Sunday, May 31, 2009

Show us your computer!

Just for fun, show the world your computing work/play environment. Whether that be an actual desk, or a comfy couch where you do your computing, show the world what works for you.

DJWorkstation

Here are the rules:

1. Copy and paste this blog post into your own blog without modifying the rules.

2. You aren’t allowed to clean it up for the picture. We want to see real-world setups, not “I hired an interior designer just for this photo” pictures. No cleaning, no reorganizing. Everything just the way it is right now, no matter how messy, clean, organized it may be.

3. Tell us who prompted you to post pictures of your workstation. Ideally, post links to their blog post where they posted their own photos. Paste below:

(Since I started this, I can’t post any links to anyone else, sorry!)

4. Tell us anything you want about your setup. Why you work where you do. Anything unique about your computing environment. Paste below:

I’m definitely not neat when it comes to my desk. It always has piles of stuff on it, as you can see.

I’m a definite computer multitasker. And since most of the software I use regularly takes up a lot of screen space I work with multiple monitors all of the time. Here four of the available 6 are turned on and running, with the old CRT monitor and LCD TV making up the other two when needed. The monitor on the far right is a touch screen. That’s the display for my Mac off to the left.

In addition to doing software development, I also run my little recording studio and video editing setup from here. That explains the acoustic foam, audio equipment, and piano. I also have Blu-ray and full surround sound setup in here for those time I watch movies while I work.

The actual computer itself is in the room next to the room pictured here, so you won't see it. That way any sounds the computer makes (fan noise, beeps, etc.) are totally inaudible here. I had to run a 2.5" bundle of various extension cables through the wall to pull that off, but the room is completely silent that way.

5. We prefer to have YOU in the picture too, but if you can’t pull that off, we still want to see where you work.

6. Paste in a high resolution image if you can. Not so high that we can read your checking account number on your monitor, but high enough that we get an idea what you’ve got going on technology and space-wise.

7. Post on your blog, and share with the world!

8. Tag friends and other blog readers to do the same.

9. Paste a link to your blog entry on my blog in the comments.

10. Optionally, post a link to your blog entry back in the comments section of the blog entry that started it all, http://doubledeej.blogspot.com/2009/05/show-us-your-computers.html.

There’s a dead porcupine in my house

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In an unfortunate highway incident, Peter Porcupine has departed this world.  It seems that porcupines don’t hold up well to the weight and velocity of delivery trucks.

Paul and I created this in celebration of Shannon’s birthday.  Shannon has a Porcupine Party every year in which she (and one or more of her sisters, when available) make cakes shaped like porcupines, and this was our tribute to the porcupine cake.  Or maybe it’s a well-intended mockery.  I’m still not sure.

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The version that Paul and I created was chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and candle quills.  Considering I’m not a baker and Paul had never decorated a cake before, it turned out pretty well.  (Tip: for a moister cake, add a packet of Jell-O Pudding Singles to the mix.)

Things I’m Excited About

Forever Strong on DVD

Forever Strong

The movie Forever Strong is now available on DVD.  This is an excellent movie!  I highly recommend it to all.  I just ordered my copy on DVD and it should be arriving in a few days.

Parker Lewis Can’t Lose on DVD

Parker Lewis Can't Lose: The Complete First Season

I loved the TV show Parker Lewis Can’t Lose in the early 90s.  But almost nobody remembers it, so I feel like I’m alone in my love of it.  But finally, after literal years of waiting, the DVDs of the first season are coming out at the end of June.  Maybe I’ll even get it in time to watch it on the plane ride to Denver.

Celtic Woman Concert at Red Rocks

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I’m very excited to be going to the Celtic Woman concert at Red Rocks in Colorado.  It’s only a month away now.  Is it ironic that I’m really excited about it, considering I have already seen the show?  Maybe its because I’m going to be in the front row!

Zune HD coming in September

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The new Zune HD should be hitting store shelves in the first week of September.  It’s going to be a competitor to the iPod Touch, but with the usual Zune perks like WiFi syncing, well thought-out interface, and near-universal media compatibility.  Considering that the iPod Touch won’t play most of my music, mine has been of limited use. 

I’m still not a fan of music players without buttons to select tracks and adjust volume.  But the Zune HD looks like it is going to be pretty cool with its OLED display, high definition video capability, ability to play HD video out to televisions, and coming integration with the Xbox 360 for video playback.

