Tag Archives: Computers

Windows 10 – Should I Take The Plunge?

I have a feeling Windows 10 is going to be a recurring theme on “Trube on Tech” Tuesday for a little while, but the one question that probably needs to be answered first is: Should I install Windows 10?

Let’s back up. If you own a Windows 7 or Windows 8 (or 8.1) machine, you probably noticed a little app a couple of months ago in the bottom right of your screen asking if you’d like to reserve a free copy of Windows 10. If you didn’t see this app, you’re not alone, but don’t worry, you’ve got about a year to reserve your free copy and Microsoft is here to help.

Should I Reserve My Free Copy of Windows 10?

For my money, there’s no harm in reserving the free copy. The pre-setup download is a couple 100 MB (not a big chunk of most hard drives) and you can always decide not to upgrade. If you’re on the fence, free isn’t bad. Just don’t install until you’re ready. Install speeds have been slow since a lot of people are upgrading now, so you can always wait until Microsoft’s server traffic is a little lighter.

What Am I Getting?

This is a complicated question but from playing with the new OS the high-points are:

1) The new Edge browser which looks more like a tablet browser to me both in functionality and features. It’ll probably be good for casual use, but businesses will still want to use IE11 (or better yet Chrome).

2) A new start menu, the bastard child of the Metro screen and the old program menu. This is certainly an improvement, but many people have already solved this problem on Windows 8 with tools like ClassicShell. And for my money, the new menu still has too much of the Metro screen look and feel.

NewStartMenu

3) Longer support. Windows 8 support ends in 2023, Windows 7 in 2020. New features for Windows 7 stopped earlier this year, and Windows 8’s should stop in a few more. So theoretically, you’re set till 2025. On the other hand, your laptop probably won’t last that long.

Otherwise what you’re getting looks an awful lot like Windows 8. There’s some subtle changes to the file windows, but they’re still not as pretty as Windows 7.

I have Windows 7, should I upgrade?

If you bought your laptop today, maybe. Otherwise I’d say Windows 7 is more like the Windows we all know and love. Eventually it’ll go the way of XP, but that’s a long way off. For context, most open-source Long Term Support operating systems (Ubuntu for one) have only a five year support cycle. So you’re still doing pretty good.

I have Windows 8.1, should I upgrade?

Aside from the Start Menu I’m not convinced yet you’re getting something drastically better than what you have. A lot of people don’t like upgrading simply because they’re worried about losing files or programs will stop working. And that is always a risk, though the Windows update says it will maintain files and programs, I doubt this is completely seamless. If your Windows 8 machine is new, then maybe go ahead. If you’re used to how Windows 8.1 works, even if you don’t love it, this isn’t going to be enough of an improvement to justify the hassle.

I like new things and want to do the install, what’s your advice?

DO NOT let Microsoft choose the default settings for the device. There have already been some security concerns raised about the WiFi sharing capability of the new OS, and there seems to be even more ways the OS tracks where you are and what you do. My advice … choose “customize my settings”, then click NO to everything.

As always when doing an upgrade, backup your files. And of course leave the computer plugged-in. Also be sure you’re ready because this is a one-way trip. The only way back I can think of is a factory reformat and a restore disk. Trust me, that is a BIG hassle.

If you have Word 2007 you may be in for some bad news. Windows 10 may or may not support it, and Microsoft support for 2007 ends in a couple of years. You may need to buy a new version of Word, though have you tried OpenOffice?

I’ve got a copy of Windows 10 Pro in a virtual machine that I’ll be playing with for the next few weeks. Feel free to ask me questions. Despite my reservations, I’m probably going to upgrade one of my laptops to 10 to get a feel for real-time performance, though that’ll be a while.

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So … that just happened

My wife and I were out to lunch yesterday at Aladdin’s in Worthington. Not my typical kind of place, but I’m always open to trying new things. My general feeling about Mediterranean food is that they serve a lot less meat (though it’s seasoned quite well) than I would like to see on my plate, even if it is closer to the amount of meat you should actually eat in a portion.

Stupid American “diet”.

Anyway.

