Farewell to Tom Clancy

by Phil Gabriel on October 16, 2013

The Hunt for Red October
The recent passing of Tom Clancy is mourned by his many fans. His books combined extensive research, an unabashedly pro American viewpoint, and great storytelling.

As a civilian, he was able to use publically available information to pull back the curtain to our highest technology, while always keeping the human side in view.

Many of his greatest fans were precluded from praising him due to security considerations. After reading “The Hunt for Red October,” I was amazed at the depth of technical detail. With my own background in the US Navy, I knew that he was over 99% right on all the miniscule details of life onboard US Submarines. I was tempted to write him to let him know the correct terminology for certain esoteric pieces of equipment that he had misnamed in his book. However, security rules forbade us from even acknowledging the existence of these items.

One rule we were given at the start of one of my classified training courses was, “Even if you read about this on the front page of the New York Times, it will still be classified. If you divulge classified information, you will go to jail.”

So I never wrote that letter.

However, I have met several people that he did correspond with.

While onboard a Navy ship many years ago, working on a … “microwave oven” (I still don’t want to go to jail), I had a chance to watch a movie with the crew. They were showing the movie version of “The Hunt for Red October.”

While chatting after the movie ended, a sailor in the group told me he had written Tom Clancy.

“That’s great,” I said, “What did you tell him?”

“I told him that the movie was good, but it was missing many of the important parts from the book.”

“Yeah, I agree with you.” I said, “The movie could have had some more great scenes if they had stuck to the book.”

“When he answered my letter…” he continued.

“Wait,” I said, “You got an answer from Tom Clancy?”

“Yes, he was very nice. He explained that if they had put everything from the book into a movie, the movie would have been ten hours long. He said he was happy with the result.”

I was surprised that Tom Clancy took the time to answer a fan’s questions. I later ran into others that he had corresponded with.

Upon reflection, it was clear why he enjoyed corresponding with military members. They helped give him some nitty-gritty details of service life that helped flavor his work.

I followed his career through subsequent novels. “Clear and Present Danger” seemed to be a bit over the top, with its depiction of the War in Drugs as a tactic to be used by politicians to gain favor with the masses. That lasted until I found myself in an experimental aircraft, flying over unmapped jungles in a small South American country. We were told we were fighting “Narcoterrorism”. Then the premise of the Clancy novel made more sense.

He followed through with “Debt of Honor,” yet another “unrealistic” novel. It remained unrealistic until some crazed Islamists used some of the same ideas on 9/11.

Although some of his later works (or works produced under his name) were not as gripping as his earliest efforts, he never failed to entertain.

I never got to send my fan letter to Tom Clancy while he was with us. So this is it.

“Goodbye Tom. Thanks for all the great stories.”


Nest Thermostat Reviewed – Make Nest Your Next Thermostat

by Phil Gabriel on September 11, 2013

I recently decided to purchase and install one of the new Nest Learning Thermostats in my home.

First, I have a confession to make. Even though I love gadgets and have made a career out of technology and engineering; I never programmed my VCR (the flashing 12:00 was a comforting sight), my fancy wristwatch is still set to the wrong time zone, and my programmable thermostat has always been set on “HOLD.” I am the embodiment of the adage, “The shoemaker’s kids are always barefoot.”

So when I read that the Nest was self-programming and needed no user intervention to set up a schedule, I decided that it was for me. The fact that it can also save money was an added bonus.

Check Your Heating/Cooling System PRIOR to purchase

I originally thought my old programmable thermostat was defective. The thermostat would occasionally lose its settings, the A/C would shut down unexpectedly, and cooling was intermittent. My first step was to replace the batteries. No improvement. Next, I checked the wiring. No trouble there. Since I have a two story house, with separate A/C units, I compared the thermostats. My downstairs thermostat had an intermittent “System” indicator. A quick web search didn’t show what the “system” indicator designated, so it was hard to tell if the thermostat was good or not. I could have swapped the upstairs and downstairs thermostats (or bought a $10.00 manual thermostat from Home Depot for testing), but since I had already decided to upgrade to the Nest thermostat, it wasn’t worth the trouble. I decided to order the Nest and get the A/C checked out by a professional while awaiting delivery.

Before ordering, I verified the Nest’s compatibility with my A/C system. The website has a very user friendly section that allows you to check your wiring to verify compatibility. You have the option of examining the wiring at the old thermostat, noting the colors and labels, then clicking the matching options on the compatibility web page. You will instantly see if your system will work with the Nest. Nest also offers the option of sending in a photo of your wiring and they will tell you if your system is compatible. My system was compatible and I ordered the Nest.