This won’t replace my current 80GB Zune, but it will supplement it well.  Even though my 80GB has a pretty large screen and lots of storage, the screen on the Zune HD is going to blow away everything currently on the market.  This will probably become my primary portable video player.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Viruses are NOT a Technology Problem

There is a myth that has been going around for YEARS that if you run Windows on a computer that it is automatically going to become infested with viruses. It is perpetuated by many, particularly in the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads, but also by the companies that create anti-virus software in hopes that you’ll buy their product to protect yourselves from the inevitable technological intrusion into your virtual computer space. And most of us buy into it. The truth is, that it is NOT true that running Windows will guarantee that you’ll become infested with viruses. (I’ll prove it later in this post.) Windows in and of itself is not the problem. The problem isn’t even technological at all. It’s social.

The term used to describe the techniques used by viruses writers to get their software onto your computer is actually called “social engineering.” Basically it means they trick you into installing the viruses on your computer. They’ll do things like disguise their software as something else that you’re likely to want or want to see. They use methods to make you believe that these things are coming from trusted sources, like friends or family. Combined, those are pretty effective methods. (And truthfully, these same methods work on ANY operating system; they aren’t specific to Windows.)

This might be a blow to the ego of some, but if your computer has become infested with a virus, it is because you let it install itself. You opened a file you shouldn’t have. You installed some software you shouldn’t have. You are the one to blame that it is there. Please don’t blame your computer. Don’t blame your operating system. You did something that let the bad stuff in. The wolf knocked at your door, and instead of replying with a “not by the hair of my chinny-chin chin” you said “come on in.”

Personally I don’t run anti-virus software. I never have. I do install it, because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do, but I don’t let it run scanning and watching my computer all of the time. After I install it the very first thing I do is disable it. I don’t like the slowdown that comes with having everything I do be monitored by bloated software that isn’t going to find anything anyway. And despite the fact that I do not run antivirus software, I have NEVER had a single virus on ANY of my computers. Ever! I’ve been running Windows for nearly 15 years and I haven’t had a virus yet. I’ll run anti-virus scans every once a while just to make sure that I’m still clean, but NONE of those scans have EVER found even a single virus.

If susceptibility to viruses was a technological problem with Windows, my computers would be massive infestations of virus muck. They wouldn’t be usable. And they’d be out there trying to find ways to infect others. How have I been able to remain clean? Just by being careful about what I install and keeping my computer up to date with security patches. That’s it. No more. No magical hardware firewall watching my Internet activity. No magic fairy that shows up in the middle of the night to clean off anything that may have arrived that day.

But the situation gets even worse for the theory that Windows inherently becomes infested with viruses when I tell you that I also don’t run any firewalls. Yep, I turn those off too. And here’s another kicker… I break the cardinal rule of data security: three of my computers have public IP addresses (meaning they are totally exposed to, accessible from, and visible to the Internet). Gasp! That’s an absolute security no-no! Nobody should EVER run Windows with a public IP address, right? Well, I wouldn’t recommend it for most people, but the truth is that Windows, despite its many flaws, is not the primary cause of viruses becoming installed on our computers, so I really don’t worry about it. Viruses are installed by people, not their operating system. It’s people tricking other people into installing their ill-intended garbage that gets computers infected.

I’m not the only one that doesn’t run anti-virus software. In a recent episode of the Security Now podcast, noted security expert Steve Gibson also admitted that he doesn’t run it either. If a security expert doesn’t run it, then the computer he’s using isn’t the main cause of the problem, is it!?

So why do Windows PCs so often have viruses? Mostly because they’re so popular. If you’re someone conjuring up evil plans to take over the world by creating virus software, who are you going to target? The 90% of computers running Windows? Or the 7% running a Mac, or 1% running Linux? Which offers a better return on your time investment?

Windows XP also made an easy target because it makes it so easy to install software. No password or validation required to do an installation; installers can just run and do whatever they please whenever someone starts them. (That has changed with Vista; passwords and validation are required there, just like OS X and Linux.) Not requiring a password to install has never been a good idea, but it isn’t the cause of viruses on computers. It just made it easier for the bad guys. Big difference. And viruses are software; they just have a different intent than something like Firefox.

With all of this said, I will not recommend that most people run without anti-virus software or a firewall. Most people should take those steps to protect their machines. But these tools are just extras layer of protection; they should not be the only form of protection used. Neither will ever be able to make up for all of the shortcomings of someone using a computer. Even with both installed, it’s still up to you to avoid the bad stuff. And that, my friends, is a social problem, not a problem with technology.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

FileBack PC discussed on a podcast

The backup software I have written and been selling for more than a decade came up in a discussion on a very well known podcast today.

