Friday, February 26, 2010

GADGETS: How to choose a netbook

Nerds and many other people can find a small portable computer to be extremely useful. Last Saturday, Jenny from Reed (strangely not on twitter) posted something on her facebook page seeking guidance on a netbook purchase. I leaped into action, and posted her some advice. This made me think that there might be others out there in need of netbook advice.

To your left is a picture of my netbook. It's not actually a netbook, mind you, because I bought it in 2006, for roughly 10 times what they currently cost. However, it has something no current netbook offers: a built in optical drive. Yes, I can play and burn CDs and DVDs on my netbook. Also, it has a button on it that boots it directly to CD/DVD playback mode without powering up anything else. It's good for battery power. Plus, it has a James Bond fingerprint scanner, which is pretty excellent when I'm out at a place with wifi, and I have to get up to refill my drink. My laptop is a Sony, but when I got the iPhone, I thought it would be cute to throw the sticker on it and represent. Stickers are an important addition to any laptop. When people see you in the world with your laptop, stickers help them to know you're awesome. Also present, the Evangelion sticker on the top left, my friends' band bottom left, and nerdy t-shirt headquarters, Jinx on the bottom right. I'm entertaining candidates to go diagonally in the open space. Maybe I'll find something good next time I see They Might Be Giants.

 Now, there are a few things you should know before you go to pick out your netbook. Price is a consideration, but netbooks are pretty uniform in cost these days, roughly around $300. Hard drive space is something else to think about. You're generally going to see models with either 160gb or 250gb. Unless your price tag is pinned to the sub-$300 range, it's probably worth it to splurge the extra $50 for the extra hard drive space. As far as CPU, you have two basic options right now. The Intel Atom n270 and the Atom n450. Now, without going into all of the technical details, you can break it down like this: both processors are physically around the size of a quarter, and have pretty similar speeds. The main thing the n450 brings to the table is battery life, and a tiny bit of processing speed. If you're really into using your netbook without external power, the n450 may be worth the little extra money. I personally mostly use mine plugged in unless the four tables with power outlets are all taken when I get to Panera, and when I've had to use it on a bus or train or plane, the battery power is enough to watch at least one movie.

Will it be your only computer? If the answer is yes, you should probably think about spending a little more money and getting a full fledged laptop. Netbooks don't really multi-task effectively. Sure, you can run MS Office, or Firefox, or watch a movie from the hard drive... But you can't really do more than any one of those things at a time. Also, you're definitely not going to be playing any recently released games on your netbook. Also, do you travel much, or like sitting in coffee shops? Then a netbook is a really solid decision. Another tip is don't buy your netbook online. Go to Best Buy or the consumer electronics store of your choice and handle one. Put your fingers on the keyboard and type a bit. Make sure it's comfortable for you. It's going to be strange at first, because the strike depth of the keys is incredibly shallow. But as long as there's room for your hands, and the buttons are far enough apart for you to hit one at a time, you're probably okay. Also, feel the bottom of it. Is it super hot sitting idle in Best Buy? All that heat is generated by electrons sliding through molecules of gold, and those electrons come from the battery. So if it's super hot while not doing much of anything, it may be spending too much battery power on friction. Also, hot keyboards aren't comfortable typing surfaces.

One last thing to consider is this. If the netbook is going to be your second computer, you should think about getting a small external hard drive. Mine is a MyPassport from WD. It draws power over the USB, so you only have one cord to worry about, and it will operate off your computer. As you can see, it fits in the palm of your hand, and weighs almost nothing, so if you have a messenger bag or something to tote your netbook around, the drive will easily fit in a pocket of the bag, and you won't even notice it's there. Of course, if you already have a decent sized iPod, you can just enable disk mode, and use it as your external hard drive. Either way, it will be pleasant to have an external memory device to transfer files quickly between your two computers. I also keep my entire music and photo library backed up on mine, just in case. While you're at it, if the netbook is going to be your only computer, you may want to explore an external USB-powered CD/DVD device. Otherwise, you're not going to be able to watch movies unless you download digital copies to your hard drive. Again, make sure it's USB-powered, so you only have to worry about one more cord. I will say that the only time I really use the optical drive on my netbook is when I want to watch a DVD, and sometimes I'll burn a CD for a someone. Those two uses aren't that frequent though, so think about the last time you put a disc in your computer before spending the extra cash.

