Archive for the ‘Computers’ Category

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Yes, this is how I spend my weekday nights: loading new operating systems, just to see what they look like.

I know, I know. You envy me. You wish you were me. Everyone does.

Anyway, for quite a while now I’ve considered abandoning Windows (especially after the fugliness that is version 8), and one of the alternatives I’ve been considering is some flavor of the Linux operating system. There is a lot to like about linux and it’s derivatives. For one thing, it’s free. It’s also stable, powerful, rarely targeted by viruses, and is supported by software that does most everything one could do on Windows, except most Linux applications are also free.

Free is good.

Anyway, a couple of years ago, my friend Richard sold me a his Linux laptop when he decided to dedicate his soul to the Cult of Mac. Since then, and quite a bit recently, I’ve been teaching myself Linux using Ubuntu, one of the many Linux derivatives. I’ve been quite impressed with what one can do (the Linux command line is like crack to someone like me, raised on DOS), but I wasn’t thrilled with the Unity desktop. It just didn’t work the way I wanted to (or was used to?). So, I decided to switch the laptop to Ubuntu’s close cousin, Kubuntu and its KDE Plasma desktop and give those a go. Installation was a breeze, and, though I’ve only used it for a few hours, I so far like Plasma quite a bit more than Unity.

(From what I’ve gathered, desktop preferences can generate flame wars in the Linux community, much like Mac vs. Windows fights. So, no offense intended — it’s just personal taste.)

The next steps will be to install the software on Kubuntu that I used on Ubuntu: Apache Open Office, Chrome (Unless the already-installed Chromium, from which Chrome is derived, lets me log into my Google account?), and a few other things. I did a clean wipe-and-install, so all this will have the benefit of forcing me to learn my way around Linux. After a few weeks of this, I might give a try to other Linux flavors, such as Xubuntu and Mint.

In case you’re wondering, the only reason I have not switched all my PCs yet is that there are still some applications I use in Windows, such as Final Draft and Roboform, for which I haven’t found adequate substitutes in Linux-land. I may have to eventually set up a means to boot Windows 7 or Linux on the same machine, as needed, so I can have access to those programs. From what I’ve read, that’s not too hairy a project.

At least it will give me something to do on a weekday night. 🙂

PS: If you were confused by the vague references to various operating systems and desktops, you’re not alone. There is an incredible family tree for Linux (being an open-source movement, it seems everyone has to make their own) and a dizzying proliferation of desktops. And, of course, they’re interchangeable. Plasma comes with Kubuntu, but I could have installed it with Ubuntu and just switched between it and Unity. Or I could (I think) install Xubuntu’s Xfce desktop over Kubuntu. Or…. You get the idea. For me, this kind of customizability is a benefit, not a problem.

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satire computer smash

Really, it won’t leave me alone.

Background: A few days ago, Amazon “upgraded” it’s Cloud Drive software, changes that very much annoyed me. A helpful individual (not an Amazon employee) on the Help Board pointed me to a way to make Cloud Drive at least stop doing the Annoying Thing. Once that problem was safely solved, I uninstalled Cloud Drive through the Win 7 control panel, planning to only access it via the web interface. Problem solved, hero gets the girl, movie ends, right?

It’s baaaaack.

Tonight, when I logged in to Windows, a message appeared asking me to log into my Cloud Drive account, and there was the Cloud Drive icon in my System Tray, just as if nothing had happened…

It. Won’t. Die.

Really. There’s no trace of it in control panel, nor can I find it installed anywhere in the program directories, but it does appear under “Favorites” in the File|Open dialog.

I never knew Amazon was in the undead virus creation business.

Anyway, I’ve posted another question to the help forum. We’ll see what comes up.

And, Amazon? I’m annoyed. Very, very annoyed.

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A bit of background: For a while I was using Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) for my offsite backup, but I decided I didn’t like having all my eggs (email, offline storage, online doc creation, photos) with one company, particularly one that has a tendency to regularly annoy me, such as…. Google.