The podcast is called Security Now, and it is hosted by Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson.  Leo is a huge name in the podcast world (there might not be anybody more well known in the technology podcast world), and Steve is extremely well known for his security expertise.

Steve has recommended FileBack PC previously, but it came up again in today’s podcast.  Beginning at 01:43:06 through 01:48:05, Steve and Leo discuss how Steve uses FileBack PC to backup and synchronize his data.

Security Now 198: Listener Feedback 67 - Download MP3 file

I love when Steve does this; I always see a spike in downloads and sales of my software.  I’m also really glad he loves it, because he is VERY picky about his software, and his recommendations carry a lot of weight.

Thanks, Steve and Leo!

Get a UPS

No, not one of the guys (or gals) in brown.  I’m talking about Uninterruptible Power Supplies.

Back-UPS ES

UPSes are battery backup systems for electronics.  In this case, computers specifically.  I know you’re thinking, “Why would I want a battery backup for my computer?”  The reasons might not be obvious, but there are many. 

Having a UPS keeps the computer from shutting off abruptly

One of the worst enemies of your computer and its data is an abrupt loss of power to your computer.  If you’re working on a document or composing an email, for example, and the power goes out, you’ll probably lose your work.

In addition to that, in order to make computers perform as well as they do, modern operating systems like Windows, OS X, and Linux don’t necessarily save your data to your hard disk drive immediately.  They’ll hold that data in memory (in a cache) until it is convenient to save it to the hard drive.  Just because the computer says it has saved your file doesn’t mean it has actually done it.  It’s going to wait until it’s good and ready.

Having a UPS prevents both of these problems from occurring.  If the power goes out you and your computer will have a few minutes to save your work before the battery is exhausted. 

Having a UPS can prevent damage to your computer

This includes both physical damage due to power surges, brownouts, etc. as well as damage to the data on your computer. 

UPSes usually have surge protectors built in, and they also monitor the AC power in your home for problem conditions as well.  If there is any sort of problem with your power the UPS will kick in and switch the power going to your computer from the wall outlet to its built-in battery, preventing physical damage from occurring.  Many computers and other electronics have been saved from destruction because of the protection provided by a UPS.

Perhaps a more frustrating problem is what can happen when a computer is shut off abruptly rather than being shut down gracefully.  Computers don’t like to be turned off without a proper shutdown procedure; data on your drive, including your operating system and the programs you use regularly, can easily be damaged by an abrupt loss of power.  Files are very often damaged when this occurs, and it can result in a computer that won’t start, generates error messages, or crashes.  It’s an easy thing to avoid by just adding a UPS.

Having a UPS will make your computer more stable

Many of the crashes and lockups that we experience with our computers are due to problems with the power coming into them.  For example, if your air conditioner or refrigerator’s compressor turns on to cool your home or food, that generates some huge spikes and drops in the power on your wiring.  Likewise with washers, dryers, even hair dryers.  Those spikes and drops get passed on to the electronics in your computer, and can easily generate anomalies in the way your data is processed and stored.  You’ve probably seen it in its extreme before… the lights go dim momentarily, and your computer locks up or resets.  But that is an extreme example.  Even the smaller spikes, surges, and drops in power can modify the way your computer behaves.  And it may not show up as a problem on the computer right away.  The data that has been modified might not be accessed until later, at which point the computer may lockup or crash minutes, hours, or days after the problem really occurred, and you’ll never know why. 

In my own experience, many times computers that misbehave without a UPS suddenly start working perfectly after a UPS has been added.  I’ve seen it time and time again.  This is especially true of budget computers, where they have cut corners on the internal power supply in order to keep costs down. 

If your computer seems to randomly misbehave, there’s a chance it is because it is running on bad power.  A UPS will fix that.

Having a UPS will make your computer last longer

Without having to deal with problematic power, the electronic components that make up our computers will last a lot longer.  And I’m not just talking about preventing immediate damage from power surges; the everyday noise that is present on our power lines does damage over a long period of time.  Running your computer on a UPS will increase its life noticeably.

What about laptop owners?

The very nature of laptops makes UPSes less necessary than they are for desktop computers.  Since they have their own battery they’re automatically immune to power outages. 

