Saturday, June 28, 2008

Backyard Tech - Part 2, Bugs Bug Me

It's hard to enjoy your backyard on those warm summer nights when you're getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. The little pests rule from dusk to dawn, and even with bug spray on, they buzz around your head and drive you nuts!

I'm a skeptic, and I was slow to embrace mosquito traps. They sounded like a good idea, but there wasn't a lot of information on results, and they were a bit pricey.

Well, we finally got tired of being chased out of the pool at night by the little blood suckers, and decided to take the plunge. We looked at them all, and ended up getting the Skeeter Vac by Blue Rhino.

To my surprise, the thing actually works! Click on the picture above for a close up of a recent night's catch. When we first started using it, the haul was much bigger, but after a couple of seasons of operation we've effectively reduced the mosquito population in our backyard.

The reasons we chose the Skeeter Vac over the Mosquito Magnet were price and ease of operation. The Skeeter Vac models run entirely off of propane, there's no power cord required. Being able to locate these things where you need them is crucial to their success, so this is a huge factor. Plus you can get a top of the line Skeeter Vac for the same price as a mid level Mosquito Magnet.

Now this isn't an overnight cure, but after a few cycles, you'll really notice a difference. Placement is key, so spend the money and get a wheeled one if you can. It will make life a lot easier.

The unit needs to run 24-7 to be the most effective. A 20 lb tank of gas will last two weeks, and I usually change the bait and the tack paper every other tank swap.

I've noticed at the start of each season that it doesn't seem to perform at it's full pest killing potential until it's been running for a few days. I guess it has to warm up to the job. If you're still not catching much after the break in period, try relocating the unit. You want it near the source areas, and away from you.

Northline has a 30 day free trial program on some models. They carry both brands mentioned, as well as a few others, and have a nice comparison chart.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Backyard Tech

Here's a backyard gadget that will help to make your summer a breeze.

the Pool Buster is a rechargeable self contained pool vacuum that attaches to a skimmer pole or can be hand held. This thing is great and has cut down on my pool maintenance time considerably. Check out the video.

I enjoy cleaning the pool, it can be a relaxing way to spend a summer morning, but the setup is a hassle and the whole thing is very time consuming. With the Pool Buster, I just pop it on to a skimmer pole and I'm off. No hoses, no bot to lug around, and I'm usually done in about 20 minutes. I'm also backwashing much less frequently, which not only saves time, but also money.

I'm not just being green by not pumping out all of that water (and chemicals), I'm saving green. Al Gore would be so proud of me!

A charge lasts me through 2 or 3 cleanings of a 16' x 32' in ground pool. It comes with a 1 hour rapid recharger, but works best on a full 4 to 5 hour charge. I've seen some complaints about battery life, but I haven't experienced it myself. I have a buddy that has one also, and neither has he. It's important to give it a good initial charge of 5 hours, and to not keep it in your pool house. The temperature extremes will wreak havoc with any battery powered device. It's also recommended that you give it a full charge before you put it away in the winter.

The product was renamed this year to Pool Blaster (a little trouble with the folks at Dust Buster, perhaps?) and can be found advertised both ways. There's also a smaller Catfish model for spas and small above ground pools.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Windows Media Center - Black Screen Syndrome

I recently went to start up Media Center on my PC and instead of getting the expected Microsoft sound and the familiar blue window... I got nothing.

Actually, I got more than nothing. I got a black screen, and a little acid reflux.

I use the Media Center PC for all my video processing. It's one big ass Tivo, with all kinds of inputs and tuners, just perfect for recording and mixing all kinds of media.

Personally, I think Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 was Microsoft's best work, and they should have stopped there. It was the step before Vista, and it's the best of both worlds. It boots up in XP and allows you to start up the Vista-ish Media Center when you need it.

So anyways, the PC is a pure work horse and I try to keep it clean. No careless surfing, no installs of anything until I've done my homework.

But as I'm sure you know, it's not always easy to keep a networked computer clean. I went to a site that I thought belonged to a university, but soon discovered it was a spoof, and blam!, I picked up a downloader.

I struggled with it for a while, and hopefully I won the battle. I'll chronicle that little adventure in another post. What I want to talk about now are the after effects.

Shortly after the downloader incident, Media Center stopped working. Whenever I'd click on the green desktop icon I'd get a black screen.

At first, all I could do was Ctrl+Alt+Del and stop the process, with no idea what was going on, and even that wasn't easy. The screen would briefly show the Media Center window and the Task Manager, then revert to black. It took two or three in a row to get control over the window.

I couldn't find anything obviously wrong with the system. It performed just fine as long as I didn't try to start Media Center.

