm still happy to support other companies as well even though I'm not in their pocket. For example, TPG has the best mobile deals going at about 8c a minute. Exetel can't match that so I don't sell Exetel mobiles any more. Telstra's prices are still ridiculously high in most cases, but their service has improved somewhat. (Handy hint: If you want to speak to someone at Telstra, and don't like talking to the computer, you can press 1 for the first response, 2 for the second, etc until you're roughly in the area you want, and / or just keep pressing # until the computer apologizes for not understanding you :) I can't help with the foreign accents however unless you want me as a translator :)

Other Trivia.

A select few of you are amused by my non-IT stuff for some reason. The latest events in that department:

1 - Discovered, almost certainly, that eating any MSG enhanced food will cause me to lose a night's sleep. Enough of it causes an irregular heart beat. Common problem it seems, but it's in an area of subjectivity on the 'net. Other key signs are losing the skin off the roof of my mouth. I'm fairly confident that Coles BBQ chickens have MSG or something else that sets me off. I'm pleased to advise that Moxons and Guyra bakeries staff seem to believe their food is MSG free.

2 - Scooter broke. After 1,100km, a tiny patch of rust weakened a structural part, resulting in a non-spectacular but serious failure. A friend will attempt to re-weld it. Picture at - Fear not, I still have the bike; just have to actually do some work now to cause it to move. Electric bike kit (legal) on it's way from eBay $429

3 - New Electric Mower. I always get a headache from the fumes from the ol' 4 stroke Rover. (And every spring the bugger won't start without it's service in Armidale.) Shelled out $105 for an electric mower. It's smaller than the Rover, but quieter and much lighter. It gets a funny hot plastic smell when running for a long time however, so (predictably) I've modded it with an old server fan and laptop power supply. I'm happy with it. and - apparently the postie refused to deliver it from the Guyra PO :) Wouldn't fit on the bike perhaps? I think the smell is that of a thermo-set plastic which I've not smelt since High School rather than burning enamel so I don't know if it's a breaking-in smell or a 'cut more grass and I'll go on strike' smell. Of 86 reviews for that model, 81 are happy.

4 - Nearly caught up after the holiday. Still getting about 15 mobile calls a day which I can't handle in real time, so the answering machine's getting a good workout! One unhappy camper even texted "are you still trading" after my return calls were unnoticed. Oh well, I'm doing my best, chooks of doom notwithstanding. Occasionally even the answering machine goes on strike so apologies to those few of you who got hung up on by it. (Once it gets 200 messages stored, it likes to play random announcements - often going for the 'sorry I'm sick" or "I'm in Tassie" one for some reason.)

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09/13/09 @ 13:27 by mccmikey
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ZZ Cruizer / ZZ Cruiser Broke

G'day :)

Well, after 1,100km, on the second drive belt and set of batteries; the ZZ Cruiser has suffered a more serious breakdown. This time, a combination of rust, metal fatigue and relatively poor design all conspired to a break as seen here...

Broken :(

I have a friend who will attempt to weld it back together.

It broke in the driveway after a weekend 4km run so it wasn't dramatic. Much rather it do this here than at midnight doing 15kph downhill with the dog attached!

Only other issues so far: Main axle is a little bent, causing the bearing to rattle a little. My driveway is 400 metres unpaved and rocky so it has taken its toll too.

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09/13/09 @ 13:16 by mccmikey
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Challenge ICD Craft CLM-300A - cheapo electric mower :)

G'day :)

Well, I often get a headache from the fumes from the ol' Rover 4 stroke, so took the gamble on getting one of these from eBay. (Cost $105, not too bad given the UK retail is 44 pounds.)

They are retailed in the UK by a company called Argos.|cat_14418702|Lawnmowers|14418813/Trail/searchtext%3EMOWER.htm#tabrev

I have a fairly rogue Aussie lawn, but it is handling it OK.