But that doesn’t mean that laptop owners won’t benefit from a UPS at all.  The other issues mentioned above can still apply, like instability and damage due to dirty power; laptops are affected too.  And it isn’t a bad idea to put your DSL or cable modem and network router on a UPS to prevent damage and improve reliability there either. 

I’m convinced… now what?

It’s important when buying a UPS to get one that is properly sized for the amount of equipment that will be plugged into it.  And you need to decide how long you want the computer to be able to run on battery power for those time when the the power goes out completely.  Don’t expect a lot; 10-15 minutes would be considered generous without spending a fortune.  To save a little cash you can get one that will last you somewhere between 7 and 10 minutes.

Personally I have been using UPSes by APC for about 15 years, and I love them.  They aren’t the only game in town, that’s for sure, but I do trust their products.  And they have a tool on their web site that makes it easy to find the right UPS for your situation. 

Most office supply stores carry UPSes.  If you buy one there, expect to spend $50-150 depending on the size you need.

If you’re just going to run your modem or router on a UPS, buy the cheapest brand-name UPS you can find; even the smallest capacity will run these devices for quite some time on battery backup power.  Laptops are more power efficient than desktops, so they can run on small-capacity UPSes as well.

If you do get a UPS, please make sure you set it up according to the manufacturer’s instructions.  If you don’t install their software, for example, the computer won’t know when the power goes out, and it will be shut off abruptly when the battery dies, exactly like what would happen if you didn’t have a UPS at all.  Connecting the UPS to your computer and installing the proper software will allow your computer to know when the battery is about to die, and give it a chance to shut down properly.

The cost of a UPS is easily offset by the replacement cost of any equipment that they might save over its life.  And that doesn’t include time and frustration saved on your part due to lost files, crashes, or repair of any damage to your operating system and software. 

I, of course, have UPSes on all of my critical computers, and it has saved me a great deal of frustration over the years.  So I highly recommend them for anyone.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pet Peeve #367

<RANT>

It’s a minor thing, I know, but it still bugs me when people use my computers and maximize windows, especially web browsers.  I have large, high resolution monitors on most of my machines, and it’s really hard to read paragraphs of text when each line is 18 inches long.  It’s too hard to figure out which line of text you’re supposed to read next.  Most web sites don’t even work right when they are that wide, or leave huge columns of blank space on both sides of the screen, wasting tons of space.

And yet it seems like nearly everyone who uses one of my computers does it.  I don’t know why, other than force of habit.  It irritates me that they do, and especially that they leave it that way when they leave.

</RANT>

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tip: Show File Extensions

There is one very easy thing to do in Windows to make it easier to determine if a file on your computer (or coming in via email) can be potentially harmful.  And that change is to make file extensions visible.

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Windows, for some inexplicable reason, hides the extensions of files by default.  Is “document” really a document?  You can’t really tell by looking at a file whether it is a picture, a text file, a song, or a potentially evil program.  With file extensions turned off there just isn’t any way to be sure.  Fortunately this is a very easy thing to fix.

In Windows Vista:

1. Click Start, type the word Folder and wait for the search results to come up.  Click on Folder Options.

2. Click the View tab, scroll down to “Hide extensions for known file types” and UNCHECK it.

3. Click OK to save the change.

In Windows XP:

1. Click Start, Control Panel, Folder Options.

2. Click the View tab, scroll down to “Hide extensions for known file types” and UNCHECK it.

3. Click OK to save the change.

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With file extensions turned on and visible you will know just by glancing at an icon what type of file it really is.  And if you see something ending in .EXE, .COM, .PIF, .SCR, you will know that it is actually a program.  If one of these file types is coming to you via email, just delete it.  If you find one of these files somewhere that a program shouldn’t be (like on a USB flash drive, or your Documents folder), don’t open it.  Programs should always be stored in C:\Program Files, so if you see one somewhere else, leave it alone. 

That same folder with file extensions turned on is shown below.  We can now see that “Document” is actually an executable, not a text file!

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The last extension on a file is the one that actually counts.  So if you see Cool New Song.mp3.exe, it isn’t an MP3 file; it is actually a program.  Just delete it.  Likewise with Free Gasoline.txt.exe.  You get the idea.

I’m really not sure why Microsoft insists on hiding file extensions by default.  Even the upcoming Windows 7 has this same behavior.  As poor as this decision is, at least we can change the behavior easily.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We have achieved 600!

I’ve been right on the cusp of reaching my 600th DVD title for a little while now, but I’m pleased to announced that this milestone has just been reached.  The 600th DVD title to enter my collection is… (drum roll, please…) The 179th Annual LDS General Conference.

