Category Archives: Computers

Learning Something New

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It’s a beautiful clear morning. I’m out for a morning ride, the endorphins are flowing, and I pause at the former Grand Street ferry landing (now a charming little park) to write a few lines.

I recently started playing with, er, testing, Microsoft Office 365, which comes with an app for my phone with pocket versions of Word, Excel, etc. So let’s give it a shot, I thought.

I had tried opening a couple of files that I had stored on OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud service) with no problem, but couldn’t find out how to create a new document.

Some frantic Googling revealed the answer: from the very first Office screen, tap the symbol with the plus sign somewhere in it. If it had been a simple plus sign, I would have figured it out with no trouble.

It’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child can do it….

But typing on my phone actually works better than I expected. I’ve always found answering e-mails on my phone to be annoying and clunky, but Word on my phone just seems to work.

I only hope that I can retrieve this when I get back home to post it….

Chromebook

Last week, I was teaching a course that included Adobe Flash animations to illustrate how to operate the machine that was the subject of the training.  The course was to include practical sessions with the machine itself, but since it wasn’t ready, we thought about providing laptops with the animations for the participants.

I had read about the Chromebook, a really inexpensive ($200) laptop that basically serves as a platform to run the Chrome Web browser.   It looked cool, and I’m a sucker for small, cool-looking, inexpensive laptops.  I bought one.

It ran the Adobe Flash machine animations just fine.  I could access them from the Web, or store them on the Chromebook’s hard disk.  It has a practical advantage over the Windows 8 laptop that I bought for my business (and wrote about in these pages at the end of the year) in that it has a 15-pin VGA connector to attach an external monitor.

But now that the class has finished, what else can I do with it?

And that’s where the bottom dropped out.

My first requirement is an e-mail client.  I have a half-dozen e-mail addresses.  My primary laptop can collect them.  My Android phone and tablet can collect them.  But for the Chromebook, apparently, I’m supposed to use Google’s Gmail.  That’s it.  There are services that will aggregate my e-mails (for an ongoing fee) and make them available at one spot, or send them to Gmail.  But an actual e-mail client that stores one’s missives locally is apparently not part of the program.

Rummaging around, I found that there was a group making a version of Ubuntu Linux that runs on the Chromebook.   After some hesitation about turning my charming little laptop into a brick, I plunged ahead.

The process is relatively painless: I didn’t have to open up the laptop, and it was mostly waiting for the software to download.

Now the little machine not only has a proper e-mail client, but also can open Microsoft Office documents (not the full Office, to be sure, but good enough to take a peek), and can run Linux networking tools.  (And yes, it can still run the Flash machine animations that I started with.)  And I never have to bother with Gmail again.  (Unless I want to: the original Chrome OS is still there, on a separate disk partition.)

Not bad for $199….

The Lost Art of Documentation

When I first worked with computers in the 1970s, they were not meant to be user-friendly. You had to go to class, or read a long and detailed manual, before you could expect to be able to step up to one and do something useful. And you had to interact with the machine through a keyboard and text display. I accepted it as a fact of life; I got good at it.

In the 1980s and 1990s, graphical user interfaces came into use. For some things, it’s useful. It would be really, really difficult to draw on CADD without a graphical interface. (And when I first used CADD, in the 1980s, it was still an old-school system in that one had to go to class and read the manual before using it.)

But graphical interfaces made it possible for other programs to have a more user-friendly, point-and-click interface. You didn’t need to read the manual anymore.

Just mouse around: you’ll figure it out.

Well, maybe.

I remember one frustrating evenìng in the 1990s with a graphical spreadsheet program. I wanted to change a column width and couldn’t find the command for it. It took ten minutes of cursing and swearing before I realized that I had to grab the end of the column header with the mouse and pull it to the desired width.

So instead of interacting with the machine like an adult, I have to point at what I want, like a three-year-old.

I learned that trick, and many others, and I’ve made my peace with graphical interfaces.

Meanwhile, the manual that used to be required reading before doing something useful has atrophied and disappeared. The last software that I bought that had a proper manual was QuickBooks, back in 2005. It included not only a description of how to use the program, but a discussion of some of the basic and necessary principles of bookkeeping. It was the last and finest of the dinosaurs.

I had made my peace with this method of working, until this week.

I rent a computer server in a data center somewhere for my business. Last Sunday, it failed. Not a major problem: I had some measure of warning, and I keep backups, so no data lost. The good people at the data center changed out the server and set up a new one.

Most of the reconfiguration went smoothly, until it came time to install the SSL certificate for encrypted Web transactions. One of my clients insists that their data be secured in transit, even though it’s not financial and nor particularly confidential. On the first server, I had used the data center to acquire the certificate, and it went smoothly. I had the files from the original installation, which I needed to reinstall.

OK: mouse around, without a manual, find where the SSL certificate goes, paste it in, then go to ‘Domains and Websites’ to turn it on.

OK, now I’m in Domains and Websites: how do I turn it on?

The data center has tutorials for doing things, and I found the little tick box and selector to turn on the certificate. OK, now we’re good.

