Tales and thoughts from the founder of NormSoft (maker of Pocket Tunes), working and living in St. Croix, USVI

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Innovative DSL

Well we finally got Innovative's DSL hooked up. The verdict: it's sub-par. As a backup connection, it's fine, so we will probably keep it around, but it has a lot of problems. We will definitely be sticking with Broadband VI for our primary service, as they still seem to be the best Internet connection on St. Croix, despite the random disconnects that I experience several times per day.

First off, we signed up for 1Mbps, but I'm only getting about 500kbps, according to www.speedtest.net. The sales person said this was possible and they would have to recondition the line to make it better. I'll investigate that possibility when I'm back from vacation.

The biggest problem, though, is that the latency increases dramatically as you use more bandwidth. So if I am downloading a file at full speed (500kbps), then my latency jumps to as high as 2500ms. That makes loading web pages and checking email painful. And it pretty much rules out any online gaming.

Also, the upload speed is pathetically slow, maybe around 256kbps. I routinely get 1Mbps uploads on Broadband VI. This is important to me because I use an online backup service (Mozy), which runs every few hours and backs up my computer.

The one positive thing I can say is that, even when the latency is huge, the packet loss is virtually 0%. Contrast this to an average packet loss of 0.5-1.0% with Broadband VI. So Innovative DSL may actually perform better for VoIP and gaming, as long as you aren't trying to download anything at the time.

We had a similar problem with Verizon DSL when we were living in Smyrna, TN for a few months, earlier this year. Perhaps this is a limitation of traditional DSL?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rosetta Stone customer support is horrible

Wow, this is unbelievable. I ordered a Rosetta Stone subscription 2 months ago, and immediately had a problem using it on my Mac. Every time I tried to say something, it messed with my volume and ended up not recognizing what I was trying to say. It worked okay on my PC but that means I can't practice while I'm traveling and only have my Mac with me.

So I emailed support on April 26, 2008. I just today got a response: June 24, 2008! It took them two months to respond.

What's worse is that their response contains only a list of information that they need to troubleshoot a problem, all of which I've already included. They didn't even attempt to answer the question.

So even though they have a monkey at the keyboard pasting the same unhelpful response to everyone, it still takes them 2 months to get through their support.

Rosetta Stone obviously doesn't care about their customers; they just want to collect the dollar bills and then tell you to go screw. Don't support this kind of BS. I'm going to demand a refund.

If you ever have a bad experience with NormSoft support, I want to hear about it right away. Our support engineers are highly-qualified and trained to avoid wasting our customers' time whenever possible.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Allergic to mangoes

For the second time in the past month, I just started getting this itchiness all over my body, concentrated on my lips, but also on my face, hands, legs, and other places. I've got little tiny red bumps on my lips that are itchy and sensitive.

I've had this in the past, since moving to St. Croix. The other times it seemed to happen after putting bleach in our cistern, so I chalked it up to too much bleach exposure.

But these past two times, we haven't added bleach recently. The one thing that is common, though, is that 1-2 days before each breakout, I bought some local mangoes.

It turns out that mango allergies are quite common. This article claims the allergy is to the sap on the leaves and fruit, not the actual fruit itself. Since I have been cutting the mangoes myself without wearing gloves, I probably got the sap all over me, causing the itchiness.

I knew the sap caused problems, which is why you shouldn't eat the skin on the mango and why you need to wash your hands after cutting one, which I definitely am careful about. But it seems I am much more sensitive than some people, and I should probably avoid all contact with the mango skin. This is unfortunate, since I love mango and recently planted a mango tree in our yard. Oh well, I'll train Gerald how to cut them!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tomatoes, hybrids, and viruses

On return from my trip to San Francisco, I was excited to see my tomato plants are now producing 4 tomatoes. However, I was dismayed to see that the plants are covered in tiny white flies.

Searching around, I found that these are simply called whiteflies, and they are a serious threat to crops grown in the tropics and subtropics.