I was looking for something significant to become the 600th title to add to the collection, and this one arrived unannounced in my mailbox today.  Not quite what I had in mind for the 600th, but it will work.

If I’m ever bored maybe I’ll sit down and figure out what my 600th movie was.  The software I use to keep track of my discs tracks by title, and titles include boxed sets as single items.  So there are numerous titles with multiple movies in them (3 in Star Wars IV-VI, 3 in Indiana Jones, 6 in Rocky, etc.) so the 600th movie milestone was actually reached some time ago.  Unless TV shows on DVD don’t count, in which case I’d still have a few to go.  If you go by disc count, well, 600 would have been achieved a very long time ago with all of the multi-disc sets that I buy.

How long has it taken to reach this goal?  Well I bought one of the very first DVD players available in the spring of 1997.  And a few months later I actually bought the very first DVD player that came to Utah county.  I may not have been the first to own it, but the fact that I do now counts for something, right?  So I’ve been collecting for about 12 years, which works out to 50 titles per year, or about one per week on average.  The actual rate has picked up significantly recently, though… I reached 500 only a few months ago.  When I got my first player very few movies were available, so new movies that piqued my interest were rare.

At any time you can browse the whole collection here.

The disc format breakdown currently is: 544 DVD-only, 23 Blu-Ray, and 25 HD-DVD-only, and 8 HD-DVD/DVD combo.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Celtic Woman

Last Tuesday night I went and saw Celtic Woman perform at the E-Center in Salt Lake as part of their Isle of Hope tour.  They were amazing.  Virtually everything about the concert was amazing.  It was so great!

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I have known about the group for about 18 months now, and when I first heard them I immediately bought all of their CDs and DVDs.  I loved their music.  But somehow I missed out on hearing about their 2008 tour, so I missed when they came to Salt Lake last year.  While I was visiting my parents over Christmas break this last year I saw that they were coming to Salt Lake for their upcoming tour, I immediately bought a couple tickets in eager anticipation of being able to see them live. 

I did have a little bit of trepidation about that whole “live” part of the show.  The vocals on the DVDs are clearly dubbed with post-produced studio recordings, and there is some talk around the Internet that the girls they selected for the group were selected more for their appearance than their voices.  So I felt like there would be a small possibility that this concert would be lip-synced, which would have been a big letdown for me.  I don’t really want to pay to see a group if I’m just going to hear a recording; I can do that at home.  But it wasn’t lip-synced.  It was definitely live.  At least the vast majority of it.  (There were two songs that may have been pre-recorded; I couldn’t be 100% sure either way.)  The girls are amazing vocalists.  Every note on pitch.  Perfect articulation.  Great expression.  Tasteful choreography.

Being the techie guy that I am, I spent nearly as much time taking in all of the technical aspects of the show as I did the music… the lighting, sound system, sound mix, acoustics, etc.  It was all extremely well done as well.  I was definitely impressed.

I had no idea how long the concert was going to be.  It went on for quite a while before they announced an intermission.  Awesome!  We were only half way through.  In all the concert was well over two hours long.

I was so impressed with the whole performance that later that night after I got home I logged on to the Celtic Woman web site to see if there was any possibility I could see them again on their current tour… maybe in Las Vegas or Denver?  With the exception of a handful of performances last week, the rest of the performances are far away in the southeast.  Far enough away that going to another show was going to be difficult.  I saw that there is going to be one in Tulsa at the end of June, and this would have been a good excuse to visit my parents for a few days, but that concert is on a Sunday night, and I didn’t feel right about doing that.  So, I was kind of disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off.

That was until I opened the back of program I got at the concert and saw that they had two performances coming up in Denver at Red Rocks Amphitheater that aren’t listed on their web site.  Wheels start to turn.  What do the tickets cost?  Are any good seats still available?  What about airfare?  Check the price of hotel and rental car.  Then I decided that I was just going to do it.  Enter credit card number into the various web sites… so, yep, it’s a done deal… I’m flying to Denver to see them perform at the beginning of July.  And my ticket for the concert is RIGHT in the MIDDLE of the FRONT ROW (well, technically it’s the second row, but the actual first row is reserved for special needs visitors)!  Woohoo!  Major excitement going on.

