25 May, 2010
End of life
Anyone else using Symantec AntiVirus Corporate edition v.8 (from, er, 2002, though the definitions are still updated)?
You may have noticed a slight problem over the past week, whereby all scans, scheduled or manual, are 'stopped by user' within a second or so of starting.
My first thought was that malware was attacking the AV software itself, so I scanned using a different tool: no infection found. Then I thought that the latest definitions update had introduced a bug, which would be corrected by a follow-up update in a day or so. Right and wrong.
Right in that yes, the 11 May update (vd315603.xdb) introduced an incompatibility, but no, it won't be fixed. Ever. Symantec no longer support v.8, and have no intention of investigating the problem: official advice is to upgrade to at least v.10 (fine for me, as it's free from my employer).
I suppose I can't blame a commercial company for failing to support very old software forever, but I would have preferred them to close it down a little more gracefully.
1 December, 2009
I can see again
Last night, I uninstalled Photoshop 7 from my PC. It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I have Ps CS4 Extended too, so why waste the drive space?
Adobe Gamma. I hadn't realised how dependent I was on that simple utility for managing my monitor's output, nor that it'd be automatically removed alongside Ps7.
I'm not sure why more recent versions of the market-leading raster graphics editor omit a display management tool (er... I'm not simply overlooking something, am I?) since, as should be needless to say, it's essential to calibrate one's monitor before even considering any editing of photos. The default settings of standard domestic/office monitors are far too bright and contrasty, generally optimised for text. Photos need something more subtle; in my case, I needed to drop the gamma setting a long way.
Rather than reinstall Ps7, a standalone utility or even borrow professional calibration hardware, I readjusted my monitor 'manually', with reference to a set of images & animations provided by Lagom. If you need to perform a calibration too, or just want to check your existing settings, give it a try.
Then realise you need a better monitor....
19 October, 2009
.NET Framework Obstructant - again
Microsoft's at it again. The most recent 'Patch Tuesday' updates, record-breaking in their extent, included an undeclared plugin for Firefox (that's plugin, not extension; they're different), related to the .NET Framework. The first Fx users are likely to know is when a Mozilla error message pops up to warn of a security vulnerability called 'Windows Presentation Foundation 3.5.30729.1'.
Ordinarily I consider each 'critical' update individually as part of the 'Custom' facility of Windows Update, rather than 'Express', and decide whether I really want it (I always reject the Malicious Software Removal Utility, for example), but when 13 appeared this morning on my work PC, I just accepted them. Foolish.
Other sources (lacking permalinks...) claim that Microsoft have fixed the security vulnerability and that Mozilla might remove their block on the plugin, but that's not the point: I will not accept unsolicited software, so the plugin is going. I'd recommend others do the same.
If Microsoft want to improve integration between Windows and Firefox, they need to amend their own software, not amend third-party browsers such as Fx.
25 August, 2009
Try that one
Apart from the bit about choosing a menu item at random, Randall Munroe has seen through my 'tech support' technique perfectly: I don't necessarily know how to resolve a problem my mother might be having with her PC, especially if it's an issue I haven't experienced before, in a package I've never encountered, but I do know how to approach the problem. And it's not a complex approach.
'Syncrotic', a commenter on BoingBoing's reposting of the xkcd flowchart highlights an issue I hadn't consciously considered:
There's a little more to it than the flowchart implies. Anyone who 'gets computers' understands that most software is designed with certain common conventions in mind. Clipboard functions and text searching are under a menu called 'Edit', printing is always under 'File', etc. We know how to read a dialog box and understand what it's saying.
The truly computer illiterate don't get any of this: to them, everything is a series of carefully memorised incantations, and when something changes, they're filled with frustration or sheer terror at what their "stupid computer" has done to them.
It's willful ignorance of a sort... UIs are mostly made up of words, and the ignorant make a conscious decision to refuse to parse those words.
So on the one hand it's necessary to be patient: conventions which might be familiar to the experienced might be opaque to the tech illiterate and one can't expect users to respond logically if they don't understand
the limited evidence available in a UI or dilog box.
Yet on the other hand is that final sentence in Syncrotic's comment, and another comment in the same BoingBoing thread:
My job is not exploring all the features of the software, configuring the system, perusing help files, or randomly monkeying with buttons in lieu of actual output. My job is to get things done here in meatspace. Often, these days, a PC is involved.
When the PC is instead in the way of getting things done, I want it to stop being in the way. Right now. No, I don't want to step through some insipid FAQ or byzantine help file that doesn't address the problem, I want the PC to stop being in the way. Right now.
You - IT guy - understanding this is your job. If you know how to make the PC stop being in the way, tell me which button to push and I will thank you, push said button, and return to my job.
My sister has this attitude, and it's the reason I'm reluctant to help her. Tech support isn't
my job, neither my source of income nor some sort of moral responsibility, and I don't respond well to "I don't want to know – just fix it"
I'm entirely willing to help someone who wants to help herself, who's already tried
to help herself by at least checking the 'help' menu and who'll use this experience to better handle the next situation.
I'm unwilling to help someone who'll demand I fix something NOW and, worse, demand that I acknowledge software designers are simultaneously incompetent and wilfully malicious in releasing deliberately obfuscated products, thereby forcing 'real world' people to employ the services of expensive professionals. [Paradoxical, considering she's a rather senior surgeon...]
Remember when I had to explain
how to get music from CDs to her mp3 player, specifically without introducing the very concept
of audio extraction?
If someone "doesn't want to step through some insipid FAQ" and "wants the PC to stop being in the way, right now", I cease to have the remotest interest in what he/she 'wants' – the abusively ignorant can struggle alone.
12 May, 2009
This way up
This is boringly techie, and largely a note to myself, but I've discovered that Photoshop CS4 (Extended) doesn't play as nicely with the Photomatix HDR utility as Photoshop 7 did.
I don't particularly like 'full-on' HDR images, but overlaying a processed HDR image onto a non-HDR source image at low opacity sometimes enhances the result without too much artificiality.
Self-evidently, this involves opening one image file as a layer within another, but Ps CS4 seems to be fussy about the stacking order of layers: if the base layer is the source image (i.e. loading a HDR file into a non-HDR file), the final output will contain the original camera EXIF metadata, but if the HDR layer is treated as the base, the final output will discard the EXIF.
Ps CS4 offers the convenience of automatically opening multiple images into the same file as layers, via the 'Load Into Stack' tool. The slight problem is that it doesn't seem so discriminating about stacking order....
I suppose the ultimate flaw is the failure of Photomatix to retain EXIF metadata – if all layers in a Ps file contained the metadata, it wouldn't matter which one was given priority when saving – but the net effect is that one needs to be careful about opening files in Ps CS4, perhaps even avoiding the 'Load Into Stack' tool.
29 April, 2009
I need to password-protect a website; not difficult, but I need to use my employer's SSO facility, and hence someone else's code snippets.
Which, if I cut-and-pasted unmodified, would only permit access by usernames 'bert', 'ernie' and 'kermit'.
15 April, 2009
Spent tens of thousands on audiophile-grade sound equipment, including vibration dampers for your fridge, but finding the music still isn't quite right?
You forgot to use 24K gold fuses, didn't you?
Actually, that's gold-plated, which makes even less sense.
25 March, 2009
New world order
When I upgraded to a new work computer recently, for the first time since 2003, I was obliged to upgrade some of the software, too.
- Version 4.5 of my preferred web editor, Macromedia HomeSite, was a security risk on the campus network (it only worked when logged in as Admin, which isn't best practice for everyday use) so I bought v.5.
- I took the opportunity to replace my seven-year-old copy of Photoshop 7 with Photoshop CS4 Extended.
- The very reason for the new computer was that we were obliged to 'upgrade' to MS Office 2007, which wouldn't run on my old PC.
Since then, my productivity has dipped slightly as I've been relearning my workplace.
'Relearning my workspace'
- Homesite's functionality is much the same, but the dialog boxes are rather different – and not for the better. It's suddenly become distinctly clunky, and I'm beginning to wish Dreamweaver could handle the campus network better (I have root access to several large web servers, and DW had a habit of trying to index every directory, every time I tried to open a file).
- MS Office is... surprisingly okay. The UI can't be customised as much as I'd wish, but with as much 'assistance' disabled as possible, Outlook and Excel are actually usable. I've even started to organise myself in Outlook Calendar.
- Photoshop is the reason for this posting. I've encountered numerous changes in the UI, which were momentarily irritating, but almost immediately I've realised that every single one is an improvement. Photoshop was already my favourite software package (not that I'm the sort of person to have 'favourite software'), so that's quite an achievement. Well done, Adobe.
To be really picky, the toolbars occupy a greater proportion of the screen, leaving less room for the image being processed, particularly on my 1024x768 monitor at home, but it's fine at 1440x900 at work.
wasn't an overstatement. The majority of my working week is spent in Windows, so the UI of my tools and 'virtual environment' really does matter, almost viscerally, and the transition was quite unsettling – it even affected my dreams.
12 March, 2009
It mightn't be the most spectacular breakthough ever revealed, but better lithium-ion batteries – smaller, lighter, longer-lasting and very rapidly recharged – really could change the world.
9 March, 2009
Competition still required
The idea of making Windows 7 modular, so users can uninstall (or at least disable) ancillary features like Media Player or Internet Explorer, is an excellent one, but only as a starting point.
A far better model would be to offer them as optional extras, available on the OEM-provided system disc but not pre-installed. If, say, Internet Explorer is already on a user's desktop, inertia alone would dissuade him/her from trying Firefox; if a computer arrived with no music player at all, the user would have a more genuine choice whether to install Media Player, iTunes, or whatever.
8 March, 2009
Cyberpunk is here
John Nack reports on two instances of 'augmented reality', in which CGI interact with real-world objects.
For example, if one holds up a magazine advert to a webcam, software at the advertiser's website can overlay a 3D image of a car over the view of the advert: rotate & tilt the advert, and the car rotates & tilts.
The other example is of a simple animation triggered by software recognising a geometric shape on a variety of surfaces, from a business card (very William Gibson) to a forehead.
26 February, 2009
The (rhetorical) challenge: by phone, to explain how to transfer music from a CD to an mp3 player when:
- The player is little more than a USB memory stick with a headphone socket and which came with no software.
- The operator willfully and aggressively rejects the idea of learning anything, whatsoever, about computers.
- The computer is running 'baseline' Windows XP Home. You may instruct the operator to install additional software, but will have to talk the operator through every stage of the procedure.
- You may not introduce the concept of 'ripping' – not the word, the concept, however phrased.
- You may not use any jargon, where the word "settings" is unacceptable jargon.
Go. 'Cos it's ****ing defeated me.
5 October, 2008
Cut down on trees
I'm glad to see the market has overwhelmingly rejected Dell's 'environmentalist' tokenism: rather fewer than 1% of purchasers opted to pay £1 extra per laptop or £3 per desktop PC in order to plant trees.
As I've said before, I fully support the idea of companies reducing the environmental impacts of their products, but slacktivist gimmicks are pointless. Improvements will come from product design, manufacture (how & where) and packaging: invest in getting that right, rather than deflecting attention from sub-optimal products by offering a sop to the tree-huggers.
9 July, 2008
Note to those who can't access this
Hmm. Slight flaw in that premise.
Anyway; either yesterday's monthly 'Second Tuesday' Windows Update or an undeclared update to Zonealarm meant that the latter suddenly blocked all downloads via my internet connection last night – downloads such as web pages and e-mails. I was connected, but cut-off.
If you're in the same situation (maybe your home PC is, and you're reading this at work), drop Zonealarm's default 'Internet Zone Security' by one notch, and you should be active again.
I haven't had an opportunity to investigate further yet, but the next stage might be to download a new firewall, as one shouldn't operate at this reduced level of defence routinely.
[Update 14/07/08: Zonealarm issued a critical update today, which solves the problem.]
10 June, 2008
Early adopters' tax
Khoi Vinh uses the iPhone as an example of precipitous drops in the price of consumer electronics as the novelty wears off.
At its launch a year ago, the new 8GB, non-3G iPhone cost $599, but the price dropped to $399 within three months (that's for a new iPhone, of course; depreciation on the June batch would have been even greater).
By February this year, the price was $499, but for a 16GB model; Vinh estimates that would have stripped a further $100 off the value of his 8-month-old 8GB phone.
Then yesterday the iPhone 3G was released: the 8GB version can be yours for $199 – about as much as one share in Apple Inc. ($183.68, at the time of writing).
Investing tip: buy the company, not the product.
15 May, 2008
Feeling uneasy... very quickly
I installed my new broadband modem and service before work this morning, and it worked perfectly. That can't be right; computers just don't do that.
Yes, I've finally switched from dialup. With unlimited access to better-than-broadband (the UK academic network) at work and a web-orientated job, I've found little need or inclination to make extensive use of the internet from home, so a basic dialup connection has always been adequate. However, 'necessary' downloads are getting bigger, to the point where I can't practically update my firewall, antivirus protection, iTunes or even Windows itself; it's not always even possible to download updates at work then take them home on a USB drive.
Another reason for delay has been that without actively seeking discomfort or asceticism, I'm naturally inclined to disdain empty luxury or mere convenience: I haven't needed broadband, so I haven't wanted it. Yet it'd be foolish to deny that I'm paid fairly well, with fewer expenses than most (I'm a non-smoking non-drinker with no car) and I value time far more than money, so I think I can justify spending an extra £8 per month....
13 May, 2008
Play nicely: IE & SP3 precedence
Just in case anyone still hasn't 'upgraded' to Internet Explorer 7, or, more importantly, those who have but are considering reverting to IE6, be aware that installing WinXP Service Pack 3 with IE7 already installed prevents subsequent removal of IE7. If SP3 is installed before IE7, the latter remains removable.
- If you don't already have IE7, install SP3 first.
- If you have IE7 and doubts about whether to keep it, uninstall it (with the obvious consequences for customised features), install SP3 then reinstall IE7.
- If you've already installed SP3 after IE7, it is possible to uninstall both then reinstall SP3, but that could be onerous.
Needless to say, the same applies to those experimenting with IE8 Beta 1 (Why?
Don't answer that.): you won't be able to remove it (readily) if it goes on before SP3. Since you might need to uninstall the IE8 beta to install the final IE8 (I don't know whther that's the case), it might be worth temporarily uninstalling the beta now.
