Dyson DC65 Ball Animal Vacuum: First Impressions

or, “Nothing Sucks Like an ElectroLux, er, a Dyson…”


My trusty vacuum cleaner was finally due for replacement. I used a Hoover Spectrum 850 for about twenty years. After a few years the lid port where the hose connected broke off, and I solidly repaired it, which increased the unit’s suction power. A few tweaks later and that vacuum kept chugging. It finally succumbed to a splitting hose which, on a unit that old, was a death stroke. I recently ran across a one-day sale on Dyson Ball Animal vacuums at Home Depot at a price I couldn’t pass up. I’d heard nothing but good things about Dyson products and was eager to give it a try.

It arrived last week and I snapped it together. The unit is mostly made of plastic, which makes me nervous, and a web search turned up other people with the same unease. Dyson responded to one person’s complaint by claiming the vacuum is made from a special combination of flexible plastic reinforced with fibers to make it lighter while still being strong. As someone who over-engineers anything he builds, I’m still uneasy. For example, the handle seems weak and too flexible until you insert the plastic wand into the collapsible hose, which then clips into the handle. The handle then feels more substantial. The main power and beater brush switches are mushy–there’s no solid ‘click’ when they are operated and that drives me crazy. But the switches do function, which I’ve verified by using the unit. These kinds of “user experience” items can be a turn-off with some buyers, and I believe Dyson should spend some time on that end of their product engineering processes.

I fired up the unit and swept my living room. One of my two dogs is in the process of blowing out his coat so I expected more hair than usual, The collection canister rapidly filled and I had to dump it twice. Not only was there hair but a good amount of other dirt and cruft. Dyson claims their beater bar digs deeply into the carpet and I believe them–the carpet is nearly fifteen years old and had been compressed in places. The sweeping fluffed up the carpet so much that it looks almost new. When I emptied the cyclone canister after the first run-through I noticed that the collected dirt looked damp. I quickly realized that I’d run the unit over an ‘accident’ and sucked up some urine with the dirt. Sure enough, I found the spot and avoided it on the second run. I filled the canister again and yet again when doing the bedroom. I noticed some dirt on the inside of the clear sweeper foot but didn’t have time to clean it out.

Several days later I removed the foot from the sweeper. Thanks to the urine I’d sucked into the unit, the dirt had formed a felt-like coating inside the foot that wasn’t removable by simply plucking it out. I disassembled the foot, removing the beater bar motor assembly and going over the inside of the foot with glass cleaner and paper towels. Soon it was clean and ready-to-use again. The foot was clearly not designed to be disassembled by the end user. Three of the screws holding the top and bottom halves together are hidden under the beater bar, and in my case were completely hidden under the felt-like dirt covering. There were also a number of places with gaskets where different pieces connected, helping the unit to maintain that famous Dyson suction. I had to carefully clean any loose dirt from those areas to ensure solid seals when everything went back together. In looking through the manual and online how-tos, I discovered several places where the end user can fish clogs out of the air path. Each of those places include gaskets to maintain the suction. Perhaps it was due to my accident, perhaps the sheer amount of dirt and hair collected, but I had to fish out some collected dirt clogs while I inspected the unit.

My first impressions are these:

  • The fabled Dyson suction is REAL. This vacuum works extremely well. Several people said in online reviews that their units ‘quit working’ or stopped picking up dirt after a few months. Given my discoveries they probably needed to search for, and remove, clogs in several places.
  • All those seals work to maintain the suction, but I can’t help thinking of Scotty in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock when he says, “The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” Did you know the early Chevrolet Corvair cars had well over 100 seals in their engines? (Or so I was told years ago by a car nut friend of mine.) They constantly leaked fluids because of seal failure. Any kind of rubber seal will eventually harden and crack. I’m willing to bet the various Dyson seals aren’t available separately for end-user replacement, if at all.
  • I don’t appreciate the mushy-feeling switches. I’m not sure they’ve been energized until I hear the vacuum turn on or the beater bar start spinning.
  • If the foot gets dirty again, it will be major inconvenience to open and completely clean it out.
  • The abundance of plastic in the unit’s construction may have been a blessing when I accidentally rolled over that urine accident. If, however, there was any metal in the air path (motor, etc.) those parts will start corroding over time. I’m not sure if I’ve prematurely started a countdown clock to the unit’s eventual demise.