If you need someone to hold your hand while you pick out a netbook or any computer hardware, I'm here for you. Just throw me a tweet, email or message on facebook, or leave me a comment here and I'll leap into action as soon as I get it. And sure, I have a super awesome desktop, with a repulsively massive amount of monitor space, and a quad core nehalem cpu, but here I am on my couch, blogging from my netbook.

Last piece of advice! This may seem like common sense, but don't put your new computer away hot. Shut it down and let it cool off before you stick it in your bag of choice. You don't want it to be hot in an enclosed space.

@nerdsherpa, purveyor of portable awesomeness.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

SURVIVAL SKILLS: How to Eat Pancakes

Some of you have doubtless witnessed my pancake eating system firsthand. Still others have seen the movie My Blue Heaven, from which I learned it, many years ago. Regardless, as I spent the first half of the day today at International House of Pancakes on their free short stack of pancakes day, I figured it would make a good blog post. More on the system in a bit, but first, while I'm not usually a sucker for charity type stuff, Lou the owner/operator of my local IHOP stood up and announced on the restaurant PA system, that last year, the people of Brick helped his store become the number two collector nationwide for the Children's Miracle Network charity, and he said that if they pull in $15k today, they would very likely be number one. Like a sucker, I donated twenty bucks. However, since about 95% of the audience for free pancakes were local high school students, I felt like I had to compensate for some of their likely-to-be-awful donations.

Now, on to the system. The basic purpose of the system is to provide an equal amount of syrup to every bite of pancakes through using a moderate amount of prep work up front, instead of whatever mess of a system you currently use. (Dipping, smothering, etc.) At the end of the post, I'll endeavor to post a YouTube video of me actually performing the system on my stack of pancakes, if I can get that to work. Throughout the post, the photos are of my friend Jackie attempting to use the system for the first time.

STEP 1: Apply butter normally, by lifting each pancake, and spreading butter on the one below. This is the only effective way to transmit the butter throughout the stack as it is a solid at room temperature, and when melted it's difficult to control.

STEP 2: Align the stack of pancakes so you have a more or less uniform stack. You don't want to have one of your pancakes too far off center, or step 3 will be far more difficult.

STEP 3: Cut your stack of pancakes as you would a pizza. That is to say, cut it into eighths. Now, your first instinct is going to be to stab your fork tines into the pancakes to stabilize the stack for cutting. This is not recommended. Instead, lay the fork flat (curved side down as shown in the picture) on the pancakes, and cut between the two center tines. This will help mitigate excessive tearing along the edges of your cuts. The goal here is to keep your slices very tight, and keep the stack more or less aligned as described in step 2. A helpful tip for the cutting is to turn your plate and cut the same direction, all the way across the stack every time. Doing this will allow you to make only 4 cuts, and prevent any awkward wrong-handed cutting.

STEP 4: Now you may apply your syrup. Do so at the center of the stack, at the junction of the cuts. The slices you made in step 3 will serve as natural channels, carrying syrup throughout the stack. You may apply as much or as little syrup as you like, and the system should still work.
As you can see from a cross section of my stack above, the system is self-regulating, and does not result in the bottom pancakes being saturated. Through a miracle of science, syrup is transmitted equally through the stack to each piece.

Here is the link for the video:, (Yeah, it goes silent about 30 seconds in. One take, people! Shot on an iPhone! Some day, I'll get editing software.)

@nerdsherpa, philanthropist and carbohydrate engineer.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

POP CULTURE: Going to Conventions

Here is a new responsibility: You need to start attending conventions.

They happen frequently enough that you should be able to hit at least one every three months within a short distance of home. If you live in a major metro area, then you really have no excuse. Last year, when my whole nerd renaissance began, I only attended two conventions. This year, I already have one under my belt, and at least three others on the horizon, but more on that a little later.

