Stupid Computer Errors: Black Screen on Startup

This evening my wife’s computer was being annoying. It would start up normally, display the Windows 7 splash screen, and then go completely black except for the cursor, which would move around normally. Control-Alt-Delete and Control-Shift-Escape did nothing.

Restarting in safe mode, I was able to get into the Task Manager, determine that explorer.exe was not running, and start it . So that defines the problem, but why was explorer.exe not running on startup?

A Google search pointed to a registry issue. There are a couple of keys that can (somehow) get messed up and will then keep explorer from starting. Both are in the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon folder; however, I saw one person say that he needed to do the same fix in HKEY_CURRENT_USER.

The key “shell” needs to be set to explorer.exe and the key userinit needs to be set to userinit.exe. Checking the registry, I found that shell was fine but userinit had somehow been set to “C:\Windows\system32\userinit.exe,” (with a comma at the end); resetting it to just “userinit.exe” fixed the issue.

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One of the elements of the 2009 stimulus that I’m the biggest fan of is the HITECH Act, which provides billions of dollars for healthcare IT. This is part of the “Reinvestment” portion of the stimulus; it didn’t start pushing out money right away (although hiring, including my job, picked up pretty quickly in order to prepare for it) but will end of saving money (and lives) in the long run.

The HITECH Act provides funding, through increased Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements, for hospitals and clinicians to make “meaningful use” of electronic health records (EHR). There’s a stick aspect as well; providers who don’t use a certified EHR will eventually find their Medicare payments reduced. Research shows that using an EHR results in better patient outcomes and helps drive down costs, but the startup costs (in terms of both buying the EHR and training staff to use it) can be significant; the HITECH Act aims to have the federal government cover the majority of the cost.

Until I started working in healthcare IT, I wasn’t at all familiar with this stuff, even though it’s a huge deal in healthcare (my doctor in Colorado was still using paper). It’s a great example of how government investment now can improve quality of life for millions of people while paying for itself in the long run. Given that I follow politics pretty closely, I assume that many people are similarly unaware of EHRs, which is why I wrote Healthcare in the 21st Century, a non-political book that explains what EHRs are, the benefits and challenges of using them, and the ‘meaningful use’ requirements of the HITECH Act.

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Paying Down the Debt

Wow, it’s been a while since my last post; looks like that one was just as I was getting seriously into the training at my new job. Will have to do a personal post soon, but today, I want to talk about the debt and what’s being done (or not done) about it.

Let’s go back a decade. For the first time ever, the debt clock (which displays a running total of America’s outstanding debt) was actually running backwards, as the federal government was paying off its obligations. In 2001, of course, a number of policies changed: taxes were cut, spending was increased (over the next eight years, the size of the federal government would double), and of course we got involved in several wars. When the great recession started in 2007, the sputtering economy certainly didn’t help matters.

After Obama took office, Congress attempted to set up a deficit reduction committee, which would propose a plan that Congress would have to have an up or down vote on; it would have been the best chance at actually balancing the budget, since Congress wouldn’t have had a chance to sneak unrelated things in to buy votes. Unfortunately, the republican party filibustered the bill; while the president implemented the commission anyway, he had no authority to force Congress to vote on the commission’s recommendations. Those recommendations (and those of the “Gang of Six”, who later looked at the problem), were guaranteed to irritate everyone: cuts in both domestic and military spending, eliminating tax breaks (while reducing tax rates), increasing the federal gas tax and the amount of income subject to the payroll tax.

Democrats, of course, aren’t happy about any cuts in domestic spending, particularly in a bad economy; even businesses are warning that the recently passed cuts will cause GDP to drop approximately 3% next year. Republicans, on the other hand, have been very clear: they will not accept a single dollar in new revenue. In the republican presidential debate this week, one of the questions was which of the candidates would refuse a deficit reduction deal that included $1 in increased revenue for every $10 in spending cuts; every candidate raised his or her hand.

Right now, I’m trying to get out of debt myself. I could try to do that simply by cutting spending, and in fact I have been spending less. If I’d done nothing else last year, however, I would NEVER get out of debt; there simply wasn’t enough to cut to pay down debt and also be able to live. What I did instead was to also increase my income: I got a good job and I have projects that bring in extra money on the side. Not cutting spending would have been stupid, but so would not bringing in extra revenue. I also ended up spending more money, in order to increase my revenue (in my case, moving across the country to start a new job and paying for websites that bring in a little extra cash) – a smart move, just like government spending that stimulates the economy (and improves the infrastructure that businesses need) is a smart move.

But when one party completely rules out one side of the equation, things just aren’t going to work out. (Indeed,  S&P recently confirmed that the republican party’s willingness to default rather than increase revenue is the reason that the country’s credit rating was downgraded). I’m not particularly happy with either party at the moment, but it seems to be abundantly clear that republicans cannot be trusted with the fate of the country, and if we want to get serious about actually reducing the debt, the first thing we need to do is to remove as many of them from Congress as possible.

