Record Player

Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 GenieI bought a record player in the UK that I’d had my eye on for a while and brought it back to the USA with me, since I saved about 50% on buying the exact same thing over here. I got the Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 Genie in white with an Ortofon Red cartridge and also took back with me some great vinyl that I found at a shop called Stamford Audio in my parent’s tiny village.

One problem – when I plugged it in at my house in the USA, it ran too fast. 🙁

The problem is that it uses a synchronous AC motor, whose rotational speed is determined by the frequency of the AC, which in the UK is 50HZ and in the USA is 60Hz. Fail.

My options were:

  1. Buy a smaller spindle. I ordered one but it was way too small, so I sent it back. I couldn’t find the right one.
  2. 3D-print the right spindle. This requires some skill and access to a 3D printer.
  3. Order a 60Hz motor. I looked into this, and the cost was $100. No way, that’s how much I saved by getting this from the UK.
  4. I’m an engineer – build a 50Hz power supply.

Of course, I picked 4.

Turn off your Electronic Devices

I’ve noticed on flights when people are told to turn off their electronic devices, they just turn off the screens. Many (that I’ve seen) don’t even put the device into flight mode. So why do airlines still ask this?

There’s no real difference between an electronic device with the screen on or off, except that it’s not displaying information. Yes, the device is doing less with the screen off but it can still transmit/receive data, and airlines don’t enforce that devices are actually off.

People are still allowed to read paper books during takeoff/landing, so what is the real reason?

Back to the Past

Delorean

Everyone has imagined travelling back in time and reliving their childhood with their present memories – right? But the question is, would you actually do it if given the chance?

The rule is that you’d have to go back in time a significant way – no going back to last week just to pick the winning lottery numbers. You’d have to go back at least 10 years.

I thought about this and my immediate response was yes, I’d do this in a heartbeat. But then I started thinking about the downsides. The main two I could think of were having to relive some kind of hardship (like death of a family member or having to sit exams again at school) and missing people who were not in your life back then. Being away from your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend might be hard on you (the time traveller) but your other half wouldn’t even know you have gone. Imagine meeting them again for the first time when the time came! Maybe you’d even seek them out and meet them earlier, but that might change things.

Next is the question of what you would do if you went back in time. You’d have your present-day memories in your past body so you’d have to be careful not to be branded as crazy, although you could probably pull off being a child prodigy fairly easily. Instead of making massive amounts of money on the stock market, I would prefer to learn a sport, an instrument, and a second language while my physically younger brain is better able to learn. Those are the things that money can’t buy. Most of all I would try really hard to get myself into a better school. I really hated going to school, and it would mean a lot to not feel like those years were wasted.

Would it be irresponsible not to stop terrorist attacks or warn people about natural disasters? In every movie I’ve seen where someone goes back in time and tries to stop things, it never works. Imagine going through September 11th again knowing what is going to happen but being powerless to prevent it. Trying to prevent those things could consume your entire life and would probably land you in prison or a mental hospital.

Would you repeat mistakes or decisions that led to years of pain (like a failed marriage) or make the same mistakes because they brought you to a particular place in life? Would it even matter if you un-did aspects of your previous life since you’d keep the memories?

My School Life

School bell

When I was about 8, I moved from a brand new school to one built in 1859, which apparently cost £1400 to build! I moved from a school that didn’t require a uniform, didn’t make a big deal of religion, and was shiny and new. The school I moved to still had a WWII bomb shelter.

I hated changing schools. This won’t be a rant about how much I hated going to school after the age of 8, but just keep that in mind as you read. I’ll take you through a day at my school.

I was in my second year of primary school when I moved, which meant I was a fourth-year (fourth-grader in the USA). After arriving at school at around 8am and meeting my friends in the playground, we’d wait for the school bell to ring. It was a hand bell, rung in the same dull pattern every day by a teacher (clang-clang, clang-clang). We’d line up into our different years behind our teachers in alphabetical order by last name, so I was at the end. There were only four years in my school, and about 25-30 people per year. It was a small school. Starting with the fourth-years, the teachers would read off each name from the register and we’d say “yes” to indicate our presence. We would file inside and sit down in the main hall, which was the biggest room in the school. Fourth-years at the back, first-years at the front.

Then the headmaster would come in. I hated him. I wasn’t alone in this.

This was called assembly. The headmaster would give announcements and he would always make us say the Lord’s Prayer out loud. He’d usually read some kind of passage from the Bible. It was a religious school. A couple of days a week we would have to sing hymns – I think for around an hour.