So yeah, I’m going to fly somewhere just to see a concert.  That’s a first for me.  And I’m very excited about it, even if it is going to cost me a small fortune to do it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Scam via Facebook

Here’s one to watch out for, folks…

With facebook being so popular, a lot of people are trying to use it to make money.  I was nearly tricked by one of these companies earlier this week, so I thought I’d share with others, as it seems like at least a few of my friends have been sucked into it too.

It starts out with an advertisement on the facebook site.  The ad is designed to look like part of the site, even though it isn’t.  Here is a sample, with the pictures blurred to protect the privacy of my friends:

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Clicking on the ad takes you to a site outside of facebook, but again, the site is designed to have the same look and feel facebook.

image image

It isn’t much of an IQ test; most of the questions are pretty easy.  But that isn’t their point.  They are really after something else… your cell phone number.  When you get to the last page it asks for your cell phone number so they can text you the results:

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If you take the time to read the fine print at the bottom of the page, it will reveal that you are signing up for a $9.99 per month service that will be billed to your cell phone:

Summary Terms & Conditions:

This is an auto renewing subscription service on short code 86455 and available to users over 18 for $9.99 per month on AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Nextel (3 alerts per week), Virgin Mobile USA, Cellular One, Cincinnati Bell, Centennial Wireless, Unicel and U.S. Cellular. For $6.99 per month on Boost and Cricket (2 alerts per week). For help, text HELP to 86455, email 86455@sms-helpdesk.com. or call 1800 235 7105 for automated help or call 1800 416 6129 for a live operator.You may stop this subscription service at any time by sending a text message with STOP to short code 86455. Standard messaging rates apply for Verizon Wireless customers. All other carriers, other charges may apply. Charges will appear on your wireless bill or be deducted from your pre-paid balance. Your phone must have text messaging capability. You must be the owner of this device or have permission from the owner. By signing up for this service and entering your personal PIN Code delivered to the cell phone number supplied by you on this website, you acknowledge that you are agreeing to the full Terms of Use. Click here for full Terms & Conditions. Affiliates

I believe they are engaging in dishonest business practices, and I hope that anyone who may have fallen for it will cancel their subscription to the service.  The company doesn’t deserve any of our money if they are doing this kind of thing.  And hopefully anyone else who encounters this will now know to avoid it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Putting Things Into Perspective

Every once in a while I think back over the many years I’ve been involved with computers, and with the rate that technology improves it seems like a virtual eternity since I got started. 

The first computer I used regularly was nearly the size of a refrigerator, and it had its own dedicated room in our house.  Today my cell phone is much, much faster, and has 800 times as much storage. 

Storage

That refrigerator-size computer (a DEC PDP-11, which cost as much as a small house) had two disk drives, each one 5 megabytes in size.  The disks were physically about 18” in diameter, about 9” tall.  Swapping the disks wasn’t something we did often, as it basically brought the whole computer to a halt, and the disks were swapped out by opening large drawers.  Not that it mattered to me.  The disks were too heavy for a kid my size to pick up.

The second computer I used regularly had no permanent storage at all at first.  When I would write a program, I’d have to copy it down by hand onto paper to keep it, then type it back in later to re-use it.  Eventually we got a cassette recorder that let us save programs on cassette tapes.  Small programs would take a couple minutes to load or save, larger ones could take twenty minutes or longer.  And a good percentage of the time loading a program would fail, and we’d have to start over again.  Can you imagine waiting 20 minutes to load a program today?  And since computers didn’t multitask, it wasn’t like you could do something else while you were waiting for something to load.  You just had to wait, staring at a blank screen, with horrendous noises coming through the TV speaker.

Those cassettes held approximately 80-90 kilobytes of data.  A single average photo taken on a digital camera today would have taken between 20-40 cassettes worth of storage at that rate.  And would have taken 8-16 hours to load.  That is, if computers in that day would even have been capable of displaying them, which they weren’t.

Eventually we got a 5 1/4” floppy disk drive for that computer.  It stored about the same 90 kilobytes of data as the cassettes, but it was much more reliable and it only took 3-4 minutes to load larger programs, with the smallest ones only taking 30 seconds. 

When I finally got my first hard disk drive in 1989, it cost $600 and it “only” stored 30 megabytes.  Hard disk drives today that hold 33,000 times as much cost less than 1/12 as much (adjusted for inflation).  Even cell phones these days have more storage.  My cell phone, for example, has a little over 8 gigabytes of storage.  That’s 267 times as much as my first hard drive, or 88,000 times as much storage as those first cassettes.  Ironically I was never able to fill up my 30 MB hard drive; both programs and data were much smaller in those days since we didn’t (couldn't) store pictures, music, or video.