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Internet Marketing Experiment: the Six Month Mark

Early last summer, I was making a serious effort to find a way to pay the bills with my writing. I sent out a number of query letters (which were mostly ignored), started writing for a couple of websites, and – six months ago today – I joined The Keyword Academy.

I’m normally pretty skeptical about the “make money fast” claims; TKA, however, is pretty much the opposite. It’s a “make money slowly through lots of hard work” method. They also offer a month-long free trial, during which you have access to everything…which makes it easy to take a look. I wasn’t really expecting much, but I figured I’d subscribe for a month and see if I learned anything interesting, then cancel the subscription.

Once in, however, I liked what I saw. This wasn’t a make money fast scheme; their formula was “simple strategy + LOTS of work = money”. Additionally, they had a number of tools to help with the work, all of which were included at no extra charge. It made sense.

The stated goal of The Keyword Academy is to get 1000 members to $1000 per month in earnings by June 2011, which sounded like a pretty good goal to me. At the time I joined, I believe 17 people had made it; that number now stands at 105.

As for me? Well, life has gotten in the way a bit – I was busy and stressed last year from looking for a job, and I’m busy and stressed this year from HAVING a job – but I am seeing some progress. I was hoping to hit $50 in passive income last month, but I ended up missing it by a penny. Maybe I’ll get there this month.

Right now I’m in (hopefully) the most challenging part of the training for my new job, so I can’t devote a lot of time to anything else. Once that’s done with, however, I’m still (unfortunately) going to have a number of evenings free before my wife makes it out here. When I’m not working on my dissertation, I think I’ll use them to see if I can get closer to being one of the first thousand..

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Interviewing with Microsoft and Epic

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write about my interview experience with Microsoft last year; since I interviewed with Epic recently as well, I figured I’d talk about both of them. I will not be disclosing the interview questions (and will delete any comments asking what they were), just the general format of the interviews.

I found out about the Microsoft ones when CSU sent out an email asking for students who were interested in applying for a job working on Bing maps, which are developed in Boulder. The interview at CSU was pretty short: two questions! In each case, you had to psuedocode out an algorithm to solve a problem, improve it to linear time, and implement it in the language of your choice. Simply solving each problem was simple enough, but getting it down to O(n) required a bit of insight. In fact, the interviewer told me that most people didn’t get past the first problem!

Although he said that I was the best interview he had that day, he still gave me their recommendation to read Programming Interviews Exposed, which I promptly picked up from Amazon; he said that most of their questions are variations on what’s in the book. While I knew most of it already, I thought it was a great review of basic concepts (linked lists, trees, heaps, concurrency, etc) and recommend it strongly to anyone wanting to brush up on standard algorithms.

I was told they’d contact me quickly to set up an on-site interview, but it actually took over a month. I had a full day of interviews, each of which (except the lunch interview and the final interview) involved working through a reasonably complex programming problem. At the end, I was told by the last person I talked to that they felt I’d be a better fit in R&D rather than the codemonkey position they had open (not that they called it that, of course).

Then I spent the next two months ignoring requests to submit documentation to get reimbursement for my plane ticket to Boulder.. too bad they didn’t just offer to pay for gas!

Also last year, I ended up going to a CS job fair, where I gave my resume to an Epic recruiter. I’d never even heard of Epic and gave it no more thought until they emailed me for a phone interview. I’m not fond of those – since I don’t hear well, phone interviews don’t normally go well for me – but I spent about 45 minutes talking with one of their people, not really expecting anything to come of it.

A few days later I  got an email that they’d like me to continue through the process and would be sending a test to CSU for me to take. Unfortunately, that test never showed up, so a few weeks later they sent another one. The test format was simple: solve the programming problems in any language you like, including psuedocode. There’s no time limit, but you still have to record your time and it makes up part of your score. The problems start off very easy (I think I spent about 4 minutes on the first one) and get progressively harder; one of them was similar to a practice problem in the programming interviews book I mentioned above, which sped me up a little. I think the test took a couple of hours.

The school sent the test back to Epic, and a week later I got an email that they had received it and would contact me within two weeks if they were interested in moving forward. A couple days later, I got a voicemail from someone in HR letting me know that I’d be getting an email to schedule an on site interview.

I flew out on a Wednesday and spent Thursday morning interviewing. The process is set up largely so you can get an idea of what is expected; while there were four or five interviews, plus lunch, mostly it was people telling us about the company and their jobs, plus a technical interview with a coder and a final interview with HR. At the end of the interviews were three more tests: a 60 second test where you had to answer as many questions as you can before time ran out (I just barely got all twenty), a math test, and a programming test using a fictional programming language. Epic makes a big deal about GPA (they claim to want, IIRC, a minimum 3.2/3.5/3.7 for undergraduate/graduate/postgraduate work) but I suspect it’s the tests that make the biggest difference in you getting an offer.

After that, I had a few hours free to explore the campus (which is beautiful – I plan on taking some photos once I have a little free time) and told me I’d hear back from them one way or another within the next two weeks. When I woke up on Monday I had an offer waiting for me, and I started at the beginning of January.