In addition to the physical damage they do to the plants, they also carry dozens of diseases. One of the most serious is called Tomato yellow leaf-curl begomovirus or TYLCV, and looking at my plants, I would say they are infected. Most of the new leaves are small and curling in on themselves, and most of the older leaves are yellowing and dying.

I have been trying to grow my tomatoes as organically as possible; I am quite hesitant to add pesticides or artificial fertilizer. When I started, I did some research on how to control pests, and they suggested planting marigolds and nasturtiums along with the tomatoes. So I have a row of both of those flowers bordering the garden. Unfortunately, the whiteflies seem unperturbed by these flowers.

So why is this happening? I think that the increased reliance on hybrid crops is the culprit. These tomatoes are hybrids; I bought the seeds at our local hardware store. Selling hybrid seeds make economical sense because the seeds they produce are usually sterile or produce subpar offspring. So I have to go back to the seed company if I want to grow more. However, that also means that the hybrid seeds have very little (if any) bio-diversity. Most seeds are genetically identical.

What this means is that, instead of relying on natural selection and evolution to produce hardier plants that are resistant to diseases and pests, we have to rely on the companies manufacturing the seeds. And I don't think humans will ever be as efficient as evolution at solving problems. Even as the seed companies struggle to produce new seeds that are resistant to certain pests and diseases through genetic engineering and traditional breeding, the pests and diseases are allowed to evolve naturally. Natural evolution is very efficient, cunning, and effective, and quickly produces new pests and diseases. These pathogens are specially evolved to prey on the lack of bio-diversity present in these hybrid plants, so they can target very specific traits and wipe out entire fields.

So, after I pick a few tomatoes, I will destroy these plants and try to get rid of the whitefly infestation. Then I need to do some research and try to find some plants that are resistant to these flies, which seem to be ubiquitous here. (Since I grew them from seed, the flies must have migrated into our courtyard.) Wish me luck, and if you have any suggestions, leave me some comments!

Monday, June 16, 2008

So St. Croix seems to be covered by helicopters today, all flying low over the island.

Someone told me they are looking for people growing marijuana. I haven't confirmed this, but I know that they do occasionally search for marijuana on St. Croix, and they have shut down several fields that they've found in the past. They've made several passes over our private courtyard, no doubt looking intently at my tomato plants.

What a waste of time and tax dollars; there are much better ways to reduce drug dependence in our communities. Even if they find and eliminate all marijuana production on St. Croix, it doesn't provide a net gain to our society. What will happen is that the fixed demand for marijuana will continue (at least in the short term), raising the street price of the drug. Drug users will either switch to more affordable (and more dangerous) drugs or will have to find more money somewhere to buy it. One of the places this money comes from is crime, so robberies and burglaries are likely to increase.

So let's consider how this affects everyone in our society. For normal law-abiding citizens, this increases the crime they may be subjected to. The only thing it teaches drug users is that they need to find some more money somewhere to continue their habit. And the drug dealers will find more shady non-local sources for their drugs, bringing more crime and questionable people to our society. Drug dealers in South America and elsewhere make out pretty well by increasing the demand for drugs produced outside the US.

The only US entity to benefit from this policy is the government, who can say they are "doing something" about the problem, even though they are actually making it worse.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On St. Croix, Senators Hold Emergency Meeting to Address Fuel Costs.

Asking Hovensa (the oil refinery on St. Croix) for cheaper fuel costs is the wrong answer. That will just increase our reliance on a non-sustainable fuel source and postpone our search for alternatives.

I applaud their move to lower government energy costs by 20% by installing solar and wind power. However, if this is a good idea for government, why isn't it a good idea for the power plant to do in a larger form (e.g. a wind farm)?

If the government installs wind and solar power in excess of what they use, they will effectively be creating a distributed power plant that would reduce fuel consumption by the power plant. The panacea here would have the grid-tied power producers creating the bulk of our energy used from renewable sources and the power company providing power through traditional means to cover the excess load.