As it happens our server shared the same first name as my wife, a name that isn’t particularly common among people our age. The server commented that she actually knew a ton of people in “her generation” that had the name. Our server was 22. I’m 30 years old and my wife is … less than that but approximately the same age as me. And yet apparently we’re part of a different generation.

The thing is, we totally are.

I’ve written before about “the floppy generation” and I’ve heard some people my age and a little older called the “Oregon Trail” generation. Both theories express the difference in generation based on the technologies they grew up with. We watched the internet being born, but still remember libraries and film strips, and really old games.

However, as it was pointed out to me by the boomers and the Gen X’rs in my office, they’ve watched the computer go from the size of a room to the size of a watch in their lifetime. The computers that me and you consider stone age relics were the iPad’s of their day relative to their starting point.

So maybe technology isn’t the best way to define the divide, or at least hardware. Social media and texting and a general desire to self promote has certainly shaped the current millennial generation, but it’s not like those of us sandwiched in the middle aren’t trying to get in on these things as well.

We had an electrician in this weekend who was talking about how it must seem strange to us to see someone handwriting a receipt on paper (he had an old carbon paper receipt book), but truthfully I know many people my age who carry around notepads and little pieces of paper right next to their gadgets. Typing random little notes to yourself on a tablet still seems much more involved than just a quick note on paper. I suspect that this is still true for people in that 8 years younger than me generation.

So what makes us different? Well I think generational lines can be fuzzy and ultimately it’s just a feeling. This young lady took one look at us and guessed we were in a different generation, even if other people might lump us together. It’s perception, values, gut feelings.

Or maybe I just look really old. But if I do, please don’t tell me.

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Master of your domain, King of your castle

Our computers do hundreds of tasks without asking us. They perform updates, index the hard drive, check for viruses, verify the integrity of programs, and hundreds of other preventative maintenance, monitoring, security, and random processes. And most of the time we’re okay with this. Sure it can be a pain in the butt when we want to shut down our laptop at a coffee shop, and are forced to wait for Windows updates to complete.* But most things happen without our notice and we just accept this as part of technology.

But what about when our computers prevent us from doing things we want them to do, when they disobey our commands?

I recently finished reading Cory Doctorow’s latest book of essays Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free. In it he addresses some of the history of using our computers against us, and where it might be going in the name of security and copyright protection.

Doctorow is an outspoken advocate of DRM free media and a frequent critic of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act, something probably very familiar to the people who discovered BitTorrent in the early ’00s). We all may have heard of Sony rootkits (an attempt by Sony to prevent their CD’s from being ripped that opened up a security vulnerability that was ultimately exploited by virus writers) and Amazon’s yanking of 1984, but to most of us these seem like isolated incidents, or something that doesn’t affect law-abiding citizens.

Both these cases are examples of a company trying to make a device work against what you want to do with it. When we still trafficked in CD’s you would rip a copy so you could listen to it on an MP3 player, or play a copy in your car so you wouldn’t damage the original. And when we read a book on the Kindle, we expect it to stay there, especially if we paid money for it. I don’t want my Kindle trying to figure out if all the books I’ve loaded on it are legitimate or not, because I don’t trust programmers to always get that right. At the very least in my case I have eBook versions of my own unpublished draft books, and other books purchased from the Humble Bundle and Story Bundle. What if one day my Kindle didn’t let me load these books, and only let me load stuff from the Amazon store? I signed a big long EULA with Amazon to let me use the Kindle and I didn’t read it, and neither did you. But I still expect the device to do what I bought it for.

Ultimately I’m more of a tinkerer than most people with computers today, but “hacking” a computer to get it to do new and more creative things has been part of owning computers since their inception. Let’s take a more morally gray area and pick apart all the legitimate and illegitimate uses of it, web scraping. What is web scraping? Simply put it’s a program designed to read all the pages of a website or series of websites and download specific content. Applications include downloading all the strips of a web-comic, pulling Bible studies from Bible Gateway and making an eBook, or pulling down a directory of pictures and making an application to decide out of a random pairing which is hotter (a la Social Network).