Overall I’m pleased with how well it picks up. We’ll see how it holds up–if it quits working after the 5-year warranty is up, I may buy something from another manufacturer. My carpet feels nearly new again, although it still needs to be replaced due to its age.

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Recovering Files from WebCT Zip File Backups

DI Zip Repair

My employer, a local university, used WebCT as its Learning Management System for years. WebCT’s user support was great when we originally adopted it, but that support grew poorer over time. We heard they were being purchased by BlackBoard, a company that had (at the time) even worse reports of poor customer responsiveness for smaller universities like ours. (I don’t know what their reputation is since the merger.) We planned a move to Desire2Learn, and backed up all of the existing courses in WebCT in case they were needed in the future.

Recently we tried to recover two of those old courses–one from 2002 and one from 2009. We’d used WebCT to make  Zip-formatted backups for us. Unfortunately WebCT modified those backups by altering the files it created so that Zip extraction utilities wouldn’t recognize them. Of course, if you wanted to recover those files in WebCT the program would happily read them and re-import their information. Which means you needed to have a working, currently licensed installation of the program. That’s an expensive proposition and is an unreasonable expectation.

I was asked to look at the problem; meanwhile, a co-worker took copies of the files home to try on his ancient candy-colored iMac. At one time he’d been able to extract WebCT backup files on that machine using the version of Stuffit Expander he owned. I threw a number of Zip file extraction programs at the files with no luck–all gave the error that the files were ‘damaged.’

The co-worker reported he’d had success using the old iMac/Stuffit combination. Since I was PC/Windows based and I knew we’d need a more modern way to recover the files in the future, I pressed on. It struck me that these programs all reported the same error–a corrupt file–so I ran them through a free Windows utility called DiskInternals ZIP Repair. The files were then readable and extractable by 7-Zip (my program of choice). After the co-worker compared my extraction and his, he said that my method recovered more files than his method.

If you find yourself in this situation, don’t hesitate to try DiskInternals ZIP Repair.

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On Playing God

Picture of a sign indicating two directions: one is More Difficult, the other Less Difficult.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

People make choices every day—lots of them, in fact. Pizza Hut, Subway, or that new Thai place? The solid blue shirt or the plaid? Some are so simple they don’t require much thought; others will haunt you for the rest of your life.

I adopted an adorable 8 month-old cocker spaniel named Sugarbear in 2008. I already had a 14-year-old cocker named Murphy that was in failing health and I knew he wouldn’t be with me much longer. Sugarbear was an adorable, loving, and somewhat mischievous companion who left a trail of shredded magazines, CDs, a treadmill, and a living room couch in his wake. I loved him dearly and he loved to be with me. A month after adopting him my other cocker died, and five months afterward I rescued a shepherd-collie mix named Rusty from a friend who’d lost some of his good sense. Both Rusty and Sugarbear were pups, and I thought I’d have many good years with them.

One evening when Sugarbear was just over four years old, he and Rusty were chewing on rawhide flips. Rusty decided he wanted Sugarbear’s as well. The scuffle only lasted a few seconds and was over; there was a loud burst of growling and snapping before silence fell again. I scolded Rusty and called Sugarbear over to me. I noticed a drop of blood on his foot. A closer look revealed a tear in Sugarbear’s lower lip. I grabbed a roll of toilet paper and my styptic pencil and tried to stanch the bleeding. I was eventually successful and took him to the vet the next morning. By then his lip had become swollen and the vet determined it was infected. Sugarbear received a shot of antibiotics and I was given some pills to take along. For some reason that particular event stuck in my head as the marker for what was to come.

