The Promised Technology Post

Having had a week or so to play with the new toys, I have some experiences to write about.

Toy #1 is a 1 Tb hard drive. Yes, we do have that much data. I generate data like crazy for work, and Kevin needs regular backups because he has so much trouble with flaky hard drives. (I’ve never had a hard drive go bad on me. Both of us use Dells. My machines are all Latitudes, his are all Inspirons. This may be significant.)

So, yes, we have a 1 Tb drive. The price of storage is ridiculous these days. So much so that we bought a mirrored RAID drive. Most importantly, however, it is a network drive. It plugs into the Ethernet switch, and all of our PCs can see it. This is very useful. So far the drive is behaving fine, though Kevin has discovered that the backup software is painfully slow.

Toy #2 is a new netbook. The little Acer Eee is very cute, and it has been useful to have a Linux machine to play with, but really I need something that is capable of running all of the software I use in my daily work, and that means Windows. I was thinking of getting a Lenovo, but once in Fry’s I got distracted by an Acer Aspire. It is what the magazines have started to call a “lapbook” – something that is almost netbook-sized, but has all of the power of a laptop. Really? Yes, really.

So for $400 (plus tax) I got a little machine that’s not that much heavier than the Eee but which has a 160Gb hard drive and 2Gb of RAM. The only major things my laptop has that the new machine doesn’t are a DVD drive and a dual-core processor. I’m impressed.

Of course there is one thing I had to have with the new machine that the laptop doesn’t have: Windows 7. I am very relieved to report that after a week or so of use it hasn’t done anything horrible. As usual, Microsoft has hidden a bunch more of the controls, and moved others to obscure places, as part of their on-going plan to make Windows impossible to configure without hiring trained technicians, but the software itself works. There was no problem hooking up our printer, or putting the Aspire on the network. All of the applications I have installed work (including Eudora which I was quite worried about). When installing iTunes I discovered that I actually have the 64-bit version of Windows 7, so I’m even more impressed that the old software all works.

So far, so good. I think I will be able to travel lighter when I go to conventions from now on. Indeed, I took both the Latitude and the Aspire away for Thanksgiving, but only used the Aspire. My primary concern is that the screen on the Aspire is a lot smaller. The resolution is excellent, and due to extra width I probably get more data on screen, but I think I may have to upgrade my glasses, and that could cost as much as the Aspire.

Running Errands

Sunday is generally housework and errands day here. That includes maintaining the technology. Where other people might clean the car, we work on the electronics. So today we have been to the Toy Shop (otherwise known as Frys) and spent lots of money on gleaming technological goodies, including a 1 Tb drive with a RAID mirror for serious backup of my work-related data. More on not-so-superfluous technology later, but this post is actually about food.

On long shopping trips (which we still haven’t finished, we just came back to dump some stuff and collect something we had forgotten) we tend to end up eating out. Inspired by this chart, and by the enthusiastic recommendations of Damien G. Walter, we headed for In-n-Out Burger. As burger bars go they actually are quite good. To start with they are, as far as I know, the only burger chain in the USA that does not try to force you to eat Evil Dill Pickle. Everything is cooked to order, including the fries which are actually chopped up from real potatoes in the restaurant rather than being extruded and frozen in a factory. The fries have been cooked in 100% vegetable oil (trans-fat and cholesterol free) since 1948, and you get a packet of salt rather than having them come pre-salted. So all-in-all I would say that Damien is right to be enthusiastic about them, even if they are burgers.

If this seems horribly un-American, well this is California. Also their cheeseburgers are infinitely extensible. The menu includes a single and a double, but the cash registers are programmed to allow you to add as many extra patties and cheese slices as you like. Naturally this has tempted some college students to try to set records that would daunt even Mike Gatting.

Mine, But Not Mine

One of the main annoyances of changing computers is that there is always some piece of software that you desperately need, and own legally, that you can’t transfer from one computer to the other.

I’ve been spending much of the day working on World Fantasy Con. That happens to require the ability to make PDFs. Guess which piece of software I can’t move from the dead computer? Right. Acrobat. I have an install disk for that, and the disk is in California.

It gets worse too, because I also have a copy of Nuance’s PDF Converter. I have the install for that. But I can’t find the darn serial number. That’s probably in California too. I even know where to look for it. But Kevin is not at home right now so I can’t get him to look.