RAM Memory was a different story altogether.  My Atari 600XL had 16 kilobytes of memory.  A modern computer today has 125,000 times as much memory.  We later upgraded to a model with 64 kilobytes of RAM.  In 1987 I got my first computer with a whole megabyte of memory.  Today we use computers with 2-4 gigabytes of memory… Only 2,000-4,000 times as much.

Performance

Performance has seen huge improvements as well.  My Atari 600XL had an 8-bit processor that ran at 1.79 MHz.  Computers today use 32 or 64-bit instructions and typically run at 2-2.5 GHz and have multiple cores to nearly double that performance.  So in addition to the clock speed being more than 1000 times faster, their efficiency is leaps and bounds better too.  Machine instructions that took multiple clock cycles to complete are now completed in one (or even less than one) cycle.

Graphics

The very first computer I used was not capable of displaying graphics at all.  Everything was done with text.  If you wanted to simulate graphics it had to be done by using the symbols you find on your keyboard.  Pretty crude.

The next computer could display 4 colors at once.  But I was fortunate, because that model could select which colors those four colors were.  The IBM PCs of the day, even if they were capable of color, were restricted to four colors pre-selected by the video card, and they couldn’t be changed. 

Of course we couldn’t measure anything in megapixels.  We were lucky to be measuring in kilopixels. 

Photographic quality images didn’t come around for more than two decades.  In the late 80s there were some specialized programs that enabled my Atari ST to display some near-television-quality images, but it was done with trickery, as the computer was technically only able to display 16 colors at a time, and this was very atypical of the time.  And even then the graphic resolution was low enough that we consider those images to be “postage stamp sized.” 

3D images were something that were only found in labs, and even then, mostly restricted to wireframe images.  Pixar was still years away from doing their first 3D animation.

The idea of computers being able to display motion video was preposterous.  Television quality video was more than two decades away for consumer-level machines.

Audio

The sound capabilities of computers have improved dramatically too.  We started out with just beeps, if anything at all.  Beeps turned into crude music synthesizers with noise generators.  Which eventually gave way to more sophisticated synthesis.  Finally, nearly two decades after I started using computers, computers were starting to become able to play back recorded sounds, like music.  Not that it mattered much at the time, because computers in that period didn’t have enough storage or processing power to really play anything longer than a few seconds in length.  It wasn’t until nearly the turn of the century that recorded music really became plausible.

Communication

There was no “internet” when I first started with computers, at least not in the way we think of it today.  It wouldn’t become popular and well known for another two decades.  Our communication options were limited to direct computer-to-computer connections over dial-up modems at 300 baud.  The average DSL connection today is 5,000 times faster.  Sharing pictures, music, or video was totally out of the question.  Even if we could have done anything with them, the most basic images we use today would have taken days to transfer. 

With no Internet, there were no Internet Service Providers.  About a decade into my computer adventure BBSes started to pop up (bulletin board systems).  They were similar in concept to the forums we see on web sites today.  But only one or two people could be connected at a time, and all conversations stayed within the confines of a single BBS, which meant you could really only talk to other people in your local telephone calling area.  World-wide communication was nonexistent.

Peripherals

The inkjet printer didn’t become available until I had been involved in computers for more than a decade.  Most of us, if we had a printer at all, used only dot-matrix models (the really noisy and slow printers that are nearly extinct today).  Instead of replacing ink cartridges we replaced inked ribbons.  I used to have to save up my allowance and wages from my paper route to be able to afford either one.  Color printing was unheard of for the first decade, and even then it was pretty much limited to colored text.  Printing graphical images was, let’s say… pathetic.

Mice were nearly unheard of for the first decade I was working with computers.  They didn’t become common on IBM PC compatible computers until Windows became common another 5 years after that. 

Digital cameras were still more than 20 years away from becoming available commercially, and 25 years away from being known to the public.

The idea of a display monitor was actually something materialized during my time with computers as well.  Previous to that, either punch cards, or line printers (with keyboards), or more recently than that, an integrated terminal that had both a display and a keyboard were used.

Scanners were virtually nonexistent.  Networking was virtually nonexistent as well.  Affordable wireless networking was more than 25 years away.

Surprisingly, keyboards haven’t changed that much.  In fact, the keyboards we had on many of those first computers were better than the ones we use today.  The only thing that has changed significantly about them is the addition of ergonomic layouts, and specialized keys for multimedia functions.  Oh, and wireless is relatively common.