I soon noticed that Sugarbear would occasionally bump into me when I walked on his right side. At first I didn’t think much about it. His eyesight quickly grew worse and he was diagnosed with SARDS, or Sudden Acquired Retinal Death Syndrome. His pupils dilated and he didn’t respond to visual stimulation. The disease has been suspected of being related to Cushing ’s disease but that exact relationship is uncertain. He also had problems with constant ear infections, and ear canal ablation surgery was recommended. The goal was to eliminate the long, golf club-shaped ear canal by reshaping the flesh to provide a shorter, more direct opening to the inner ear. That would provide better airflow and help prevent further infections. I waited a bit to give topical medications a better chance at working, but was told that waiting too long might allow the ear tissue to harden, or calcify. I approved the operation but in the following months he continued having problems. X-rays determined there was some calcification in the ear tissue and his ears hadn’t healed right. The ear tissue swelled, pushing his normally floppy ears out a little from the sides of his head. One ear canal swelled shut while the other remained open but smaller than normal. Powerful, expensive antibiotics were administered over a period of months, although I was told there was minimal blood flow in that part of the head so they wouldn’t help much. His ears seemed to get better though and the swelling went down. He had occasions where his eyes scanned rapidly back and forth, out of control, and it caused him to walk unsteadily. These events came and went.

I was advised after seeing another specialist that the next thing to try was a complete removal of both ear canals. The infected tissue would be cut away and the remaining area carefully cleaned to remove any lingering infection. The area would be closed over with skin and there would be no openings to Sugarbear’s inner ears although they’d be intact. I was told that, in most cases, dogs undergoing surgery could still hear as well if as someone were holding their hands over a normal dog’s ears. There were risks—major facial nerves traveled through each surgery site which could result in facial paralysis if they were nicked or damaged. If any diseased tissue was missed the infection could reoccur and result in more surgery. He had a pronounced heart murmur, which meant he could die on the operating table if his heart couldn’t take the strain. The surgery also cost $4000, which was $3500 more than I had. I left the office feeling trapped–there seemed to be no good options for my pup. After talking with my regular vet, a person I’d worked with for over fifteen years, I decided to keep him comfortable. I’d been told on previous occasions that if a sick pet lost its appetite and drank less, became lethargic, and lost interest in everyday activities or personal attention that it was time to consider putting them to sleep. Those would be my guideposts, along with vet’s determination of his overall condition. In the meanwhile I turned to my Christian faith for help. I believe in miracles and thought I might be able to get special help for Sugarbear since the doctors hadn’t given me much hope. That didn’t mean I stopped seeing the doctors—I prayed in addition to following doctor’s orders.

After a period of months I’d noticed some loss of fur around his lower lip and a skin irritation that seemed to be spreading. Antibiotics were again called for, as well as an appointment with a dermatologist. After a nearly six week wait for an appointment, during which time the condition worsened, he was diagnosed with a food allergy and a case of demodex. The demodex had no doubt been caused by antibiotics nuking his immune system. His thyroid levels were also way off. Sugarbear’s food was changed to a limited ingredient formula and he was prescribed two medications for the demodex and thyroid issues. It took almost seven months of monitoring and rechecking blood values to determine that the demodex was mostly under control and his thyroid levels were normal. His skin irritation stabilized and there was some scarring under his chin, but some hair had also started to grow back. After the demodex infection his ear tissue swelled out again, more so than before. He was also losing weight. Diagnostic x-rays showed some heart enlargement, although congestive heart failure didn’t seem evident—yet. There was no fluid accumulation in his lungs. The weight loss was attributed to a loss of muscle mass from heart disease.

During this time we had a daily ritual. When bedtime came I’d put him on my bed and flip him on his back at the outset. He’d lie there belly-up with his legs splayed to the wind. First I’d clean any goop from around his eyes, apply eyedrops, and cleanse his outer ears. Next I tended to his mouth and chin, carefully cleansing the area and removing any debris. By the time I wiped his pubic area (which had become leathery-looking due to the demodex and thyroid issues) and his butt (which had developed several small lesions) Sugarbear was usually snoring and deeply asleep. I’d lie down with him and go to sleep as well. Any time he stirred I knew it, and usually got up at least once to help him outside so he could urinate. Despite all his health issues he never lost his appetite, he drank well, and loved to keep me company. If I was working in the kitchen he’d lie on my feet; on the couch he’d lie beside me and occasionally turn to lick me enthusiastically on the leg before settling in again. He was a pup that was fully alive and, although blind, tuned in to his surroundings.