So, when Amazon offered 5 free GBs of storage to go with my Prime account, I decided to buy 20 GB and make that my offsite backup, diversity of vendors having its attractions. All was fine until last night when I logged in after getting home and saw a message from Amazon that an upgrade was available and asking for permission to install it.

“What could go wrong,” I should have thought.

Apparently they’ve “improved” the software. Now it copies the folder structure of your Amazon Cloud Drive to your  hard drive, and then it downloads copies of all the files you’ve uploaded to that new, local “Cloud Drive.” (Yes, that’s what the top level of the new directory structure is called.) Now, if I want to upload files to the Amazon Cloud Drive, I can copy them to the corresponding folder on the local “cloud drive” and they will be synched to the server. And if I upload directly to my Amazon Cloud Drive, they’ll be synched to my local “cloud drive.”

If the downloading of all files to my hard drive struck you as odd, you’re not alone. I tested my suspicions by copying a photo I’d never uploaded to the local Cloud Drive’s “photos” folder; it was synched to the server no problem. Then I deleted the copy from the local Cloud Drive and…

It was instantly deleted from the server, too.

I tested this several times, including uploading directly to the server and letting it synch to the local Cloud Drive, and the result was always the same: If I want to keep a copy of a file on the server-side Amazon Cloud Drive, I have to keep it in the local hard drive version, too. On top of this, the original file(s) is in its original location, too, so now I have three copies!

As you can imagine, this left me thinking “Amazon, what were you thinking?”

Space itself isn’t the issue for me: I have a 1.5 TB drive that’s barely 25% full and I’ve used only 5GB of my Cloud Drive allocation, so the downloaded copies barely register.

But the whole nonsensical design annoys the heck out of me. Dropbox, a popular file-sharing/storage service, also creates a local “Dropbox” directory that then synchs to their servers. But it’s basically a fancy “copy” command — it doesn’t create a new file that must stay on your hard drive, if you want to keep the server-side copy available.

But, with this latest iteration from Amazon, they’ve wrecked any utility this has for me as an offsite backup; why would I want to backup anything to their “Cloud,” when it forces me to keep more and more duplicates on the local hard drive? I’m better off saving the money and relying on my external hard drive. (I like the dual redundancy of local and offsite backups, though.)

I wrote Amazon about this, thinking it’s a bug they’re fixing, but, no. In their reply, the customer service droid told me:

I’m so sorry to hear about the disappointment the new cloud drive application update has caused to you. When a file or folder is deleted from the Cloud Drive folder on your computer, it will also be removed from Cloud Drive.

That is more than lame. That is just stupid. Bad, bad design.

A user on Amazon’s “general help” board suggested a work-around that I’ll try tonight. But, unless Amazon fixes this, I’m looking for another offsite storage service.

PS: Amazon provides great services, but you have to wonder about their software design choices. Not just in this Cloud Drive problem I’ve described, but in the Kindle Fire, too. I love my Fire, as I’ve mentioned, but the failure to implement “collections” is just inexplicable. Or, if it is, Amazon isn’t telling anyone what the explanation is.

PPS: I forgot to mention — Soon after the installation of the new, improved Cloud Drive software, I discovered my Kindle for PC software (another Amazon product) was gone. Vanished. Utterly deleted. Now, I can’t swear the Cloud Drive installation caused the KfPC deletion, since I hadn’t used it for a few days, but the coincidence (and what I’ve heard of other glitches with Amazon software) is pretty suggestive.

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Google, never a company afraid to innovate, has decided to take it’s popular Maps site forward into the past, recreating those wonderful days when we were all playing King’s Quest on CGA monitors:

That, of course, was their Arpil Fool’s joke. Hah! 😀

Google often annoys the heck out of me as a company, but they do have a pretty good sense of humor.

PS: Speaking of King’s Quest, I really miss Sierra’s style of computer games.


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I am weak…

Okay, I’ve wanted a new laptop for a while (Hey, my current one came new with Windows 98 SE. It almost needs its own wheelchair.), but I hate taking on debt, so, even though there were some good bargains out there, I kept telling myself “no.”

