Tag Archives: Computers

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.


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.


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.


Filed under Trube On Tech

The Truth About Linux

Deviating a bit from my normal routine this morning, I am writing you from the Crimson Cup coffee shop while enjoying my cranberry and orange muffin, and hot mocha. I’ve got about fifty minutes before I have to leave for a customer visit, so I thought I’d write to all of you (though with the spotty internet here I may have to post this later in the afternoon).

Stabbed-Tux-Linux-PenguinI think it’s time I come out and say it; Linux is a frustrating operating system.

Okay, for the techies out there let’s be specific: Zorin 6 built on top of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS is frustrating, though trust me, it’s not alone.

Last week a game on my Steam wishlist was on sale. Specifically, The Walking Dead Season 2 and the 400 Days DLC (the DLC would be effectively free since I could pay for it with Steam wallet funds gained from selling trading cards). Unfortunately I forgot about the sale until the next morning, giving me until 10am PDT (or about 1pm my time) to get the game. I was at work which understandably restricts game purchases but I had the solution in hand, take my trusty old netbook out for an internet spin.

When I get to Starbucks the equivalent of my Start Menu and Taskbar are gone. Apparently an update I’d run the other day killed the Avant Window Manager (which as it turns out was kind of out of date and unsupported, unbeknownst to me since it came packaged with Zorin). True, Zorin is now up to version 9, but 6 is in LTS support until 2017, so I should have been all right. I had to launch Opera with a terminal (command prompt), only to find out I couldn’t get to my network settings to actually connect and authenticate with the wireless.

Long story short I was able to boot my computer up in another OS, authenticate with two-step verification with Steam, which involved two-step verification with the Gmail, and buy the game.

So, after some forum searching it turns out there is a more up-to-date version of Avant Window Manager, and I can download the source code from GitHub. As a sidebar the Avant developer in the forum seemed really kind of rude, especially to Linux n00bs just trying to learn their system (directed at others not myself since I only tend to create new threads if my specific problem hasn’t actually been solved). Like with a lot of Linux programs you must first configure the source code, make the source code, and then install it. You don’t have a nice EXE guiding you through the installation process and doing everything in the background. To compile Avant, I needed a development version of Python, different apparently from the Python I’d installed to run scripts (and that’s a whole other story involving installing SSL libraries and in some cases gcc and make).

Three steps later and I am ready to compile. Oh wait, unknown error, missing library, invalid C++ compiler.


Screw it!

I’ll install Zorin 9 lite, since it’ll probably work better on my older hardware anyway. This involves using pen drive linux to write another OS disk image to a flash drive, booting my computer up from the flash drive, and installing the new OS (after two hours of backup of course).

My point, an update forced me to reinstall my operating system. No matter what your complaints about Windows, when’s the last time you had to do that?

And maybe a Mac is better. In fact if one of you cheeky Apple lovers wants to gift me $1399.99 or a new MacBook Air, go right ahead. Ready to put your money where your mouth is?

Computers are inherently frustrating, so you don’t need to heap additional layers of frustration on top of the baseline. No average user could have gotten even half as far on my specific problem as I did (and frankly my only solution was a reinstall so I’m not even particularly elite).

Though it kind of hurts me to say it: Windows Works.



I need a shower.

~For those of you concerned, no actual penguins were harmed in the making of this post, just that stupid Tux. And that GNU bull or moose or whatever, I’m coming for you next!


Filed under Trube On Tech