On Sunday, June 1st, I’d stepped out for a while. When I came back Sugarbear was wandering frantically in circles around my kitchen and bumping his head into the furniture. His head was held low, his mouth open, and his eyes were scanning like mad. As soon as I touched him he stopped moving around, and I carried him to the living room couch. We sat for fifteen minutes or so and he seemed better. I sent my vet an email with the details and asked if separation anxiety might be to blame. This question might have seemed dumb, but I’d caught him crying loudly on several occasions when I’d return from stepping out. When he knew I was back he’d stop, so I thought he might be getting himself worked up at my absence. Her reply wasn’t what I’d hoped—she thought the ear infection might be spreading into his brain. She wondered if he was in pain and suggested a pain medication. I had some from a previous treatment regimen and gave him a dose. I also determined I’d take him for a vet visit the next morning.

Monday morning he seemed fine when I was shaving and getting ready to take a shower. Suddenly he jumped up, all his legs locked straight, body trembling, mouth open again. He was whining a bit. And when I saw him my insides clenched up—I knew it was time. Sugarbear’s body was betraying him and the vet’s suspicions were most likely correct. I threw some clothes on, abandoning the idea of a shower, picked up Sugarbear’s rigid body, and loaded him into the cab of my truck. I’d called to let them know I was on my way. Fortunately they were only two minutes away, and I carried him straight into an exam room when I arrived. The vet did a preliminary exam and said she felt it was time. He’d most likely been having micro-seizures for a while and was now suffering from a full-blown seizure. After two injections Sugarbear’s struggle was over. He died in my arms while I blubbered like a baby. I had told him over and over in the months prior that I’d fight with him as long as he wanted to fight, and when he got too tired we’d call it a day. The little guy never gave up; his body forced him to abandon the battle. It was my job as a responsible guardian to end things before he died painfully.

I went back out to the lobby, still in shock, and ran into one of the male vets in the practice. He looked at me with a grimace and said, “Sorry to hear about Sugarbear. I know it’s rough.” I thanked him, and then he said something else while looking away from me. “You sure waited a long time.”

The implication of what he’d said didn’t sink in until after I left the office. Several days later when I returned to pick up Sugarbear’s ashes, there was a weird vibe in the reception area. One of the vet techs wouldn’t even look at me. Of the other two one seemed normal and the last one was reserved. Perhaps I was being hypersensitive, or maybe I was reading something that wasn’t there. But two weeks later I still have the feeling that I had been condemned in the eyes of some people there as a monster who kept my dog alive far longer that he should have been, for my own selfish purposes.

They can never know what the two of us went through together, and will most likely never know that my vet and I had charted out a baseline for what constituted a minimum quality of life. I struggled daily with my choice as well as whether or not it was yet time. I didn’t want my best friend to suffer unnecessarily, but we loved each other and I didn’t want to sever that bond a second sooner than I had to.

A lot of readers will make snap judgments about whether or not I did the right thing. Sugarbear had so many strikes against him that his premature death was almost assured. If I had a do-over I might put him to sleep a week earlier than I did, but not much more than that. I’m sure that would still make me a monster to some people.

If there was anything to be learned from the ordeal, it was this: don’t judge others. Even if you know the facts you can’t prescribe what someone else should do in a given situation. Be kind–you’ll have your own difficult choices to deal with someday.


The photo for this post, “IMG_1362” is copyright (c) 2012 by Sasquatch I and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

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A Cautionary Tale

Picture of the word FAIL

“FAIL STAMP” by Nima Badiey on flickr CC:A

Why I Won’t Purchase from Artifactory Replicas, and Why You Shouldn’t Either.

I love movie and TV show props. These are items that may be an integral part of the story, like Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber, or an incidental set piece like a Men in Black business card. These items, for some, become icons that personally tie them to a story and make it more real to them. The Internet has a lot of information about these things, and there are many websites that cater to people with these interests. One such place is the Replica Prop Forum. The members there often discuss items in detail, obsessing over every measurement and component of a prop, and the more skilled among them make limited runs of these items for purchase by board members.