Here's why conventions are important. Large quantities of our people assemble, and do things together. Here's something you probably know all too well. Nerds are shy. It is therefore difficult for us to meet others of our kind and form will-to-live-sustaining social relationships. But at conventions, things are different. That cute girl or guy over there? Nerd. He or she is in your league. You have things in common. You can have a conversation. You even probably have some amount of geography in common. I grant you, these revelations may not help you lower the shields and open hailing frequencies, but time and exposure will.

The first con I went to since I resolved to change my life was February 2009 New York Comic Con. My friend @nperkins and I both had new jobs and disposable income, so we decided to get VIP tickets. Worth every penny. We got to avoid lines for screenings, have our own secure coat check area and never had to wait in the giant line to get into the place. If there's a ReedPop event near you this year, get VIP tickets. You'll thank me and see me there.

Now, by my second convention of last year, I was unemployed. The economy smashed the construction industry and my job evaporated so at the last minute, I sent an email to the wonderful Kim at Reed (who I dealt with for the VIP tickets) asking if they still needed volunteers for the New York Anime Festival, which was about a week and a half away. She put me in contact with Michelle (@volunteerdenmom) and we got me on the schedule. By about halfway through the thursday setup for the show, I knew that I would probably not attend any future Reed conventions as a guest. In truth, despite my extensive background of fixing friends' computers and recommending gadgets, movies and television shows, September 2009 is when I really became a Nerd Sherpa.

The fact of my sherpitude was quickly recognized and over the next few days I struggled to learn the names of the staff folks, despite their best efforts to the contrary. (They assured me that @lsett's name was "Gus") And pretty soon, @volunteerdenmom, @crunchysunshine, @littlest_asian and @petertatara were all close friends. You too can make friends at conventions. I can even give further examples!

This past weekend, @dreadpiraterose and gave me tickets to Farpoint, a fan-run sci-fi convention in Baltimore. Since this year's guests included @feliciaday, I knew immediately that I had to take @nperkins, who introduced me to The Guild. Point is, in the 3 days of the convention, we made a handful of new friends by going to panels about things we found interesting. Specifically, @moonrangerlaura, @cmaaarrr and the aforementioned @dreadpiraterose, who I had never met before the show. It was great fun, we got our pictures taken with @feliciaday (Look how pale we both are! Nerds unite!), and we made new friends. And this can happen to you too.

My next convention adventure is PAX East, in Boston in March. (If you want to go, move fast. Tickets will 100% sell out before the day of the show.) I'm super excited for the show because a number of my Boston area friends will be there. Even if volunteering means I won't be able to super spend time with them, it will still be a huge amount of fun. Also a big deal, my friend Scott (@mrmacguffin) will be introducing his independently developed game, All Heroes Die. You should check it out.

A few weeks after PAX, Reed is flying a handful of NY Volunteers with leadership skills out to Chicago to help them whip a new team of volunteers into shape to run Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo aka C2E2. It will be my first time actually in Chicago, and my first business-type trip. No paying job has ever sent me anyplace on a plane, and here I'm volunteering for these people and they're flying me halfway across the country and putting me up in a hotel for a week.

I'll also be volunteering at NYCC 2010, this October, and you should definitely come out for it, wherever you live. The show is going to be bigger than ever before, utilizing the entire Jacob Javits Center, instead of just half like in previous years. Also notable, there will be a symphony orchestra performing the score to The Two Towers while the movie plays on a giant screen over their heads at Radio City Music Hall. If you're a nerd, New York will be the place to be October 8-10.

While reporting on every convention happening everywhere is far beyond the scope of my blog, I can safely tell you this. There are conventions near you, and probably more than one has a topic of interest to you. Use Google. Check one out. I promise you'll thank me later. @nerdsherpa

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

SURVIVAL SKILLS: International Travel

You should get a passport. In fact, if you type "where do I get a" into Google, the first thing it auto-completes is passport. So, you won't be alone. However, since you're already at my page, and a google search seems so far away right now, I'll help. Go here. The Department of State will be happy to tell you what you need, and where you have to go. Basically you have to go down to your county government offices, fill out a form, pay some money, and give them a couple of passport photos. You should get those at Wallmart before you go, it'll be much cheaper than using the local passport photo ripoff shop across the street from the county office.