2 May, 2008
Linux boot glitch solved
Last night, I almost went over to the brown side: I tried the Ubuntu 8.04 Linux distro. I chose the Live CD non-installation because it claimed to leave Windows completely untouched, but it didn't mention that it would modify my boot log and BIOS startup procedure (probably obvious, in hindsight): each time I booted the computer, I had to choose which OS to load, even if the Ubuntu disc wasn't in the CD drive.
Considering I'd decided not to proceed with the Linux installation*, that was rather annoying, and I was a little depressed by the thought of having to manually select my OS every time for the remaining life of this PC: reconfiguring the BIOS and startup sequence is a little beyond my skills.
However, I discovered that Ubuntu had created a directory on my hard drive, simply called /ubuntu/. I presumed that was merely filestore for documents I worked on in Linux, plus config settings only applicable once Linux had loaded, but it seems not: having deleted that directory, my PC boots cleanly, straight into Windows.
If you've had the same problem, that's how it's solved.
*: It's just not what I'm looking for at present: I don't have the time or inclination to climb the learning curve and configure everything, it'd be awkward to install additional software via dialup (and besides, Ubuntu claims not to support many dialup modems) and open source software has no particular ideological attraction for me. I'm not ruling out another try once I have broadband and thinking time (the former probably more imminent than the latter), but for now I'll stick with WinXP, Photoshop & iTunes.
16 April, 2008
Au revoir, Bonjour
Apple's done it again.
I updated iTunes to v.7.6.2 last night. The dependency of iTunes on Quicktime is irritating but well-known, so I wasn't surprised that the update compulsorily updated the latter package too, not least because that intention had been clearly stated at each stage of the download & installation process.
Yet I was rather annoyed to discover that the 'update' also installed brand-new software of only tangential relevance, totally without warning or permission.
'Bonjour' is a local-area networking facilitator, apparently, which simplifies the process of sharing printers, etc. and – and this is the only relevant bit – allows LAN-linked computers to share iTunes libraries.
I don't need to share music locally, so don't use that aspect of iTunes.
I don't own a scanner, printer or graphics tablet, and anyway, Windows itself can handle the installation & sharing of peripherals.
Maybe Bonjour does it better, but the essential point is that I should be asked whether I want it. It betrays an astonishing arrogance that Apple believes their product so superior that they can't conceive of anyone not wanting it. Well, I don't. I simply don't care whether it does a marvelous job, firstly because I simply don't need that functionality and more importantly because I will not accept unsolicited software, irrespective of source or quality. I'm particularly uncomfortable about Apple software usurping aspects of the Windows OS itself.
It doesn't matter, though, right? It only steals a few megabytes of a hard drive holding scores of gigabytes, and if you're not using it, it's inert, right? Apparently not. Bonjour works by autodetecting devices & services on IP networks, so it's an always-on background process, which apparently can't be switched off via Windows Task Manager. Until recently, there's been no uninstaller, though it does appear in my 'Add & Remove Programs' interface, so maybe that's been added to the latest version.
So that's software which hides inside another package in order to gain access to a computer, then grants itself significant privileges within the OS and network, and resists removal. A full-on trojan (though let's not extrapolate: no-one's claiming it's a security risk).
Having done a little research, it seems iTunes is not dependent on Bonjour, especially if one doesn't use any networking aspects of iTunes. Hence, it seems safe to completely remove Bonjour from one's PC. Raymond.cc offers instructions, a link to a removal tool for those nervous about editing manually, and a way to download Bonjour afresh if it all goes wrong.
10 April, 2008
I'll have that to take out, please
I use the free Zonealarm firewall on my home PC (not at work); it's more than adequate for my needs and did I mention it's free?
Recently, the updates procedure has become annoying, even unworkable for those of us still using dialup* .
I'd been accustomed to downloading the latest update file to my work PC every couple of months, then taking it home on a USB stick to install there. Yet the initial download is now merely a download-management 'applet' which in turn only obtains the real ~46 Mb update once installation begins on the destination PC. The applet claims to offer a 'download only, install later' option, but if one selects that, the 'Okay' button is greyed out – one can only download to the intended destination PC, as part of the installation procedure.
I think I've found a workaround. If one checks for updates from within Zonealarm, rather than from the ZA website, the URL of the ~46 Mb file is revealed. I cut-and-pasted that into an e-mail, and have successfully downloaded the right file to my work PC without having to install it. Here's the URL, if anyone else needs it.
However, that's incidental: the real point of this entry is an appeal to software developers.
Please don't forget dialup users, or at the very least, don't deliberately obstruct 'third-party' downloads. If this is an attempt to discourage use of your free software, it won't make me transfer to your commercial software – I'll merely switch to your competitor.
*: I have unlimited access to a better-than-broadband connection at work and a web-orientated job, so neither need nor particularly want much of a web connection from home. After a day in front of a computer, that's the last thing I want to do with my evening.
21 March, 2008
If I hadn't discovered this via Bad Science's MiniBlog, I'd have presumed it to be a hoax (or maybe it is and I'm too tired to spot Ben G's humour): software which, it's claimed, can edit individual notes within chords in audio recordings. That's impossible, isn't it?
Suggested applications include tuning a guitar or correcting out-of-tune harmony vocals – after recording.
Perhaps not a technology for live-music purists or opponents of manufactured pop, but still, a remarkable development.
6 March, 2008
Don't think so
A colleague has just bought a new laptop, specifically choosing Windows Vista "because it comes with the full MS Office suite".
4 February, 2008
Open to new experiences
If I was the sort to live by maxims, one would be 'challenge assumptions', so without uncritically accepting everything as truth (far from it), I always value the receipt of fresh knowledge.
Hence, I didn't really need the following notice from Adobe Acrobat, though I suppose it's good that the package warns its more conservative users that they're about to read something radical:
This file may contain newer information than the viewer can support.
3 February, 2008
How to use in-ear canal headphones
I upgraded my iPod's headphones a few weeks ago.
I hadn't been using the ugly and notoriously mediocre ones which came with the mp3 player, of course, and I wasn't exactly dissatisfied with the Sony 'outer-ear' earphones (these, I think) which have served me well for years, but I'd become aware that their output was audible to others and I suspected their quality could be improved upon.
I specifically didn't want 'proper', ear-enclosing headphones linked by a headband, partly for carrying-conveniece, partly because I don't like wearing them and partly because I simply don't need expensive hi-fidelity headphones: if I listen to music through headphones, it tends to be 192kbps mp3s at work, in the street or whilst moving around my house, rather than CD-quality tracks given my full attention in a darkened room.
Hence, taking advice from experts at the Porcupine Tree Forum (PTF), I selected a pair of Sennheiser CX-300 in-ear canal headphones.
My immediate impression was split:
- "Wow, these are clear!" Even in the limited circumstances described above, I was inside the music, clearly hearing nuances I hadn't even noticed before. Wonderful.
- "Wow, these are tinny!" Despite the claim of 'bass-driven sound' on the packaging, my new headphones had a drastically weaker bass response than my (far cheaper) old ones. Disappointing.
Which brings me to the point of this entry: things can be done to optimise the experience, and I'd have been mistaken to dismiss the Sennheisers as a bad buy.
Firstly, speakers need to be broken-in. The effect on in-ear headphones won't be as dramatic as on over-ear headphones or full speakers (i.e. items with larger drivers), but audio quality will increase a short while after one starts to use them, not immediately. The PTF gurus suggest that 20-30 hours should be enough. A recommendation is to leave new headphones attached to a CD player (on repeat) for a few working days, but not to break them in with one continuous session.
Actually, I didn't do that, but I've certainly noticed an improvement with time, and the initial, attention-grabbing tinniness has gone.
Secondly, the fit in one's ear canal is particularly important. Three sizes of rubber sleeves were provided; I found the medium most comfortable, but the larger size provided markedly deeper sound (and isn't uncomfortable). There is a risk of overdoing the effect, and introducing a subtle 'dullness' which might be merely mistaken for a proper bass response. Be careful. I might continue to experiment.
13 January, 2008
Wow. Five years since the release of SoBig-A and the point at which the objective of major malware outbreaks switched from malicious damage to commercial exploitation; from data destruction to botnet breeding.
So why is it that I still routinely have to explain to people that it's unlikely that their hard drives will be wiped by some Azerbaijani teenager, but they still need protection against being hijacked?
I know at least one person who just doesn't care: her contribution to spam, DDoSes, etc. is Somebody Else's Problem, apparently.
24 December, 2007
Watch the pennies
Reporting a remarkable return to the concept of wind-powered cargo ships, The Register adopts a bizarrely pessimistic tone:
One does note that merchant ships – despite the fact that they carry the vast majority of the world's cargoes – emit only 5 per cent of the human race's carbon output. Anyway, an annual, global economic growth rate of just two per cent – mirrored in rising cargo tonnages – would wipe out a 15 per cent fuel efficiency gain in less than a decade.
This simplistic attitude mystifies me: a downright childish urge for there to be one
simple solution to an issue, whether global warming, road safety or journalistic laziness; that we should ignore the huge range of individually minor factors to focus everything we have on tackling the single biggest contributor.
Five percent of anthropogenic carbon production/emission does matter – it's a twentieth of the entire problem. No-one has suggested that kitesurfing cargo ships will save the world alone or that once they're in widespread use we can all tick 'global warming' off our 'to do' lists and relax. That'd just be 5% (more like 1%, really) down, 99% to go, to be achieved by hundreds of different measures, not one glorious panacea.
That's obvious, and no-one would seriously think we should only adopt one measure to tackle all carbon emission, ignoring all others, right? Right? The article goes on:
Even in a world where every ship suddenly had a massive kite achieving 30 per cent efficiencies, that would equate to barely a one per cent worldwide CO2 saving, which would be wiped out by reasonable economic growth in less than 20 years.
So yes, the journalist really is basing his argument on the idea that shipping would be revolutionised in isolation, and all other aspects of human society would continue as if nothing was happening. Those aspects of 'reasonable economic growth' need to be addressed too
, not instead
Ach; I'm ranting, and my despair at journalists' willful reductionism is showing....
Besides, moderation of hundreds of factors, rather than curtailment of one or two, might let people keep the core of their luxurious lifestyles: better to use CFL bulbs, reduce/reuse/recycle and (yes, 'and', not 'or') avoid energy-inefficient cars than to, say, ban recreational air travel outright. A rational 'use less; be careful' is preferable to a dogmatic 'Thou Shalt Not'.
If (if...) the kite scheme is successful, I'll consider us lucky to have dealt with such a large chunk at once, not critical of tweaking minor contributors. Every little counts.
10 December, 2007
Keep still, damn you!
I have two e-mail signatures set up in my work account. One, designated 'Office', is simply my job title and postal address (omitting my phone number) and is used for ~80% of messages. The other, 'Forwarding' is a covering note I attach when, yes, forwarding e-mails sent to me as 'webmaster' but more appropriately handled by other staff.
In MS Outlook, I attach signatures via 'Insert'>'Signature'>'Office' (or 'Forwarding'). Or rather, I click on the fourth menu from the left, the last item on the dropdown and the first item in the list of available signatures, all without really reading the titles.
The problem is MS Office's 'helpfulness': the first signature listed is the most recently used. It's a trivial point, but I think the interface would be so much improved if it didn't do that, instead always presenting the options in the same order (alphabetical would be fine) so that I could rely on remembering the position of an item in the list without having to read it.
5 December, 2007
I use ClearType, the Windows font-smoothing utility, on my home PC, so it's slightly odd that I hadn't thought of applying it to my work machine until now.
Having done so, I've found it looks distinctly odd here, as if my eyes aren't quite focussing. That's partly a matter of what I've become accustomed to – it'll take a short while to reacclimatise – and partly because I use a CRT monitor at work (unless one uses a TFT monitor, one only gets the anti-aliasing aspect of the technology, without the associated colour management).
However, Microsoft also offers a ClearType Tuner plugin (IE-only, obviously) which tweaks the display to one's monitor and colour perception. It does make a difference. Or am I just acclimatising already?
ClearType can be turned on* in WinXP and is turned on by default in Vista. Each has its own Tuner; click on the OS names in the foregoing sentence for the appropriate ones. ClearType does not work with earlier versions of Windows.
*: How to:
- Navigate to Control Panel->Display->Appearance->Effects….
Right-click on blank desktop->Properties->Appearance->Effects….
- Tick the 'Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts' box.
- Select 'ClearType' from the dropdown.
13 November, 2007
Hmm. Windows CE, Windows ME, Windows NT. And what does ce-me-nt spell?
I don't know who noticed that first, but it wasn't me, nor Microsoft's product naming team, presumably.
30 September, 2007
Selling out now cheaper & quicker
Not that I wish to advertise for them, but Amazon has just cut the expected delivery time of the new 80GB iPod by 4-6 weeks, shaved £6.30 off the price, and added a free FM tuner to the deal. I particularly want to mention that the revisions don't seem to have been applied to existing orders so if, like me, you'd already ordered, it seems sensible to cancel and resubmit a fresh order.
Yes, I'm in the process of selling out ;) . Given my default opinion of Apple products, some explanation might be appropriate.
My 20Gb Creative Zen Touch has served me well for 2½ years, but there are a few niggling usability issues and it's full (I've already deleted everything I'd choose to). Hence, I've been considering a replacement for a while, and it'd be foolish to ignore a high-capacity player at £1.90/GB merely because that happens to be an iPod (even it means I pay for features I don't want: a colour screen and video capacity). Besides, I've discovered that one doesn't necessarily need to operate an iPod via iTunes, so I can switch if the Apple software becomes annoying.
31 August, 2007
I don't unreservedly accept Jack Schofield's computer-related advice published by the Guardian, but his argument seems credible on this issue: one can safely decline the monthly download of Microsoft's Malicious Software Removal Tool whenever it's pushed by Windows Update.
As Jack says, it does no harm to run it, but 8-10 Mb is rather a lot to download each month for those of us still using dial-up (at home), and it does less than standard third-party firewall and malware packages.
30 August, 2007
Wow. Not only have my work e-mail accounts received over 1,000 sp*m messages within the last 24 hours (that's after the institutional filters have supposedly stripped out the rubbish), the total is a fifth of the way to the next thousand: 1,206 since ~14:00 yesterday.
25 August, 2007
I hadn't thought to right-click on 'Start' on this PC before accidentally doing so a moment ago. Unsurprisingly, it provides a context menu, but it's the first time I've seen it.
'Explore All Users'. That sounds a little... invasive.