These are fairly easy scripts to write, in fact here’s a whole on-line chapter of a book about how. Some websites and web-comics hate web-scrapers (GPF comics being just one example). Requests from web-scrapers can be bounced back with fake webpages or even threats of banning (since this kind of traffic circumvents ad revenue, though then again so does AdBlock plus). Websites that don’t like web-scraping want you to load their site one page at a time, see their ads, and go back to the site every time you want to read those comics again. And that makes some sense, they own their own content right? The book I linked to is listed with a creative commons license for online reading, but with a little digging behind the page source, you could probably scrape the book down into an eBook using the knowledge gained in that online reading.

What differentiates web-scraping traffic from legitimate communication is speed and type of request. Requests can be massaged to look like their coming from a real person, and timing can be adjusted, but ultimately there are still ways to tell. But what if your computer decided that it would limit the amount of outgoing web requests to something more akin to normal usage. What if your hard drive stopped letting you save images pulled down this way? You wrote a program to do something, and your computer doesn’t want you to do it. Maybe that helps the legitimate cases of copyright infringement, but what about study applications or the experiments that are part of developing code.

I don’t know if I’ve made web-scraping sound shady or really cool, and I can come up with applications that would skew you both ways. But the truth is, some applications are beneficial, some are close to stealing, and some are creepy. But the act itself is neutral, and should be allowed. It’s not something that’s been specifically targeted yet, but it could be. Websites already have some ability to recognize that kind of traffic, and it would actually be easier to monitor at the source.

Do you value being able to tinker with your machine, to know what it is doing, and to make your own decisions about what it’s doing rather than to have your machines decide for you? Then maybe take a look a Doctorow’s book, look at your task manager and running services, and learn some python. Or just share that value far and wide with anyone who’ll listen.

* When they say don’t turn off your computer they mean it. My dad’s Windows 7 starter netbook was at a Panera once when a Windows update started. During peak hours of 11:30am – 1:30pm, Panera limits WiFi use to 30 minutes. Apparently the update had only half downloaded before Dad’s connection was cut off and he was forced to hard shut down the computer. It took a long time to get the system fixed and there are still hiccups probably caused by this.

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How will the computers of tomorrow destroy us all?

Some very serious people have signed a petition to ensure that Artificial Intelligence will work for humanity’s benefit and will look upon humanity not as something to be destroyed but something to be protected.

I know, sounds like science fiction, and if the robots run amok can’t I just switch them off? Well, not if they live in the cloud, replicate themselves with nano-machines, and manage our power grid for us.

As a science fiction author and reader, I have encountered many different theories on how computers will bring about our eventual demise. These range from the openly hostile (Terminator) to computers that serve us so much that we can’t do anything for ourselves (Wall-E).

But there’s a lot of variation between these two end points. Computers can eliminate humanity by fusing with our bodies, creating a cybernetic race (like the Borg or the characters in Ghost in the Shell). Computers may see us an ecological threat and eliminate us for the good of the planet. Or they may get to the point where they are so far beyond us that they may kill us accidentally, as we do to so many bugs. Or we could lose our humanity by investing our love in machines to the point where we don’t procreate.

Me personally?

I do think the AI problem (a thinking machine roughly equivalent to the human brain) is a lot harder to solve than your average computer scientist may want you to believe, but I think it’ll happen for people who will be alive in my lifetime (just not necessarily me). And these machines do need energy to run on, a problem that will require us to look beyond conventional fuel sources long before AI is a reality. We might be able to live off the land, growing crops for our survival, but computers can’t, at least not today.

Most robot stories, even those that involve the destruction of humanity, are examinations of what it means to be human, and what the current culture means for our future. Changes to our social relationships created by smart phone usage, social networking, and just a lot more media stimulation are probably the immediate problem I’m more interested in writing about.

But this is not to say that I’m not worried about us becoming the Borg, though the recent announcement that the Google Glass is going off sale has given me a little hope for the future. Turns out we don’t want a big screen in front of our eyes, at least until we can build smaller batteries.

What efforts like this petition highlight is the need to inject humanity in our technology, whether it be advanced technology seen only in the pages of science fiction, or the technology we carry around with us every day.

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So Long, Farewell

I took a big step for me this weekend. I finally got rid of my three 10+ year old crappy desktops.