Well, almost. I tested the connection with several browsers. It worked with all of them except for Internet Explorer, which somehow got the wrong certificate and said that the site was possibly fraudulent.

I then spent a day and a half trying to fix this: looking around through the user interface, examining files on the server directly, testing. I thought of swapping the certificates inside the server, but couldn’t determine if there were other consequences (like not being able to access the server again). Still not working.

Could I have asked the people at the data center for help? That didn’t work when I tried it before: I couldn’t get e-mail working when I first got the server, wrote in for help, and they couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. I found that to start e-mail, I had to issue the command to turn it on, and then restart the server.

Finally, last night, I Googled the problem with a different turn of phrase, and found the answer. I should properly have installed the certificate in a different spot, and enabled it through the IP address, rather than the domain name. With that information, I fixed the problem in three minutes.

Just mouse around. You’ll figure it out….

But when?

Windows 8

My wife has a MacBook Air.  From a hardware perspective, it’s a gorgeous machine in its slim aluminum case.  But as the family IT guy, I hate it: I save files on it and can never find them again.  I have a special distrust of the Mac e-mail client: when it fails to send or receive, it just sits there looking innocent, and I don’t have a way of poking it in the ribs to see if it’s actually working.  To that end, when she got the machine last year, I installed Thunderbird on it and insisted that she use it.  So far, it’s worked.

But for myself, I refuse to use a Mac.

My current business laptop went in service in early 2009.  It’s still functional, but getting long in the tooth: time for a new one.  The new machine is a Lenovo Twist with Windows 8.  I had read bits and pieces about how Windows 8 was hard to deal with, but I thought it couldn’t be worse than the Mac.

I was mistaken.

Like my wife’s machine, the hardware is gorgeous.  It’s a pleasure to hold in one’s hand, set it on the table, turn it on.  It’a a joy that it boots up in under 30 seconds.

And then the bottom drops out.

While it’s waiting for me to log in, it displays the next appointment from my calendar.  Now that’s what I call operational security!

I can log in ‘locally,’ or with a Microsoft account.  Why I’d want to do the latter is unclear: who appointed Microsoft to be the gatekeeper for my computer?

After I log in, I’m dropped into the user interface formerly known as Metro.  It’s now called ‘Modern:’ apparently Microsoft hadn’t done their due diligence, and discovered, too late, that ‘Metro’ was trademarked by some other firm.

It’s a grid of squares and rectangles that blink, show pictures, and present weather reports, e-mail counts, and other varied data.  I get dizzy looking at it for more than a few seconds.  It’s a plausible interface for a mobile phone for a hyperactive teenager.  But I’m not a hyperactive teenager, and my computer is a working tool, not a toy or a status symbol.

I installed Microsoft Office, which resulted in a pile of little squares being added off the right edge of the screen.  I scroll over to the squares, click on one of them, and am dropped into a desktop where I can actually run Word, or Excel, or whichever.  In theory, if I wanted to run another tool, I would have to go back out to Modern-Metro-land, click on another square, and be dropped back into the desktop.  There is no Start menu as in previous versions of Windows, or in the various incarnations of Linux that I used to run.

And as much as I hated the e-mail client on my wife’s computer, the current version of Windows Mail deserves its own special place in hell.  One morning, I answered three e-mails on my new computer.  The machine made reassuring noises, and the icon appeared on each of the original messages, indicating I had answered them.  When I went to other machines, and other e-mail clients, they all showed the little arrow that indicated an answered e-mail.

The only problem is that the answers never actually got sent out!   I found them three days later, still in the outbox.  And so ended my use of Windows Mail.

As much as I like the idea of Linux, Microsoft Office is a mainstay of my business for which there is no practical substitute.  (No, OpenOffice doesn’t quite cut it.  Yes, it can handle 95% of what Microsoft Office does.  But that last 5% is the difference between looking professional and looking like a turd.)  So it’s either Windows or a Mac.  I can’t stand Macs, and now the latest version of Windows is just as bad.

Yes, life will go on.  I’ll find an aftermarket Start button to install on the Windows 8 desktop, and ultimately move my other files and programs.  It’ll be almost as good as Windows XP.

But it’s another way that I can’t go home again.

Unless I can turn myself into a hyperactive teenager….

HicyacixGar

One of the Web sites I follow regularly is the Barbara Ehrenreich forum from her book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.  The book describes her unsuccessful efforts to secure a ‘middle-class’ job in corporate America, and the people she meets along the way.  The book came out before the financial crisis of 2008, and it was already clear that the corporate job that we once took as a mainstay of American life was going the way of the dodo.  When it came out, I had recently started my own business, and it was comforting to find out that I was not the only one who had been stomped on by my last employer.

There are about a half-dozen people on the forum who post regularly about the sorry state of employment in the US, and up until a month ago, that was OK.  But for the last few weeks, the forum has been taken over by ‘HicyacixGar,’ who generates useless posts about 50 times a day.  We’re down to one thread, as everything else is flooded by Hicaycix.