CD-ROM drives didn’t come about for about 15 years.  DVD was two decades away.

Portability

The first “portable” computer I used was the original Compaq Portable, released in 1983 (this was how Compaq got their start).  It weighed 28 pounds.  But that was 6 years after I started programming; prior to that there were no “portable” machines. 

The first computers we considered “laptops” were nearly two decades away.  The idea of something like a netbook or iPhone even would have been science fiction.

Computers Introduced In My Lifetime

Actually, I should clarify that section title a bit.  These are all computers that have been released since I first got involved in the field.  I actually remember when most of these were released, or at a very minimum, I remember using them when they were still very new.

  • Apple II (1977)
  • IBM PC (1981)
  • Apple Macintosh (1984)
  • Atari 8-bit series (1979) and ST series (1985)
  • Commodore PET (1977), 64 (1982) and Amiga (1982)
Operating Systems
  • MS-DOS
  • Mac OS
  • Windows (all versions)
  • Mac OS X
  • Linux

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Free Computer Remote Access

Every once in a while I feel a little guilty for not sharing knowledge of a great product or service with others.  So here’s one of those products that I use daily.

You may have heard of GoToMyPC in radio or podcast advertisements, but if you haven’t, it’s software that allows you to remotely connect to and use your computer when you are away from home/work.  You see your desktop, and use the computer just as if you were sitting right in front of it. 

While GoToMyPC does work, it has a monthly subscription fee.  There is solution from another company which I believe is just as good with a totally FREE version available.  It’s called LogMeIn, available at www.logmein.com.

They do have paid services that upgrade the capabilities of the software, but the free version is more than capable of usable remote access.  It is very easy to use, and it doesn’t require you to reconfigure your network settings or router.  All you need to do to connect to a remote computer is to log on to their web site, click the name of the computer, and enter your username and password.  That’s it!

So if you need to use your computer while away, or want to help someone with a computer problem, install LogMeIn.  It works great, and the FREE version is excellent.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cool Product: Universal Remote Control

With so many electronic devices, I struggled for years to find a universal remote control that actually works with all (or at least most) of my devices that is still easy to use.  I couldn’t tell you how many I have bought, only to despise them a few days later.

A year ago I was visiting my parents, looking for a universal remote that would work for their entertainment system, and decided to try the Logitech Harmony Xbox remote.  (The only things ‘Xbox’ about it are the white color and four buttons that match the A, B, X, and Y buttons on the Xbox controller; it doesn’t require an Xbox to work.)  It turns out, I loved it!  So when I returned home I bought one for myself.  And it worked great for my system as well... it controlled every one of the 14 components in my home theater setup perfectly, from DVD player to projector.  Just a month ago a higher end model went on sale at a fraction of its original price, so I bought two of them: one for home theater, and one for my bedroom. 

The Harmony remotes are different than other universal remotes.  Instead of just being a bunch of remotes in one box, they work on a different idea altogether: using intelligence to control devices based on the activity you are trying to perform.  With traditional universal remotes, you might have to go through a sequence of buttons to watch a DVD:

  1. Select TV mode on remote
  2. Press Power to turn TV on
  3. Press Input button multiple times to select the appropriate input on your TV for your DVD player
  4. Select DVD mode on remote
  5. Press Power to turn DVD on
  6. Press Play to start the DVD

With the Logitech Harmony series, this is reduced to:

  1. Press the Activities button.
  2. Press the Watch a DVD button.

That’s it!  The remote turns your TV on, sets it to the right input, turns on the DVD player, and starts playing the disc.  It’s much, much easier than using separate remotes or even a single traditional “universal” remote.

Programming the remote is actually pretty easy.  It connects to a computer via a USB cable and you use Logitech’s software to set it all up.  So there is no punching in weird 5-digit codes into the remote to get it working.  Everything is done in an easy step-by-step wizard on your computer.

The remotes do tend to be kind of expensive, but they are totally worth it, and there are cheaper ways to get them.  Refurbished remotes are available online, and you can always pick them up from eBay.  I actually like last year’s line better than the current lineup, so getting a refurbished, old stock, or used model might actually be better (the 720 model I recently got seems to have the best combination of features).

So there you go.  If you have more than a handful of components in your entertainment system, I highly recommend getting a Logitech Harmony remote to control it all.  You won’t have to remember how you’ve got everything hooked up, and don’t have to remember complicated sequences of button presses to control your devices.  The remote does all of your thinking for you.

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