In addition to being separated into years, each of us would also be assigned to one of four houses when we started at the school. My house was hawks, and the other houses were eagles, kestrels and falcons. Hawks and eagles were the best houses for some inexplicable reason; they would win the house cup every year. Kestrels and falcons were the shitty houses, just like they are shitty birds. We’d collect house points throughout the year for doing good work, and the house with the most points at the end of the year would win the house cup. I still can’t play RPGs without reading HP as house points. If this sounds a lot like Harry Potter, it’s because a lot of UK schools do this. JK Rowling didn’t invent this.

One day a week we’d meet up with the others in our house, though I honestly can’t remember what we did there. Probably talk smack about the other houses.

We would get two 20 minute breaks per day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We’d get almost an hour for lunch. Everyone including the teachers would eat in the dinner hall (dinner is the original word for lunch in England) and then the kids would play in the playground when done. Dinner ladies are lunchtime supervisors who watch over kids in the playground and serve food if the school has a full-blown kitchen.

The classes I hated the most were RE and PE. Religious Education quite often involved copying long passages from the Bible into our workbooks. It was a massive waste of time and we learned absolutely nothing of value. I would have much preferred to be learning maths (yes, with an “s” on the end) or science. Physical Education wasn’t much better. As I recall, our school had a total of four rounders bats (rounders is similar to softball) and the largest boy in our year would get the only decent one. The tennis racquets were in a similar sorry state. The first time I went swimming with my school, the headmaster pushed me into the deep end and I felt like I almost drowned. I’ve been afraid of being out of my depth since. He was an evil man but he’s probably dead now.

School finishes at 3:30pm in England and evenings are usually spent doing homework, which is like having to crack rocks in prison after you’ve been released.

One other interesting thing to mention is that in the Harry Potter books, mention is made of OWLs and NEWTs that the students work towards. These are equivalent to the GCSE and A-Level qualifications that real students in England obtain.

School in England

graduation_cap_with_tassel

I was talking to someone recently about schools in my home country and decided to make a blog post about my experience. I haven’t written in a very long time and this seemed like a good way to start again. Note that all of this is based on my knowledge and experience – I haven’t attempted to fact-check anything here. It’ll probably be more amusing that way.

In England, children typically start school at the age of five and are required to go to school for 11 years. Most stay on for another two years for what is often called sixth form – that will make more sense later. The first two years are spent in an infants’ school. The next four in a primary school, and the next five in a secondary school. We don’t say grade one and first-grader, we say year one and first-year. We don’t use the terms freshman, sophomore, junior and senior – instead we reserve fresher exclusively for the first year of university.

Before 1992, the numbering system for years was a bit weird. Year numbers started back at one with every new school, so you could be a first-year three times. In 1992 the numbering changed, so I jumped from being a fourth-year to a seventh-year when I went from primary to secondary school!

Students in secondary education receive qualifications known as GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education, formerly O-Levels) after year 11 at the age of 16. They typically get ten of them in subjects such as maths, science, English and a second language. This is roughly equivalent to the high school diploma in the USA.

Following secondary education, students can leave school or stay on for sixth form or college for another two years. During these two years, they work towards qualifications known as A-Levels, which are usually required to apply to university. Sixth form means staying on at your secondary school for a sixth year, hence the name. Strangely, the seventh year is also referred to as sixth form (form being another word for a class of students). College is not the same as university; it’s between school and university, and some people enter the workforce right after college. At college you can instead obtain qualifications in work-related skills, and these are called GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications).

In my next post I’ll talk about my own experience at school and you’ll see how the stuff in the Harry Potter books is similar. Aside from the fact we didn’t learn magic at my school.

Turning the World-Wide-Web Upside Down

OK, I admit this is a silly joke (WWW upside down is MMM, yawn) and that it has very little to do with my post, but I like to add some humour into my blog. Not happy? Whatever.

Recently I upgraded my MacBook Pro to Lion, and amongst other things, Apple turned the default scroll direction completely upside down. Dragging up on the touchpad (or mouse) moves the page contents up, just as it does on an iPad. Previously the scroll direction followed the scroll bar, which moves in an opposite direction to the content. Since I’m a heavy user of a tablet, I found it quite nice and kept the setting. However, now I’m completely screwed at work, because I’m always scrolling pages in the wrong direction now. Bah!