Well, that ended a few minutes ago, thanks to the combination of a $500-off online coupon and easy terms from the HP online store. (Bad economies are good for something, I guess, such as companies desperate to sell.) So, for (just) under $1,000 —including California’s godawful sales tax— I will soon be the happy owner of a 17″ laptop with HD screen, 8 GB ram, 750GB hard drive , 2gb ATI video card, and i7 quad-core processor. It also has a built-in camera and mic for video conferencing, so this should be… interesting. I bought a new desktop from them last April and, so far, it’s been almost perfect.  And fast. Fast is important to me.

It’s scheduled to ship the 29th, but HP typically ships early. And still I want it now, danggit. Oh, the pain of instant gratification denied…

Now I just have to think of a name for it.

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Yet very funny. MAD TV looks at all you can do with Apple’s new iPad:


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Researchers in Israel claim to have developed a way to decipher previously unreadable ancient texts using technology similar to that of fingerprint readers:

The program uses a pattern recognition algorithm similar to those law enforcement agencies have adopted to identify and compare fingerprints.

But in this case, the program identifies letters, words and even handwriting styles, saving historians and liturgists hours of sitting and studying each manuscript.

By recognizing such patterns, the computer can recreate with high accuracy portions of texts that faded over time or even those written over by later scribes, said Itay Bar-Yosef, one of the researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“The more texts the program analyses, the smarter and more accurate it gets,” Bar-Yosef said.

I love history, and it always gives me a thrill when some lost ancient text is recovered. The possibility of a Google-like searchable database is fascinating. I can’t wait to see what this new technology uncovers.

Now watch. It will be some scribe’s shopping list. 😉

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Apple and DRM

New Macbooks prevent DRM-protected movies from being played on unauthorized monitors. Has Apple taken a stupid step backwards?

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Open Office 3.0 has been officially released. Go and download it now, and know the joys of life free from Microsoft Office and its thrice-cursed ribbons.

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Well, scratch that idea

So, I’d settled on buying the MacBook Pro. After emailing back and forth with some friends about the differences in the interface and working in a mixed WinXP/OSX environment, I decided it was worth the extra money. What finally settled it for me was remembering the increasingly invasive Microsoft “rights management” crap – I just didn’t want to deal with that.

Happily, my credit union approved my original loan request and then said that increasing it by a few hundred would be no problem. And it would make a nice tax deduction – added benefit!

That’s when life peed in my beer.

They would only give me the loan for a two-year term, making the payments too high. Given that I have excellent credit (Really, you can’t get a credit score much higher than mine.), I don’t understand why the short term. But that’s the way it is, and thus I won’t be buying a new laptop.

I hate it when reality gets in the way.

Ah, well.

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So, I’m still in the market for a new laptop. (The old one, affectionately named Talky Tina, is roughly ten years old – eons, in computer years.) My leading candidate had been a Dell loaded with Ubuntu, a flavor of Linux. I’d get a powerful, stable operating system, a wealth of free software (I’m a big fan of open-source and shareware), and it was the least expensive of the three options.

Naturally, there’s a deal-killer.

I need without question to be able to run Final Draft, which does not have a Linux version, nor does it run well in any Windows emulation under linux. So, my second choice moved to first place: a MacBook Pro.

Some people are probably gob-smacked to discover I’m even considering Apple, but they shouldn’t be. It was never the computers I objected to (other than certain interface issues, I think they’re excellent computers); rather, I’m annoyed beyond belief by the paternalistic, sanctimonious arrogance of Apple as a company and the unquestioning, slavish, cult-like devotion of so many of its fans. It’s a tool, not a lifestyle!

Ooops, getting lost in a rant there. Back on topic…

The trouble with the Apple is price: you pay a premium for the cool-factor of owning a Mac. Even with a discount through my workplace, the price for the configuration I want (I refuse to settle for less. If I have to “settle,” why buy?) comes to just over $2,200, a bit over my budget.