So, being a natural born rock head, I opened Media Center again (and again, and again), until I found that if I hit Ctrl+Esc I got some control. The Media Center screen would appear and I could click one option, and then I was back in black. The next Ctrl+Esc showed that I had advanced to the Videos screen, and now I had a valid error message: "The video decoder has either malfunctioned or is not installed".

A Clue!

After a little searching, I found this site: Windows XP Video Decoder Checkup Utility. Once the great and powerful Microsoft determined that my copy of Windows was on the up and up, I downloaded DECCHECKSetup.exe. Running the setup installs the Video Decoder Checkup Utility under Programs, Windows Media.

When you fire up the utility, it goes off and checks for installed video decoders and reports back on what you have, which ones are Media Center and Media Player compatible, and which one is set as the "preferred decoder". Nice little utility!

Right away I saw that my InterVideo decoder had been deposed by a pretender to the throne.

The utility allows you to change the preferred decoder after it finishes it's check, and just like that, I was back in business.

The wrong video decoder will also cause similar problems with Windows Media Player 10 and 11, so the Decoder Check Utility is a handy tool to have even if you're not running Media Center. The fact that Microsoft has a utility specifically for this problem indicates that it's pretty common.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lost - Octagon Global Recruitment Letter

Check it out, I'm being recruited by The Dharma Initiative!

Must be a new Lost ARG (alternate reality game) for the hiatus. More info in our Lost section at:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Celtics Win!

The Garden was rockin' tonight, and so were the Celts as they beat the Lakers in a game 6 blowout and became the 2008 NBA Champions!

They came to win tonight, plain and simple. Garnett, Allen, Pierce, hell, the whole team and the fans all get a Tommy point for this one.

I don't think I've ever seen a team play with so much intensity. They were lights out as they demoralized and demolished the Lakers 131 to 92 and gave us the perfect ending to a perfect season.

Such a great team, and team is the operative word here. Injuries, off nights, no matter what, there was always someone stepping in and coming up big. That's how you do it.

Watching them celebrate the moment was incredible, and imagining the Zen Master and Kobe's plane ride home made it all the sweeter.

Take us home one last time, Gino...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Beefing Up Your Cable Signal

Last week I told you I was watching an older TV equipped with rabbit ears while we were away. It was an acceptable way to catch the news in the wilds of Maine, but that’s about it. It really pointed out how spoiled I’ve become by cable.

I hate poor reception, it really drives me to distraction. I’m forever tweaking the cable plant in my house, and I usually can’t stop myself from messing with my friends and relatives connections if the picture on their TV looks a little fuzzy or their home network is sluggish.

Hey, I grew up working the rabbit ears on top of our TV like a Navy Signalman, and sometimes adding things like tinfoil to them, all in a vain attempt to pull in that one extra station. I don’t think I ever really got a good look at Uncle Gus out of NH, but I certainly tried.

When cable first arrived on the scene, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. As I began to explore and expand the capabilities of my cable drop, I quickly found out that it can look just as bad as those old rabbit ears did if you’re too cavalier with it.

The key to good cable reception is keeping down the signal loss. It’s a lot like antenna reception in that way. The stronger the signal that reaches the TV, the better the picture quality. Every foot of cable, every splitter, every DVD and VHS connection, causes signal loss. Even the type of cable you use enters into the equation. You always want to use RG6 cable. It costs a little more but has less signal loss then RG59.

There’s a certain tipping point that’s dependent on both the strength of your signal at its point of entry, and the number of wacky things you do with it from there. You can calculate it all out here, but you’ll know when you hit it ‘cause you’ll start getting a washed out, grainy and/or wavy picture, or pixilation on the SD and HD digital channels. It’s a huge disappointment if you’re feeding a cool new flat panel.

I currently have 3 separate runs split off of the main. The 2 runs for the upper floors are relatively long, but we get a good strong signal from the street and the cable and connectors are in good shape, so picture quality has always been good on these TV’s.

The third leg goes into the basement, and this is the one I abuse…

I split this leg 3 times. Two short runs (15’) and a long run that goes about 50’ into yet another splitter that feeds both an HD cable box and a DVD-Recorder and VCR that are tied together in series.

The HD from the cable box looked good, but the feed from the recorders just didn’t look crisp by the time it wound its way back to its respective TV input. Having both the DVD and VCR on improved the picture to the PIP, as both devices were pre-amping the signal, but as soon as I had one or the other on by itself, the reception was poor on a lot of the channels.

As I said before, I hate a crappy picture, so I tore into things. I pretty much knew from the start that I was going to need to amplify the signal, but if your going to do something, you might as well do it right.