On February 12, 2010, one member with the handle “SD Studios” opened a message thread in the RPF’s ‘Junkyard’ forum  to gauge interest in a Men in Black “neuralyzer” (otherwise known as the ‘flashy thing’.) (NOTE: a free membership is required to read the posts in that forum.) This member, whose real name is Stephen Dymszo, had a small company that had produced well-recognized prop replicas in limited runs before he went on to found a commercial prop company known as Master Replicas.  He had previously produced the neuralyzer in proper filming scale, which raised a great deal of controversy within the community as it was very large. (The original prop had to be bigger to hold all of the electronics. A hand model with huge hands was used in close-ups to give the appropriate sense of scale on-screen.) These originally cost over $800 each, and people had gladly forked over their money to own one. Master Replicas produced another neuralyzer model under his tenure that quickly sold out. He left Master Replicas years ago to start another prop company, Quantum Mechanix (QMx) before he finally went back to producing props under the SD Studios moniker.

Mr. Dymszo had a reputation of being honest, straightforward, and dedicated to quality. He exhibited high standards in what he produced and happy customers would vouch for his work. After reading the thread about what he proposed I jumped in and registered my interest. He responded with an email giving details and a few pictures. There were two models to be made—a ‘standard’ with rudimentary electronics for $395 and a ‘deluxe’ with fancier electronics and sound effects for $495. The production process should take about 4-5 months, depending on the ability to coordinate the work between five different companies. He wanted to implement a payment plan, and I made arrangements to pay Mr. Dymszo $400 toward a deluxe model. I was told that the final payment of $100 plus shipping would be required upon completion of the props. This began an ongoing saga that, nearly four years later, has not yet reached a successful conclusion.

Members began getting sporadic updates on the progress of the prop. We got enough info to keep us happy and believing that we’d soon receive our precious replicas. We were told there were some initial problems in acquiring the dot-matrix LED displays used in the earlier SD Studios models as they’d long been discontinued. A cache of them was found and production moved along. RPF member JeffreyMorren recently reported that he and Gerry Mros shipped 53 deluxe circuit boards and 7 standard circuit boards to Mr. Dymszo in December 2010. Videos of the working electronics were posted to YouTube. Then, bad news: the printer that Mr. Dymszo had worked with on his previous runs had gone out of business, and now he’d have to find someone who could not only print the control panel legends but could also perform the necessary cutting and trimming of the panel. Months went by. Then we were told that he found an overseas company to do the work, but since this was a small order they’d fit it into their workflow when they could. He’d also discovered that the on/off switches were flimsy and wouldn’t stand up to regular use, so he had to replace all the switches before the units were shipped. Again, months went by with no updates. In the meanwhile, SD Studios continued producing and selling other prop replicas. The reports from his satisfied customers were good, so the neuralyzer customers kept waiting. More patiently than we should have, but remember that this guy had a sterling reputation and produced a lot of great merchandise over the years.

Within the past year he’d mentioned (in an email update, I believe) that he was closing down SD Studios. He’d said not to worry, that all outstanding orders and runs would be completed, but that he was starting a new company. From what I remember he’d also said he wanted to get out of the prop business. The new company would take a considerable amount of his time and effort and that updates would only come with actual news to report. He also asked people to stop bumping the RPF message thread because that could bring unwanted attention from the studios and a cease and desist (C&D) order from the lawyers. A C&D order would mean that the neuralyzers would never be finished or delivered. That kept the buyers quiet for a while longer. Over the past six months or so, however, the message thread has come alive with people who’ve finally had enough and want a resolution.

In the meanwhile, Mr. Dymszo has opened another prop company, Artifactory Replicas. This company produces some pretty boring stuff in comparison to his previous efforts, but these items are intended for use in museums and for eclectic collectors. His offerings include a replica “Shroud of Turin” and the golden record sent off with the Voyager spacecraft. He sent an email update a few months back to the neuralyzer customers that said he fully intended to finish them. However, SD Studios was closed and had no money for refunds or to finish them but he was working on a solution. He also said the money couldn’t legally come from Artifactory as it was a separate business that had no dealings with SD Studios.

As of this posting, neuralyzer customers including myself are still waiting for a product or a refund. Some readers are probably laughing at this turn of events. Couldn’t we have seen this coming? Why did we wait so long before making a fuss? Why should we expect anything if these items weren’t “legal” to make in the first place without a blessing from the copyright holder? Well, there is some precedent for this. Studios have turned a blind eye to this sort of hobbyist activity in the past if the produced numbers of an item are very low. As for the trust placed in Mr. Dymszo, he’d had over seventeen years (by his own count) of producing quality merchandise and happy customers. None of us thought we were gambling our money on an unknown quantity. We believed in him. And in the grand tradition of one “Oh sh*t” cancelling the goodwill of a thousand “Atta-boys” Mr. Dymszo has blown his previously good reputation to shards.