All of them were still in working condition (at least so far as I know since the last time I booted any of them was months ago). One of them was the first computer I ever bought for myself, after six months of working at the library and $1300 (the biggest amount of money I have ever spent on a computer and ever plan to). This computer even had a name, a practice I’ve continued for all my laptops (it was named after a computer in one of my first novels). For all three computers (and an assortment of cables and adapters) I received $13.43 which to be fair is better than the nothing I was expecting.

For a while they were Linux experiments, but in truth they were just taking up space. I had some dream that I would swap parts from one to the other until finally the last one died. But in truth these old Dells just didn’t have the courtesy to die in a timely fashion. Remember when Dells were good machines? Turns out they were better than we thought 🙂

My wife says I’m over sentimental about objects, and she probably has me there. She says I should cherish the memory of saving up to buy my first computer, without actually saving the old hunk of junk. Certainly a computer seems still a small thing to get sentimental about and less socially acceptable than say, a car.

Part of my counter argument would be that we Americans are too quick to throw the old out for the new, that not enough of us take the time to maintain something rather than just replace it. Certainly going to the recycling center (or more truthfully bone-yard) gave me an appreciation for just how much junk we produce (and this is only my part of Columbus).

But in truth I’m as much a part of consumer society as anyone. I just buy additional things while keeping the old ones. And in a tiny house, sometimes something’s gotta give.

Like all projects that thrust a certain amount of change into my environment my first thing is to try to take advantage of the space I’ve gained to have a cleaner workspace and better arrangement of my gear at my fingertips. I swapped out an external drive for one of the larger hard drives I pulled. And even though it was a meager amount of money, I’m starting to look through my office and the house for any more extraneous gear that has passed its prime. I might even buy something fun with the money, like comic books or a tiny gadget.

I probably won’t be buying another desktop anytime soon, since my life these days really requires more mobility than a fixed location computer. But thinking back, I’m amazed at all I was able to create and learn with these machines (and how many trips that computer made from home to school to the CARS lab to all over and still survived). These were the first computers I learned to tinker with, replacing graphics cards, optical drives, hard drives, and the like. And they even served to generate some of the fractals for my book when I needed just about every graphics generating computer I could get my hands on.

What about you? Do you get sentimental about objects even past the time you should probably keep them?

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What should I look for in a computer?

Buying a computer can be a stressful decision. There are so many factors that it can feel overwhelming. Over the years I’ve helped many people pick out computers for themselves, as well as tried to make the best decisions for myself. In fact, I have to hold myself back when hearing people pondering computer purchases in MicroCenter from butting in and ticking off the Sales Rep.

Rather than annoying the reps down at my primary computer store, let me give a couple of my tips and thoughts here.

What size screen should I buy?

For me the perfect screen size for a mobile laptop is 11.6″. Looks a lot bigger than my old 10.1″ netbook but still light and portable. This by far is the best hybrid size for something between a laptop and a tiny netbook. It will feel small for gaming sometimes, so you might want a 15.6″ if that’s your emphasis. Much bigger and you’ll be carrying around a brick that won’t fit in a lot of bags.

Should I buy a solid state drive?

The speed is nice, and no moving parts means they’re harder to damage, but a conventional 500GB SATA drive will probably serve you just fine. Consider the solid state if you are resting the laptop actually on your lap and you have restless leg syndrome.

Do I need an optical drive (CD/DVD burner)?

Depends. I have a netbook that doesn’t have one as my primary “on the go” computer and I don’t miss it. But at home for backups and the like, it pays to have at least one computer with an optical drive. Externals work but can be fussy about their power settings, and one drew power in such a way that it messed up the power on my USB ports. If you do backups only on flash or hard drives, then maybe you don’t need it, but optical discs are still great long lasting backups. No matter what, in my experience a CD/DVD burner stops working (fails discs) after 3-4 years.

Does Windows 8.1 stink?

Not really, though it may take some time to configure it to what you’ll actually use. I never use the metro screen, and set my computer to boot straight to the desktop. Check out my tips for how to make Windows 8.1 work for you.

Which Brands?

I like ASUS and Toshiba. I have purchased Acer and they can be great for a budget. Avoid Dell and HP.

How much RAM?

