Typing Test!

I’ve sometimes wondered whether I could successfully switch from a QWERTY to DVORAK keyboard layout and increase my typing speed. I’ve always been a fairly fast typist, thanks to the 1980’s NJ public school system and a fleet of IBM Selectrics.

I found this typing speed testonline and decided to give it a whirl.

The Results!

Test 1: 82 WPM with one error (damn!)

Test 2: 92 WPM with no errors

Test 3: 94 WPM with no errors.

Granted, this was letters only, no numbers.  I was absent the day in typing class when we covered numbers, and I swear I’ve never recovered.

Typing test with letters and numbers: 67 WPM. Ouchie.

SpinRite, VMware and Windows 7 or Windows 8

Today, my moderately trusty Windows Home Server HP MediaSmart ex495 started complaining of a disk issue. The built-in repair tools seemed to clear the error code, but when I went to run an error scan using HD Tool Pro, the box locked up.  After a reboot, I saw some SMART errors on the disk.  Time for SpinRite!

SpinRite is a trusted tool for performing hard disk maintenance on magnetic hard drives (not flash drives!).  Typically, one would use SpinRite by creating a boot CD or USB stick and running it on a dedicated PC. While it’s running, you can’t use your PC for anything else. It can take hours to do its job.

My preferred method of running SpinRite is inside a virtual machine on my laptop, using an external USB or eSATA dock to connect the troubled disk. To do this, I’ve created a tiny virtual machine in VMware Workstation 8. When creating it the first time, I booted into the virtual machine’s BIOS to change the order of the boot devices to ensure the ISO is the first boot device. I connect the troubled disk to the VM using the Physical Disk option in VMWare Workstation.

I used this method for some years, until it stopped working after moving to Windows 7. Windows 7 would seem to take a lock on the external disk, and the VM seemed to not be able to connect to the physical disk.

The fix for me is to use the DiskPart command line tool with some specific commands to get Windows to release the physical disk so VMware can use it.

In my case, the disk I needed to operate is Disk 2.

Run an elevated command prompt (as Administrator), then run “diskpart”.  Once in diskpart, issue these commands.

list disk
select disk #
offline disk
attribute disk clear readonly

That should do it. The next time you boot the VM, it should be able to take ownership of the physical disk.

Edit August 26th, 2013:

I just confirmed this technique continues to work on Windows 8.

Tip for saving ink printing airline boarding passes

When I fly Southwest, I print my boarding pass at home.  Southwest must think printer ink flows from every faucet, as they include color ads on every boarding pass.  Thanks, but no thanks.

(By the way, if you’ve ever been curious to know what printer ink costs relative to other common liquids, check out this infographic.)

Here’s my tip to avoid printing out those ads and wasting precious ink. I use Google’s Chrome web browser. I can’t say whether this will work in other browsers, but it just might.

  • You’re on the final boarding pass page, ready to print it out.
  • Do File…Print or Ctrl-P (whatever you please to start the print process)
  • Chrome will bring up a print dialog.
  • Change the “Margins” setting to Custom.
  • Drag the bottom margin up to somewhere around 5.5 inches and let go.
  • The ads should disappear (actually, they’ve landed on Page 2).
  • Change the “Pages” setting from “All” to only print Page 1.
  • Donate ink savings to charity.

p.s. Even better tip — save the boarding pass document to a PDF and send it to your phone or tablet, and save the ink and paper.

Simple Pleasures – Hot Swapping Batteries with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus

I recently switched US cellular carriers from Sprint to Verizon, and Android phones from the Sprint HTC EVO 3D to the Verizon Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

Being a power user, I tend to burn through my battery fairly quickly. With any new phone purchase comes the inevitable buying of extended batteries and external battery chargers.

When power runs low, it’s great to be able to swap in a new battery. I love user-replaceable batteries.  You can argue with me that a non-user-replaceable battery would allow for a design that could incorporate a larger primary battery. On second thought, don’t. It sounds like a boring argument.

It’d be great if I could swap out a battery without needing to shut down the phone first. Why isn’t there a little backup battery or capacitor that makes this possible? Probably lack of space, or desire to keep costs down.  Now, you can just pull the battery (killing the phone), and probably things will be fine, but once in a while I expect doing so will cause some kind of data loss and corruption. I’m a good little user, so I always shut down the phone first.