First I tried reconfiguring. While I was doing it, I replaced a couple of the cables and checked all of the connections. A bad cable or a loose connection is often the cause of poor reception. While you’ve got the cables unplugged, shine a light into their connectors and be sure you can still see the white dielectric, it has a tendency to shrink back into the jacket with age. If it has, either replace the cable or trim it back and crimp on a new connector.

Anyways, all that work and no change. I still had a crappy picture.

Next I went out and got an amplifier for the line. For my application I needed a Bidirectional amp. There are a couple of different types, and you need to get the right one for your particular setup.

Here’s what you need to know:

In-line signal amp: 10 db, single direction amp. Gain not adjustable. Ok for basic cable, but not for digital with a set top box or cable modems.

Bidirectional amp or Forward Gain: If you have digital cable boxes in the house or get voice and data through your cable provider, you need a bidirectional amp. It has a portion of the bandwidth (5-42MHz) reserved as a return band to the provider, which allows two way communications for the voice and data connections and also the interactive features on the cable box. This single port bidirectional amp boosts your signal by up to 10 db and the gain is adjustable via a small knob. This device boosts only the incoming signal. It does not boost the return signal to the provider.

There are also Reverse Gain and Two Way Active amps, the former beefs up only the return band, the latter, both. You’d want one of these if your box is timing out during interactive functions or you have a troublesome link between your cable modem and your provider.

So I got the amp that was right for the job, and it really did the trick. I put the amp in line right where the feed comes into the house, then came off of it with a 6 foot cable that ties into the input of the first splitter. This way it’s distributed evenly throughout the whole system, and it’s amplifying the best signal possible. This is important, as once you start splitting the cable, you water down the signal, and you don’t want to amplify crap.

Not only did it clear up the feeds to the recorders, it also made the sets that we already thought looked good, look even better!

The amp I’m using is a single input, single output. They come in all kinds of configurations (1 in, 4 out, etc.), and once again, you want to get the one that’s right for your specific application. Keep in mind though, that too strong a signal can be every bit as problematic as a weak signal. I barely needed to tweak the gain at all for my setup. I have it set at 3 of 10. Any higher and the signal is too strong on the shorter runs.

Okay, here's the stuff to remember:

Most reception problems are caused by cables or connectors, check them first, and use the right components for the job:

Use RG6 cable and connectors

Use 1GHz splitters

Research and come up with the best wiring scheme in regards to signal loss. Pay attention to the amount of signal loss on the outputs.

And if all that fails:

Be sure to get the right amplifier for your situation.

Don’t put it too close to the end device; keep it at or near the cable’s entry point. Amplifying crap just gives you amplified crap.

And as always, when in doubt, look it up. Broadband Reports FAQs section is a wealth of information on all things broadband and dsl related.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's Gino Time!


Thank God I didn't give up and go to bed. This was a game I'll remember for a long time.

It was the most incredible comeback I've ever seen, after the worst first half I've ever seen.

They were down by as much as 24 in the first half, and they still came back to win, on the road, against the Lakers...


The Celts are really in command of this series now with a 3 to 1 lead. It would be an awesome Father's Day gift to see them clinch it on Sunday.

For now, let's just revel in the moment, and watch Gino dance. Feel free to dance along.

Full game coverage here.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


We've been unplugged for the last few days, and it was soooo nice. No Internet, no phone, no cable, and barely any cell service at all. Of course, we weren't completely unplugged. We had the iPods, and there is a vintage tv set with rabbit ears in the cottage, but we were without the major distractor factors.

Hey, who needs technology when you've got fresh lobster sauteed in butter and wild blueberry pie? Not me. It's been way to long since we took a real break, and although this one was short, it was sweet, and just what the Dr. ordered.

I find that if I'm connected, I just don't relax. Even when I'm home under the weather, I still end up fielding calls or on the PC. Our home phone never stops ringing, and half the time it's someone looking for a donation or trying to get us to participate in some survey.

"Is this Mr. or Mrs. berryjocks? I'm calling on behalf of the Crop Dusters Benevolent Society and we're raising money to buy gas masks for the pilots. Should we put you down for the standard "Golden Mask" contribution of 50 dollars? There are cheaper packages, if you're not fully committed to saving lives..."

They always butcher your name, and they always spit out at least a paragraph before you can get a word in edgewise. It drives me nuts.

So, it was time to retreat. Time to lay in the sun, read, nap, walk the beach, and of course, eat. No ringing phones, no urgent emails, nothing but our own agenda.

Unlike most things in our lives today, you can't recharge your internal batteries unless you unplug.