Small Appliance Recommendations

For those who may have an interest, some recommendations for small appliances. I have all of these units, and have had each of them long enough to have a track record on them. At the end of the description in parentheses, I include how long I’ve had it.
Now, none of these is particularly inexpensive, but you only get what you pay for, and sometimes less. With these, at least you’re getting your money’s worth.

Panasonic Genius Inverter Microwave – about $160

The ‘Genius’ in the name refers to the guy who programmed the sensor-cooking in this incredible machine. Put in one little new potato, select Potatoes and push Start. Perfect. Put in three huge Idaho potatoes, select Potatoes and push Start. Perfect. Same with Fresh Vegetables and Frozen Vegetables. Perfect, every time. You can even select More for English style vegetables (mush), normal for American style, and Less for French style (al dente). Specify the weight of a frozen item, like frozen meat, and the Defrost cycle will thaw it perfectly, without cooking any of it. This is the big 2.2 cubic foot, 1250-watt unit I have. There’s an outer frame you can get for it if you want to build it in, which I did. Available in different sizes, finishes, and control layouts, they’re all great. (6 years)

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Zojirushi Two-Pound-Loaf Bread Maker – about $270

This makes a real loaf of bread. Not some weird tall cylinder or a cube or anything. An actual, normal-shaped loaf of bread. You put all the ingredients in, push the button, and walk away. It does the mix, knead, rise, second knead, second rise, and bake, by itself. Zojirushi didn’t import products to America for a long time, because they make the high-quality products Japanese demand. They didn’t want to make a cheap export version. At some point they decided their no-compromise products had a market here, and they started exporting these high-quality products to the United States. (8 years)

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Zojirushi Countertop Hot Water Dispenser – about $160

Like hot tea or instant coffee, or hate for the water to heat up for pasta? Now you can have 195-degree water on your countertop whenever you want it. It actually has four settings; we leave ours at 195 degrees. All the time. No tea kettle to go unattended. No expensive plumbing install. Just fill it with the spritzer hose on your kitchen sink. One guy I know had the older model, and wanted the new one with multiple temperature settings, so he waited for the old one to die. When it was ten years old, he gave up and gave it to his mom, and bought the new one. That was five years ago, and his mom’s still works fine. Another no-compromise product from Zojirushi. (5 years)

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DeLonghi Nespresso Pixie Espresso Machine – about $160

You really want one of these. Oh, yes, you do. A real espresso machine, that brews the espresso on the spot, and is about the size of a large dictionary. The line of coffees available is very nice, with some dark and strong ones in there. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a fresh-brewed shot of espresso. There are two buttons for cup size, small and large, both of which are easily programmable, so you can set it to match your cups without overflowing all the time. This is just so cool. I have about three shots of espresso a day, so this has gone through 1800+ shots with no problems. (20 months, in which time I’ve written four novels and a memoir. Just sayin’.)

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DeLonghi Milk Frother – about $90

Now you got the espresso machine, how you gonna make a latte without a milk frother? The problem is, most of them are complete junk. OK, so this unit is expensive, but it works. So there’s that. It can heat the milk, heat it and froth it, or froth it alone. And it does it quickly without burning the milk, though you do need to make sure you rinse and wipe it out after every use. Perfect companion to the company’s Pixie espresso machine above. (20 months)

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We Held It Long

(an attempt at poetry)

A surprise to me, I have grown old.
As my days grow short, the wind blows cold.
Winter is coming, I feel it near,
And so it’s past time to say, my dear:

Do not cry for me, when once I sleep.
A full cup I had, I drank it deep.
A short time we have, before we’re gone,
but even for that, we held it long.

I’ve loved and been loved. I’ve no regrets.
I look back fondly. People I’ve met,
and  the things I’ve done, places I’ve been,
I treasure it all, and so again:

Do not cry for me, some mournful wail.
No, but smile instead, at some hoary tale
of the kind I told, that made you groan
or roll your eyes while I laughed alone.

Remember that time we laughed so much?
What was it, that thing our humor touch’d?
The laugh remembered, the cause forgot.
Remember that laugh, and not sad thought.

Do not cry for me, when once I sleep.
A full cup I had, I drank it deep.
A short time we have, before we’re gone,
but even for that, we held it long.

Weird Thoughts About Cyber Security

I’m going to tell you the four things you need to know about cyber security. Read this and you’ll be more knowledgeable on the subject than most in the general population, and a lot of people in the cyber security field, too, for that matter. The first one gets a little deep, but you can skip over the hard part as long as you read the conclusion.

What really matters with passwords is their length.

You want to be using 15-character or longer passwords. Sure, upper-case, lower-case, numbers, special characters, whatever. What matters most , though, is length, and here’s why.