On the other hand, a Dell mounted with Vista in a roughly comparable configuration (including quality external speakers and a negligible savings in software-switching costs) would cost a smidgen over $1900.

There are advantages to each.

The MacBook Pro: An established, stable operating system (albeit with a lot of patches, it seems) and ease of operation. If there’s a problem, I can take it to the local Apple store.

The Dell with Vista: An operating system similar to what I use already, thus lessening the software-switching costs and shortening the learning curve (granted, I can probably pick up the “Mac way” of doing things quickly). Home warranty service. A machine that’s more than 15% less expensive. One consideration is that I could easily dual-boot it to run mostly in Ubuntu and just use Vista when I need it, such as for Final Draft.

There are disadvantages to each:

The MacBook Pro: More expensive. Interface features I don’t like. A (probably short) learning curve. Some software switching expenses, perhaps a lack of good replacement software for some programs I use. Having to be without the computer if it needs to be sent away under Apple Care. The “Apple ‘tude.”

Dell with Vista: Likely OS replacement in 2009. Vista problematic with third party software and equipment (not as bad as at first?). Microsoft’s increasingly intrusive “rights management” and monitoring. More security risks.

So, it’s up in the air. I can see good reasons to go either way, and good reasons not to. I’m truly undecided at this point. Confused

More research and thought is necessary. As is more beer. Beer mug

A bit more: Doing some research on the Ubuntu forums about experiences having both Vista and Ubuntu on the same machine, I ran across this tale of woe. A highlight quote from a Ubuntu power-user: “Egads, Vista is a nightmare. Nuke it or install XP.”

Oh, dear. Score one point for Apple.

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Adieu, mon Earl

I’ve used MS-Office since before there was an “office suite,” since the days of Word 1.0a for Windows. Yep, the days when you hoped Windows 3.0 would at least boot-up before crashing. And, I’m not ashamed to admit, I liked MS-Office. The programs did just what I needed them to do, and the wide-open architecture let me customize it to my heart’s content. I taught myself to make automated templates in Word, macro-laden spreadsheets in Excel, and a fully-functional, VBA-programmed database in Access that kept the UCLA Science & Engineering Library’s reserve system running when our computer system became one of the few genuine victims of the Y2K bug. For all its bugs and gotchas, I was an ardent advocate for MS-Office.

But, not anymore. Frankly, I hate the new version, Office 2007. They needlessly rearranged commands that had been in the same spot since the earliest days, leading me to waste valuable minutes poking around to find something I needed. The “ribbon” format is annoying as can be: toolbars were easily configurable, didn’t take up much screen space when in use, and could be detached and floated for better positioning. Ribbons are none of that. And the new document format? Just a trick to lock one into a proprietary format. I haven’t even bothered trying to learn the new programming language; it just isn’t worth my time.

While I have to use Office 2007 at work, I don’t at home. In fact, I don’t at all. I haven’t “upgraded” since Office 97. Why should I, since it met all my needs? But, it is 11 years old, and there are newer features I need. While I had considered buying a secondhand copy of Office 2003 (aka, “the last good version”), I couldn’t see spending money on an MS product that was going to be unsupported soon. So, I’ve made the switch to Open Office, which is free … and free of those damned ribbons.

The one regret I have is saying goodbye to Earl. You might recall the Office Assistants, animations that would appear (often unwanted) to offer help in some cute (to a Microsoft marketer) way. “Clippy,” an animated paperclip, was by far the most famous and most annoying. Whole web sites were devoted to calling for his death (or at least how to remove him).

In another shameful confession, however, I must admit to a certain fondness for Earl the Cat. Like the Warner Bros. cartoon characters he was clearly modeled on, Earl would engage in various amusing antics in tune with whatever commands I had given. He was my companion during late night, short deadline writing sessions and, no matter how many times that shark ate him when I closed the program, he was there waiting for me whenever I would start it again.

But his time has past, and there is no place for cartoon cats in the ultra-serious world of Open Office.

Farewell, Earl. And watch out for the shark.


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