The one concern has been the strong smell of hot plastic when it's been running for 15-20 mins, and taking off the top cover reveals that the motor runs quite hot.

In an effort to prolong it's life, I've modded it to increase the ventilation. This isn't a total cure as the bad smell returns after 20 mins of clump-busting, but it's certainly helping a bit.

The reviews over at Argos are almost all positive so it sounds like they are reasonably reliable nonetheless.

CLM-300A extra cooling

Added parts are a Sony laptop power supply and a 24V fan from an ancient server; plus some flyscreen, cable ties, etc.

The entire mod is removeable with no evidence so if the poor bugger does die before the 12 months is up I guess I can return it. However, it's probably not worth returning as the seller whacked $70 postage on it - immoral really I know but otherwise his reviews were good and this model is hard to get here in Aus.

Other notes: Power usage is actually only 350 watts when not actually cutting, rising up to around 650/700 on the bigger clumps. That could be useful info for those of you living green off the grid :)

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08/23/09 @ 07:56 by mccmikey
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Why did your Prodigy PaperPro One Finger Stapler die?

Possibly also known as 'how to fix your PaperPro Prodigy One Finger stapler"

A customer dropped this stapler off because it would no longer staple. I determined it was probably not going to be economical to fix; partly because it would likely be outside of an IT guy's expertise, and also because I could not get the bugger apart using traditional IT tools.

Rather than just bin it outright I decided to take a destructive route to disassembly first, and let F=MA plus concrete take care of that.

It came apart with a few sudden strikes to the garden path from 3 metres; destroying some plastic end pieces in the process.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that this stapler uses a spring and lever to rapidly fire a metal plate onto the staple. Thus, this metal plate takes significant forces from two spring-ends that fit through holes towards it's base, and in this instance it appears the metal plate became weakened over time and eventually broke into two pieces as shown below.

A skilled metalworker could probably produce a new plate, but not I.

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07/12/09 @ 22:58 by mccmikey
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Assorted News 22 - Flat Out, Winter Break :)

Generic News

Winter Break: 23rd July to 3rd August.
Flat Out


How to give your iPod it's own brain.

Stories & General Banter

Musical Cars?
The Pricing Dilemma.

Not much news this newsletter - just letting you know some trivia and advising of a holiday...

Winter Break: 23rd July to 3rd August

Years ago, when I was young and (more) naïve, I was suckered into a prepaid holiday scheme. I suppose back then it was good value but these days with the likes of QuickBeds, NeedItNow and other discount accommodation sites; it has lost it's lustre a bit. Anyway; it means a forced holiday at a resort every year or you lose your money.

This year I'm trekking down to Mildura - a medium-sized town on the border between NSW and Victoria where I spent much of my youth but haven't been since 2001.

I will of course be providing the usual remote control (via the Internet) and telephone assistance so hopefully if you do have an issue over this time it's not a physical one! I know a couple of reasonably priced Armidale repair shops too and can redirect you there if need be.

Flat Out.

In the last month I've been a little preoccupied with developing a program for a customer that had a relatively short deadline. This is now more or less complete bar some likely teething issues; but it has made me a bit 'unreliable' for other people's needs with a number of calls not being returned in the usual time frame. (The joys of being a sole trader!) My apologies to anyone affected - hopefully I've contacted all affected customers by now!

How to give your iPod it's own brain!

I recently repaired, and later purchased, a second hand iPod from a customer. It is an older but fancy 30G model. (Last newsletter you may recall the death of my previous MP3 player and PDA (electronic organiser) through old age and overuse.)

For those who have never owned one before, the iPod is basically a portable music and video player, but unlike most other MP3 players it has a fully dependent relationship with a program called iTunes. The iPod cannot think for itself very well and has a limited set of features.