22 August, 2007
Ha! Neil reports a 'campaign' by certain website owners (well, one owner, anyway) to 'fight back' against those of us who block adverts (using the invaluable 'AdBlock' or 'AdBlock Plus' Firefox extensions) – by blocking access by all Fx users. If he feels able to reject ~20% of his traffic, fair enough.
A seemingly dead link at his website (which I'm definitely not going to promote – have this one instead* ) mentions 'The Firefox Cult', but I can safely deny that I'm no unthinkingly worshipper of a particular browser. It's my chosen package, offering an interface and functionality I like, but that's the extent of my loyalty to Fx. If I was persuaded that a better browser existed, I doubt I'd hesitate to switch.
However, let's be clear: one of the main reasons I use Firefox is specifically to block adverts. I refuse to accept advertising, outright. If you consider it essential to your revenue stream, too bad.
As I've said before:
If site creation and hosting have cost implications for the site owner, they are the owner's alone. As a site visitor, I accept no moral responsibility to load or view marketing material – a site owner's costs are simply not my problem. I always decline to pay for web content, and that includes in the form of screen space within my browser.
Obviously, a site owner has the right to place adverts and hope someone responds on them, but he/she can't demand a visitor's participation.
Again paraphrasing myself: I don't agree that a site owner can justifiably rely
on advertising revenue – one might welcome a little extra income from ads, but I don't believe one has a right to rely on it.
If a site is that of a commercial venture, hosting is paid for by company income. Why on earth should I pay a firm's marketing bill?
Conversely, if it's a private site, it's a matter of personal choice to expend money on a hobby. If one was a recreational skier, would one expect other people on the slopes to pay for one's skis and lift pass?
That's from one of several times I've mentioned my zero-tolerance approach to web advertising, and therefore AdBlock. In a comment on another of those previous entries, Neil made an excellent point: that those inclined to install ad-blocking utilities are extremely unlikely to click through ads anyway, so they – we – are already irrelevant to advertisers; there's no point blocking us.
Incidentally, whilst I consider this supposed 'campaign' misguided, and a quick Google search has failed to identify anyone (with a decent PageRank) in favour of it, I fully accept the site owner's right to block visitors. I emphatically wish to distance myself from contributors to, say, Digg, who have taken this far too personally and unacceptably viciously. There's no justification for republishing a photo of the site owner's children.
What would be a far more effective means of fighting back against the fight-back would be to use Opera's out-of-the-box integral ad-blocker function, or even better, install and use the IE7Pro ad-blocker for Internet Explorer. I'd love to discover whether this guy thinks he can do without all IE users too....
*: Amusingly, that linked anti-anti-Fx site features an advert for Firefox. Which I block....
15 August, 2007
Cooler than I thought
According to the BBC, fan-based computer cooling is limited by air-flow problems.
As the spinning blades waft air over a chip, the molecules nearest to the chip can get stuck and remain stationary, hindering the cooling effect.
When I read that, I thought it'd be so marginal as to be barely worth mentioning; a theoretical limitation with negligible real-world effect. Yet what the BBC calls a 'wind engine', in which ions are dragged across the surface of a component thereby ensuring constant air movement, apparently increased the cooling rate from a conventional fan by up to 250%.
Okay, that's worthwhile.
14 August, 2007
I'll see what I can do
Windows tells me that rebooting with a floppy disk in the drive is a malware risk, and that I should remove it before proceeding.
Which could be a problem, as this PC doesn't have a floppy drive.
21 June, 2007
For your convenience
Useful tip from Jack Scofield at the Guardian, for those without the latest version of MS Office (or, like me, no word processor, spreadsheets or database packages installed at all):
Here's a simple way to read one of the new Microsoft file formats, even if you have no Microsoft software installed. Let's suppose you have a file that ends with .docx, from the latest version of Microsoft Word. It's actually a zip file, so add .zip to the end and unzip it. You'll find a cluster of files and folders inside, and the one you want should be called document.xml. Double-click that and it will load in a browser window, where you can read the text.
Nice to see Microsoft simplifying workflow.
14 June, 2007
Ever experienced a cryptic Windows error message, needed to copy the exact phrasing or appropriate hex code (to pass to a help desk or to try a web search), and found that one can't select and copy text in the error message box?
Don't bother to retype it (even if you're able – some dialog boxes need to be closed before one can do anything else, like open Notepad), 'Print Screen' it or scribble it on the back of a Sainsbury's receipt. Simply use 'Ctrl+C', the universal Windows 'Copy' keyboard shortcut, and it will, yes, copy the content of the box to the clipboard, ready for reuse.
A very useful tip from Lifehacker.
31 May, 2007
The Guardian offers an interesting, if necessarily superficial, summary of the 'state of the art' in next-generation car engines, whether hydrogen-based, more directly powered by electricity, or a modification of existing technology (biofuels).
Actually, now I've checked, it mentions much the same issues as last year, though addressing some of my doubts; specifically, that hydrogen fuel cells in cars may be zero-emission, but making the hydrogen isn't – the concept just displaces the location of pollution.
22 May, 2007
Woo without wires
I didn't catch it myself (I was too busy stressing about css... yes, really) but last night's 'Panorama' TV 'documentary' on the alleged dangers of wifi transmitters in schools seems to be receiving near-unanimous criticism as bad science. Even the BBC's own website seems to be distancing itself from the programme.
One of the best perspectives appears in the comments at Tim Worstall's blog; like Ben Goldacre, I don't see a way of linking to the comment, so I hope no-one minds my reproducing it here. Philip Hunt observed that:
Wifi uses frequencies of 2.5 GHz to 5 GHz, and power levels of transmissions are typically around 1 W.
However there is another technology also used in schools that emits electromagnetic radiation and is potentially more dangerous, because:
1. this other technology emits radiation in the range of 450-750 THz, i.e. 100,000 times the frequency of Wifi; which means that each electromagnetic particle (or "photon") will carry 100,000 times more energy and is therefore 100,000 times as potentially damaging. Furthermore there are structures near the human brain which have been scientifically demonstrated to be especially sensitive to radiation of these frequencies.
2. this other technology uses more powerful transmitters that typically emit 60-100 W. Furthermore, these transmitters are typically kept on all the time (unlike wifi which transmits in bursts), which increases the total amount of energy radiated over a given time.
These facts suggest to me that this other technology is potentially a lot more harmful to health than wifi might be (although having said that it is entirely possible that neither technology poses a significant harm to health), and that consequently if wifi is to be investigated as a risk to health, this other technology should be investigated much more rigorously.
The name of this other technology? light bulbs.
18 May, 2007
So far as I'm concerned, contrast is one of the most important aspects of digital image processing, and one with which I've occasionally struggled.
I'd like to stress the importance of getting as much right with a photograph as possible via the camera, 'in the field' – post-processing can be laborious and even fruitless if the raw image fails to contain the necessary data – but this is a useful summary of the main enhancement techniques. It's written with especial reference to Photoshop, but the principles are more generally applicable.
10 May, 2007
To the point
Do people care how environmentally friendly their PC is?
Okay, okay; I wouldn't actively seek an energy-inefficient computer which deliberately contained toxic materials difficult to recycle, but those concerns really ought to be the baseline upon which designers build, not selling-points. So long as a computer/manufacturer complies with regulations, I'm happy enough; specific 'environmentally friendly' gimmicks beyond that would just annoy me.
18 April, 2007
In't memory cheap?
My current USB pen drive is faulty; nominally holding 2 Gb, it registers as 'full' after 50 Mb or so, and it routinely corrupts data. It's less than a year old, so I checked the Amazon website for advice on returning it for replacement.
However, a brand new drive is only £14.90 – that puts fairly high-capacity portable storage in the range of 'disposable'. It's not worth the hassle of returning; I've simply ordered a new one.
17 April, 2007
I'm in the very happy position of being able to avoid using word processors, spreadsheets, databases and slideshow-presentation software for work, so MS Office barely impinges on my consciousness from month to month.
The sole exception is MS Word, whenever people send me .doc files as e-mail attachments. My main objection to the package relates to the absurdly 'helpful', aka intrusive, default functionality, so this article, discovered via Lifehacker, is genuinely helpful. In short, it identifies the features (which sometimes isn't easy) and explains how to disable them.
By default, .doc e-mail attachments open in an annoying 'Reading' layout when clicked. No longer. That alone will improve my quality of life.
Incidentally, if you're ever tempted to send a .doc or .xls attachment to my private e-mail accounts, don't waste your time – without exception, I delete them directly from the mail server, unopened. Besides, I don't have anything on my own PC that would open them.
28 February, 2007
I've just had a conversation with an aspiring techie who used the phrase "Control-F" twice in the context of looking for something in a non- computer-related context. I was plainly supposed to be impressed by his knowledge of elementary Windows keyboard shortcuts.
Aw. Isn't that sweet?
24 February, 2007
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Let's try that again:
Do you ever find it annoying that one can switch from the QWERTY keyboard layout to Dvorak simply by pressing '[Ctrl]+[Shift]'?
Seriously; that shortcut combination is more 'convenient' than anyone would really need.
22 February, 2007
I've always been mildly impressed that one can put a CD into a PC's CD-R drive and have the audio player automatically identify the content via a global database.
Gramophone, partly acknowledging that it had been fooled too, reports that acclaimed recordings of an obscure pianist have been proven to actually be previously-available recordings of entirely different pianists. The detailed analysis was performed by specialist software and experts, but the initial identification was by standard, domestic player software.
21 February, 2007
Go whistle an iTune
One of the main reasons I have a Creative Zen mp3 player rather than an iPod <spit> is iTunes, the management software associated with the latter.
That's one barrier less: Lifehacker explains how to run an iPod without having to use iTunes, perhaps even without having to install it at all.
Now all Apple needs to do is sell a high-capacity mp3 player without video capacity and the associated cost, and I'd consider it as at least an option.
20 February, 2007
See the light
According to the BBC, the Australian government intends to ban 'traditional' incandescent lightbulbs in favour of energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs.
It's a compelling idea, with few apparent disadvantages. A related BBC article reports that swapping each standard bulb for the fluorescent equivalent (much lower wattage, and wasting far less energy as heat) would feed through to emission of 70% less carbon dioxide. On a national scale, this could reduce Australia's emissions of the greenhouse gas by 4 million tonnes by 2012.
As usual, the main barrier is people's perception of the initial cost, but even on a merely economic level, that's false economy; CFLs use less electricity and can be expected to last far longer, so the per-usage cost is typically about £7 less ($12) per year (per household, I presume). The perceived cost dispariety could be reduced in the UK, and actual saving increased further, if CFLs were re-rated as 'essential' staples, subject to a reduced VAT rate of 5% rather than 'luxury' goods subject to the full 17.5%.
Personally, I switched to CFLs four years ago when I bought my own house. All the overhead lights use CFLs, but I have to use incandescents in two desk lamps, as they're incompatible with the physically larger CFLs. That's the only disadvantage I can think of at present: some lights might be rendered unusable if incandescent bulbs were banned. I believe Ikea sell small-profile CFLs, but I haven't seen them myself.
Oh; go on, then.... I wasn't going to link to the Ban The Bulb campaign website, as it links on to other Green propaganda/hippie-sh*t, but if you're able to ignore that... stuff, there is some useful content.
1 February, 2007
My computer. Mine.
Alternatively, like me, just turn automatic Windows Updates OFF completely and remember/make a note to check the Windows Updates website* at a time of one's own choosing on or about the second Wednesday of each month, to catch the Second Tuesday releases.
*: And I do mean visit the website instead of using Windows' inbuilt 'Check for Updates' utility, which has been known to make unannounced config changes in an attempt to be 'helpful'.
12 January, 2007
A nerd/geek meme
Discovered via Neil, this could be brief....
1. Did you not only sigh the biggest sigh of relief ever once you saw that Apple had introduced the iPhone, but you also thought it was totally the coolest phone ever?
I have no interest in the thing. I use my phone to talk to people beyond shouting range, to convey text messages, as a clock, and occasionally as a torch. I don't need it to play video or music (I've disabled even the default ringtone) nor take photographs, and I don't have the vaguest interest in its appearence.
That said, I do like the idea of the iPhone Shuffle.
2. Do you ever miss a front page story on Digg.com?
I've only visited the site after seeing it in my referrer logs. I wouldn't even recognise the front page.
3. When you get bored, do you browse the upcoming stories on Digg.com?
I haven't become a regular reader since answering the previous question.
4. When it comes to your personal web space…
a. Do you have your own REAL website (not blogger/geocities/etc…)?
Yes, you're visiting it (unless you're reading via RSS).
b. Do you actually know how to edit the code for it?
The (x)html, css and Movable Type code, yes. I have limited knowledge of perl and php.
5. Have you ever installed a different OS on a portable/gaming device that it was not meant for?
I've never owned a portable/gaming device, nor have I been asked to configure someone else's.
6. Do you have more than one monitor hooked up to your main computer?
No, but I'm seriously planning to do so.
7. Is the only time you use your printer to print out Google Maps?
I don't own a printer. At work, I tend to print e-mails for my boss (don't ask) and train times for myself, but my job is pretty much paperless, apart from post-it notes.
8. If you don't already have a water cooled CPU, do you leave the side cover off to help keep the temps down?
I did with my previous PC, as it had a specific problem, but not my 'new' one. Besides, the ambient temperature in that room is ordinarily around 15°C, which helps.
9. Do you somewhat wish you were living in Taiwan just for the technology (e.g. free wifi everywhere)?
No, I can't say that had ever occurred to me.
10. If you cant get rid of a virus or fix a serious problem after a few hours, do you just say f#@% it and format the HD?
I'm immensely pleased to say that's never been necessary, but I'm pretty sure I'd manage.
11. Do you totally wish you could afford a really nice Mac?
I don't anticipate ever buying any Apple product whatsoever. 'Nice' is not a characteristic I seek in consumer electronics, and I intensely dislike the Apple aesthetic.
12. Did you tell your broadband ISP to take their cable modem and shove it and go buy your own (a real one!)?
I don't have broadband at home.
13. Every now and then, do you attempt to hack your neighbours’ wifi connection just for fun?
I don't have wifi.
14. Do you keep spare hard drives around for testing out other OS’s or just for whatever?
No, and have far better things to do than play with OSes.
15. Can you install ATI drivers into linux?
I understand each word in that sentence, but not the overall question.
16. Do you sometimes wish you could just change the channel and start browsing the web on your TV, being able to view it at a decent resolution with good picture quality? (I ask this assuming some of you with laptops have hooked it to the TV and gawked at the horrible image).
Oh, get a ****ing life.