Why do you need a passport? I will grant you, international travel is pretty expensive. But as a nerd, one of your key responsibilities is to be better than everyone else. You know more stuff, you're not afraid to do more stuff, and when you tell stories of the places you've been, other people will wish they too had gone. So, get a passport. It's not difficult, it's not terribly expensive and it opens a lot of doors.

I've had my passport for a long time and I'm writing this article because this is the year I need to renew it. It'll be a little sad, as it only has 2 stamps in 10 years, but that's still better than most Americans. My stamps are United Kingdom and Japan. I've also been to Scotland (during the UK trip) and Mexico (on a cruise) but neither of those gave stamps. I'll write more about the trips later, but for right now I'm going to talk about how to plan your trip.

There are a few key methods for travel planning. Each time I've gotten a stamp, I've used the same method, and I highly recommend that you try it as well.


For my UK trip in 2002, I bought the plane ticket the Friday before Thanksgiving, and flew out the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Keeping in mind this was when people still weren't flying for terrorism hysteria. The people I worked with all thought I was crazy, and to some extent I was. But I had a friend living in London, and over the course of 3 days we had several wacky adventures (including a day trip to Scotland) with zero pre-planning.

In 2006, I went to Japan for 2 weeks. This time, I booked the trip on Thanksgiving day. I went the the travel agent at Mitsu-wa in Fort Lee, NJ. They were open on Thanksgiving, and the agent was super helpful. I told him I'd like to spend about a week in Tokyo, I would like to go to a hot spring, and then I'd like to spend the rest of the time in Kyoto, and I gave him a price limit for what I was willing to pay for a night in a hotel at each location. He booked it all, including a train (not shinkansen, unfortunately) from Tokyo to the hot spring, and then on to Kyoto, and then a train/flight back from Kyoto to Tokyo for the flight home. So, all I really knew was where I was staying. For what I would do, I bought the Lonely Planet guide to Japan, and their pocket japanese language guide. Booked the trip on Thanksgiving, flew out two weeks later. Also, I speak nearly zero Japanese. I have some food-related vocabulary, but that's mostly it. (More to come on how to survive as a gaijin in Japan later.)

So, winging it has worked out pretty well for me. I highly recommend you try it. Just be smart. Don't go to a country where winging it can lead to an extended incarceration while the State Department negotiates for your freedom.

Another important thing to do on vacation, whether you go alone or with a friend is this: get people to take your picture. Don't settle for shooting a landmark yourself. Get someone else to take a picture of you in front of the landmark. This is something that I haven't been especially good at doing, but next time I go on a trip, I'm going to work on it. The reverse is something I'm good at, and something you should do as well. Offer to take pictures of other people with landmarks. Any time you see someone taking a picture that they should be in, walk up and offer to take the picture for them. I know, nerds are shy, and I am as well. But you're on vacation. Take a vacation from being shy while you're at it. Plus, photography transcends nearly any language barrier. Pointing at their camera and at the landmark will pretty much do the trick.

@nerdsherpa, international man of mystery.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

GADGETS: My guide to Windows 7

In December of 2008, the time had come for me to upgrade my computer. My previous machine, an Alienware Aurora, was the first computer I ever bought. Before that, I had only ever built them myself out of components. When I got that one, I had a spiffy job, with comparatively low expenses and high disposable income. I got it specifically to blow away the system requirements of Half-Life 2, and it did so admirably. But time marches on, and when you add up the 2-3 years since I built the computer before that, and the 5-6 years the Aurora continued to kick ass, I had been out of the computer manufacturing business for almost a decade. Thus, a little over a year ago, I felt it was high time I jumped back in.

I consulted with my friend Tadd, who is an incredible PC resource, and got a ton of advice from him. About the only piece of advice of his I didn't take was not to get dual video cards. I was excited to have a cutting edge machine, and I was way too attached to the dual video card thing to accept his advice, so I went with a pair of ATI 4800 series cards. Beautiful card I got, too. I don't remember the manufacturer, but they didn't do that thing most ATI cards do: encase the heat sink in plastic. I get that they want to focus airflow across it in a certain way, but essentially all they're doing is building a little box to store dust. I also picked up one of the new Intel i7 series chips, the Nehalem, I think it was called. Something wierd like that. 2.67 gigs of quad core power. This computer, even a year later, is still a beast. And now, that Win7 is out there, it actually has a chance of using the other 3 cores that XP never really tapped.