Goodbye Colorado

In September 2010, I left Colorado after ten years of living there. I moved to Mountain View in California to work for Google, a dream of mine always being to work at a tech company in Silicon Valley.

One of the last things I did before leaving Colorado was to finish my back garden. It was bittersweet, because a lot of weekends were spent getting it done, a lot of weeds were pulled, and a lot of money was spent – and after all was said and done, someone else is enjoying it. Not only that, but thanks to the rotten economy, the house isn’t exactly a big money earner in the rental department. Quite the opposite. I even took a week off to finish the deck, which I made by hand. It was certainly a learning experience.

Deck Completed – Finally.

I decided to take an entire week off work, but instead of doing the sensible thing and playing on the PS3 the entire time, I finished my deck. Now it’s done, I only have the rest of the back garden to worry about. Hmm.

Steps:

First railing done:

The best tool ever – nail gun:

Nail gun

The finished article – although the fascia and lattice still need to be attached:

Finished deck

Debt

Debt

A year ago I gave myself a goal to stop making interest payments on credit cards. I have to admit that it never really dawned on me that making interest payments on credit cards is like paying more for every single product you buy on it.

Something else occurred to me – people tend to use credit cards to buy stuff that they can’t afford at the current time, and then make payments on it later. This is fine if you really need something immediately and you know that in the long run, you will be paying more for the product through interest payments. However, a lot of people use them to live beyond their means in the hope that tomorrow they’ll be making more money. This cycle continues, because when they make more money their credit limits go up, and they live further beyond their means.

However, credit limits exist for a reason. They don’t allow you to live infinitely beyond your means, because some people just can’t stop themselves from spending. They allow you to spend a dollar/pound/yen amount over your means, literally your means plus some fixed amount. However, you end up paying back more than you originally spent because of interest, so over time you are effectively living below your means!

Imagine you decided to have a really frugal year and you put all your extra money in a savings account. When the year is up, you continue using your credit card as normal for purchases, but you pay off your card every month using your savings account, thus accruing no interest. Everything you save on interest goes back into this savings account. You can spend within your means plus the contents of your savings account. Your savings account doesn’t empty because instead of a portion of your salary going to credit card payments (including interest), it gets paid into your savings account. Essentially you have become your own lender, and as a result, you don’t make any interest payments! Not only that, but the bank will actually pay you interest because of the money in your account. As a result, after one frugal year, you have more spending power than the person on the credit card. You also maintain good credit scores because of the constant use and good payments of your credit card.

So why don’t all people do this? Because people prefer to live for now and not for next year. Because credit card companies advertise that taking on debt is good (just look at MasterCard). Because credit card companies feed off hard times by increasing their interest rates when people are struggling to pay. Credit cards are seen as the normal way to spend, when in fact they should really only be used as tools to access money you already have, and for strict emergencies.

The same is true of mortgages – imagine that your parents are wealthy enough to buy you a house, on the one condition that you save to do the same for your kids. As a result, no one in the family (as long as the chain is not broken) ever has to make interest payments on a mortgage! The family through generations can even share an account to put surplus money into, so that if one generation hits hard times, the chain will not be broken. This is actually not a big secret – wealthy families have been doing this for many generations, and it’s the lack of interest payments that helps keep them wealthy.

Old vs New

iPods

I was on a plane not too long ago and someone took a look at my third generation iPod and said “oh my god, that’s so retro, where did you get it”. “Er… 2003,” I replied.

That led me to think about things that get better over time, like classic cars and good wine. Then I thought I would draw up a list of comparisons between the iPod 3rd gen and the iPod Touch. Bear in mind that this list consists of things that make a great music player (and it is fairly lighthearted).

iPod facts

I own both, but rarely use my iPod Touch because I don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, the Touch is a great portable web browser, calendar, email client and games platform, but it’s a mediocre music player at best. For one thing, there’s no way to turn off the screen lock. You have a dedicated on/off button, but you still have to slide something across the screen to bring up all the music controls (I’m reminded all the time about the double-tap on the button to bring up the music controls, but this is only about 75% reliable, and doesn’t let you switch album or artist). Also, there’s a bug in the playlist system where if you have a playlist with live updating turned on in iTunes, the songs will appear in reverse order in the Touch but not in any other iPod. Turning off this feature will cause the songs to be sorted correctly.

Apple, please focus on sound quality with the next iPod. Since the first generation iPod, sound quality has remained virtually the same. Where is my 24-bit DAC, virtual surround and high-impedance output stage?