10 January, 2007
So a relatively minor manufacturer of non-essential consumer electronics has announced another product of no relevance to approximately 95% of the global population.
And this is newsworthy?
27 December, 2006
Small can't be beautiful
My mother and her partner, D, have been cursing his brother for days, for 'fobbing-off' D with a 'free-sample' mp3 player as a proper christmas present. It's so small that it just has to have been a free gift with petrol or something.
I've just seen it, with the expectation that I'd contribute my scorn to the collective outrage. I think you can guess where this is going....
It's a genuine 1GB iPod Shuffle. Having been obliged to show them the appropriate page at Amazon, I now know that the supposed 'freebie' cost £55.
26 November, 2006
Quick Launching programs
If it's mentioned in Lifehacker, perhaps it isn't quite so well-known as I'd thought, so....
Imagine you're working in Photoshop, and want to open Firefox *. You could minimise Photoshop and click on the 'Firefox' desktop icon, or you could click on 'Start' and navigate through 'Programs' and 'Mozilla' to that 'Firefox' icon.
Alternatively, you could just hit the 'Firefox' icon in your Quick Launch bar (itself in the Taskbar, normally at the bottom of the screen). One click.
The same applies to any package on your PC: add it to the Quick Launch bar and it's immediately available next time. There are three techniques, which really amount to the same one in three circumstances.
- Hold 'Control', then click-and-drag a desktop icon to the Quick Launch bar. It'll make a copy there, leaving the original on the desktop.
- Navigate to a program via the 'Start' menu, hold down 'Control', then click-and-drag the menu icon to the Quick Launch bar. Again, it'll make a copy there without affecting the original one.
- Navigate to a program's .exe file via My Computer or Windows Explorer. As you'd expect: hold 'Control', drag to the Quick Launch bar.
This has allowed me to eliminate desktop icons altogether; I don't use wallpaper either, so if I don't have a program open, my screen is uniformly black
. Instead, I have seven tiny icons in the Quick Launch bar (Show Desktop, HomeSite, Photoshop, Firefox, Outlook (at work)/Thunderbird (at home), WinAmp and Windows Explorer) for the regulars and the 'Start'
menu for packages used less frequently.
*: Bad example. One can also launch Firefox directly from the header graphic of Photoshop's main toolbar.
3 November, 2006
Remember the photocopier I commented on a few weeks ago? We've just had a brief induction session about it (if users need training, that suggests the usability needs work – I'd argue that the operating technique should be intuitive).
It's able to fold paper and insert staples, presumably even when and where one wants folds and fixings. Wow. In't modern technology brilliant?
Actually, I'm not being sarcastic – though not exactly earth-shattering, it could be a useful time-saver for clerical staff, and I wasn't aware that it was possible. It's these little innovations that I appreciate.
28 October, 2006
Neatly saving me the need to visit Wales this weekend, my mother has purchased a new PC. I'll have the pleasure of configuring it in a couple of weeks....
She bought from her local computer shop, responding to an offer in a leaflet. The specification, which outlined the key points without itemising every single component, as is customary, sounded basic but adequate and pretty good for ~£200.
Regretably, it's to be expected that a (male) self-proclaimed computer expert might patronise a 65-year old woman a little, but I hadn't expected him to downright deceive her.
As she was leaving the shop, having already paid, he announced that "by the way, there's no modem with that spec."
Okay, the printed advert hadn't said there'd be a modem, but who buys an entry-level PC nowadays without one? Because a motherboard, a case and a power cable weren't specified outright, would one expect them to be omitted?
Broadband providers do often provide modems, but 56k internal modems still come as standard with new PCs. I can see some logic in omitting one, but it wouldn't be usual, and definitely ought to be made absolutely clear.
After some... negotiation, a modem was installed for £15 in as many minutes, but FFS.
3 October, 2006
One small step
I don't have much to say about it, but there's an interesting article in the Guardian about the possible harvesting of tiny energy sources, such as footsteps or vibration induced by passing trains.
It's difficult to guess whether this is the same variety of media-driven sci-fi as predicted personal hover cars by 2001, but it sounds as if it has great potential. I doubt piezoelectric conversion would be enough for domestic heating or lighting, but it could be adequate for energy-efficient personal electronic devices and collective possibilities are impressive.
14 September, 2006
My Explorer; mine
Another Thursday, another Windows tip discovered via the Guardian's 'Ask Jack' column.
This is a workaround for one of the more annoying 'Microsoft knows best' features, whereby Windows Explorer 'helpfully' opens in the 'My Documents' folder every time, refusing to consider that the user might have an alternative preference.
This article (yes, at Microsoft.com) acknowledges that one could "put the Windows Explorer shortcut to better use by changing it to display all top-level drives and folders on your system", and explains how to modify the .exe path to do exactly that.
If Microsoft itself thinks that's such a great idea, why wasn't a proper config interface provided?
Personally, I simply set 'My Documents' to be an alias of 'C:', but that's not ideal, mixing user and system/program directories together, so I might switch to this alternative technique.
7 September, 2006
Maybe it's only me, but I find it irritating that my PC autoplays music CDs, as I want, but also attempts to autoplay every other type of CD-R or CD-ROM I insert into the drive.
I don't want to be asked every time what to do about a CD-R containing images, or html, or mixed content, and there's no obvious 'remember this setting' option. My understanding was that I couldn't have one variety of autoplay without the other, and that turning it off altogether was difficult to reverse (a registry-editing issue). Wrong.
It's really straightforward, but if it eluded me, I might as well mention it for others.
Simply right-click on 'D:' (or whichever drive letter applies) in Windows Explorer. Select 'Properties' and 'AutoPlay'. Configure the behaviour for each likely circumstance. Easy.
[Via a comment at Guardian Technology.]
1 August, 2006
Working the M$ way
By default, WinXP lists the contents of the 'My Pictures' directory as thumbnails in Windows Explorer and 'File->Open' dialog boxes. Some may like that, and it can be enabled for other directories containing image files, but I prefer the file details (name, size, type, date & attributes) to be displayed, so disable thumbnails and choose 'Details' view.
To save others the frustration of numerous attempts, I'll just tell you: this isn't possible for 'My Pictures'; it's a system folder and Microsoft has 'helpfully' locked the thumbnails in the 'on' position. I can't imagine why.
One can disable them in Windows Explorer, and turn them off in 'File->Open' dialog boxes, but the latter adjustment is 'per use' and isn't saved for next time.
The simplest solution is to avoid putting anything in 'My Pictures'.
Another issue that I've yet to resolve: 'helpfully', Windows Explorer always defaults to the 'My Documents' system folder when opening. Anyone know how to prevent that, and preferably have Windows Explorer open in the last-used folder/sub-folder?
I can set 'My Documents' to be an alias of C:/, of course, but I was just wondering whether there's a cleaner way.
[Update 14/09/06: Largely solved.]
Note that any oh-so-witty comments about using OSX or Linux instead will be deleted without hesitation. Not interested.
2 July, 2006
What's in your mailbox?
Everyone uses Thunderbird as a mail client, right? Thought so.¹
Having bought a new PC, I've also upgraded from er, v.0.6 to the latest, v.184.108.40.206. I was using the old version pretty much 'out of the box', but I might as well configure it properly now.
Which extensions do you recommend? I've installed 'Buttons!', primarily for the 'Previous/Next Message' functionality (as opposed to the default 'Previous/Next Unread Message' arrangement). What else would revolutionise my e-mailing experience?
¹: That was rhetorical. If, bizarrely, your answer would be 'no', and you're ecstatically pleased with Outlook Express or something, I'm pleased for you, but don't need to hear about it, okay? I'm looking to tweak Thunderbird, not switch to something else.
28 June, 2006
It's here. Sort-of.
Good news: my new PC arrived yesterday. I've only got as far as deleting the preinstalled sample software and starting to install the software I will want, so it's a bit early to comment on performance, but it's looking good up to now. I have been able to configure the interface to resemble WinXP Pro (which, the way I have it, looks like a stripped-down Win98).
Bad news: I've broken it already. Immediately after installing my camera's software, the DVD+-RW drive ceased to be recognised by the system (and a shortcut to connect to the internet vanished, and the GUI reset itself to default, but they're trivial issues). It looks as if the device driver is corrupted, and I'm having major problems finding a replacement copy. I've contacted tech support, and am about to contact the drive manufacturer.
In the mean time, it's of very limited use. I can access e-mail and the web (lucky, as I need to download 32Mb+ of Windows Updates – via dialup), but can't copy any data across from my 'old' PC, nor even my e-mail address book and browser bookmarks (no way of reading a CD-R, you see). I'd deleted a 60-day trial of Paintshop Pro, but hadn't reinstalled my licenced (if old) copy, nor Photoshop, so I can't work on photos/graphics, either.
[Update 10:00, 29/06/06: It's fixed.
I borrowed an external hard drive from ISS, so I could at least transfer my data whilst waiting to hear from the manufacturer's tech support. Unfortunately, WinMe couldn't see it. I decided not to waste time on a side-issue, and tried Plan B.
I installed the DVD-ROM drive from my old PC in the new one (in theory, I'd be able to burn CDs on my old CD-RW drive and read them via the old DVD-ROM drive). Plug and Play worked, but Device Manager showed the same error. At least this suggested the problem was in Windows, not the specific device driver. Hence Plan C.
I'd already tried a System Restore, which had failed, but I'd only attempted to restore to a point immediately before I thought the problem had occurred. This time I restored to a much earlier point, pretty much the factory default. Yay!
Back on track, I spent the rest of the evening – all of it ‐ repeating what I'd already done on Tuesday, reinstalling all my software.]
[Update 13:34, 29/06/06: The manufacturer's tech support responded to my e-mail 35 hours and 57 minutes after I sent it. Effectively, that's 1½ working days. Not wonderful. Neil took less than eleven hours to offer the same advice. ;) ]
26 June, 2006
Apologies if everyone already knew this, but does everyone know it's possible to download a standalone edition of the Quicktime player, omitting iTunes?
It's mentioned in the (very) small print of the standard Quicktime download page, or available via a Google search for 'quicktime standalone'.
21 June, 2006
My new PC will arrive with WinXP Media Center Edition preinstalled. However, I'm unlikely to use it as a 'media centre', and can obtain a (legitimate!) copy of XP Pro from my employer for free.
Anyone have any recommendations about whether I should?
As I understand, an advantage would be to have the WinXP Pro interface. I loathe the cartoony, invasively 'helpful' XP Home interface (which seems to be a pervasive attitude, rather than just a 'cute' skin), and presume that of XP MCE would be similar.
However, I tend to customise my working interface anyway: blank black desktop without icons, 'classic' (Win98-ish) layouts for 'Start', 'Control Panel', etc., and textual 'Details' view for Win Explorer and related files listings. So long as I can do that in XP MCE too, it should be okay. After all, I have lived with Win Me for several years on my current home PC and, to be fair, have had no problems with it.
Another point I like about XP Pro (in as much as I 'like' Windows at all...) is that the config settings are fairly clear and not hidden behind a 'My First Computer' interface. Is XP MCE as configurable as XP Pro, and can the hand-holding wizards be turned off?
This is the deciding factor, though: would XP Pro recognise the hardware likely to be included in a XP MCE-optimised build? The PC does come with a TV tuner which, whilst I don't anticipate doing so, I would like the option of using.
[Update 14:45: Having spoken to tech support here on campus, it seems XP MCE can have almost exactly the same interface as XP Pro. Unless anyone else knows of other issues, I suspect I'll stick with the preinstalled OS.]
21 June, 2006
When I bought my first PC in 1993 or '94, it was a big deal: too expensive to pay-off all at once and since I was a student, my credit rating was insufficient for the finance agreement. In effect, my mother bought me a PC, and I paid her each month.
Buying my second PC, in 2001, was a shocking anticlimax. It was almost too easy to buy by debit card, and my immediate reaction was 'is that it?'. Weird feeling.
A few minutes ago, I bought my third PC, the same way, and it was still unsettlingly easy to spend ~£900 (~$1,700). The big difference is that I've moved on (rightfully so!) and that's no longer a daunting amount of money.
It was also an easy purchase. I didn't bother doing intensive research this time, neither of specifications nor retailers. I've known for at least six months that I ought to upgrade, and the recent hot weather focused my mind (my existing PC overheats and literally screams at me when the room temperature exceeds 20°C), but as recently as this weekend I didn't think a purchase was imminent. Even two hours ago I didn't think I'd be buying a computer today!
Let's hope delivery is as straightforward, and there are no problems.
21 June, 2006
The Guardian provides a brief update on the current state of electric cars available in Britain, essentially concluding that the technology for 'zero-emissions' motoring is progressing rapidly, but there's an image problem (blame 'Top Gear') and in finding locations where one can plug cars into the domestic electricity supply for recharging.
The glaring flaw in the argument, which rarely seems to occur to journalists and the proponents of electric cars, is that the zero-emissions claim is bogus at present.
How is the electricity generated in the first place? If it's the product of a coal-, oil- or natural gas-burning power station, are the resulting emissions significantly better than those emitted by a petrol/diesel engine? This is geographically displacing the problem, but not eliminating it and, worse, inviting complacency.
If the electricity was from nuclear or wind sources, that'd be better, of course, but UK energy policy would need considerable revision.
I feel much the same way about hydrogen fuel cell engines. They're also promoted as zero-emission, but really rely on electricity, and ultimately that's fossil-fuel power stations again. The technology is also only worthwhile if more than 100% efficient (i.e. if usable energy output exceeds energy input), which isn't the case yet.
That's not a reason to abandon research – anything but – but I'm not celebrating just yet, and I still think a better solution is to minimise usage altogether.
13 June, 2006
Can't live without it
When I bought my mobile phone in October 2004, it came with an initial allowance of call credit. I obviously took to the 'always on' phone culture, as I've just topped-up my credit (by the minimum amount) for the very first time.
At this rate, I expect to do so again in October 2011, on or about my phone's seventh 'birthday'.
Actually, I suspect it'll be much, much later – something like June 2015 – as I've only used a little over 60% of the 'starter' allowance, not the full amount.
7 June, 2006
Complacency spawns zombies
There's a spare PC in my office, very occasionally used by visiting staff. Before today, the last time it was switched on was in November, so it hasn't been kept up to date with security patches. The result is that it wouldn't allow someone to log in this morning, as it's a potential network vulnerability.
Fair enough, but when I contacted ISS, I was told to leave it connected to the network for an hour or so, and it'd discover the patches for itself.