So I have two pieces of software that I legally own and are capable of doing a job I need doing, but I can’t use either of them.

Fortunately I still have other options. This is just wasting my time.

And yes, I hate DRM too.

Murphy Strikes

Last night the screen on one of my laptops died. The computer appears to be otherwise OK, and I certainly haven’t lost any data. The machine may even work fine with an external monitor — but I don’t have one to hand. What I am losing, however, is lots of time.

This could not have happened at a much worse time as I have a heap of things I must do before leaving for World Fantasy in just over a week. It all can be done, but I now need to spend time getting my software development machine configured for all of the communication jobs that the dead machine used to do. Also software development takes up a lot of machine resources, so I won’t be able to keep things like email and Twitter open all day like I used to.

So apologies in advance if I am less communicative that usual over the next couple of weeks. The funny noise you can here is me grinding my teeth in frustration.

Hey, but at least I get to buy a new computer, right?

Computers Should Be Easy

One of the things I use the Asus for is listening to radio over the Internet, specifically Test Match Special. Yesterday it stopped working. The BBC site told me that it now requires a more up to date version of Adobe Flash. Quite why you need Flash to play radio is a mystery to me, but there it was: no Test Match Special unless I upgraded.

Now bear in mind that the Asus is supposed to be targeted at general consumers. It has a nanny interface to protect them from anything awful like command lines. So doing the upgrade should be easy, right?

Ha!

The Asus does actually have a built in software upgrade system. But the Flash player, probably because it is a plugin not a stand-alone application, is not handled by that. You have to upgrade it manually.

When you get to the Adobe site it can detect that you have a Linux system but not which flavor of Linux. You have to know that yourself. The Asus, because it protects you from the O/S, doesn’t have any simple means of telling you which upgrade file you want.

Google is my friend, so I can find these things. I even found a very helpful web page explaining exactly how to go about installing the upgrade, which requires you to open a command line interface — you can’t do it from the GUI. Unfortunately the instructions don’t work, probably because the standard Asus boot doesn’t log you in as an Administrator (you get permissions errors).

All of these things are, of course, solvable. Given enough time I can research the problem online and get it sorted. But what I want to know is, how is someone who hasn’t spent 30 years programming microcomputers supposed to cope with this?

Some Computer History

Today’s Silicon.com has an article about the plight of Bletchley Park, the UK intelligence installation where much of the code cracking effort took place during WWII (thanks in part to the efforts of Alan Turing). The mansion at the park has been undergoing restoration because, well, it is a stately home, and Britain loves its stately homes. But the actual sheds where the geek guys did their work are in a dreadful state, and to make matters worse contain a fair amount of asbestos.

Hopefully this is one of those things that an IT company might step up and help with, although in today’s economic climate no one has a lot of cash to throw around. Meanwhile, as usual, the park’s management is asking for help from individuals. More details from their web site.

Common Sense on Conficker

In the run-up to April 1st I saw quite a bit of fairly hysterical coverage of the Conficker worm. Much of it appeared to be written by journalists who didn’t have much of a clue, or by concerned IT workers with limited communication skills. One of the things that most of these articles lacked was clear and reliable directions as to how to find out if you were infected. Sometimes us old folks who have been playing with PCs for decades are quite useful, and today my feed reader popped up Jerry Pournelle with some simple and sound advice. In particular he pointed to this web page, which uses an ingenious test to tell you very quickly whether your computer is infected or not.

The map of infections is fascinating as well. It is probably a very good proxy for a map of where in the world lots of people are online.

So Much for Privacy

There’s an interesting article about government databases in today’s Guardian. According to a report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, a political reform charity, out of 46 major government databases studied, 11 are in direct contravention of existing privacy and human rights legislation, and a further 29 need remedial work to bring them up to standard. You can find the complete report here.

Amongst the databases identified as currently illegally operated are the National DNA Database, the National Identity Register (intended to become the basis for an ID card system) and a system that allows data to be shared with law enforcement agencies in other EU countries without proper checks. Also on the list is the NHS Detailed Care Record, which apparently allows NHS staff to annotate patient records without any control or accountability. And perhaps most worrying of all, ContactPoint, a national index of all children in Britain which appears to be being used to highlight “problem” citizens from a very young age. From the Guardian article:

The report says children in particular are placed at risk. Three of the largest databases set up to support the young are failing to achieve their aims, it says.