Many of us no longer believe that we’ll see anything from the investments we made nearly four years ago. In fact, if Mr. Dymszo were to contact me with news the neuralyzers were finally ready and asking for my final $100 payment plus shipping, I wouldn’t send him anything. At least, until someone else reported they had and received their item. Fool me once…

The bottom line is this: don’t spend your money with Artifactory Replicas. If Mr. Dymszo was willing to treat the customers of his previous company in this manner, it is likely you may find yourself in the same predicament.

If and when I ever have good news to report I’ll let you know, right here.

To see more of Nima Badiey’s flickr photostream, go here.

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Bubble Wrap for Everybody!

“Bubble wrap” by andrewmalone on flickr– CC: A

“Bubble wrap” by andrewmalone on flickr– CC: A

It’s no wonder today’s kids are so damn fragile.

Weber Middle School in Port Washington, N.Y. recently enacted a ban on all “hard” foot- and soccer-balls as well as baseball and lacrosse balls. Additionally, they banned the playground game of tag and the ability to perform cartwheels unless those activities are performed under supervision. Port Washington Schools Superintendent Kathleen Maloney told CBS New York that the policy changes were necessary because of a rise in injuries. Within weeks, Charlotte Avenue Elementary School in Nashua, N.H.  also barred the game of tag from its playgrounds.

In recent years schools, in the name of physical and mental health and safety, have also banned things such as celebrating Father’s Day because some kids don’t have fathers, using dictionaries since they contain inappropriate words, bake sales, dancing (Footloose!), and even the simple act of touching another human being.  If you have paid attention to the news, over the past few decades there’s also been a rise among children in allergies to items including pet dander and peanuts. Does anyone remember the “everyone’s a winner” fad that was ramrodded through the world of parenting about ten years ago? That was where even the losers in competitive sports got trophies because not doing so would psychically damage them. The latest fad has been the Helicopter Parent who constantly gives support and guidance to their kids to prevent them from making mistakes. Well, I’ve officially gotten to that point in my life when I have an opinion about this.

How many children have we as a society effed up over the past thirty to forty years? How many young- to middle-aged adults are walking around unable to deal with personal failure?  How many people are sent to the hospital each year for being in the same room as an open jar of peanut butter, or are unable to enjoy the companionship of a furry pet because they get hives? During my childhood I played outside, often alone, in the dirt. I even ate dirt, like kids used to, as well as paste right from the jar at school. I was around animals, got licked on the face and mouth at times, and had my hands all over the dog and cat at playtime. I ran a lot, played tag and touch ball games, fell and slid on my knees, and occasionally got into fights. I also broke an ankle, got some bloody noses, and lots of scrapes and cuts. Oh, and I watched the UNCUT Looney Tunes cartoons with the graphic make-believe violence in them. Other than some unrelated health issues I have no appreciable allergies, can discern the difference between real and pretend violence, and can eat nearly anything I want within reason without being admitted to a hospital or morgue. In other words, I am a relatively healthy ‘old school’ adult of the kind that’s rapidly becoming extinct.

Parents, it’s okay to love your kids and want the best for them. But loving them so much that you shield them from the ugliness and violence that’s ever-present in the world will do them irreparable harm. Studies show that kids who are too sheltered grow up to resent their parents, in addition to being unable to adequately navigate through life’s day-to-day difficulties. Studies are also showing that exposure to those “filthy, unhealthy” pets as well as eating a little dirt can spur the development of their immune systems and make them healthier in the long run. On the psychological level, if you’re conditioned to always win and you experience failure your world collapses. Imagine the poor people who eventually end up working for one of these perfectionist bosses who cannot tolerate failure!

So let your children develop healthy coping mechanisms and when they lose, let it be a life lesson: Don’t stop trying, just try harder next time. If they’re learning how to play ball, skate, or climb, they might break something. The kid will definitely heal, and will learn not to repeat that particular maneuver (or to do it more skillfully when they go for a repeat performance).  Let them be licked by the family dog, make a dirt sandwich, and get filthy when they play. Oh, and if they’re writing with their left hand and not their right, don’t force them to use the “correct” hand. As long as their handwriting’s readable why should it matter? Instead, encourage them to use both and you’ll have someone who can function well if either hand is ever broken.