So, mildly frustrated with it's limitations I did a quick spot of googling and stumbled upon "Rockbox." It is a free replacement program you can install in your iPod (and some other MP3 players for that matter) to give it a new brain. The new capabilities include:

- Create your own playlists on the device itself.
- Remember where you were up to in multiple playlists or individual recordings. (Bookmarks - Very useful if you switch from music to podcasts, or have a number of programs on the go at once.)
- Custom Equaliser settings. (Not the limited and poorly designed range the iPod has built in.)
- About 30 games including Tetris, Asteroids and Jewel Quest.
- Ability to play multiple different audio and video formats, not just those blessed by Apple.
- Ability to copy music onto it from anywhere just like a memory stick and play it at will. (Normal iPods won't work this way without iTunes.)
- Many different colour schemes, wallpapers, fonts and templates.

It does take a little more learning than the built-in iPod software, but comes with a comprehensive manual. Installation is quite easy with just a few button clicks, and it even lets you run both RockBox and the original iPod software in case you want to go back for some reason.

Musical Cars?

The Kingswood is still sick with clutch and / or other issues, and now fuel consumption has jumped from 10 litres per 100km to 13 litres per 100km. There is now occasionally a distinct 'clack' when going from acceleration to decelleration, and on rare occasions the sound of marbles in a washing machine. After 750,000+ km I guess it's not a surprise, but it doesn't sound cheap to fix!

As a result, I have decided to retire it until I come back from holidays and am in a strong enough financial position to get those issues resolved.

In the mean time, the Nissan also snapped it's fan belt on me last week so I have had the water pump and timing belt replaced. (I've already checked over the alternator, and the timing belt is just a precaution since it sat for 8 years in a shed.) Here's hoping it was worth it! The motor is near new which is why I justify maintaining it despite it's age.

If you want to have a laugh, check out to see how it was advertised back in the '80s. The phrase "Sleek Aerodynamic Body" just wouldn't cut it these days - not quite the Flying Brick of the Kingswood but fairly close!

The Pricing Dilemma.

The other day, one of my customers protested at the size of his bill. He was upset because I charged $65 for an hour's work. But, he was upset because he believed I should be charging $95. At the moment, my rates are $50 an hour for tuition and $65 an hour for fancier stuff. The Not For Profits and students / unemployed get 30% off too. if I were to charge $95 an hour, I think I'd alienate much of my customer base as a large percentage of it is home and small business. Apart from the fact I value all clients and client types pretty much equally, I'm also in a relatively small town and can't really afford to lose customers! But then on the other hand a number of people say I'm cheap.

Prices in Armidale seem to vary between $55 an hour (basic technician) to $75 an hour (moderate technician) and somewhat higher (shonky franchise technician). I welcome your feedback on this issue. Perhaps I should just peg myself to the rate of inflation.

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06/02/09 @ 22:57 by mccmikey
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Assorted News 21 :)

In this edition:

Generic News

A Free Photoshop?
OpenOffice getting better
Wireless Antennas coming soon


What is a CAPTCHA?
How to handle lots of email?
Cheap way to back up email.
What is Google Desktop?
Breeding Puppies and Yellow Dogs?

Stories & General Banter

Sick Palm
Sick Car
Mechanic for a day
Remote Assistance Suicide
Blinky the Television Frog

Note: This newsletter written under the influence of day 2 of suspected common cold *sniffle* :) Might as well try to do something useful while physically avoiding people... Calling it a cold is apparently a myth - see

A Free Photoshop?

While helping out a customer whose computer had died, taking with it much of her data, I sought out a freebie Photoshop compatible replacement. One of the results was a program called Fotografix, free but beta from (Beta means they might not have ironed all the bugs out of it yet.)

It's surprisingly tiny, less than 1MB, so will probably download in under a minute. It supports layering and the clone stamp tool, which for me at least are the two most useful Photoshop tools.

Also, if you haven't got Picasa yet, it's a good program to grab too as it makes photo repairs very easy. It also has the clone stamp tool, but they call it a touch-up tool. You can use it to remove spots from people's faces, remove people and objects from photos. It's free from

There are many other free image editors, online and offline as well - See for downloadable ones and for the ones you can use via the Internet as an example.