Here’s the “feature” that some of my past phones have had, my HTC EVO 3D didn’t, and my Galaxy Nexus does. I can plug in the USB charger, yank the battery, and the thing keeps running. So I can hot swap the battery without wasting time shutting down and booting up.

It’s the little things.

In which we try mint.com, and I discover my wife’s terrible secret

Mint.com is a whiz-bang personal finance management website. You create an account, turn over every bit of sensitive financial information you’ve been both protecting and hoarding since birth, and in exchange, mint cross-sells you financial products. Well, that’s not quite fair. It also gives you a wealth of insight into your financial picture, helps you create budgets, calculates your net worth, and puts a pretty bow on everything, while cross-selling you financial products. (They gotta make money somehow, right?)

I’ve known about mint.com for a while and finally got up the gumption to give it a whirl. My wife and I gathered all our account details for our various institutions, and I plugged it all in. What I found chilled me to the very bone.

I found … Earthlink.


When I met my wife in 2005, she had an Earthlink account. Earthlink was/is a provider of dialup internet and email services. They competed with AOL back in the day to see who could mail you more shiny coasters with the words “Free Hours” stamped on them.

By 2005, my future-wife had already abandoned dialup in favor of DSL service from AT&T. But she couldn’t part with her old Earthlink email address.  So she struck a Faustian bargain in which she would continue to pay Earthlink a nominal monthly sum (then around $3) in exchange for continued use of her old email address. This wasn’t unheard of. We’ve all been there.

Not long after we began dating, I introduced my wife to the wonders of Gmail, freeing her from the bonds of Earthlink and allowing her to save a few bucks a month in the process.

Fast forward to 2012, in which mint.com is presenting me with a unified list of every financial transaction committed in the past month across all our various bank and credit card accounts, including a charge from Earthlink for $5.95.

“Honey?” I asked sweetly, calling into the next room.

“Yes?” she replied.

“Do you still have an Earthlink account?”

“Oh, yeah. I need to cancel that…”

Resisting the urge to multiply $5.95 per month out over several years, I instead steeled myself and set about canceling the account.

I did a quick google on “earthlink” to get me to their home page. The page wouldn’t load! I thought, holy cow, is Earthlink completely defunct and yet still charging us $5.95 a month? Where’s the money going? Ironically, it turned out our Comcast cable modem was on the fritz. A quick modem reboot later, and I was (with her permission) logging into my wife’s Earthlink account and hunting for a cancelation option. Of course, there wasn’t one.

I instead tried for the Live Chat agent. Of the gauntlet of prompts required to reach a bona-fide Live Chat agent (do they have business cards?), one was “Cancel Account”. Choosing that option returned a message that, sadly, no chat agents were available to help me with that particular problem. So I changed my response to “Billing and Account Issues”, and was shortly chatting with an agent.

In short order, the agent informed me that to cancel the service, I would have to either call a phone number, send a fax or commission a carrier pigeon.

I knew calling was going to result in an amazingly long hold time, so as I dialed, I started working on a fax document. I figured while I waited on hold, I could build a fax machine from spare parts around the office.

Surprisingly, after just a minute or so of hold music, I reached a human being.  He tried valiantly to retain my wife as a customer by cutting the monthly charge down to just $3! As I dodged the agent’s various attempts at retention, I couldn’t help but imagine I had somehow called back in time to some bygone era, talking to a long-departed soul who didn’t know he was dead.

Sensing defeat, the agent played his last card and put me on hold while he spoke to his supervisor. Here goes, I thought.  It’s the let’s put him on hold for 10 minutes and hope he gets frustrated and hangs up ploy.

I hung in there. 11 minutes later, the agent came back with a confirmation number and the deal was done. I hope. We’ll see if mint.com agrees next month.

Verizon’s LTE Coverage Map: Intentionally Misleading?

I’m considering switching cell carriers from Sprint to Verizon. Sprint “4G” (WiMax) simply doesn’t work where we live, and I’m tired of paying extra for service that doesn’t work. Plus, that Samsung Galaxy Nexus is enticing.

So I’m checking the Verizon LTE coverage map to see whether we’ll get LTE.  Here’s a partial screenshot:


Comparing the colors in the map to those in the legend, I honestly can’t tell which red is which, and neither can my wife.  I’ve seen enough optical illusions from psychology textbooks to know better than to trust my own eyes when comparing colors this close.

Who picked the colors for this map? Three shades of red? Seriously?! If not for Hanlon’s razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” I’d assume this was intentional.