But I’m compelled to wonder: who or what is HicyacixGar?

OK, a spammer, but to what end?  The posts appear to be illicit ads for prescription drugs, but the Bait and Switch forum seems a thoroughly pointless target for a marketing effort.

Looking at the other fora on the Barbara Ehrenreich Web site, there is some spamming going on, but nowhere near as bad.  The Bait and Switch forum had been the most active, with the most interesting discussions.

So I wonder: is Hicyacix just a spammer, or does it represent a person or agency bent on suppressing discussion about the crappy state of the economy and employment?

Captain of Industry?

My wife is a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and as a result, we get advance DVD copies of movies so that my wife can watch the movies and vote in the SAG awards.  I had wanted to see The Social Network, but missed it in the theatre, so now was my chance.

I’m glad I saved the $25 that two movie tickets would have cost.

It’s not that The Social Network is a bad movie: it has a compelling script, is well-photographed, and has excellent performances.  The cast and crew have more than done their job in bringing the story of Facebook to life.  But I very quickly came to the realization: I don’t like these people.

I remember old movies about how great enterprises came to be.  Their founders struggled with practical problems, overcame them, and proudly succeeded.  But we see nothing about the practical problems of creating Facebook: instead we see how its founder promptly got embroiled in lawsuits.

In fairness, perhaps I’m biased.  Facebook, we’re told, is the social experience of college wrapped up in a Web site.  Alas, I had no social life to speak of in college: we were all engineering nerds, and what few girls there were in class quickly got snapped up by the guys who were better at that sort of thing than me.

But if Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is supposed to be what a modern captain of industry looks like, we’re all in deep, deep trouble.

Oops!

From time to time, I get a message that someone has registered with this Web site to post comments.  Most of the e-mail addresses seem genuinely strange, as if not actually belonging to a person, and I’ve never received any actual comments.

The other day I tried to register and post a comment, and found that I couldn’t, or at least I couldn’t find the magic link that enabled one to post a comment.  I could register, and sign in, but then I couldn’t actually do anything.

So we’ll have to use an old-school fix.  Long ago, before magic blogging software, I kept what was known at the time as a ‘Web journal,’   and I posted an e-mail address for comments.

And indeed, I got comments; I also got vast quantities of spam.  To avoid the spam, I now have to play a stupid little game:

Please write me at some_guy _at_ harderworld.com.

If I include the actual @ in the address, the robots of the world conclude, ‘Aha! An e-mail address!’  and proceed to send me dubious ads for Canadian drugs.

And I’ll see about getting the magic blog software kicked in the pants so that you can send real comments.

Goodbye, Vista

About a year and a half ago, I bought a shiny new laptop with the Vista operating system.  I had heard that Vista had gotten mixed reviews, and looked forward to experiencing it for myself.  I found that the oh-so-sexy windowing system, with translucent windows, was an annoyance when I was trying to be productive, so I shut it off.  I set up the machine to look like Windows 2000, and I was happy.

People made fun of Vista for User Access Control: the function of asking for confirmation when you were about to do something that could potentially reconfigure the system.  I lived with that function under Linux for a few years before getting the laptop, so I was glad to see it in a Windows system.  (As much as I like Linux as an OS, it’s a Microsoft world out there, so running Linux for business is not a practical option.)

So for a year and a half, I lived with Vista, and it seemed to work OK.  I had a couple of minor problems, but nothing too terrible:

  • The Windows XP driver for the printer at the office would work, and then toss its cookies after finishing the print job.  I could tell Vista to restart it automatically, but that didn’t help my CADD application, which ran each page in a batch as a separate print job.
  • Vista insisted on trying to figure out what sort of files were in each directory, and showing them to me in an appropriate format.  The result was that running Windows Explorer was somewhat of an adventure, as one directory would list details of the file, while another would show thumbnails.  I tried to force Vista to show me everything as a detailed listing, and it sort of helped.

Other than that, Vista was OK.  It ran my software and pretty much took everything I threw at it.  I had maybe two Blue Screens of Death in the eighteen months I had the machine, and they had fairly obvious causes.

And then, about a month ago for travelling, I bought a ‘netbook’ computer.  The newer machine has a pipsqueak processor and half the memory of my Vista box, but it runs perceptibly faster.  But the netbook runs Windows XP.

Anyhow, last Tuesday at 4:29 pm, my Vista box all of a sudden dropped dead.  I was writing a document when the screen went black.  Restarting didn’t help: it wouldn’t even access the disk, wouldn’t display an error message, wouldn’t even beep.  In a word, dead.  Fortunately, the disk was still OK, so I didn’t lose any data.  (But it’s much cooler to sigh, ‘Thank God for backups,’ when someone asks.)

So for a couple of days, I used my netbook as my work computer.  Everyone who saw it thought it was cool.  But I know I can’t go on that way forever: I couldn’t possibly do CADD on the netbook.

So yesterday, I bought a new Lenovo laptop.

It runs, and will continue to run, Windows XP, although it included a set of disks for installing Vista.

A machine cycle is a terrible thing to waste.