OpenOffice getting Better :)

Many people are still quite surprised when they go out and buy a new computer and then find that either it didn't come with Word and Excel, or it did but they suddenly stop working after 60 days or 25 runs. This often prompts people to borrow their friend's Office CDs, but that often doesn't help because for most versions, Microsoft only allows up to three installations. A few have used copies from the Internet that worked fine since they didn't have the activation feature; but more recently are suddenly finding blue stars in the bottom corner of their screen saying 'if you don't buy a legit copy we're going to put messages on your screen so everyone knows you have a cheat copy.'

This leaves you with a few options

1 - Spend your $200 to $1,000 on a nice shiny new copy of Office 2007; and maybe have to relearn where all the buttons are.
2 - Kill the blue star by running MsiExec.exe /uninstall {B148AB4B-C8FA-474B-B981-F2943C5B5BCD} followed by RemoveWGA.exe from or similar, then next time the yellow shield icon shows up choose custom, and untick the Windows Genuine Advantage and Office Genuine Advantage options. (They confer no advantage, and slow older computers down at boot time.)
3 - Dump Microsoft Office and grab OpenOffice 3.1 instead.

OpenOffice has improved significantly over the last few years, and will now do what most people want. (It will do pretty much everything except for macros, Outlook, etc ) It's just over 100MB to download, so not particularly small; but if you want it on a cd, let me know and I can leave a copy at CT Electrics or 120 Markham, or mail. Download from

One tip however is that if you do use it, and then want to email files to people who don't use it, you might want to change it's default setting to be "save as Word 2003" format.

Wireless Antennae coming soon...

With the help of some of you, I trialled a couple of prototype antennae for Exetel. These worked quite well; with the furthest customer being connected with one roughly 32 km from Guyra, replacing a troublesome Satellite connection. As a result of these successful trials; and others besides mine, they have ordered a large quantity of them, and will be retailing them for about $55 each. (Much better than the $140 I've been getting them for locally!) They also plan to be advertising on regional TV stations in July through December, so that'll be interesting. More info at

What is a CAPTCHA?

A CAPTCHA is one of those hard to read words (or series of letters and numbers) that you might find when trying to sign up for some online service. Basically, the idea is that humans can generally work out what they are, whereas computers can't. Some classic examples are at

The idea of course is that this prevents SPAM and other nasties as it prevents robots from signing up and then using the new account for nefarious purposes. Naturally, being the Internet there are always ways around these problems. In one novel case, a spammer who also happened to run a porn site, wrote a program that would say something along the lines of "complete this captcha to view the next picture" or something along those lines. The captcha however was copied from some other website; and when the customer decoded it the result was then handed back to that other website and a new spam account was created. The viewer unwittingly solved the puzzle for the spammer.

How to handle lots of email?

People have evolved all sorts of strategies for managing their email. Most people new to computers tend to panic when they have more than 100 messages stored in their inbox, fearful that it might slow down their computer or worse.

Here's my general advice.

1 - Don't bother deleting.

With the exception of obvious spam, you never know when you might need the email again. Also, emails take up such a pitifully small amount of space on a modern computer. For example I haven't deleted any emails for the last 9 years, and in total they take up about 4,500MB. Compare that to the size of the average computer which is usually at least 80,000MB and more commonly 320,000MB, and you can see that there's no risk of filling up the computer with email. Not even close; so it's not worth your time to sit there going through one at a time if you have any significant number of them. Also, you just never know when you might need some email from three years ago when someone contests a will, an account, or something...

2 - File them periodically... :)

Email programs aren't perfect, and it is true that if you have too much email in the one folder the program may slow down and crash. This is particularly true of Outlook, and less so of Outlook Express. (From memory the limit's about 2GB.) To prevent any one folder from getting too big, I generally recommend setting up sub-folders every 3-6 months and moving the relevant messages. (For example, Inbox 2009-01-03, Sent 2008-09-12) In the special case of Outlook, you might need to follow the option of "Auto-Archiving Old Messages." Newer versions of Outlook will usually warn you if something goes wrong anyway.