When you change your password on a site — like your bank account, for instance — the site doesn’t store your password to check your future log-ins against. It stores the SHA-256 hash code of your password. SHA-256 is a mathematical algorithm that generates a 256-bit code from any string of bytes, whether it be text, or a Word or .pdf document, or a picture. That 256 bits is normally represented in hexadecimal, a base-sixteen system with the digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, and F. That gives a sixty-four-digit hex number like this one, which is the SHA-256 hash code for my name:

a7547117bc74e597fd15068fc76f777059b2f162005f02c550c26847dc3409d5

The important things about that number are that 1) you can’t process it backwards, and 2) its size. You cannot process that number to get back “Richard F. Weyand”. It’s not completely impossible, but it is practically impossible. As for its size, 256 bits is a number space so big, if you gave a unique 256-bit serial number to every neutron, proton, and electron in the Milky Way galaxy, you could do that a million times, and still only use half the numbers. That means any given SHA-256 hash code matches only one thing, the input it was generated from. That hash code above will only match my name, ever.

For example, if you wrote a screenplay, and published the SHA-256 hashcode of the screenplay together with your name in a classified in the New York Times, you would be able to prove that screenplay was yours. Period. Send it out to all the movie studios you want. If they rip it off, you’ll be able to prove in court that the original screenplay was yours.

So the site you type your new password into stores the SHA-256 hash code of the new password.  When you log in again later, it generates an SHA-256 hash code of the password you type in, and compares it to the one on file for your account. If they match, you’re in. This means that no one can hack the bank, steal the hash codes, and use them to log in. Way cool.

With one caveat. What the bad guys are doing is calculating the SHA-256 hash codes for every possible password, and using that to create an SHA-256 lookup table. If they hack the bank and get the password hash code values, they can use their lookup table to convert the SHA-256 hash code back to the passwords. Ouch.

Here now, finally, is why length of the passwords is the only thing that matters. If you take the fifty-two upper-case and lower-case characters, ten numeric digits, and eight allowed special characters, that means there are seventy possibilities for each digit in a password. So there are 70 possible one-digit passwords, 4900 two-digit passwords, 343,000 three-digit passwords, and so on. But there are 4.75 x 10^27, or 4,750 trillion trillion, fifteen-digit passwords. You see, the table the bad guys need gets seventy times bigger for each extra digit.

So use at least fifteen-digit passwords. Other people at the same bank may be hacked if the bank’s password hash code values get stolen, but you won’t be.

It’s easy to generate a long password you can remember.

Pick some topic you’re not known for. If you’re a car buff, pick food, for example. If you’re a food buff, maybe pick movies. Think of your two favorites, like your two favorite car brands, or your two favorite movies, or your two favorite foods. Let’s say I pick the two main character in Hamlet, other than Hamlet himself — his mother and his love, Gertrude and Ophelia.

Write them together: GertudeOphelia. Now reverse one or the other: GertrudeailehpO. Misspell one: GertoodeailehpO. Now add a number somewhere in the middle: Ger0troodeailehpO. Maybe they make you have a special character: Ger0troode^ailehpO.

There ya go. An eighteen-digit password you can remember. And when they ask you to change the password after ninety days, just index the number you put in, to 1, 2, 3, etc. After 9, just keep going with two digits. At some point, you’ll be at Ger27troode^ailehpO, for example.

Use a different password for every website.

This one’s a killer, but I have a way out.

The issue is that some website may store your password in the clear, instead of storing the SHA-256 hash code. Such a sloppily run site will probably also get hacked. Don’t use your bank or brokerage password for your city water bill account! If they hack the city’s water company website (and how secure do you think government-run sites are?), they’ve got your bank account.

There are about two hundred websites where I have an account. That’s pretty easy to do if you have a lot of interests and are a joiner. Does that mean I actually have two hundred fifteen-digit passwords? Yup, it sure does. I manage them all with a password manager. I use LogMeOnce. I log into LogMeOnce, and it manages the rest. Now I just have to remember that one password. Yeah, it was fifty bucks for five years. Meh.

Cyber security issues arise not because we need more tools, but because we don’t use the ones we have.

I was at a conference where a cyber security guy said any time he goes into a new client, the first thing he does is try to login with the default account and password the machine ships with. He gets in more than half the time. Every machine — computer, network router, whatever — ships with a default account, like username: admin, password: 123456. You need that account to get into the machine the first time when you’re setting it up. And that account has administrator privileges. It has to, so you can set up the machine. But you’re supposed to change it, right off! And often people don’t.

Another tale from the same guy. He went into a government agency. They had a lot of money to buy new cyber security stuff, to tighten up their security. He found out that all of the employees at the site were using the same account and password, because it was easier than everybody having their own. Someone would have to go in and set up all those user accounts, and they were too lazy to do it. Yikes!