Terri Dowty, of Action on Rights for Children, said young people had never been so measured, graded, monitored and discussed; the level of intrusion could not be “justified on the basis of good intentions”.

So basically what Britain is doing here is creating a sophisticated surveillance society by stealth under the excuse that it is “protecting” children. As kids people have few rights, and by the time they grow up it will be too late – the government will already have extensive data about them, much of which is liable to be wrong, and which they probably won’t be able to challenge.

Cory, where are you?

One Early for #ALD09

Christine Burns has published a podcast interview with computer pioneer Lynn Conway, who talks about life at Xerox Parc and the work she did in developing VLSI technology for the design of computer chips.

In case you haven’t worked it out, ALD09 is this year’s (and hopefully the first of many) Ada Lovelace Day, dedicated to the celebration of women in technology. There will be more from me on Tuesday.

Got There At Last

So now I have a functioning webcam, after almost two days of messing about with software. Really, it shouldn’t be this hard, but often it is. The trouble with having an open architecture is that you are at the mercy of whatever crap third party developers produce, and nothing ever works with anything else.

The reason I needed a webcam is not because I wanted to be living in the future and have a video phone, but because Kevin needs to pack up and/or throw away a bunch of my stuff and we need to collaborate to make sure that the right things go to the right places. He got a webcam for $20 on Sunday and it worked straight out of the box. I ended up spending £20, had to take that back because it didn’t work, and ended up with something from Creative that had a nightmare software installation process. It kept hanging trying to install the user guide – how hard can it be to copy a PDF? And once installed it did a version check and downloaded new copies of everything and ran the install again. Now, at last, everything seems to work. And I need to earn some money by cutting some code.

Ada Lovelace Day

Here’s something I found through Facebook.

I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.

Can’t be too hard, eh? Except that the campaign was launched on January 5th and it still only has 774 people signed up (775 when my pledge gets authorized). I suspect this is because it was started by someone in the UK and consequently hasn’t hit the female IT community in the USA yet. So let’s get moving, eh? I’m sure that I have a lot of tech workers amongst my readership.

Oh, and if anyone knows of specific people you think I should write about, let me know. It might help give other people ideas too. While this started in IT it doesn’t have to be limited to programmers. Any technology field will do.

The campaign’s web site is here, and the Facebook event page here. Go to it, people. And spread the word.

Women in IT

A UK-based IT magazine that I follow has been doing a survey of the state of the industry. One of the questions that it asked was, “Does the IT industry discriminate against women?”

Personally I thought this was a no-brainer, but apparently the largest number of respondents was in the “don’t know” category. Amongst female respondents, 41% were in the “agree” or “strongly agree” categories, while amongst male respondents 46% were in the “disagree” or “strongly disagree” categories. Gee, I wonder why that could be?

Mostly, however, I am depressed to see a supposedly professional piece of journalism in which 44% is described as “a majority”. This does not exactly fill me with confidence in the survey.

Sausage Making

I spend a fair amount of time making and running computer models. For the purposes of what I’m going to say it really doesn’t matter what the models are modeling. Kevin’s job involves making and running models too, they are just models of different things. But one thing is true of all models: they are not the same as the thing that they are actually modeling. They contain assumptions and short cuts and the like.

When you work in modeling, every so often you will come across a client who is suspicious of your model and wants to know more. This often leads to awkwardness, because models are like sausages: the more you know about how they are made, the less wholesome they appear. So you get a conversation that goes something like this:

Client: “These two pork sausages are different. They both taste the same, but they look different to me. Explain to me how they are made so that I can understand why they are different.”

Modeler; “OK, if you really want to know…” [and launches into an explanation of the sausage-making process].

Client: “Eeeuuw! You mean to say that you killed and cut up a pig to make these sausages?”

Modeler: “Well, not me personally, but they are pork sausages. That’s what pork is: dead pig.”

Client: “Well I’m not having it. Bring me some pork sausages that don’t contain dead pig instead.”

And it is not use complaining that pork is pork and you can’t make it without killing pigs. The client is always right, and must have what he asks for.