I'm sure the internal network is secure, and on a purely practical level, this procedure works, but I have to question whether this conveys the right message to (often tech-illiterate) users: that it's safe and good practice to connect an unpatched computer to a network, and that "it'll sort itself out".
I can quite imagine someone buying a PC for home use, connecting it to the internet, then happily watching it spontaneously install, er, security-related software. "What's wrong with that? That's what the security professionals at work seem to recommend!"
Wouldn't it be better to invent some 'updating' interface, even an entirely spurious one, to give the impression that security updates are a big deal, and that network activity without them is unacceptable?
5 June, 2006
Pop the balloons
Dislike the yellow 'speech balloon' notifications displayed by WinXP when printing, disconnecting USB devices, or breathing in a non-MS-approved way? Of course you do.
It's possible to disable them with a straightforward registry hack, or via a download from IntelliAdmin.
11 May, 2006
Live for today
Last night, my sister told me that though she was considering buying a mp3 player, she probably won't, as such devices mightn't catch-on, and/or might be superceded by some other technology. Seriously.
I think she's wrong, of course. How can anyone doubt that mp3 players have 'caught-on' already? I know surgeons can be a little other-worldly, locked away in their theatres, but c'mon!
Secondly, even if some other format does replace .mp3 eventually, I'm confident that it'll be digital rather than something physical like a disc, tape or card. Whatever the software format, it'll need a storage medium and playback interface... such as a repurposed mp3 player.
More fundamentally, I'm puzzled by her 'wait-and-see' attitude. It's a little like delaying buying a VCR in the 1980s because DVDs would replace them in the 1990s. Why not buy now, and enjoy a player while it lasts? It's unlikely to become totally obsolete within its reasonable mechanical lifetime anyway, so this is a non-issue.
Then again, I suppose a mp3 player would be a considerable financial investment for someone on a surgeon's salary. Yeah, right.
26 April, 2006
In the near future, I plan to buy a new computer. I'll want it to arrive with a bare-bones software preinstallation of WinXP, device drivers and absolutely nothing else. This means I'm unlikely to consider buying from Dell*, as their systems come with numerous software trials and other junk to be deleted for optimum performance. I could uninstall them myself (or, more likely, just FDISK the whole thing), but shouldn't have to, and I don't wish to endorse the 'sp*m bundling' practice.
For those who do particularly want a Dell PC (or those whose employers buy from the company) but also want to delete the rubbish, Yorkspace.com offers the 'Dell De-Crapifier', a script to facilitate the uninstallation process.
*: Pity. I'd kind of like to contribute fake data to the intrusive US Government declaration.
28 March, 2006
£1 million per go
I realise that it was a 'suicide mission' experiment and that the 'nominal trajectory' of Saturday's scramjet test in Australia was vertically downward, but it still feels odd to read the final sentence of the following as successful:
The engine was flown 330km up by a conventional rocket, and needed to be travelling at more than five times the speed of sound to kickstart the air-breathing scramjet. Hyshot III then accelerated to around 9,000km/h before slamming into the desert.
25 March, 2006
It's in the box
Grr! Isn't annoying to buy an item of audio/visual equipment and be told one has to buy a cable to go with it, then get home, open the box and find that the required cable was already provided?
It was only a nominal amount of money (~£3), but it's still cheeky, and another reason to avoid high-street retailers which try to boost their profits by what amounts to deception.
Whatever; for the record: I now have digital TV (terrestrial Freeview).
20 March, 2006
Keyboard error error
My PC has been overheating rather too frequently recently – whenever a task required more than a minute of sustained activity or whenever the room temperature exceeded 17°C. Hence, I thoroughly cleaned inside the case last night, removing a disturbing amount of slightly greasy fluff from all the fans and the heat sink. Not pleasant, but I'm sure it'll make a difference.
This morning, I turned the PC on to find I'd accidentally dislodged the keyboard cable:
Keyboard error: press F1 to continue.
Er, on the disconnected keyboard, you mean? This wasn't 'plug keyboard back in and press F1 to continue'
– it wouldn't recognise the keyboard until I rebooted.
9 March, 2006
Computer says turn here
Barrow Gurney is a quiet village in Somerset, five miles outside Bristol. It has one main street in a valley with a traditional pub, post office and a few houses, and one tiny lane leading to a church and a mediaeval convent converted to a manor house in the 16th Century. It sounds quaint.
However, this 'rural idyll' has suddenly been ruined by up to 10,000 vehicles passing through each day.
The problem is that whenever there's congestion on the A38 main road from Bristol city centre to the airport, in-car satellite navigation systems suggest an alternative route and drivers mindlessly follow, even though the road is plainly inappropriate for high volumes of through-traffic.
The BBC reported this case, but I wonder if this is becoming a common issue nationwide, as drivers increasingly rely on TomToms rather than their own navigational ability or indeed common sense.
8 February, 2006
Do it later
Maybe everyone else is familiar with the Windows XP Scheduled Tasks utility, but those, like me, who hadn't heard of it might find this useful. Lifehacker explains how to make defragging a routine, scheduled task.
7 February, 2006
Photorealism in CGI is something which I find particularly interesting (and attractive). I think certain lighting effects are improving but still need development, as does the truly convincing depiction of humans, but in terms of fluid dynamics (waves, flow, splashes and bubbles in liquids, plus fire and smoke/airborne dust), I think we're already there.
19 January, 2006
This is a good idea: a 'mains panel' (multi-socket bar used to connect multiple plugs to a single wall socket – what are those things called?) with an extra feature. Plug a computer power supply into the indicated socket of the 'One-Click' bar, and printers, scanners, etc. into the other sockets. When one switches off the PC, the bar cuts power to the peripherals.
I particularly like the manufacturer's rationale/disclaimer:
We are not scaremongering beardy weirdoes on an environmental crusade, but committed and informed futurists who believe that commerce, profit and pleasure need not have consequences for the earth’s natural resources, or well being. For if we have access to innovative and modestly priced products that help prevent energy excesses, every one of us will have the power to safeguard the world we live in.
17 January, 2006
Heh. Today's 'User Friendly' identifies the 'true' reason people seem to be buying less music.
12 January, 2006
If my Creative Zen's 'shuffle' mode is so (pseudo-)random, why have I heard next to nothing but Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett and pre-1975 Genesis this morning? Weird.
Ah; by writing this, I've broken the spell: Ian Anderson's singing about menarche (Jethro Tull: 'The Curse').
12 January, 2006
I love the name of these sound-isolating earphones: Griffin EarThumps. Very Narnian.
I can't help wondering about how, and why, that name was selected.
9 January, 2006
J. is currently printing out a few documents over the network, using the colour printer attached to my PC. I've never used it, so though it's several months old, this is the first time colour ink has been drawn from the cartridges. The initial result was a little scratchy, so I've opened the 'maintenance' software to run a colour test.
Let's see... 'Install A New Print Cartridge', 'Align Edges', 'Print A Test Page', 'Remove Japanese Postcard Residue'.
[Update 12/01/06: I do know what Japanese postcard residue is, thanks! I just think it's an odd item to mention on the menu – I'd have thought it a minority-interest item which could be omitted from the standard user interface.
For those who were wondering, Hagaki card stock and similar types of paper leave a powdery residue on print rollers. This accumulation can be removed by simply loading then ejecting a sticky cleaning sheet. It's not even as if there's a special cleaning cycle to run: the menu item opens a popup window providing instructions, but doesn't actually do anything.]
7 January, 2006
Device Failed To Connect
It seems guitarist and composer Robert Fripp has recorded the 'sounds' (Start Windows, Exit Windows, Default Beep, Critical Stop, etc.) for Windows Vista.
As a commentator says on the the linked page:
Wow... Microsoft really has more money than sense... What a waste... I could compose the Vista sounds, it would save a bundle and people would disable them just as quickly.
5 January, 2006
My mobile phone has no ringtone. Or rather, I've switched it off, preferring it to indicate an incoming call by silent vibration. An obvious consequence is that if I don't have it on my person, I don't know it's 'ringing'.
I use my mobile phone extremely rarely (I still haven't used up the call credit that came free with the phone, in October 2004), and then almost always only for text messages. If I'm away from a landline phone or e-mail, I'm unlikely to want to be contacted, so I don't have the slightest problem with missing calls.
Yet the phone indicates missed calls with a loud 'beep', which I don't seem able to turn off. In what possible sense is that silent?
25 December, 2005
If anyone's been tempted to rationalise a library of home-recorded (i.e. from TV) VHS video tapes to DVD, Wendy M. Grossman at the Guardian offers a guide to getting started. It's drastically cheaper than I thought, so I might give it a try. I plan to buy a new PC in the next few months, so I'll bear the hardware requirements in mind.
15 December, 2005
Does it matter how I feel?
'Emotion recognition' software has 'proved' that the Mona Lisa is definitely smiling, concluding that the subject of the famous portrait was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry.
The part of the article which caught my attention was that:
... software capable of recognising emotions just by looking at photographs could lead to PCs that adjust their response depending on the user's mood.
Why? What purpose would that serve? Would it just be a gimmick, or is there some genuine advantage I'm failing to spot?
As I've said before, I don't wish to interact with my PC. It's an inert tool, just like a screwdriver. It would be unusual for a plumber to have a 'relationship' with a pipe wrench; why is a computer any different?
This spurious friendliness is one of the main reasons I reject the Mac's 'helpful companion' aesthetic in favour of the PC's 'soulless machine in a beige box'. I don't want my needs to be anticipated, or colour schemes to soothe my mood, I want it to just sit there, not impinging on my consciousness. Absolute bland neutrality and lack of personal responsiveness are the key selling points for me.
14 December, 2005
Ooh - open source! So what?
It's taken me almost a week to notice it, but the Guardian ran an article last Thursday which questions some of the tenets of faith of the open source movement, particularly the concept of a large user base leading to fewer bugs, or even merely more bug reporting, than in 'traditional' packages.
The example given is OpenOffice, the rival to Microsoft's Office suite (and the article doesn't attempt to deny it is a credible rival). I don't use it myself – I don't use any word processor, etc. at home, and am obliged to use MS Office (only Word, less than monthly) at work – so can't comment on whether OpenOffice is truly representative of typical open source development. My impression, no doubt fed by those wishing to push a specific agenda, is that user involvement in Firefox is working, in a way it allegedly isn't for OpenOffice.
Whatever; it's always good to hear a dissenting view which challenges assumptions. All too often, open source is blindly praised by tech evangelists as inherently 'good' or 'right', as if that's all one needs to know. However, those are essentially empty concepts unless provable, objective benefits back up the fluffy idealism.
I need to know what a package can do for me in a way more suited to my requirements than a competing product. I couldn't care less if the developers of one package can barely contain the warm fuzzy glow of having worked collaboratively. ****ing hippies....
Don't get me wrong: this certainly isn't an attack on open source software, some of which is excellent. It's just that being open source doesn't automatically make it better software; there isn't a causal relationship.
2 December, 2005
Arcologies, vast buildings each housing populations the size of large towns and even whole ecosystems, have been a familiar element of cyberpunk sci-fi novels for decades. With the news that the world's tallest building (at the time of writing), Taipei 101 in Taiwan, is so heavy that it may have reactivated a dormant fault and triggered earthquakes, might such mega-skyscrapers remain solely fictional?
23 November, 2005
Here we go again
For years, web designers have been struggling with IE-only varients of html devised by Microsoft not so much failing to comply with but completely ignoring industry standards. They characterised it as 'extending capabilities' (<marquee> tag, anyone?), but it was just ****ing annoying, and anything worthwhile can be done by remaining within standards.
Now it seems MS are ****ing about with proprietory 'extensions' of RSS, to be used by IE7 and WinVista.
Well, this time I'm not playing. So long as they work in that 'browser' (very much in quotes; I don't think IE6 qualifies as a true, modern web browser, anyway) and OS, I'll be sticking with standards-compliant feeds, and I recommend that everyone else rejects superfluous gimmicks.
20 October, 2005
It'd be a bit cheeky to say I'd already thought of this, but, well, the basic concept had occurred to me. Admittedly, it's a fairly simple idea; the difficult part is implementing it.
Exploratory missions to Mars and other objects within the Solar System have all-too-frequently failed catastrophically. If a single, massively expensive orbiter/lander is sent, a single accident could end the entire mission.
The alternative, explained in the New Scientist article, would be to send a flotilla of numerous simpler probes (the crudest could be moisture or temperature detectors no larger than a coin), individually insignificant but collectively useful for investigating whole regions or features where a valuable high-tech lander wouldn't be risked.
Objections to the concept seem to be based on a simplistic either/or divide into the complex 'conventional' approach or the simple flotilla approach (or maybe that's just the journalist attempting to distinguish the pros & cons of each). Surely the most suitable approach is a hybrid of the two: groups of simpler, but not dumb, rovers, and/or numerous very basic probes supplementing 2-3 more complex landers.
14 October, 2005
Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling...
I've just spent well over an hour installing a new mouse on my office PC.
Just a mouse; couldn't be simpler, right? Only if I could live without a scroll wheel, as that wasn't working.
After several attempts with the software provided on CD, then updated drivers from the Logitech website (actually the same versions, so far as I can see), it seems to work so long as I answer the question "do you want to configure your new mouse?" with "no". I can't see how the Logitech config utility could conflict with WinXP, and 'advanced' button functionality released in 2003 shouldn't confuse WinXP-SP2, but....
Whatever. This way it's a 'dumber' mouse than I (well, the University) bought, but it works.
This is my first ever optical mouse. The light touch feels a bit odd. At one point this morning, I gave up and plugged the old ball-type (what is the correct term?) one back in, and suddenly became aware of the effort required to move the thing! It certainly prompted me to give the optical mouse one more try, and succeed.
30 August, 2005
Reuse, not recycle
I started using computers just as 5¼" floppy disks were giving way to 3½" diskettes, so I only have a couple of the former type lying around.
If you have more, and are strangely reluctant to just throw them away, here's a good idea: slice off one end, remove the magnetic disk, and use the envelope as a LP-style sleeve for a CD.
[Via Boing Boing.]
18 August, 2005
What’s on your Start Menu?
A quick Windows-only meme, via Neil (again):
In WinXP, Windows lists your most frequently/recently used programs on the left-hand side (assuming you’re using the new-style start menu).
I don't use that style, but I've just switched for a quick look (and switched straight back), and can report that mine shows:
- Paint Shop Pro 7 - my preferred image browser. Having selected images in PSP, I process them in Photoshop. I don't like Photoshop's own browser.