3 - Search them...

All emails have some form of search feature; so rather than setting up folders for each person you can usually just say show all messages where sender is santa claus for example; and they'll all come up. Some programs, like Thunderbird, will let you save these searches too so you can just click one button to see all the emails from whoever it was. Alternatively you can use something like ... -->

What Is Google Desktop?

Google Desktop is a program people often end up with but don't want, so I often remove it for people as it can slow computers down a bit. However, it can be useful in some circumstances.

What it, and other programs like it, do is when the computer is not busy; they look through all your files making a note of all the words in all your emails, documents, web searches, etc. This means that later on you can type in a word to search for and it will immediately throw up all the documents, emails, files, web pages, etc that it can find with that word in it. It's much faster than most email program's built in search.

Note that you might already have something similar on your computer. Windows Desktop Search is supposed to do the same thing, but Microsoft has a tendency to make a dogs breakfast of search; and it's one of the reasons that Vista is so slow. Nero has a similar feature; and so do some specialised programs like Copernic. (I was up until recently a Copernic Desktop Search customer until they threw up one of those flashing 'you have won a laptop' type spams in my search results. It turns out Google Desktop Search is kinder to my system, more intelligent in it's indexing anyway.) So, if you're a busy computer user with lots of files and emails, it might be worth trying. (I recommend you do a minimal installation unless you also want all the fancy sidebar stuff they try to include.)

One warning: When you search for things in Google Desktop, the results often look very much like a Google search on the Internet - I've had a few panicked phone calls in the past from people who suddenly thought their entire life history was on the internet!

Cheap way to back up email.

The next problem of course is what happens if your computer blows up, or is stolen. You lose all your emails. If you're wise, you'll back them up before that happens, but many people don't bother. Or how about if you go on holiday to New Zealand, and realise you need an email that has something important in it. Well, here's a relatively easy way to solve this problem for the future. Once again, it involves Gmail.

In short, set up a gmail account, then set gmail to retrieve your email from your current address via POP3, but to also leave it on your ISP's server. That way it will silently collect all your email from that point on, but you'll still get it as you always have on your computer too. Then, if something bad happens to your computer, or you get stranded in Honolulu, your email's all there waiting for you.

The one challenge here is that most people don't know what their email password is and you'll need it to set up the retreival at gmail. Fortunately there's some tools on the Internet that will crack them for you. (Search for mailpv.exe for example.)

Breeding Puppies and Yellow Dogs?

While in Coffs recently, a laptop that belonged to a family friend died, and needed a new hard disk. Being quite an old laptop, with very little memory it was always rather slow running XP; so I tried Ubuntu on it. (Ubuntu is one of the free alternatives to Windows, perhaps the best known 'unix' version out there.) Unfortunately it avidly refused to work properly on that laptop - it didn't know how to use the screen properly so all the writing was blurry; and spending an hour trying to fix it using arcane nerdy commands didn't help. Whilst hunting down solutions, one of the websites had suggested that Puppy Linux might be a better option for older computers. Ten minutes later I had downloaded it, burnt it onto a CD and the laptop was being a happy puppy :) You can see what many puppies look like here:

Puppy, like Ubuntu, can be run straight from a CD which means you can try it out without having to actually load it onto the computer. So, if you have an old computer that has become too slow for Windows, but you'd still like to be able to use it to write letters, send email, use the Internet, listen to music etc and be virtually immune to viruses as well; it could be worth it to try throwing a puppy through the window :) (For most older computers, the biggest problem is that the virus scanners are now so huge because they have to be able to recognise thousands of viruses, so by running something that can't get viruses in the first place, you get a big performance increase.