So yeah, I do get into conversations like this sometimes. So does Kevin. So does everyone who runs computer models.

Unfortunately sometimes the person who doesn’t want dead pig in his pork sausage is not the client, but the CEO. And that, I suspect, has a lot to do with how banks manage to get their financial modeling wrong.

Quantum Encryption Goes Live

A group of computer scientists in Vienna have built a computer network that uses quantum encryption for its security. And it is not a lab toy. There is some 200 km of fiber optic cable linking six locations in Vienna and a nearby town. Impressive stuff. And allegedly unbreakable security.

Update: Apparently the “unbreakable” security has been cracked already. Stories here and here. And apologies to DrJon for our spam trap having eaten his comment.

XP Gets (Another) Lifeline

Microsoft has announced that hardware manufacturers will be allowed to continue selling “factory downgraded” XP boxes for another 6 months from the previously expected deadline of January 31st next year. They will also allow such machines to be sold online. I don’t think I’ll be needing another new PC in that time (or rather I could do with one for work, but I don’t have the money or the room for it), but it is nice to know that I won’t be forced to upgrade to Vista should I have to buy one. Consumer power at work.

Translation Entertainment

Over dinner I have been watching the rugby match between the Ospreys and Ulster. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a game. Ulster were shut out and leaked 6 tries. But it was hugely entertaining. Why? Well it was on S4C, and as neither my mother nor I speak much Welsh we had the English language subtitles enabled. I have no idea how this is being done, but it is being done very badly. For example, when a possible try went to video replay it was pretty obvious that what the commentators had said was, “Ryan Jones thinks he’s got it,” but the subtitles said, “Ryan Jones thinks he’s God.” And then there was the point where the subtitles came up with, “The obvious thing to do is arrange loans to pass the ball to Shane Williams.” I knew rugby salaries were on the up, but I didn’t know that Shane had become that expensive!

Given that the subtitles often got the players’ names wrong (“James Fox” for James Hook, “Gamin Henson”) I suspect that there is some voice recognition software in there somewhere. I think what is happening is that someone with a Welsh accent is translating what the commentators say on the fly, and that audio feed in being put through voice recognition software that was trained on American accents. Either that or the whole thing is being done by a troupe of enthusiastic but very confused monkeys.

Back to Normal

One thing I could experiment with while my main laptop was busy doing work stuff was the wireless modem. I took the laptop offline, swapped the modems, and fired up the Asus. It found the Internet just fine. So I re-enabled wireless networking on the laptop, and lo, all is well. Conclusion: probably some incompatibility between the AVG firewall and the hardware firewall on the old modem. Normal service has been resumed. Don’t all boo at once.

Web Weirdness Update

The problem with Google that I reported yesterday is not (directly) Google’s fault, it is a firewall issue. If I disable my (AVG) firewall then it goes away.

Quite why this is happening is another matter. Firewalls can have this effect. There was a Windows update back in July that broke ZoneAlarm. This may be a similar issue. It only affects a handful of web sites that I have tried, but one of them is MLB.com so if this is a new problem I suspect we’ll be hearing a bit about it. OTOH, if it only affects people in the UK, or it is because my local system has got screwed up, than I’m on my own.

I think the next thing to try is uninstalling and re-installing AVG. Then maybe updating to 8.0, which is apparently free. But I can’t waste time doing that (or sorting out the wireless modem0 while I have urgent work projects to complete. In the meantime, if anyone else in the UK is having similar problems, let me know.

Which Country Am I In?

It was raining in the Bay Area when I left. When I got to Heathrow the weather was like California only about 10 degrees colder. I am confused.

I had a really smooth trip. The flight went fine. Passport control and baggage claim were very smooth – the move to Terminal 1 seems to have been good for United from that point of view. And then I just walked on and off trains in sequence managing the whole journey back to Darkest Somerset in a little over 3 hours from touchdown.

Settling back in has not been so smooth. My wireless modem may have given up the ghost. Fortunately I have a (non-wireless) backup so I could still get online. I’m mostly caught up, but I can’t go through my blog feeds because Google’s UK site appears to be offline. I always log into google.com as a matter of course, but when I’m in the UK that automatically redirects to google.co.uk, and that site is down. Or at least I can’t get to it. Very odd.