And this was my long term plan when I built the machine. Knowing Win7 was on the horizon, I figured buying a quad core that XP couldn't use would basically be getting myself a brand new computer in a year when the new OS hit the market. I felt it was a sensible investment, especially since the march of CPU speed increases has slowed down in the past couple of years.

Now Win7 has been out for a few months, long enough for me to get past the Is-it-Vista? stage. A few of my friends got it running on their machines, and they love it. So I decided this week that I was ready. I went out, picked up a new external drive to back everything up, and got a copy of the Home Premium Upgrade. At first the guy at Best Buy didn't think I could use the upgrade, he thought I had to buy a full version. He was wrong. The issue is that there's no direct upgrade path from XP to 7. This is Microsoft being a jerk to people who (wisely or luckily) avoided jumping on the grenade of Vista, nothing more. So, you have to do like three more steps to install it and follow the directions on a card they include in the box. Really, they're shooting themselves in the foot, because probably most people who had to upgrade from XP to 7 needed to call tech support.

Myself included.

Having backed everything up, I went into BIOS to change my boot device priority (here is where most XP users trying to upgrade would begin to have problems and call Tech Support... STEP 1 of the process.) from HDD to optical drive. I've been fiddling with BIOS since the late 80s, so not a big deal. Boom, the system boots from the DVD, and I use the custom install button. I delete my partition and create a new one (Goodbye old data!). And click for it to install. I starts cooking. In like 10 minutes, it says it's finished, and just needs to restart. I will say this: a fresh install of Win7 is FAST. So it restarts, almost makes it to an operating system, and then my screen goes black.

I've done the whole upgrade your Microsoft Operating System dance before. At one of my previous jobs, I made the horrible mistake of trusting Microsoft and upgrading all of my work computers to WinME. It took me two days to get those machines back to 98 so that our office network would function again.

So, I didn't panic. I figured it was just a hiccup, and I decided to just start over, since everything was so fast from start to the point where it stopped working. And I duplicated results. In troubleshooting, being able to duplicate an issue is a good thing. It means there's definitely a cause that you can isolate. However, as there are an extremely limited number of options in the Win7 setup, there wasn't really anything I could be doing wrong. Fearful of it being a hardware incompatibility issue, I knew I had to resort to the Tech Support phone number.

Guess what! After almost three hours on the phone with tech support, we worked out that it was... Wait for it... My Crossfire video card setup had returned to bite me in the ass. Although there is a Win7 Catalyst driver, the Win7 setup has no idea what to do with dual video cards, so it responds, quite naturally, by crapping the bed. Now, for those of you out there waiting to upgrade from XP to 7, with multiple linked video cards, this is what you need to know: After the restart fails, if you restart again, and bypass the DVD, it will go to a BOOTMGR screen, asking you if you want to try to load Windows 7 or an "Earlier Version of Windows", which... Well, I never tried, but I'm pretty sure I had nuked that earlier version when I deleted my partition. I'm pretty sure that option wouldn't have done anything. (Anyone remember ABORT, RETRY, FAIL?) Regardless, neither of those options is correct. Instead, you need to hit F8. Yeah, I think it says somewhere on the screen that you can hit F8 for more options, but it's not super obvious. Then you need to select "Low Resolution (640x480) Mode". It'll disable one of your video cards and load up with a bare bones driver, and the first thing Win7 will do is connect to the internet, download the latest driver, and spasm in a terrifying manner for a few moments while it figures out the score. Then, all of the sudden, your one working monitor will black out, and both will come back on, and after a few seconds of panic, you will be able to fiddle with the extended desktop and monitor layout options, like you used to.

Took almost three hours for the tech guy to help me figure that out. Good thing MS outsourced that job... Otherwise, the tech guy's hourly salary would have cost more than the copy of Win7 that I bought. Oh, or they could have just made a direct upgrade path from XP to Win7. Probably would have saved them money to be cool. Good job, MS! Spend a ton of cash on being jerks!