Until our society stops being so litigation-conscious things may not change much. However, as parents you can do your part by letting your kids just be kids. And when your local Board of Education comes up with a boneheaded ban on a harmless normal activity, stand up and call it what it is: stupid, fearful B.S. If you let them get away with it, then next year’s school uniforms just might be made from bubble wrap.

Enjoy more of Andrew Malone’s flickr photos here.

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Spy Much?

-The Electronic Freedom Foundation

-The Electronic Freedom Foundation


Why, love him or hate him, you owe Edward Snowden your thanks.

By now you know the story. American contractor Edward Snowden, working for the National Security Agency, absconds from his job with copies of sensitive surveillance data. He had an attack of conscience when he saw the extent of spying performed by the US Government on us, its citizens. He begins releasing data, shocking the press as well as his fellow countrymen, eludes capture and prosecution by the Government, and gains political asylum in Russia. End of story.

Except that it’s not the end of the story. Data continues to be released on a regular basis that implicates the Government in also spying on our supposed world allies, pissing off such staunch US friends as Spain, Germany, and Mexico. Additionally, recent news that NSA employees routinely used their access to spy on family members, friends, and lovers made everyone wonder whether or not the Government had crossed the line. Well, if there was a line I believe it was crossed years ago, perhaps even decades ago. The citizens of the United States of America have had crosshairs painted on their backs by their government for years, but the most infuriating over-reaches have been facilitated wholesale by their own elected officials since 9-11.

Surveillance technology has been improving by quantum leaps since the first telephone wiretaps were challenged in the legal case of Olmstead v. United States in 1928.  U.S. spy planes carrying high resolution cameras flew the skies over foreign countries decades ago, and when satellites began carrying similar technologies the game rapidly began advancing. Today’s citizen of the world can safely assume that, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, they’ve been spied upon at least several times during any normal day. The success of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network stripped away America’s naiveté and made many in the population ready to accept a surveillance state if it meant they could “stay safe.” Senators and Representatives began rubber-stamping anything the U.S. security agencies told them was necessary for National Security without questioning what they were told. (This is a safe assumption if you look at the loads of crap that’s been approved since 9/11. Any rational person would’ve looked at some of that stuff and put their foot down. Hard.) Now all of our Internet traffic is inspected as is our telephone calls (cell and land-line). It’s been said the only form of communication that’s currently safe from spying is the good old U.S. Postal Service letter.

Mr. Snowden found out that our government wasn’t acting properly in that they were spying on their own, in direct violation of laws designed to prevent it. Revealing what he knew was, according to law, illegal and carried serious penalties for doing so. The sheeple of the U.S. had been lulled into silence by what the news outlets, fed their information by the government, were telling them. He thought they ought to know and so he told them. He felt the good that would come of his actions was so great that it was worth his personal sacrifice. He walked away from his well-paying job, hot girlfriend, and family after leaking the story and chose the life of an isolated ex-pat.

I’m not going to debate whether or not the man is a traitor. I’ve talked with so many people who are nearly physically torn because what he did was morally right but legally wrong and they can’t rectify the two. What I will say is that he deserves the gratitude of the world population because he initiated a badly-needed conversation on the topic of spying. The U.S. Government is not unique—if they spy on other countries (and their own citizens), those other countries are also spying on themselves and us. They traditionally don’t make a lot of noise about the practice. Unless, of course, they’re outed—in which case everybody involved screams foul, tempers flare and people become indignant. When that happens  the diplomatic machinery goes into hyperdrive. Apologies will be offered and hesitantly accepted, situations smoothed over, and spying will resume (if it ever stopped at all) until the next leak. The practice of domestic spying will continue because those responsible are not beholden to the laws. When you’re in government these days, you can hide anything by declaring the information or situation as something vital to national security and you have to answer to no one.