During the wait, I called an A/C repair company to perform a check out of my A/C system. In any case, you should have an annual checkup of your A/C system. To avoid surprises, I researched local A/C repair companies using Angie’s List. A local company with high ratings had an opening for the next day and I made the appointment. The technician found a bad start capacitor for the compressor. This was the cause of the intermittent problem which I had attributed to the old thermostat. The technician checked out both A/C units, replaced the defective capacitor, and verified operation of the two units. This visit cost about $200.00, which included the service call, purchase, and installation of the replacement capacitor. As is normal with the best businesses, he showed me the damaged capacitor before the replacement, and the new one after installation. He also verified the Freon level in both of my A/C units.

This solved the intermittent A/C problem and cleared the “System” indicator on the old thermostat. Now I was ready for the Nest upgrade.

Installing and Testing the Nest

The Nest has an internal battery that must be charged for normal operation. It will charge itself from your A/C system, but this can cause delays with the Network setup until the battery is fully charged, as the WiFi signal may be weak until the battery is at maximum charge. Therefore, prior to installation,  I took the precaution of connecting the new Nest thermostat to my computer with a USB to mini-USB cable to allow the built in battery to charge quickly. Note that the cable is NOT included with the Nest package, it must be purchased separately. However, the cable is not required for installation; it just helps to charge the internal battery quickly.

Surprisingly enough, Windows 7 recognized the Nest and automatically installed driver software for the unit. Another indication that the Nest is well thought out and executed.

The physical installation went smoothly. First, I turned off the circuit breakers to both my A/C units. I then pulled the old thermostat, exposing the wires. I then disconnected the wires one by one; labeling each wire as it was removed, using the labels included with the Nest kit. I also took the precaution of covering the copper end of each wire with tape so that they could not make accidental contact.

There was a nasty hole where the old thermostat had been mounted. The Nest kit includes a set of different sized trim plates to allow mounting in different situations. I used the largest of the included mounting plates to cover the hole where the old thermostat was mounted. The included screwdriver, with interchangeable tips stored in the handle, was a big help as it kept everything required for the installation at hand.

The plastic mounting plates can be painted to match your wall, but the off white color of the mounting plate matched my walls well enough that I didn’t need to paint to match.

Due to my pre-charging the battery through the USB cable, the Nest’s built in WiFi was at maximum power and immediately found my home network. I had my network password written down so setting up the connection was easy, if somewhat tedious as it required scrolling through the alphabet using the Nest in “Safe Dial” mode. 

Programming the set temperature was easy and quick. You also have the option of programming the “Away” temperatures. Once it goes into “Away” mode, the Nest will let the temperatures swing through a wider range than when someone is at home. The default for “Away” mode is from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. I left my “Away” settings at the default level.

I also signed up for a Nest account and installed the Nest App on my iPad. This allows remote control of the Nest no matter where I am in the world. This is my favorite feature. The one drawback is that the connection is through Nest’s servers, and any problem there will keep you from accessing your Nest thermostat. This occurred a few times during my testing. However, this is not a deal breaker, as the Nest doesn’t require a constant Internet connection; it works fine on its own. The Internet connection is required to update the Nest’s software.

Airwave Technology

Nest advertises a new feature that will interest those who are intent on dropping their A/C bills. Airwave technology is a technique that allows the user to get the last bit of chilled air from the system. It works like this; there are two large motors in your standard A/C system, one for the fans and another for the compressor. The compressor uses the most energy. Nest figured a way to turn off the A/C’s compressor when your thermostat is near the correct temperature, but leave the circulation fans running. This allows the system to blow air across the condenser coils (which remain chilled for several minutes after the compressor is off) and transfer the last bit of heat from your house to the outside. The Nest is also smart enough to learn and adapt its “compressor off” time to maximize savings, while still cooling efficiently. They advertise that the Airwave technology can reduce compressor usage by up to 30%.

Is the Nest Worth Using?

From my experience, it is well worth the price. I have already seen substantial savings; both from the auto “Away” mode and the energy saving “Airwave” mode. My energy provider, NVEnergy, provides up to 24 months of electrical usage in a handy chart form. My history shows a decrease in average consumption. It’s hard to pin down an exact amount, as the utility rate has changed in the last year, as well as changes in our routines. My quick calculation shows a $10.00 to $15.00 per month savings. That would indicate to me that the savings will pay for the thermostat within a couple of years.