Luckily, I’m a nerd.  I grabbed a screenshot, pasted it into an image editor, used the color dropper, and compared RGB values.

Long story short – the map color does not exactly match any of the colors in the legend.

Nice one, Big Red.

So long Vonage, hello Ooma

I’ve been using Vonage for home telephone service since October 2004.  That’s 34.85 Internet Years (using a multiplier of 4.7 as justified in the first Google result for the search “internet years” ).  That’s hella long.

Even though my wife and I both have cell phones (and Google Voice, and Skype, and a million other ways of communicating), we still like having a house phone.  The primary reasons are:

  • We can scatter cordless phones throughout the house, so one is always nearby if someone calls.
  • The speaker phone quality is better on our cordless house phones than our cell phones.
  • We can use them as intercoms, which has come in handy.
  • VOIP quality beats cell phone quality, and the conversation-killing transmission delay is less perceptible with the VOIP phone.

Today, my $19.99/month minimalist Vonage plan, due to taxes and other random and inexplicable fees, is actually costing me $30.44/month, or $365.28/year.  In my opinion, that’s too much money for a service we barely ever use. So I went shopping.

There were lots of options:

  • Phone service from Comcast (too expensive)
  • Running my own Asterisk PBX (too much effort)
  • The “As seen on TV” Magic Jack (requires an “always on” PC and reviews are so-so)
  • NetTalk
  • Ooma
  • And many other also-rans.

I did some quick review hunting, polled some friends, and picked Ooma. Costco was running a special bundle which included the WiFi dongle for free with an Ooma Telo model.  I bit.

With Ooma, you buy the device once, then just pay the telco taxes.  Using Ooma’s online tax calculator, I determined my ongoing monthly bill would be $4.01.

Total cost: $212.49 delivered, plus a $39.99 charge to port my existing Vonage number to Ooma.

Montly cost: If I figure a 3-year amortization of the initial outlay, and also assume that Ooma stays in business the next three years, the monthly cost over three years is:

(($212.49 + $39.99)/36) + $4.01 = $7.01 + $4.01 = $11.02/month.

Over three years, assuming the taxes remain constant, Ooma will cost us $396.84.  Vonage would cost us $1095.84.  That’s a savings of $699.

I wish I’d done it sooner.

Chrome2Phone Hack – Sending arbitrary text

I use KeePass on my PC and KeePassDroid on my Android phone to manage the hundreds of unique passwords for all the sites and services I use. I keep the password database synced using Dropbox on both PC and Android.

I also use Google’s Chrome browser. The Chrome2Phone (C2P) extension is a great way for me to throw links, phone numbers, maps and other info to my phone from the web browser.

Logging into sites and services on the phone can be a pain because of the complexity of the random passwords I use. KeePassDroid is a bit of a speed bump. It occurred to me that I might be able to send a password to my phone’s clipboard using C2P. Ideally, I’d write a plugin for KeePass that could do what C2P does, but I came up with something else.

C2P supports sending text you highlight in a web page to your phone’s clipboard for pasting. If I could get my password into a web page on my PC, I could send it to the phone. I noticed that if I’m on a web page with a textbox, I can paste arbitrary text (like a password) into the textbox, highlight it, right click it, and send it to the phone. I’m security conscious enough to not want to go pasting my passwords into random textboxes hosted on sites I don’t control. With all the javascript flying around out there, the owner of the page could easily grab whatever I put in the textbox and save it for later perusal.  (We’ll set aside the question for now of, “Do you trust C2P enough to use it to send passwords?”)

What I needed was a single text box in a web page that I control and trust. I made the page, saved it on my hard disk, and launched it in a browser. Here’s that file:
<!DOCTYPE html>
<title>Chrome2Phone Hack</title>
<input type="text"/>

But C2P didn’t like the fact that the page was served locally, off my hard disk, and not from a web server.  It refused to show me the standard C2P options in the right-click context menu. Perhaps I’ll suggest a patch to C2P for this in the future. But for now…

I dragged the HTML file to the Public folder of my Dropbox account, right clicked it, and via the Dropbox context menu, got a public link for it. I’ll let Dropbox host my simple page so that C2P will work. I created a bookmark in my Chrome toolbar named “C2PHack”.

Now whenever I need to send arbitrary info to my phone, I can click my bookmark, paste my text into the textbox, highlight it, and send it to the phone.

Easy, right?