Which, ultimately, raises another question. Who really runs the country? You’d think the President does, but he’s often body-checked by the judicial and legislative branches of the government. This was by design…remember “checks and balances” from your Government classes in grade school? However, this country’s founders didn’t envision that the military/security groups would rise to surpass the House and Senate in power. Looking at history over the past sixty years or so, you can see any number of times the country’s citizens were conscripted into the armed services, forced to fight against their personal and religious beliefs, and used as science experiments by their own government. Money was acquired through obfuscation and deceit to build top-secret military facilities (think ‘Area 51’) and fund programs that wouldn’t have gotten a dime had they been properly submitted for approval. It would seem that the military really runs the show and, if that’s true, how does that make us different from many other countries already under military rule?

So, whether or not you like or agree with Edward Snowden, you should thank him. People who are willing to stand up for the rights of their fellow human beings are far too rare these days.




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Webcam. Digicam. Why Is There a Difference?

MicroShaftedMicrosoft purchased Skype, a free service, for $8.5 billion dollars a few years ago and the program’s users howled in protest. They’d seen that movie before, and knew about Microsoft’s “embrace, extend, and extinguish” strategy. Microsoft promised Skype’s users that they wouldn’t screw it up. A recent OS reinstall and upgrade of the program broke a major component for my employer though, and we’re not happy about it.

Let’s go back into time a bit. Several years ago we had a Polycom videoconferencing system installed in our conference room. We’d used it a lot in the past but the system had gotten old and the university’s gatekeeper wouldn’t support it anymore. We were quoted $15,000 to upgrade it. Department management weighed the cost against other needed upgrades and instructed me to dismantle the old system. I then purchased a Sony PTZ low-rez (NTSC) videoconferencing camera, Vaddio camera shoe and converter box, and a Grass Valley ADVC55 video digitizer. After installing two CAT-5 runs I put the camera on the upper back wall of the conference room and put the rest of the equipment in the presenter’s podium. The camera was then connected to the Mac through the digitizer with a FireWire connection. After also installing a Panasonic PJP-25UR USB conferencing microphone and Skype the system worked flawlessly.  We used it several times for online course sessions and job interviews, but mostly used the system for lecture capture using Tegrity. All was well with the world.

Last week we received a request for two remote connections into a workshop. Knowing Skype couldn’t handle it I decided to try GoToMeeting by Citrix. Meanwhile the podium PC needed a software upgrade so we allowed the campus IT folk to load a new image, after which I downloaded and reinstalled Skype as well as GoToMeeting. I first brought up GoToMeeting and the program couldn’t find our camera. Then I brought up Skype and it couldn’t find the camera either. Hmm. Time for serious troubleshooting.

I soon eliminated the cabling, digitizer, and camera as the source of the problem. I hooked the signal chain into the FireWire connection on a Macbook and got a great picture using different software. Then I hit the web. It seems that a number of people had developed the same issue after a Skype “upgrade.” Skype now only works with devices that identify themselves as webcams. After sending a Tech Support request to Citrix I discovered that GoToMeeting only supports webcams as well. Tegrity still works fine with the setup, so it seems that the support for my equipment is on a per-program basis and not at the OS level where it should be.

This makes no sense. I can (sort of) understand if Microsoft wants to derail businesses from using Skype in that manner since it’s a consumer product, but GoToMeeting’s stated premise is to allow conferencing with anyone, anywhere—and you’d have to believe that one of those locations would have a bunch of people at a big conference table.

It turns out there’s a workaround. Several companies offer software that allows a DV (digital video) camera to emulate a webcam. Programs such as ManyCam, SplitCam, TrackerCam, WebcamDV, and Webcam Studio (for Linux) are used for that purpose. Some of these have trial versions; some allow additional features such as titling and transitions. All of them require running their programs first, then minimizing them while you run Skype or GoToMeeting. You also have to go into each application’s setup menu and choose the camera “shim” software as your video source before your camera can be used. It’s not an ideal solution. I’d like to have a free program that performed the shim function silently, in the background, without all the other features that I don’t require.

I used to have a setup where someone could go into the conference room, boot up, launch the desired program, and they’d be ready to use the system. Now I have to be there to set up and tweak the system for them. Citrix’s GoToMeeting software has been around for a while, and it’s inconceivable that they still don’t support DV cameras.

As for Microsoft breaking something that already worked? Perhaps they’re finally learning some things from Apple…

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