Monday, June 09, 2008

One of the things I love about St. Croix is that it's really easy to get access to owners of local companies. For retail stores, the owners often work in the store, and they get to know you when you shop there often. It's great to be able to build up relationships like that.

Indeed, I recently got an email from Mike Meluskey, co-owner of Broadband VI. He was concerned about the intermittent problems I was seeing with his service that I posted about on my blog. He and I have been emailing back and forth to try to solve the issue; it seems to be something that's only affecting me and not the rest of his customers.

I'm very pleased with their customer service and their service in general (aside from the present issues), so I really hope we can figure out the problem. Thanks, Mike.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Congratulations to Senator Obama on winning the Democratic Nomination!

Residents of the Virgin Islands can't vote for president, so I've been supporting his campaign financially instead. I hope the few readers of my blog will join me to make a difference.

Let's bring to the presidency someone who pledges to bring our boys and girls home from the ill-conceived Iraq war, encourage research into alternative fuels and improve auto fuel economy, ignore corporate lobbyists that don't represent the needs of most Americans, and to make us safer by bringing some sanity to our foreign relations.

Though I don't share all his views, he's the only candidate who seems honestly committed to thinking through and talking about what really matters to Americans rather than attacking the other candidates or lofting colorful balloons (like suspending the federal gas tax).

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Interesting article regarding net metering lawsuit on St. Croix. Net metering allows you to sell electricity back to the grid when you produce an excess through solar panels or other means. (Solar panels produce more power during the day when usage at your house is typically lower, so this allows you to "bank" the power produced, lowering your total bill.) WAPA allows this, but apparently you have to sign a waiver that you are responsible for any damage caused to the grid. This seems a bit circumspect, though I'm not sure what other states require for this privilege.

Monday, June 02, 2008

After many months of hard work, we're pleased to announce that Pocket Tunes is now available for Windows Mobile phones and PDAs. Visit our website for more information or read the press release.

A big public thanks to all the employees at NormSoft who made this release possible!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (our power company) is seeking a 40% increase in power costs come July. We are already paying $0.33/kWh for residential areas, much higher than most areas of the US (3-4 times higher than many areas).

From what I've heard, the high rates are caused in part by people stealing electricity. Many residents will routinely unhook their meters, only to re-connect them the day before someone comes out to read the meters. WAPA has been cracking down on this lately, and most of the boxes now have tamper-evident clasps and are read automatically from the office. In addition, they burn oil at the power plant, so they are highly affected by increasing oil prices. And they seem resistant to alternative energy ideas for some reason. It seems like a wind farm would be an obvious natural source of energy on an island where we have fairly constant 10mph+ trade winds all year round.

This rate hike will make alternative energy much more viable, of course, so we may have to reconsider solar power in a much shorter timeframe.

In preparation for this, I decided to spend part of my weekend figuring out where we use all of our electricity. Our bill runs around $800/month, so surely there must be something we can cut back on. I measured the energy usage of everything in our house that consume electricity. I use a few different methods to do this.

First, I purchased a Kill-A-Watt power meter and plugged various items into it. It displays instantaneous usage in Watts and total usage in kWh over any period of time.