The other big saving is the auto “Away” mode. As a frequent traveler, there were many times over the last few years that I forgot to turn down my old thermostat when leaving on a trip. Now with the Nest, if only takes a few seconds to login and change the mode. Or you can wait for the sensor to automatically change the mode for you.

Problems Logging in to Your Nest Account

I did have some problems logging in to my Nest account while traveling outside the US with my iPad (WiFi only). Inside the US, no problems. But traveling overseas resulted in not being able to connect to the Nest server. I overcame this problem by using a VPN service to connect. I recommend highly StrongVPN (affiliate link). Connecting through StrongVPN gave me a stable connection to my Nest thermometer.

If you appreciate the information I have provided, please purchase your Nest thermometer through my affiliate link below:




What NOT to Outsource

by Phil Gabriel on April 14, 2013


Over drinks the other day, I was chatting with my friend Louie. From the way he was morosely staring into his beer, it was obvious Louie had problems. After the second round, I asked him what the trouble was.

“I’m getting divorced,” he replied, “my wife dumped me for my ex-best friend.”

“That’s tough news, Lou. How did it happen?”

“I’m not 100% sure. They became really close after the vacation in Mexico.”

“If they were taking vacations together, Lou, they were already too close.”

“No, no. It was supposed to be a vacation for my wife and me. We had pre-paid reservations and vacation time scheduled from her work. Then the only other engineer in my office broke his leg and I had to cover for him.”

“So you cancelled your vacation?” I asked.

“No, with the non-refundable deposit and my wife’s vacation schedule, I asked my best friend Fred to go with my wife. I thought, ‘What could go wrong? She’s my wife and he’s my best friend.’”

Lou’s plight is yet another example of what can happen when you outsource the wrong tasks. Louie outsourced his second honeymoon to his best friend and learned the hard way.

So, besides honeymoons, what are some of the other tasks that you should NOT outsource? Here are a few:

  1. Don’t outsource the payment of your virtual workers. By this I mean don’t naively give your VA your PayPal or XOOM login and tell them to pay themselves. The burger flippers at McDonalds don’t get blank checks at the end of the week with instructions to pay themselves; so why should your virtual workers? If you eventually expand enough to need someone to handle worker payments, hire an outside accountant.
  2. Don’t outsource vague tasks. “What’s vague?” you might ask. Vague is, “I want my website to look better and draw more traffic!” What’s “better” and how much is “more”? These kinds of instructions are useless to a VA and have no definable end point. A better instruction would be, “I want my site to have a two column layout with a full width header. The header should contain my photo and the site logo.” It’s still not precise, but it would give the VA a starting point.
  3. Don’t outsource the “you” in your business. Whether your style includes pictures of your cats in costume or always starting an article with a lame story (ahem); these are part of what makes a website author unique. I made this mistake early in my outsource career. I tried several different writers, whose talents ranged from execrable to excellent, but ended up re-writing everything they submitted. I was re-writing to make them sound like me. After several months and several writers, I finally concluded that I wasn’t producing any more content than if I had written everything from scratch.That’s not to say that outsource writers are useless. You can use well written articles submitted to article directories to drive traffic to your site. A well-crafted sales page can be a thing of beauty. All of these can be written by outsource writers and used by you.
  4. When it’s cheaper to do it yourself. This includes those times when it’s faster to do it yourself. Think about a one-off task, testing a new WordPress theme to see how it looks, for example. You could have your webmaster make the switch, notify you, then review the changed site, decide you don’t like it, then have your webmaster change it back. Wouldn’t it save time and money to make the change yourself? Your Webmaster’s time should be spent doing repetitive tasks that support your business (backups, updating plug-ins, site verification, etc.).
  5. When you dispense advice that could have legal consequences. Sure, your outsourced writer might be the acknowledged expert in tax write-offs using chinchilla farms, but that might only apply to his country. If any of your readers take that advice and get in trouble with the IRS, they will be blaming you. That’s why I don’t give legal advice in these columns. I can only tell you what works for me.

Those are the five major items that I don’t outsource (six, if you count honeymoons). Note that your skill set and inclinations might be different. If you absolutely hate to write, then by all means get a good writer to compose great content for you. If you dread tweaking your websites, then get your Webmaster to make all the changes you want.

If the above items have you worried that your current business structure (having your chinchilla farm owned by an LLC, incorporated in your cat’s name, and used as a tax write-off), is on shaky ground; you’re right to be worried. So, you might ask, “What is a reliable source for legal information?” I can recommend Legalzoom.com. They have packages for almost any business or personal situation.