So use the tools you have: long passwords, and a different password for every site. Get a password manager if you need to. There are free ones out there if you’re strapped for cash.

But if you use the smallest password you can get away with, and use the same one at every site, don’t blame me when your bank account balances and stock investments disappear, and your credit cards get maxed out by some hacker in China or Ukraine.

Weird Thoughts About Electronics

A friend of mine on the Facebook group Vintage Stereo & Hi-Fi Equipment just sent me a copy of the Lafayette Radio Electronics catalog for 1974. I guess he collects them, and had two copies of this one. 1974 was right in the middle of the worst part of my stereo habit, so I found it interesting. I came to a startling conclusion reading it:

Stereo and television equipment today is dirt cheap.

Let me illustrate. While Lafayette carried a lot of their in-house brand, they also carried some name-brand equipment. I will put down here some of the pieces many people who were active in electronics back in the day will recognize. The 1974 price is noted, with the 2017 equivalent dollars in parentheses.

AR Model X/B 2-Speed Manual Turntable — $99.96 ($529.12)
Shure SME Series II Tonearm — $135.00 ($714.60)
Shure V-15 Type III Phono Cartridge — $72.50 ($383.77)
Stanton 681EE Phono Cartridge — $72.00 ($381.12)
Empire 1000ZE Phono Cartridge — $99.95 ($529.07)
Pioneer SX626, 27 WRMS per channel AM/FM Receiver — $329.95 ($1746.53)
Pioneer SX828, 60 WRMS per channel AM/FM Receiver — $469.95 ($2487.60)
Pioneer R700 Three-Way Speaker System, 12″ woofer — $229.95 ($1217.20)
Altec 15″ Woofer 418B (driver only) — $95.00 ($502.87)
Koss PRO-4AA Stereo Headphones — $60 ($317.60)
Sony Trinitron 17″ COLOR Television — $469.95 ($2487.60)

Now, this was all OK-quality stuff, but certainly not super high-end (except for the Sony Trinitron). We were trading this stuff back and forth all the time in college. So let’s say you got an AR turntable, Stanton 681EE cartridge, the Pioneer SX828, and two of those Pioneer R700 speakers. We’ll skip a TV and headphones and a cassette deck for the moment, and not replace the tonearm on the AR. Still, a solid system. What’ll that set you back? $1100 in 1974 dollars. Roughly three-and-a-half months’ take-home pay for me as a grad student

That’s a cool $5800 in 2017 dollars.

And look at that Sony TV for a moment. $2500 for a 17″ TV. I just paid $800 for a 65″ TV. Almost four times bigger for one third the price.

You can beat that Pioneer SX828 with a Sony STR-DH190 with 100 WRMS per channel for a hundred and fifty 2017 dollars. One eighth the price.

And the Cerwin-Vega SL12 Speaker is a good match to those Pioneer R700s for $350 a side, a bit over a quarter as much.

And we were college students, fer cryin’ out loud.

So quit yer bitchin’. Quality electronics has never been cheaper.

Weird Thoughts About Survival

Two years ago yesterday I left the hospital after having repairs. I had had a heart attack, with a 100% blockage of the Left Anterior Descending (LAD) coronary artery, a.k.a. the Windowmaker. I survived, which surprised hell out of the doctors. They put two stents in me, pronounced me good as new, or as close as they were going to get anyway, patted me on the ass and sent me home.

Two years — so far — of extra innings.

And yes, I feel great. Thanks for asking.

Such an experience changes you, however. Some things I was doing, like being an expert testifying witness in court cases, I decided were too high stress. So I quit. I finished out the one case I had, and I’m done.

I sold the 1978 Cheyenne 4×4 and bought a 2017 Sierra Denali 4×4. Talk about from the ridiculous to the sublime. I loved the ’78 Cheyenne. It was rough and tough and loud. And it was honest. But it was also not the best for creature comforts. I decided after seven years that enough was enough, and I set aside the rough and tough for the comfy.

The other thing that happens is that you develop a keen appreciation that life is not forever. All those things you were always going to do someday? Guess what? Someday is here.

I had always wanted to be a writer, to write science fiction like the authors I had read all my life. Maybe write some other stuff, too. But I always wanted to be a writer. After I got out of the hospital I realized that now was the time to do it or admit it was never going to happen.

In the past two years, I have written and published four books, and am writing another. The two novels I wrote in about a month each, start to finish. The memoir took about six weeks. And the reviews are good. Apparently I can do this.

So I’m a writer, like I always wanted. And I find I enjoy it.

If I hadn’t had that heart attack, I may never have done it at all.