- Adobe Reader 6 - I don't remember it, but I must have looked at a .pdf file today.
- Character Map
And that's it. Actually, this is a very flawed exercise. My most frequently used packages aren't listed, as they're on my Quicklaunch Bar:
- Allaire Homesite 4.5.1 - yes, the pre-Macromedia version; my web editor.
- Photoshop 7 - as mentioned.
- Firefox 1.0.4 - haven't got round to upgrading at work.
- MS Outlook 2003 - it's compulsory on University computers, okay?
- WinAmp 5.02 - used less, now that I have my Creative Zen mp3 player.
- Windows Explorer - I still think of it as File Manager, and use it as such - no 'My Computer' or 'My Documents' rubbish; straight to the directory structure.
It might be worth mentioning that of the 'recently used' packages listed, only the Character Map was accessed via the Start Menu, as the others have shortcut keys mapped. I generally only see the Start Menu once per day, when turning the computer off.
I don't use desktop icons, either. When the active windows are minimised, my desktop is plain black (no wallpaper).
12 August, 2005
I'm about as impressed by this as were Lifehacker and the NY Times*. The very best inventions are the simple ideas, which simplify one's life.
The memory card manufacturer Sandisk has produced a new model which plugs directly into a computer's USB port. No USB between the camera and computer, no memory card reader The card itself is 'about the size of a postage stamp', but a hinged section folds down to present just the essential contacts, omitting the bulky housing of a standard USB plug.
Okay; it's a memory card, for use in digital photography – how could that be exciting? The nature of the item is irrelevant; it could be a pair of glasses, or a pen, or a concrete mixer. It's the elegance of design that's noteworthy.
*: That NY Times link mightn't be permanently archived.
12 August, 2005
Relying on thin ice
One of the advantages of ISS (tech support) at the University is that everyone has a pet project, an area of expertise perhaps only tangentially related to his/her job description. I'd like to say it's deliberate and encouraged by managers, but it's more just a default reaction to everyday requirements.
Unfortunately, these extracurricular specialisms soon become core to peoples' de facto roles within the system, and when one person is off work, everything falls apart – there's no formal support for, say, troubleshooting Java, only one man's personal interest, and if he's unavailable, enquirers are out of luck.
8 August, 2005
End of the film
I wouldn't shop there anyway, but it's kind of momentous that Dixons, the major high street electronics retailer (which began as a chain of camera shops) is to stop selling 35mm (analogue) cameras.
28 July, 2005
In 'the old days', one could apparently buy a newspaper by throwing the money on the counter and taking a paper, without even breaking stride. Nowadays, it'd have to be scanned, the money would have to go through the cash register, and the cashier would probably want to put it in a bag.
Yesterday, the University finally, and automatically (I'd have opted-out) installed WinXP SP2 on all campus PCs. Since then, mine has taken about half as long again to boot than was usual.
The above analogy is the one Staff Help Desk used to express their limited interest.
Okay, they're busy with cases in which PCs have ceased to function at all after installing SP2, but this wasn't an entirely reasonable "we'll get back to you when it's less frantic", it was a "yeah? that's how it's supposed to be".
27 July, 2005
Couldn't happen to a better company
So Time, aka Tiny, aka The Computer Shop, aka the Granville Technology Group has gone bust, citing "continued price deflation in the personal computer market", according to the BBC.
From personal experience, I'd question whether it might be more because they're useless and as recently as last year were using objectionable business practices.
The Guardian provides some background, though that article predates the administration announcement, and only mentions the major doubts about the company's viability.
[Update, 2/12/05: The Guardian interviews the group's founder, in an overview
of its history.]
26 July, 2005
The BBC reports that a herbicide-resistant weed may have developed naturally alongside, and possibly as a consequence of a GM crop trial.
The crop was oilseed rape which had been bioengineered for herbicide resistance – it does seem likely that the trait was passed on to charlock, a related species growing wild in the same field.
The resistant hybrid was only found in the field during one year, and the population seemed to have been eliminated (from the study area, anyway) naturally before the next growing season, but it's a strong indication that it's possible, even probable, and next time it mightn't just die back on its own.
That's bad enough, but the scary part is the reassurance from the researchers:
... they argued, the study reinforced the view that the environmental impact was negligible.
"Herbicide-tolerant weeds tend to under-perform compared with wild type, so unless all its competitors have been sprayed out with the same herbicide, it won't thrive," commented Dr Les Firbank, who led the consortium of scientists on the recent UK Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of genetically modified plants.
"There's lots of evidence for that," he told the BBC News website.
That may be true for past cases, but isn't even an indication that it'll happen that way in future. Previous examples of herbicide-tolerant weeds haven't been as vigourous as 'natural' varieties, but there's no reason to think they couldn't
I've bought dozens, probably hundreds, of train tickets from Lancaster to North Wales over the past decade, but I've never disembarked at Wigan and explored that town. By the researchers' argument, I haven't, so I never could.
[Update 3/8/05: Heh. Someone visited this page via a Google search for "Dr Les Firbank Lancaster". Back tracking has revealed that he's based about 100m from my office. I had no idea!]
23 July, 2005
So the 'next-generation' of everyone's favourite OS is apparently to be called 'Windows Vista'. Can I say now, over a year before the anticipated shipping date sails past without a hint of being fulfilled (that's the usual hype-building release technique, isn't it?), that that's a awful name?
Thanks. It sound like something a car manufacturer would reject for its latest not-remotely-funky pastel hatchback.
27 June, 2005
In the middle of 'From Hell' (which, incidentally, failed to impress) last night, Channel 4 showed an advert in which a woman was pleased to have split from her boyfriend, as it gave her material to compose a song, record it, and burn it to CD-R, with fame and fortune to follow.
The advert was for Windows XP, and irritated me.
Firstly, so far as I'm aware, WinXP doesn't include music authoring, recording and burning software as standard, and if it does, I doubt anyone would seriously use such applications rather than third-party packages. This means the advert was selling Windows on the merits of other companies' products, rather than saying anything particularly favourable about the operating system itself.
This is rather analogous to featuring arty shots of Prague and the copy: "Come to Prague! Prague's great!" in an ad actually for Manchester Airport, or perhaps for an aviation fuel company.
Secondly: a TV advert for a computer operating system? What's the point? Anyone who buys a Wintel PC will already receive WinXP. The tiny minority (heh) who buy Macs wouldn't need WinXP. The probably even smaller minority who'd consider using anything other than the OS which came with their computers... well, I'd expect them to be more inclined towards Linux than Windows!
So who were the intended audience of this ad? What was its real purpose? Mere consciousness-raising – as if anyone watching the film was unaware of Microsoft? I'm puzzled.
13 June, 2005
A new dawn for graphic design
Why not download a beta copy of Microsoft's new Photoshop/Illustrator substitute, codenamed 'Acrylic'? Go on; it's from Microsoft, so it's bound to be quality software. What could go wrong?
Sorry; I'll have to stop there, as my howls of laughter are disturbing the neighbours.
26 May, 2005
Specially for show-off touch-typists happy to spend $80 on a new keyboard: Das Keyboard.
Amongst the precision features is the fact that the keys are entirely blank. Yep, all 104 of them. It's a fully-functioning keyboard, but unlabelled.
14 April, 2005
There's a fascinating article in Wired (Sept. '04) about the potential for a revolutionary revival in nuclear power generation.
It involves a technological approach as old as conventional 'big nuke' reactors, but which was sidelined by political/military concerns in the 1940s and 50s.
Pebble bed reactors, based on silicon carbide-encased graphite balls containing tiny flecks of uranium, cooled by helium rather than water, are (apparently) inherently safer than water-cooled reactors using fuel and moderator rods. Switch off the cooling system of a pebble bed reactor, and activity will cease when the temperature reaches a point well below that dangerous to the components. If a conventional reactor's cooling system fails, problems are somewhat greater.
There's even a beneficial by-product: such reactors can readily be used to generate hydrogen, for use in non-polluting fuel-cell vehicle engines.
A final bonus, in a sense, is that China seems to be leading research into implementation; namely under a political system which won't be derailed by misguided tree-huggers.
9 March, 2005
Images derived from astronomical telescopes are made available in the International Astronomical Union's FITS format, which is fine for professionals using dedicated software, but less accessible to amateurs and those wanting to use images for entirely different purposes, such as graphic designers.
Hence, it's great that the ESA, ESO and NASA have released a Photoshop plugin, the FITS Liberator (who the **** named that?), which can convert their images into a more usable format.
Expect to see more astronomical images (no double meaning intended) in artwork and advertising.
[Via User Friendly]
Incidentally, the copyright page on the ESA's Hubble website states that images derived from the space telescope are copyright-free so long as the ESA is acknowledged as source, the images aren't used to imply that the ESA endorses a commercial product, process or service, and separate permission is obtained from any individual identifiable person in the images.
Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting 600 km above sea level. Identifiable persons. How?
11 February, 2005
Security tagged frame
Smartwater is an aqueous solution containing uniquely-identifiable microdot particles. Painted onto valuables, it provides a UV-detectable tracer linking recovered stolen goods to their owner.
However, Bruce Schneier has spotted a slight flaw:
The idea is for me to paint this stuff on my valuables as proof of ownership. I think a better idea would be for me to paint it on your valuables, and then call the police.
[Via Boing Boing
I hadn't made the connection until now, but Smartwater has already been in the news recently: police in London have sent Valentine's Day cards to past burglars saying "Rose are Red, Violets are Blue, When Smartwater is activated, it's over for you". When I first heard that, I thought it offensive that the police should harass past offenders who have discharged their 'debt to society' and against whom the police have no proof of either crime or intent to commit crime - they're citizens with the same right to expect courtesy from public servants as anyone else. By all means keep them on record, but blatently threatening messages are unacceptable, not least when produced and delivered using public funds.
However, it's even more offensive that they were being threatened with a technology open to abuse. What prevents the police from painting Smartwater onto items found in a suspect's home? I'm not saying they would, but they could, and it's not fair on anyone, police or accused, if the courts have to merely trust the police.
9 February, 2005
The Register reports that:
Prime Minister Tony Blair happily confessed his technophobia to MPs. The exposure of Tone the technoklutz is scarcely news, but for most categories of MPs' questions it is ordinarily good form for the Prime Minister to at least feign a knowledgeable and informed stance. But IT
's okay - it's an exception because nobody can programme a video machine anyway, hah hah, right?
No comment required on this hopelessly misplaced attitude - I hope.
7 February, 2005
The New York Times has an article about the consequences of excessive complexity in cars.
Many modern cars are very similar, and stable, mechanically, as that aspect of design and engineering is fairly mature. The major differences, particularly between luxury cars, is in the software monitoring the mechanical systems and providing extra 'convenience' to the driver and passengers. As these electronics and software are often 'cutting edge' and may be inadequately understood by drivers and indeed mechanics, an increasing number of problems are either software-related or caused by faulty sensors on otherwise functioning mechanical systems.
Read the article for more on these themes, but my point about product design in general is that I don't want the unnecessary complexity and 'assistance' of automation.
The first example cited in the article is of a car which erroneously measured the temperature as low in the back of the cabin (independently of the front) so blasted the rear passengers with hot air. Personally, I wouldn't want auto-detection of temperature - if I was cold, I'd prefer to switch the heater on myself. It's my decision, not the car's. Similarly, if I want to open the window, I'd prefer to wind it down - with a handle, yes? I'm not opposed to electronics on principle, I just don't regard them as necessary in the typical car window. The manual mechanism is elegantly simple, and hence rather easier to repair than the electric alternative. It also works when the engine is turned off.
I'm unashamed (nor proud - I just don't care either way) to say I haven't experienced the more advanced atmosphere/audio/etc. control features of expensive cars, but the very phrase 'surprise and delight features', used in the article and plainly a buzzword, sets my teeth on edge.
A car is a metal box with an engine, wheels and seats. So long as it gets me from A to B, I'm happy. Anything beyond the basics is secondary.
No, that's oversimplifying my view. I fully acknowledge that technical refinements and electronics are vital in the operation and efficiency of modern cars, but I'm thinking of such factors as braking and fuel economy, not ****ing heated seats. I suppose that the key question for me is whether a given feature is necessary for the functioning of the vehicle, or a luxury for the comfort of the occupants. Without going to the other extreme, asceticism, I dislike luxury.
Incidentally, it's a little paradoxical that the often-criticised (as unintuitive) central controller of electronic systems in BMW cars (even BMW recommend new users return to the dealer after two weeks for an intensive training session) is called 'iDrive'.
16 January, 2005
Sal makes an interesting observation about the positioning of the logo on the forthcoming bargain Mac: it looks 'cool' (his opinion, not mine) in publicity photos, but in actual use it'll be hidden by a monitor or the wrong way up if the unit is stored on its side (as the target market are likely to do). As Sal said:
The audience for this logo positioning is not the users, but other designers.
Which neatly encapsulates a primary reason why I don't want a Mac. 'Cool' is trivial. Paying a premium for 'cool' is ludicrous.
14 January, 2005
Jack Schofield at Guardian Online warns of a bizarre feature (that's 'feature', not 'bug') in WinXP.
I loathe the default fluffy 'Tiles' display in Windows Explorer, so have it set to remember my preference for 'Details' view. Yet by default, WinExplorer will remember these view settings for 400 views, then revert (or randomise, it seems...).
Tweak XP provides a registry hack to make it 2,000 views, but why does it reset at all?
[Update 20/01/05: Feedback on that Guardian article mentions that SP2 raises the default to 5,000, but a) many organisations, including my employer, bans the installation of that 'upgrade', and b) my question stands: why does it reset at all, ever?]
12 January, 2005
The BBC says:
Shares in Apple fell 6.4% on Tuesday after long-standing market rumours were confirmed when it unveiled a low-cost computer at the annual MacWorld event.
I don't really see the logic behind that. I certainly won't be buying one, but I don't see why investors regard the new products so negatively.
A related BBC article says:
... the company's Macintosh computers are seen as icons in their own right as well as simply tools to get the job done.
No, no, NO! Not here
1 December, 2004
I'm still finding BlogExplosion worthwhile, but one feature I haven't used much is the blog rating facility.
I don't think it's fair to judge an entire website from a mere 2-3 minutes experience of someone's most recent writing. Anyone could be going through an anomalously bad patch, or an atypically good one. If I encounter the same blog a few times, I might be tempted to vote.