Occasionally of course, puppies need a little training when you first get them; so if you have trouble with the conversion I might be able to help.

And Yellow Dogs??

I was recently almost offered a collection of old Apple iMac computers - you know those ones that look like a cross between a bowling ball and a fish tank? That didn't happen in the end, but it did prompt me to check if there was any way to turn them into puppies as well. Not quite it turns out, but there is an alternative which is to turn them into Yellow Dogs :) See

The advantage here is that it should mean that you can take your aged old mac that is slow, out of date and crash-prone on the Internet, and convert it into a relatively up to date virtually virus proof PC for checking out the Internet and doing office work. There are probably some disadvantages too but I haven't had the chance to find out yet. If you do first, let me know :)

A Sick Palm :(

The PDA (electronic diary) that I have up until today carried with me everywhere for the last 3-5 years took a turn for the worse a month ago, dying completely on the trip to Coffs where I also met the dead laptop. I stripped it down, cleaned it's innards and reassembled it and it came back to life for a bit; but would regularly freeze, often generating some pretty colourful patterns when it did so.

It seems that it is suffering from having been bent too many times - something that's a risk for any wide flat consumer device.

This has meant transitioning to an alternative system. Ideally I'd grab a new Palm Pre when it is released in June, but it'll probably be too expensive at this stage to justify; assuming it's even available in Australia. An Android device might be a more affordable choice. Apple is another option but I don't like their closed nature; so for the time being I have moved most of it over to the Nokia E51 phone, which is reasonably competent but a pain for data entry. (A pocket bluetooth keyboard might fix that.) There's sure plenty of choice now for a smart phone / PDA.

The other annoyance is that the Palm was my MP3 player for podcasts while driving. (Podcasts are great for keeping us IT people informed of what's new while driving.) Almost all other MP3 players fail compared to the Palm because they don't have an option to make the volume even over a podcast. (For example, Merrick and Rosso podcasts have very loud 'wipe' sounds between segments compared to the volume of their voices. Radio stations even that out, but podcasts are raw. These are annoyingly deafening when driving.) For the time being that problem was solved with a 10+ year old Toshiba laptop running Windows 2000 and Foobar 2000 set to eq+20dB and Hard Limiter. I have dubbed it the "poor man's iPod" :) It's working well, which is more than I can say for... -->

A Sick Car.

Well, technically two of them. A couple of months ago the Kingswood was suddenly garaged when it started making a new unhealthy noise that sounded like a dying universal joint. Since it was coming up for Rego I needed to get it fixed, so I took it in and it was diagnosed as having no gearbox oil - a fair explanation for weird noises when decellerating in gear. Rego passed with new tyres, so it was taken home, cleaned and kept aside for when it was needed. This as it turned out wasn't too far away because ...

... a few days later while driving the Nissan in Armidale, I got that 'weak brakes' feeling, shortly thereafter accompanied by the brake light coming on. Drove straight to RepCo and bought some more brake fluid. Topped up the empty container under the bonnet, but found little improvement; so decided I better swap back to the Kingswood until I had time and suitable weather to bleed the brakes and find out where the fluid went. (Or get them done elsewhere.)

... a couple of days later the Kingswood reverted to it's unhappy self, but worse this time. I was driving home up hills and coasting down them to avoid the nasty noises. The whine from the front left wheel bearing came back too, along with a new mysterious juddering feeling when braking from 10MPH to 0 - too fast to be an unbalanced drum. In short, it was not a happy car.

Mechanic for a day.

Fortunately at this time it was about midday and work was not too busy, but I did have more to do in the evening. So, I spent the next 3-4 hours doing the one person limited tools brake bleed shuffle - a relatively simple process but time consuming since for each rear wheel it takes 10-15 pumps of the pedal to clear the lines with new liquid. Since it's normally a two person job but Molly was not likely to learn how to press a brake pedal, it involved finding a pipe long enough to hold the pedal down and wedge between the pedal and the door latch, then 80 trips around the car to alternate between pedal down, nut close, pedal up, nut open.