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Dealing with Spammers: A Modest Proposal

In 2009, it was estimated that spam would cost the world about $130 billion, $42 billion of that in the United States. While technological measures are getting better (for example, Askimet for blog spam), it will always be an arms race between the spammers and the anti-spammers. What can be done?

A significant percentage of email spam is still the Nigerian 419 scam, named after the relevant section of the Nigerian penal code. (The scam actually precedes email; it used to be sent by post!) Everybody’s gotten this one: a rich person died, and concerned people involved need help to get the money out of the country. If you’ll just provide your bank account details and hold the money for them temporarily, they’ll cut you in for a fat percentage.

Since so much spam originates in Nigeria, we have a simple solution: why not transfer ALL spammers to Nigeria? Round up anyone responsible for email or blog spam and give them a one-way ticket to Africa, with a death sentence if they return. Then cut Nigeria off from the internet.

Cruel? Maybe. But isn’t it worth it to eliminate the spam problem once and for all?

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Now I remember the other reason that I never go to the movies. 2 tickets, one popcorn, nachos, and a drink: $37!

The first reason, of course, is that in the past it’s been almost impossible to find a captioned showing. Lately that’s been getting a lot better; while you still can’t find a showing of anything with captions the week it comes out, it’s usually possible to see all the top movies.

So today we went to see Megamind open captioned…and of course, their machine was breaking down and the captions were extremely faint. You could still read them fine when the screen was dark, but they were almost invisible when the screen was light :p

Anyway, we enjoyed the movie, though following it was a struggle for me due to the captioning issue. We never got around to seeing Despicable Me (although I have it in our Netflix queue) but I’m a big fan of Dr. Horrible. There are no really big surprises in the movie, but it’s a lot of fun.

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Thoughts on the Election

While it wasn’t a great night for the country, it wasn’t all bad either. Here are a few things that come to mind.

The republican takeover of the House most likely kills any chances of another stimulus bill. We now know that the stimulus and TARP combined to keep the US from going into a depression, and even many critics have now admitted that they were carried out efficiently. Worldwide, we’ve seen a positive correlation between the amount of government stimulus spending (as a percentage of GDP) and the speed of the recovery. Historically, we can look at Japan in the 90s, where stimulus spending was prematurely cut off whenever the economy seemed to be stabilizing, leading to another crash. I’m not a fan of deficit spending and I was ticked off when republicans blocked democratic attempts to renew pay-go in the early Bush years, but you only pull out of a recession by increasing spending, and if the private sector isn’t doing that, the government needs to; the lack of further stimulus spending will most likely make the recovery an even more drawn out process.

While there was a definite feeling of “throw the bums out” last night (often resulting in putting back into power the people most responsible for the lousy economy), there were some bright spots, as many of the (Christine O’Donnell) and incompetent (Dan Maes) candidates went down to defeat. In Colorado, John Hickenlooper ran no negative ads whatsoever that I’m aware of, and won by a huge margin; while a lot of that was being lucky enough to run against two incredibly bad candidates (Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo), it’s still nice to see someone get a majority of the vote with a clean campaign.

In the Senate, republicans have spent the last two years filibustering pretty much everything in an attempt to avoid giving Obama any victories, regardless of the cost to the country. If we’re lucky, they might now be forced to start cooperating with democrats in order to get votes on bills passed by the republican-controlled House. Last time the republicans were in control over there, they refused to bring anything to the floor unless it could be passed solely with republican votes; it’ll be instructive to see if anything has changed.

Overall, a depressing night, but with some hope for the future. We’ll see what happens.

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Adding line breaks in WordPress, and stuff like that

Found a nice little plug-in today that gets rid of an annoyance in WordPress.

Normally, if you try to add extra vertical space, either by hitting enter in the visual editor or by adding <br /> tags in the HTML editor, WordPress just strips them out, so you have to do some extra work to get them to stay in. What I just found out about is a plugin called TinyMCE Advanced; one of the options in it is to turn off that behavior, which it does by replacing your <br /> tags with <p><br /></p>. Sure beats doing it by hand!

It also lets you add more buttons to your toolbars, for things like tables, non-breaking spaces, justification, etc. I’ll probably be coding a WordPress site for the charity that Brit does the website for in the next few weeks, so this should be a useful thing to throw in to make it easier for them to edit their own posts.

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Obamacare Trial Proceeds

For not, it seems, the lawsuit against the federal government over health care reform will move forward, after a ruling by a federal judge in Florida. The judge did not rule on the merits of the case, but decided that the plaintiffs can argue both the constitutionality of the individual mandate and that the expansion of Medicare infringes on state’s rights.

Although the individual mandate clearly falls under the power of Congress to tax, I admit to not being completely sure what the Supreme Court will do once the lawsuit makes it way to them, since the justices in the right wing of the court have shown a disturbing tendency lately to rule based on political preferences rather than the Constitution, leading to flawed decisions such as Citizens United. In light of this, it seems likely that we’ll end up with another 5-4 vote, with Kennedy (as usual) deciding the case.

I will say that his decision to involve Colorado in this stupidity was more than sufficient reason for me to vote against John Suthers in his re-election bid for Colorado Attorney General.

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