4GB will be fine. 3GB is probably okay too. Don’t overspend to get 8GB, you can always buy the chip later.

Dual or Quad core?

My netbook is a dual core and works great, but if the quad core isn’t a whole lot more, it’s probably the way to go. For basic use both are fine.

# of USB ports?

Three or more is best, though you can always buy hubs if you want. Two seems like too few (my old Toshiba laptop only has 2).

How much should I spend?

Laptops last between 3-5 years typically (good ones maybe longer). Unless you are a high end gamer, graphic designer, or video editor, don’t spend more than $400. $300 is probably a good budget though you can get good machines even cheaper.

Warranty?

I heard good advice on Car Talk the other day; if you feel like you’re an unlucky person, buy the warranty. Otherwise be happy. It should have a 1 year manufacturer’s warranty in case the computer is a lemon.

Anything else?

Test the keyboard and pop the CD/DVD tray (if applicable) before buying. If possible see the thing in person rather than buying online. Take someone with you who knows more about computers if you’re unsure. Don’t rely on the sales rep, but be nice and give them the commission for fetching the one you want. Buy a USB wireless or bluetooth (if supported by your laptop) mouse. Maybe buy a sheath\sleeve if you don’t have one but thrift a laptop bag (you can get one for $1-3 instead of $40).

Questions and comments are appreciated.

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The Edge

I am writing to you this morning from the edge.

Chances are, sometime today you will encounter “the edge”. Whether you’re like me, and decided to substitute my typical morning dark roast for a pumpkin spice latte, or are simply going to the bank to get a little money out for the week, you are living on the edge.

The edge is where everything happens.

Perhaps I should explain.

As some of you know, my day job is as a programmer, specifically one who works on software that supports medium to enterprise level data-centers. Data-centers these days are almost like a public utility, they are the backbone of every transaction on the internet, every piece of electronic medical data, our spending habits, consumer preferences, etc. are all stored on rows and rows of server racks.

facebook-sweden-datacenter-racks

But it isn’t practical for us to have to talk to a central data-center every time we want to buy a cup of coffee, or track our reward points. A company like Starbucks has literally thousands of stores like this one. My particular bank branch lives in a Kroger in the same plaza, and that also tends to be where I buy groceries for the week. In one little plaza are about maybe a quarter of the transactions I do throughout the week.

So where does my data live?

Well, some of it does live back at that central data center, but the part that interacts with me, that knows who I am when I walk through the door, and knows that most mornings I just go for something like a “venti kati kati”, that part is stored in a data closet in the physical Starbucks store, or in a cash register.

That’s the edge. If our data-center is the hub of a wheel, branches of stores are at the end of each of the spokes. A mini-data center, maybe a single computer or a couple of network devices live everywhere, making it possible for a Starbucks to know who you are when you walk through the door (doubly so if you walk in with a smartphone).

And bad things can happen on the edge.

The Target hack last Christmas was due in large part to someone infiltrating the computer that updated the software on Target cash registers, and loading their own little trojan programs inside. Every cash register is a manifestation of the edge, and this is where millions got their credit card information stolen.

See, a large data-center has pretty good security. To break into its system, you’d often need to have physical access. But the edge by its very nature, has to operate wherever you are. And its often homogeneous, seen one branch computer seen ’em all.

So what do we do? Well, honestly probably nothing. We live in a society that is moving toward “the internet of things”. Even more devices besides what we conventionally think of as computers will start talking to the net, whether it’s a smart pill bottle, pedometer or even our umbrella. We’re paying for things with our smartphones, loading up coupons on our reward cards, and depositing checks by taking a picture. The only way to support that massive influx of data is a data-center infrastructure that is both centralized and distributed.

And the faster we grow, the harder it becomes to make everything secure.

But that’s okay. We change our passwords, have credit card fraud protection and two-step authentication. I’m not proposing we go to a cash only society, or bring down the net, or anything like that. I just think we should be aware of how our world is continuing to change around us, and at least be able to put a name to it.

So there, you’ve learned the one data-center term you’ll ever need to know.

Okay, there’s also UPS (Uninterpretable Power Source). It’s a big battery that keeps everything running when the power goes out. Now you know two.

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