Don’t wait for your heart attack. If there’s something you always wanted to do, go do it.

Today.

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Weird Thoughts About Celebrity

OK, so, funny story. In the context of SF author Jon del Arroz being banned from WorldCon 76, and then getting lectured by David Gerrold on humility, the situation reminded me of something that happened to me at SIGGRAPH in Detroit in 1983.

SIGGRAPH is the annual meeting of the Special Interest Group – Graphics of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). 1983 was the year SW:ROTJ was coming out, and ILM was going to show some of the graphics work for the new film. Lots of other Hollywood-type stuff. You know, the second Death Star in the force field and that sort of thing.

In 1983, I was working in video games, and another guy and I got into a private party at the convention that was held in a connected suite of hotel rooms at the Renaissance Center. This was the beautiful people party, and all the beautiful people were there. There were lots of beautiful women dressed in scanty SW and other SF outfits (early cosplay stuff, and my first ‘Slave Leia’ sighting), and lots of VIP types. All the beautiful people were swarming around the puffed-up VIP types.

So this guy and I were standing against a wall, drinking free beers and watching in amazement. We were engineering nerds, and anything but beautiful people, but we were going to hang around while the beer lasted or until somebody threw us out.

So this little Jewish guy with wire-rim glasses, clearly another nerd, comes up and says: “What do you guys do?”

“We design video games. You know, arcade games.”

“Cool. What games have you done?”

We named a couple-three games, and he’s like “I have that one. It’s great. That one, too. Love it.”

He has new-release arcade video games of his own? These were not cheap.

“So what do you do?”

“I make movies.”

“What kind of movies? I mean, would we have seen any of them?”

He looks sideways left and right to see if anyone is listening. “Jaws. Close Encounters.”

“You’re Ste–”

“Sshhh. Nobody’s recognized me, and I’m having a wonderful time.”

So my nerd-buddy and nerd-self spent an hour chatting with Steven Spielberg at SIGGRAPH 83 while all the beautiful people swarmed around all the puffed-up, self-important nobodies.

Spielberg was dressed like an engineer getting “dressed up” — blue jeans and a plaid shirt like always, with a cheap sport coat thrown over it all. And everybody ignored him as unimportant. And he loved it.

Which I guess is my point. The people who are really famous and important get tired of the limelight, and try to blend in, not puff themselves up. They don’t need to.

Weird Thoughts About Blogging

a new occupation, and a new hobby

Everybody and their brother-in-law has been blogging since forever. I’ve resisted doing it all this time, but I am now retiring from some of my activities, and picking up new ones, for which a blog is appropriate.

The activities from which I am retiring are related to consulting on trade secret litigation. This is not exactly something one can blog about. They’re secrets, after all, and finding them on the net would probably not make clients happy. I can almost guarantee that.

I’ve also set aside some hobbies. Model railroading is one. I’ve planned all of, and built much of, one big layout. I’ve helped a bunch of other people with their layouts. I’ve written a couple dozen magazine articles about various aspects of the hobby. I designed and, for twenty years, marketed a line of electronics for model railroad control. I served as the first webmaster for the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) for ten years. I had a lot of fun with it, but I’m done with it.  I still keep my hand in on other people’s layouts, but I have no desire to build another of my own.

Another hobby I’ve set aside is working on classic cars. I did it back in the day because I had to. Those 1960’s beaters were what I could afford to own and drive, and I learned how to get them running and keep them running. Rebuilding engines, swapping engines and transmissions, tuning finicky carburetion and ignition systems, I did all that. In 2010, I bought a 1978 Chevy Cheyenne pickup truck and did it all again. I re-learned everything I had once known, learned some more, and reworked that truck to be the best it could be. In 2017, needing more comfort and convenience in my daily driver as I age, and having no desire to license, insure, and maintain two vehicles for myself, I sold the Cheyenne and bought a new 2017 GMC Sierra.

I know there are lots of people who get into a hobby and stay at it their whole lives. I’m not one of them. I have a lot of what I call been-there-done-that syndrome in my personality, and when I’m done with something, I’m done. I’ll always have an appreciation for model railroads and classic cars, but, for myself, I’m done with them.

My new activities are primarily writing science fiction. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but engineering, and later consulting, were much more lucrative, and I have developed over the years a taste for being well housed and well fed. Writing is not a way to ensure that. Writers, except for the few hundred mega-writers you hear about all the time, don’t make a lot of money. There are thousands of people writing fiction, even thousands of people writing science fiction, and you never heard of ninety-nine percent of them. Most of them write on the side while working some other job, hoping for their big break. Most never get that big break.

And I probably won’t either. But I enjoy doing it, and am now comfortably retired, so I have a new occupation, a new hobby, and something I can blog about, all rolled into one.