The major exception is advertising. BlogExplosion does permit the inclusion of sites related to blogging: "... hosting, templates, resource sites, search engines, software etc." - but I don't. Such adverts are rewarded by an immediate minimum rating, and if they seem to be in frequent rotation, addition to my 'do not view' list. This includes a product review 'blog' which offers links to a recommended retailer of the products... surprise, surprise, that's elsewhere on the same site. Cheeky.
BlogExplosion's moderators seem to have a narrower definition of 'hate blog' than I do, as there seem to be quite a few. In the same spirit as exhibited by their authors, I regard such sites with intolerance. I doubt they'd appreciate the irony.
It's fine to express strong opinions, but unacceptable to deny others the right to think differently, and to rubbish (in grotesquely homophobic and/or xenophobic terms) the characters of people who hold such contradictory opinions, rather than rationally addressing their words. Hopefully the polarisation will decline as concerns move on from the US elections.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone who works as a graphic/web designer, I give priority to the quality of writing, with presentation being slightly secondary. I will say it's rather disappointing that a majority seem to venture no further than the template library of their hosting provider or software package. Bor-ring.
That leads to a related point: of those sites demonstrating a little more effort, I give credit to superior original material. I visited a particularly elegant site today, but realised that the design would be rather nondescript if it wasn't for an illustration in the sidebar, by Rion Vernon, not the site owner. I'd be a little surprised if permission had been sought and granted. Referencing someone else's work is fine, but not making it the focus of the page layout.
I won't even mention reciprocal rating....
30 November, 2004
You HAVE to be joking
These mousepads are ergonomic, and a valuable insight into contemporary Japanese culture - honest.
[Via Boing Boing - don't say it]
23 November, 2004
Though referring to the US-only Thanksgiving holiday, Newsweek is quite right in its observation that a central aspect of the modern family holiday is the repair and reconfiguration of parents' computers by their adult children* during our annual visit to the family home. We, the 20-30somethings, are the tech-support generation.
I know I'll be installing key software on my mother's PC in December, and reminding my sister to bring her laptop when she visits, so I can do hers, too.
In case anyone's interested, I'll be installing Firefox, Zonealarm, AVG AntiVirus (free edition), and AdAware. Any others you'd recommend? Please don't say Linux ;)
Two I won't be installing, contrary to suggestions at Slashdot, are Google Desktop Search and WinXP SP2.
No doubt there'll be some to uninstall, particularly from K's new laptop; AIM will be a priority.
*: That's slightly unfair - technical ability isn't necessarily an age-dependent attribute. My sister is 30 in January, and though she's a fully-qualified orthopedic surgeon, she bought her first ever computer only a few months ago.
23 November, 2004
Tokyo is built over a network of rivers and waterways, which causes problems during heavy rain, especially in typhoon season. Hence, the subterranean G-Cans Project features a network of truly massive conduits designed to collect and dissipate flood waters. The largest underground waterway in the world has five 32m diameter, 65m deep concrete containment silos linked by 64 km of tunnels, 50m beneath the surface. Huge 14,000 horsepower turbines can pump water into the outlying Edogawa River at a rate of 200 tonnes/sec.
As Che, at Octopus Dropkick (found via Boing Boing) says, the images of the scheme look like something from a computer game. I think it's a combination of the slightly abstract, huge shapes, seen in slightly misty lighting, with industrial surfaces which haven't seen much wear yet - there are patches of discolouration, as might be added by Photoshop, but negligible actual damage; it's subtly too perfect.
Yet this is explained by the fact that though the project is 12 years old, it's only just finished (or is it still under construction?), so it hasn't experienced wear and tear. The images aren't photo-real CGI, they really are photographs. Impressive engineering aside, they're just great images.
21 October, 2004
Function over form
Jef Raskin, a creator of the Apple Mac and inventor of the click-and-drag interface, is interviewed in today's Guardian. He makes a point with which I fully agree (with one exception, noted in the quote) and have mentioned before:
Raskin: But the [Mac] interface needs fixing. One only cares about getting something done. Apple has forgotten this key concept. The beautiful packaging [his opinion, not mine - NRT] is ho-hum and insignificant in the long run.
Guardian: It seems the culmination of your work would be a computer invisible to the user; operating systems would disappear and applications would take on functionality as required.
Raskin: Or a computer interface that, while not invisible, would not require conscious attention.
Yes! I want a computer which seamlessly integrates into my lifestyle and working patterns unobtrusively. I definitely don't want a "gorgeous"
(as the iPod
was described to me) conversation piece. Until the 'invisible' computer arrives, I'll still be sticking with my beige box
20 October, 2004
More TV - or rather, less
A new tool has been invented. The 'TV-B-Gone' universal remote serves one simple purpose: it turns off almost any television.
When activated, it spends over a minute flashing out 209 different codes to turn off televisions, the most popular brands first.
This will be of tremendous use in waiting rooms, bars, even elevators and urinals, according to the Wired
article - public locations where advertisers and purveyors of audio-visual 'wallpaper' attempt to impinge on one's consciousness.
10 October, 2004
What's in the box?
I've deliberately obscured the company logo at the lower right of the box top, but apart from one word in that tiny blue rectangle, there's nothing whatsoever on the top or sides of the box to give any clue about the nature of the contents. The product doesn't appear in the illustration, which bears no relevance to the contents.
Turn the box upside down, and it's revealed: a Nokia 1100 mobile phone. So why hide it? This seems to be rather poor, or at least odd, marketing.
It's interesting that when I pointed this out to my work colleague (and friend!) Laura, she identified the type of product immediately - the packaging seems typical of phone manufacturers. Perhaps this isn't such odd marketing for a potential customers already familar with the conventions of the market sector
Yes, I've finally bought my first mobile phone. More on that in a later entry.
24 September, 2004
Kicking the underdog
I meandered into the Guardian's Gamesblog a few minutes ago, out of mild curiosity. I like SimCity (1-4), Tomb Raider (2, 3, 4, not especially 5, haven't tried 6 yet) and will probably try The Sims 2 once retailers start to offer it at a discount in a few months. In short, I'm a very occasional gamer, so the fact that there's a 'Playstation vs. the rest' rivalry was news to me. Resident Evil (1-3) was probably my favourite game ever, but I haven't touched a PSX since ~1998.
The point of this entry is a comment on one of the blog postings:
Parallels can be made between Sony and Nintendo in the gaming market and Microsoft and Apple in the home computer market. That is to say, there's a huge corporate entity on the one hand, looking to cement its monopoly and crush all who oppose them, and a small creative entity on the other, barely surviving by their wits and a devoted fanbase.
As I say, I know next to nothing about gaming 'culture', but taking this statement in the abstract, I disagree with the implied message that Nintendo and Apple deserve
support merely because they are the 'plucky underdogs'. That's an irrational, romantic argument; all that matters is the quality of the product.
Market dominance is certainly important, and it's difficult to compete with an entrenched market leader when most manufacturers design for that architecture, but is a Nintendo (or Apple) machine objectively superior
to a Sony (or Wintel) one, on its own technical (and pricing) merits, totally ignoring emotional baggage? If so, fine. It does indeed deserve greater attention. If not, tough; it's been outcompeted, and the fact that the winner was a multinational mega-corporation isn't relevant.
On the whole, I think I live by that tenet. For example, I rarely visit local corner shops, as supermarkets are objectively better suited to my lifestyle and requirements. Could this attitude cause the eventual closure of family-owned corner shops? Too bad; in my view they're obsolete.
Hmm. I'm repeating myself.
17 September, 2004
Microsoft have released a black leather IntelliMouse. Want!
Damn. That's just the name of the colour, unless the dark red version really is made of crimson fire. Ow.
The 'Blue Moon' one looks pretty good. It was apparently inspired by "the moon, fantasy, phenomena". Just phenomena. All phenomena, or did the author have a limited understanding of the word's meaning?
The 'Night Vision' mouse looks okay, too: very dark green with a 'Matrix'-inspired translucent interior.
Yet these are mice; simple pointing devices for computers. What's wrong with standard beige plastic?
I dunno; there'll be wallpaper images showing close-ups of the mice, next.
22 July, 2004
I've just bought a laptop/portable computer on behalf of my sister. I thought spending £1,000 of someone else's money would be more enjoyable....
Personally, I wouldn't choose a laptop, both for reasons of usability and value for money - a desktop PC of the same cost would have a rather better specification. Hence, I was researching the purchase pretty much from scratch; I have a reasonable knowledge of PCs, but laptops are new to me.
So far as I could tell, the best choice for K's needs is from Dell; a 2.6GHz Inspiron 1150. A slight complication is that K. has just moved house, so her credit card address won't match her home address yet; Dell won't deliver to her. Instead, our mother will be buying it, it will be sent to that address, and K. will collect it from there. Inconvenient but uncontroversial.
However, the order process includes this section:
Dell is a US corporation, and is therefore subject to all US Export Laws and Regulations. The export of any Dell products or software must be made in accordance with all applicable laws of the United States and local country regulations, including but not limited to, the US Export Administration Regulations. This may require that an export license be obtained, or that certain declarations be provided to US or local government regarding the products being exported.
1) How will these products be used? [Drop-down list ranging from 'Home' to 'Military' use, via 'Nuclear Industry']
2) Where will these products be used?
- These products will be used at the listed ship-to address
- These products will be used at an ultimate destination other than the listed ship-to address
If the ultimate end-user information is different from the listed Ship-To Name, please complete the information below: [name & postal address]
You WHAT!? I'd resent providing such details to the UK government, never mind a foreign regime which has no relevance in this situation. The computer will be built in Ireland and shipped to the UK; that the parent company of Dell UK happens to be a US corporation simply doesn't matter.
If I'd been buying for myself, that'd be it; I'd go elsewhere. As it is, I continued the order, but ensured my own details don't appear on it.
No offence to individual US citizens, but your government has a serious attitude problem. This isn't 'Planet USA'; the USA is only one country of over 260, and I owe no more allegiance to it than to Canada, Vanuatu or Morocco, to pick three at random. Why the US government feels able to impose its whims on foreign nationals who aren't even interested in the USA mystifies, and offends, me.
22 July, 2004
Don't buy from Time!
Another computer-related topic, discovered via Neil.
It has emerged that Time (aka Tiny, aka The Computer Store) despatch new PCs with no boot discs and locked modems which will only connect to a single ISP, Supanet - part of the same company. If a customer wants a boot disc, that's obtainable via the £1/min support line for an extra £50 (and which merely wipes the hard drive and resets the factory default settings). If customers want to use a different ISP, that's an extra £60 to 'de-optimise' the modem - or follow this advice to do it for free.
Better still: never, ever buy from Time.
I still have flashbacks to the appalling service I received after I bought my first PC, from Time, in 1994. A highlight (but not the sole incident) of that... relationship was when the hard drive burned out, they sent a courier to my mother's address, 100 miles (167 km) from the PC, to collect it, took a matter of weeks longer than promised to repair it (and lied outright about progress each time I rang at premium rate), returned it to my mother's address, then 'corrected' the error by transferring it to Barrow, a town some 50 miles (80 km) by road from Lancaster, for no apparent reason.
I don't have a single favourable syllable for Time, and it seems they're no better a decade on. AVOID.
22 July, 2004
A survey reported at The Register (found via Neil) correlates IT professionals with their musical tastes. I'm not quite sure whether the stereotypes overlap for those of us who don't fit into the quoted categories. For instance, my role might be described as web design/admin/support, whereas my musical taste is for contemporary (not 'classic'!) prog, (some) death metal, and dark ambient.
12 May, 2004
iPod mini colours 'show personality'
I don't have one. Ha!
Another article which highlights why I dislike Macs (and related products), for purely aesthetic reasons (as a user of a Windows box, I can hardly criticise Macs on technical grounds).
According to analysts, part of the appeal of the iPod mini is its design – and how the colour chosen reflects a user's personality.
The look of the thing means absolutely nothing to me; functionality is all that matters in a music player. If it works well, great; if it does so without being noticed, so much the better.
"But it's gorgeous."
"But it's a ****ing MACHINE!"
Here's another back-reference to a post on this subject.
6 May, 2004
Computer graphics have been steadily improving and approaching photorealism, but whilst the rendering of shapes and textures is already astonishingly good, my main criticism is that the lighting is rarely quite right, ruining the whole illusion.
Research by Dr Henrik Jensen, Assistant Professor at UCSD's Computer Graphics Laboratory is beginning to change that. His innovation is to calculate the absorption and dispersal of light within materials like marble or skin.
Speaking to the BBC, Dr Jensen said:
"For skin it has turned out to be a key missing piece in today's visual effects, and for this reason it has been adopted quickly by the visual effects industry."
Indeed, in February he received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement
Some of the images at his UCSD website are misleadingly unrealistic, as they apply his cutting-edge modeling and photon mapping techniques to images otherwise rendered more crudely. Two exceptions that really show his achievement are this ceramic teapot and these glasses of milk. The glass on the right is rendered using the ubiquitous BRDF and resembles opaque white paint, whereas the remaining glasses use the BSSRDF model, and really could be photographs. Wonderful work, which can be expected to become a standard part of the CGI repertoire.
26 March, 2004
Kind of perky for a corpse
I've just read a mock obituary for the CRT monitor, and wondered how long it will take for this apparent obsolescence to filter down to me, both at home and at work.
Then I noticed that the article is already almost three years old.
24 February, 2004
Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?
I had major problems getting online this weekend.
On Friday evening, my phone line was a bit crackly, but its ability to carry digital data was far worse, the modem audibly struggling to connect to my ISP. Once online, data transfer was appallingly slow, and within a minute or so, I was disconnected. Checking e-mail was a challenge, uploading revised web pages or images a near-impossibility. I checked everything: modem, cable, junction boxes; I even inspected the cable linking my house to the telegraph pole, but found nothing. Connectivity to my backup ISP was no better, so I deduced that there was either a problem with the modem hardware or the local telephone exchange. I couldn't do anything about either once offices and shops closed on Saturday, so had to wait it out.
Internet access wasn't much better yesterday, so I was dreading working from home today, but it seems the problem was with the external phone network, and that it was fixed overnight, as everything has been fine today.
It's a little disturbing to note how much I missed it. If I'd been able, I probably wouldn't have wanted to go online, but the knowledge that I was unable to connect (or rather, I could, but uploading a 54kb file last night took over 40 minutes and 27 logins) was annoying.
Well. That was a fascinating narrative, wasn't it? Whatever; I think it's worth posting anyway, just in case anyone else experiences the same thing and wonders whether others have too.