  1. For devices that are plugged in and operate all day long at the same power levels (e.g. routers, telephones, etc.), I simply took a Wattage reading and added it to the spreadhseet.
  2. For devices that are off or idle most of the time but come to life for periods of activity (e.g. washing machine, microwave,
    computer, etc. - most things that are plugged in), I took a Wattage reading when the device is off (many devices consume a small amount of power even when they are off!) and then when it was operating. I then estimate approximately how many hours per day those devices were operating.
  3. For devices that fit the previous criteria but are difficult to estimate usage (e.g. water cooler, wine cooler, washing machine, etc.), I measured one cycle if possible (e.g. wash one batch of clothes). For continuous things like the water cooler, I plugged them into the Kill-A-Watt meter for a day and measured how many kWh they used.
  4. Lights are easy. Just read the Wattage numbers on them and multiply by the number of lights. With compact flourescent (CF) bulbs, be sure to read the actual Wattage and not the effective Wattage. For example, our driveway lights are 7W bulbs, but they replace incandescent bulbs of 35W and produce the same amount of visible light (incandescents waste a lot of power by producing light that's not visible to human eyes and by producing light over a broad spectrum).
  5. Ceiling fans are also easy. I found a chart online that gives 52" fans as using 90W and 36" fans as 55W.
  6. For some appliances that weren't easy to get to the plug, I looked up their rating at EnergyStar's website.
  7. For hard-wired appliances that had power ratings on them, I used those. Some were listed in Watts, but others were listed in as horse-power or Amps. A horse power is 746 Watts, so that's easy. (Our water pump is 1/2 HP, for example.) To convert Amps to Watts, you simply multiply by the Voltage. So you have to know if the appliance is on a 120V or 240V circuit. For example, our 17.7amp air conditioner on a 240V circuit uses 4.2kW at peak power. (This is a very powerful and efficient Mitsubishi mini-split air conditioner.)
  8. To further confirm the energy usage a few key appliances like our pool pumps and air conditioners, I took a meter reading. To do this, I turned off as much electricity as I could in the house, especially anything that might come on intermittently and ruin my measurement. This required that I turn off the circuit to the refrigerator and turn off all A/C. I then measured how long it took for the power meter (installed by the power company at the edge of our property) to make one full rotation. One rotation is 0.01kWh or 10Wh. The baseline measurement with everything off was 54.39s/10Wh. Since one hour equals 3600 seconds, we can cancel out seconds and get: 54.39/36000W. Take the reciprocal to get: 662W. That's our instantaneous power usage with all the large power-consumers turned off. I then repeated this calculation with the appliance in question turned on to come up with a total instantaneous Wattage. Subtract the baseline Wattage to get the power that the appliance is using.


First, I found that we are doing a lot of things efficiently, already. For example, we use a solar hot water heater with a solar-powered pump. So our hot water is effectively free. The sun heats the hot water to excess of 160 degrees, seriously minimizing the amount of supplemental heating the clothes washer or dish washer need to supply. Second, we use propane for cooking and clothes drying. It is much cheaper to produce heat from propane than electricity, even at mainland US rates.

In addition, we've recently upgraded some appliances to very energy efficient models. We upgraded our washer and dryer to Whirpool Duet high efficiency ones. I did a batch of laundry in both and calculated 0.08kWh to wash and 0.22kWh to dry. Even if we do 4 loads per week, it only costs $0.56/mo to wash and $1.24/mo to dry a medium-sized load (including the constant 1W that each appliance uses while inactive). It helps a lot that water and heated water are free due to our rain-collecting cistern and solar hot water. We also upgraded our old Sub-Zero refrigerator to a more efficient Kenmore side-by-side.

There were also some surprises. While I knew that compact flourescent lights saved power, I didn't realize how much power incandescent lights used! For example, in our bathroom, we have a set of 12 40W lights over the mirror. When on, that's 480W, twice as much as my computer! Even if we just use them 2 hours per day when getting ready in the morning, that's $7/month just for those lights. If we forget to turn them off, they cost $4/day or $120/month just for one set of lights!

In addition, our pool pump uses much more power than I suspected. Here's the full breakdown:

  • Air conditioning and fans: $306
  • Computer Equipment: $154
  • Television Equipment: $35
  • Lights: $91 (including 9 low-power Sodium security lights that run 12hr/day on a light-sensitive switch)
  • Appliances: $29
  • Pool pumps: $182
  • Other: $3

I was also interested in how much power we were wasting on devices that stay on all the time or use power when "off". It was not as bad as I thought. So here is the breakdown looking at that:

  • Devices that are off: $9
  • Devices that are idle or always-on: $36
  • Devices that are on or being used: $755