The back left brake cylinder appears to have been the cause of the leak, with gooey evidence in the brake drum. It's quite a minor leak but a leak none-the-less so I'll have to get it replaced soon. Some fancy skid work on the driveway proved the brakes were working again so it was a quick hand wash and back to work at 5pm :)

I'll have to take the Kingswood back in later next month to get these issues sorted out, as having a working car is rather important in my job :)

Remote Assistance Suicide?

No, I didn't help someone kill themselves! I did, however, inadvertently kill a computer.

I have a number of customers spread out all over Australia, and using I am able to repair most software issues from the comfort of my own home, car, park bench...

One customer rang complaining of some malware-like behaviour; so it was a relatively simple process to download MBAM and get rid of the bugs. However, it seemed prudent to also take care of the queue of updates that Microsoft had kindly sent. I started this update and then left them to it.

About 30 minutes later I get a call to say the computer's broken - won't start. Then not long after another call saying it's working now but all our files are gone. I soon located their files and worked out they'd run the factory restore option which, while usually effective, has pretty bad consequences such as all office programs not working, personal files sometimes being deleted, and the Windows Installer system dying completely, preventing you from installing new programs. So they packed it up and freighted it.

Once I had it, I found out what had happened. It was a bug I'd heard of months ago but not yet encountered - a nasty trap that Microsoft and / or Compaq had accidentally laid.

Her computer was one of the comparatively rare ones with an AMD processor instead of an Intel one. (AMD is Intel's biggest competitor.) When Microsoft released their Service Pack 3 update via that yellow shield update system you see near the clock, they had not tested it thoroughly and the result was that if it was installed on some AMD computers, the computer would not be able to start again. It required a savvy person to either use recovery console or another program to remove the offending component, as per

It was a relatively simple fix in the end, but an example of how sometimes Microsoft can really stuff things up for you! Although to be fair I think the problem is partly related to Compaq as well, from memory. (Not that others are much better - Ubuntu suicided on my laptop after an update for example.)

I gave them a sizeable discount on the whole operation, and made a mental note to check for AMD processors before doing such a thing remotely again.

Blinky the Television Frog :)

In a previous newsletter I talked about GB-PVR, the free program that turns your computer into a TV with the advantages that it can be programmed to record the shows you like automatically. (We rarely watch live TV now, as it's better to watch later and skip the ads.) Anyway, the downside with this system is that the TV shows tend to be 2-4GB in size each, and it doesn't take too long to fill up a standard hard disk drive. (120 shows on a 320G Hard Disk) As there are a number of shows I want to watch later, like Scrapheap Challenge, the lack of space can become a problem)

So, for $229 I bought a 1,600GB drive - nearly 5 times the size of the previous drive. That's the same as more than 1,000,000 of those square floppy disks people used to use, all fitting into a block of metal only 15 by 10 by 2 centimetres!

Since computers are my hobby as well as my job, I'm quite happy fiddling with such things; and one problem with the previous drive was that it was in a USB case and would struggle if it was taping two shows while watching a third show, possibly because USB wasn't fast enough; so this time I decided the new drive better go into the computer's tower. The only problem then is that I have become accustomed to glancing at the old drive to see if it was actually recording or not - since the light flashes. The computer case, a Dell 5150, has a light that's so tiny that it's not visible from the couch. So, enter Blinky, the Television Frog.

Picture at

Some careful rewiring of a circuit board inside the Dell, with three resistors, some shielded cable to prevent transients, and about 2 hours of mucking around; and blinky was born - the tractor headlights blinking whenever the computer's busy doing something. (I guess technically it should be Blinky the TV Tractor, but meh.)

And on the subject of silly pictures - here's how to melt your cold butter at a roadhouse...


So that's it for another newsletter. I guess another day off tomorrow with this silly cold, then back to work Thursday :)

Cheers, Mike

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