19 February, 2004
Mac users are wired; sorry, weird
I've explained earlier that I wouldn't wish to use a Mac, for aesthetic reasons rather than any criticism of their performance, and because I dislike the culture of 'my Mac is my friend'. The response to this hoax (original story here) illustrates exactly the sort of thing I could never buy into.
A Mac is a computer; an inanimate tool, for ****'s sake. Overwhelming emotional attachment to an object just seems unhealthy.
28 January, 2004
Bizarre spell checking
For no apparent reason, my spell checker wanted to change the phrase '... sky cleared...' in that last post to '... skyclad...'. It's not even as if 'sky' and 'cleared' were misspelled.
Bloody hippy coders....
19 January, 2004
Something odd happened when I switched on my PC at work this morning. It booted okay, I logged in, it displayed the usual 'loading personal settings' message, then went blank, displaying the mouse pointer against a plain black background (that could have been my wallpaper, but I doubt it). I could move the mouse, but there was nothing on which to click. Ctrl/Alt/Del didn't work, I discovered that this new PC doesn't have a 'reset' button, the 'Off' button didn't respond, and there's no power switch on the base unit, so I had to reboot by unplugging at the wall - not ideal.
It wasn't a one-off bad boot, as the same happened again twice more. I rang Staff Help Desk, who'd received a report of exactly the same symptoms on a PC in the English department, two floors away but in a contiguous building. Nothing odd was showing in the network logs, so a tech would have to investigate.
Terrific. A week after receiving my new PC, and that after three month without a work computer of my own, the new one was out of action.
Rather than sit by the 'phone staring into space, I went to the library to check my e-mail at a public-access terminal. Having done that, I popped into ISS (tech support), since Staff Help Desk is based just by the public computers. Three more cases had been reported, spaced well across campus, with nothing obvious linking us.
Back in the office, I thoroughly cleaned my keyboard (I was bored, okay?), then went to lunch early. I ate at my desk as usual, in case the 'phone rang, but it didn't. I tried booting again anyway - and it worked.
Staff Help Desk later told me all cases had resolved themselves - the tech had found no faults. In one sense, that's great, but in another: what if it happens again tomorrow?
15 January, 2004
What does your 'friend' wear?
Some people decorate their computers; at work, Helena has a bat soft toy on her base unit and an Emily the Strange wallpaper. My mother's base unit has a plastic cartoon mouse (you know: the symbol of cultural imperialism designed by a dead alleged anti-Semite) attached by blu-tack, and the monitor wallpaper is a photo of (ahem) me, almost hidden by as many desktop icons as she can find. The monitor of Alizon's home PC has a purple fur trim. I don't actually know what H. uses as wallpaper, but her PC is a laptop, so the opportunity for physical decoration is limited.
Both at home and at work, my PCs are entirely plain beige boxes; at present there's a 'Liquid Tension Experiment' CD case on top of my tower at home, and I know there's a 'post-it' pad on my base unit at work. This is my desktop at home, and this is at work. The icons on the latter are those Windows won't let me delete.
[Update 21/06/06: Since I referred to it again in another entry, I took the opportunity to provide an updated screenshot of my work PC. You'll notice that all desktop icons are gone, the system tray is minimised and though there are the same number of icons in the Quick Launch toolbar, Firefox has, quite emphatically, displaced IE.]
15 January, 2004
What about The Opposition?
My disregard for the Mac 'let's be friends' ethos doesn't mean I'm pro-Windows - far from it. With each revision, Windows becomes more obtrusive and downright interfering.
The file organisation interface is extremely annoying: I know where I want to store files, thanks, and don't want to use the default 'My Documents' heirarchy, but it can't be adequately turned off.
I loathe Word. When I'm writing a letter, I know what I want to say and how to format it, so autocorrect, autocomplete and templated page layouts are just annoying; the 'Windows knows best' workflow 'assistance' is infuriating and, for me, pointless, so the only text editor I use is my web editor, Macromedia HomeSite.
Windows and M$ packages are overly 'helpful' in allowing one to achieve what one wants, just so long as one wants to do what Windows does, by the Windows route.
I use Windows itself, Internet Explorer, and Outlook with every single 'assistant' firmly shut off, but otherwise don't use any M$ packages at home, and few at work.
15 January, 2004
The Computer is NOT my friend
Because a computer is central to my job, people seem to assume I actually like computers. That's not the case; I have as much affection for a computer as I do for a screwdriver. It's a tool, simple as that. Do carpenters *like* saws? My interest is in what I can achieve with a computer, rather than having the slightest interest in its inner workings. I have a little more interest in software, as that more directly influences what I can achieve; it is oddly pleasurable to learn something new about Photoshop, but again that's because it opens new opportunities for creativity.
This is one reason I use a PC, not a Mac. I'm not saying 'Macs are bad', I just prefer PCs. Please don't try to drag me into a Mac vs. PC debate; I'm simply not interested in relative performance issues.
I dislike the aesthetic of using a Mac; apparently a selling point, but a major turn-off for me. A Mac is designed to have character, to be intuitive almost to the point of interactivity with its user, to become part of the household and even a companion. My computer is not my friend, it is a soulless machine. It is not a partner in the creative process but merely an inanimate tool.
I found the following a while ago, but unfortunately lost the source:
"... Apple offers not only a viable alternative to Microsoft Windows, but also a computer that one can love and truly enjoy using... the real difference is that the Mac's aesthetic lifts my spirits and enhances my creativity [whilst] the Wintel boxes I've used have been at best aesthetically neutral and at worst aesthetically numbing."
No, no, NO! A clean, inert environment suits me far more; neutrality is exactly what I need. I don't want to relate
to the thing.
Font designer Stanley Morison said that: "Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian, and only accidently aesthetic, end, for the enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader's chief aim."
I feel much the same way about my computer: so long as the hardware and operating system assist my productivity invisibly, I'm happy. If the working environment is pleasant, that's a bonus, just as an attractive typeface helps when reading a block of text. I like crisp, efficient Arial, fussy Times New Roman doesn't do much for me (sorry, Mr. Morison!), and I'd rarely consider using 'cute' Comic Sans. To return to the point, Macs convey a fluffy and pastel feel, whereas I'm more of a shiny black latex type. ;)
15 December, 2003
McAfee's routine periodic check found the 'JS/NoClose' virus/Trojan in my TemporaryInternetFiles. No big deal; cleaned immediately, but noteworthy as my first infection in a very long time, thankfully.
12 December, 2003
Nurture your CD-Rs
It seems 'mainstream' CD-R users are finally catching on to info long known by those of us who trade concert recordings on CD-Rs: that CD-Rs aren't remotely 'permanent' and need careful treatment. The claims of manufacturers (10 years lifespan, even 100 years) aren't realistic; artificial aging tests don't seem to simulate typical use & storage conditions adequately. Three points highlighted by recent online press articles are fundamental to audio trading:
Use decent discs - 'known brand' discs from reputable manufacturers are better than bargain-basement, no-name discs. Cheap discs are a waste of money and could cost you valuable data within even just 2 years. 'Own-brand' discs from supermarkets and high-street electrical retailers are similarly inadequate, generally.
Best of all are discs from known CD-R manufacturers. That's manufacturers, not retail brand names - companies like TDK are distributors who don't actually manufacture discs. The most reputable CD-R manufacturer is Taiyo Yuden, of Japan but distributed globally. I buy them in the UK from CD-R Media; 27p each (mail-order, sold in multiples of 100) for top-quality discs compares well to 17p each (high-street, sold in multiples of 100) for own-brand discs from Dixons (major UK electrical retailer).
Secondly, don't apply adhesive labels, as the adhesive can react with the data-containing dye layer of the disc itself.
Fred Langa at InformationWeek found this had caused appreciable deterioration of his archived CD-Rs.
Thirdly, don't write on CD-Rs. Surprisingly, Fred Langa didn't find problems with discs he'd previously labeled with marker pens, but his experience seems to be the exception; it's a known problem, reported as 'news' yesterday by The Guardian (I don't think that page is permanently archived, so the item might vanish). In the same way as label adhesives, chemicals in marker inks can react with the dye layer of a disc, destroying data. Markers specifically for writing on CD-Rs exist, but different CD-R manufacturers use different dyes, so I doubt the pens have been tested with the full range of disc dyes. Far safer, and simply better practice, is to write only in the clear area at the hub of the disc - it's just clear plastic, so there's no dye layer to destroy.
Quick disclaimer: trading unofficial recordings, like-for-like, strictly for no profit, amongst those who already have all the official releases of the traded artist, is very different to commercial bootlegging (selling/buying unofficial recordings) or piracy (distributing copies of official releases).
4 December, 2003
Mildly interesting promotional site at Honda UK, where visitors are asked to vote on the most influential (I think - it's not specified) of ten shortlisted everyday items: can opener; ballpoint pen; stapler; tap; zip; corkscrew; bra; teabag; light bulb; toilet.
Which do you regard as the most important/most influential on everyday life?
At the time of writing, the light bulb is leading, with 26% of the vote, followed by the toilet, as one might expect; these are the items absolutely everyone (in the UK, anyway) uses daily, whereas the others are restricted to only a proportion of the population (the bra, currently third with 12%) or are only used at intervals (the corkscrew, 6%). The relative valuation of the tap is surprising, at seventh (5%) - either people don't regard it as being as profound an influence as others, or perhaps it's regarded as less of a design achievement than the others.
28 November, 2003
I've decided: I don't like DreamWeaver. It doesn't have anything like the type and level of functionality that I appreciate in HomeSite. DW is particularly bad (slow) at accessing files across the campus network, and it's not good enough for editing html directly in code view. Maybe it's better in WYSIWYG format, but I don't care; I don't work that way. Hence I'll be dumping DW asap and returning to HomeSite.
24 November, 2003
It's here! Sort of...
When he visited last week, technician Rob suggested I should book my new PC in with ISS (tech support) for it's initial configuration, even though it was still on order, so that by the time it arrived I'd be some way along the queue. Well, I'll still be close to the foot of the waiting list after only six days, but it's arrived!
There's no real point in opening the packaging yet - a beige box is a beige box, to me, so it's not exactly like a second birthday. At least in sealed packaging it'll be reasonably safe, which is important because I'll have to store it under my desk until needed, and I've no doubt it will receive a few accidental kicks.
19 November, 2003
Nearly there... but not quite
When I came in this morning, my (temporary) PC was off. I'd no idea whether it was a power-saving automatic shutdown, or a 'helpful' porter, but it means last night's hard drive transfer failed.
Having just looked, it seems the PC was set to power down after an hour of inactivity - I'm surprised the transfer process didn't count as 'activity', but I've changed the setting anyway, to 'never off'.
I've spoken to Vince again, and he's going to sent the files again this evening.
18 November, 2003
Nearly back in business
Just spoken to Vince, and he's going to send all my data and config directories (i.e. all but OS & program directories) from the copy of my old hard drive to this one, overnight.
Tomorrow will be my first 'normal' working day in almost three weeks. Three weeks without a computer, for the person most directly responsible for maintaining the University's web presence. Considered that way, it's appalling.
18 November, 2003
A working PC, on my own desk!
Luckily, my day wasn't as pointless as I'd expected. At about 10:30, a technician called in to configure 'my' (L's old) PC, so by early afternoon I was making progress, installing Photoshop, DreamWeaver, etc. (and happily crippling M$ Office). I should be more-or-less fully operational again tomorrow. I'll need another technician to transfer at least some of the contents of my old hard drive to this temporary one, but I should be able to deal with the backlog of routine web editing, if not the ongoing projects.
6 November, 2003
Not much to say about this article discussing hyper-realistic digital human models, other than to offer the link and mention it's a subject that's interested me for several years.
I'd been aware of it earlier, but the concept of 'virtual people' was focused for me when I read William Gibson's 'Idoru' in 1996 (mentioned in the Guardian's article, in fact). The events of that book centre on Rei Toei, an artificially intelligent 'virtual' pop star. A subsequent book liberates her from the metal cylinder of her generating hardware into the internet; a sentience inhabiting the unregarded spare processing power of the world's computers.
That's still some way off reality, of course, but I was also interested by the phenomenon of the ridiculously-proportioned Lara Croft. First a sprite in a computer game, then a cover girl of 'The Face', then the star of 'Lucozade' adverts, Lara began to assume as substantial a presence in popular culture as a typical transitory pop star or minor celebrity.
The animated Lara was entirely a construct with no physical reality, but when one only sees a 'real' person on TV or in a magazine, what practical difference is there to the viewer?
6 November, 2003
On to Plan 'C', it seems
When L. received a new office PC, she kept the old one, to work from home (probably true!). Since I don't have an office PC at all at present, she brought her old one back to campus for a while. Unfortunately, the network configuration wasn't quite as she'd thought, and I can't log in as myself. This prevents access to files in my network space and top-level server admin directories that aren't even visible to other users, and understandably L. doesn't want me logging in as her, with access to her e-mail, etc.
I've spoken to ISS, and they'll send a technician whenever possible, but until then (could be several days), I still have no PC at work, a full week after the flood. I've had limited access to e-mail via public-access terminals in the library and the ancient 486/early Pentium in the College back office, which has also given me access to Notepad and Word, but the tasks on which I've been able to work have mostly been of low-priority, and my 'real' work has been at a total standstill.
5 November, 2003
Nope, it's dead. I've just spoken to Vince about my PC, and it's beyond hope. The hard drive works okay, just so long as it remains in a bucket of dry ice. At room temperature, nothing. This is compounded by a major fault on the motherboard, which renders the whole thing too expensive to justify repairing.
Vince is going to copy the entire contents of my hard drive to some network space, where it can remain until I obtain a new PC, so I haven't lost anything, which is some compensation.
It seems I'll be spending the rest of the day researching and ordering a new PC. Some in my sort of job would enjoy customising a new computer to their personal requirements, but I'm not that type of computer user; I don't care what's inside the beige box, so long as it does what I need. Luckily, the University only buys from a limited range of suppliers, and they offer guidance on specific hardware packages, so I'm not totally lost. One thing even I appreciate is that the existing monitor, keyboard and mouse are fine, so I can spend that extra money on higher-spec components in the base unit itself.
3 November, 2003
I thought the problems with my office PC had been resolved, but according to technician Vince, it's still throwing up (error messages) and he's still working on it. He says he'll let me know when it's repaired (neatly pre-empting my e-mails for progress reports...), but at least that implies it is repairable.