The good news is, once I spent an afternoon sorting out my installation, the OS is great. It's fast, has some neat features, and I'm sure it's wonderful in a number of behind-the-scenes ways. I do wish it had some support for doing neat things with multiple monitors. Maybe it does, and I just haven't figured them out yet. For example, I would like, if I'm watching a movie fullscreen on Monitor 1, for Monitors 2 and 3 to be able to go to screensaver, so I don't have to obsess over what new tweets or facebook updates are happening on my browser window. It might already be able to do this, mind you, and I just haven't figured it out. If I do, you'll be the first to know.

Then, after I did the XP-Win7 upgrade, the next day, my friend Kate brought her laptop over, and we upgraded hers from Vista to Win7. This process was much simpler, especially since her laptop came with a free upgrade, because she bought it just before Win7 hit the market. She took my advice back then, and got a dual core CPU so that a few months later when Win7 came out, it would be like getting a bonus faster computer. Toshiba made this upgrade process super easy by including a special software package to upgrade all of their hardware-specific software at the same time as doing the Win7 install. This install went super super smoothly. Took us most of the afternoon, but we were playing Rock Band while it did it, so no biggie. Not a single hitch at any point in the process. So, if you were unlucky and got stuck with Vista, at least Microsoft has thrown you a bone and made it incredibly simple to get Win7 running on your machine.

Anyway, if you're running XP or Vista, you should do yourself a favor and upgrade to Win7, especially if you have a multi-core CPU. Don't buy a full version! The upgrade disc is all you need. The process is pretty simple, and the most time consuming part (assuming you don't have any difficult-to-solve high-end hardware problems) is copying your important files to an external hard drive at 480mb/s.

My name is @nerdsherpa, and I'm a PC.

Friday, February 5, 2010


How does one become a Nerd Sherpa?

For me, it started early. By age 4 or so, I was playing Combat against my sister on the ATARI 2600. By age 7, I had moved on to the King's Quest series on the old 286. I seem to remember the machine being somewhere around 4-6 megahertz, and maybe 8 or 10 on Turbo. Of course, kicking it up to 10 megahertz made most games far too fast to play. Around age 10, my dad taught me to build my first PC. It was a 386, 12 megahertz! That thing was a monster. A few years later, Wing Commander was released, and in order to get it to run on my computer, we had to go buy this giant surfboard of an expansion card so we could install more ram. Friggin game took two kinds of ram (extended and expanded, or something like that).

Eventually, I would build many other computers, be the first person I knew to get an mp3 player (the old blue and gray Creative NOMAD), and somewhere in there, I became the go-to nerd for computer and gadget issues for most everyone I knew.

I like the idea of comics, but in practice I'm mostly an animation junkie. I consider myself super lucky to have been the exact right age to get in on the ground floor with Batman: The Animated Series. Kevin Conroy is my Batman. Then the saturday morning X-Men cartoon came along and transcended time and space to ruin all three future movies. Flash forward to the late 90s: Cartoon Network began importing animation from Japan. Of course some other outlets had done it before. I vaguely remember watching Robotech as a tinyperson. And there was Ninja Scroll, Akira and Ghost in the Shell on VHS. I remember Saturday Anime on the SciFi Channel, but they pretty much blew it. What really did it for me was Gundam Wing on Adult Swim. Then came Cowboy Bebop and a few others.

Of course I also like movies, music and tons of TV, but we'll get to more on that stuff later. The common denominator is that I like my pop culture to tell me a story. Make me feel stuff. Trust me, you'll like it to do that too.

You cannot live on Ramen alone, though lately I'm making a pretty good run at it. You need many other things to keep you alive as a person, and not some shoddy facsimile thereof. Many nerds fail in this area, but I have long held that I'm the sort of nerd who makes a reasonable impression on outsiders. There are many things that can make being a nerd bearable. Travel. Hygiene. Alcohol consumption.

Now, I'll grant you, up until about a year ago, I wasn't doing much more than subsisting in this area. But lately, I've turned things around, and made fairly aggressive progress on the learning curve. Hang in there, I can help.

Gentlemen, BEHOLD:
My sherping credentials in brief.
Follow me on Twitter, and I'll let you know when new posts happen. And what I'm watching on TV. Or what I'm having for lunch. (Hint: It's usually Ramen) @nerdsherpa