Category Archives: Technology

Tech Envy Redux: Not The Kind You Think

I’ve written about tech envy before, and how after a while I’ll begin to feel the upgrade itch, that my current technology infrastructure just isn’t what it could be. And while it’s true I’ve been drooling over the prospect of a new computer, my current bout of tech envy is coming from an unlikely source.

When using my work computer, I find myself jealous of my 6-year-old laptop.

On the surface, this doesn’t make sense. After all, shouldn’t a brand new workstation be blowing an aging gaming system out of the water? Maybe it is, but it doesn’t often feel like it. Get a few AutoCAD drawings open, and it starts getting bogged down. And it takes a relative eternity to boot up and log in. But it’s got better specs, right? Faster processor, better graphics card, and more RAM…

It does have those things, right?

I looked into the system specs of my work computer (as one does), and was surprised to see that it doesn’t have any more RAM than my personal laptop. Admittedly, my sense of things may be a bit skewed from having to try and sell people computers at Costco, but I would have thought there would have been some progress on that front. And while the processor is indeed fancier, AutoCAD is largely a single-threaded program, so there isn’t much to gain from having multiple processor cores. The work computer has a faster processor clock speed, so that shouldn’t be an issue.  And I’m not sure if the graphics cards are comparable, since one is workstation-focused and the other is (or was, back in the day) gaming-focused.

Maybe it’s just a matter of scale, and I don’t remember getting bogged down in AutoCAD in school because I was using smaller, less complicated files. It’s definitely a possibility. But earlier I had an epiphany (those seem to be going around). Not all of my laptop is stock any more. While I made good use of the warranty while it was still available, that merely swapped parts of equal performance. There’s one upgrade I’ve done since then that wasn’t a straight swap: my SSD.

Can a solid state drive really make that much difference compared to a platter-based hard drive? Apparently it can. I do remember commenting on just how snappy things were on my laptop after the upgrade, and how slow things felt when I had to temporarily boot to the old HDD to retrieve some data. So maybe I’m just spoiled now.

Even if I am, it’s definitely something I’m going to have to remember when I get around to building my new PC. I had briefly considered skipping the SSD to save some money, but now I’m not so sure. Would I just end up lamenting that my brand new gaming baby felt less snappy than last week’s (read: half-decade’s) news? I don’t know, but it’s definitely food for thought.

Either way, being jealous of an old computer still feels weird, no matter how unlikely you are to go out and spend money as a result.

Dispatches From The Spam Front

Because it exists on the Internet, I’ve had to deal with spam comments on this blog. Some of them have been amusing, but mostly they’ve been annoying. See, the way I’ve got things set up right now is that first-time commenters (as identified by email address) are held for moderation. Once approved, they can post as many comments on as much stuff as they like. And since there generally aren’t many comments posted here, I can quite easily approve first-time posts as they come in.

Every once in a while, however, one of my posts will for some reason become a target for high-intensity spamming. There have been some posts that end up with dozens of pending comments over the course of a mere day or two. And each time a comment is held for moderation, I get an email.

So this has gotten very annoying, to say nothing about how cluttered my inbox has been getting. And while a part of me is sometimes fascinated by the ingenuity of these robotic responders, I feel the need to do something. In the past, I’ve turned off comments on individual posts as they became spam magnets, but that solution is still very much reactive rather than proactive.

Ugh, sorry, my inner motivational speaker just flared up. Gimme a minute, and I’ll get it back under control.

So where was I? Oh yeah, proactive spam prevention. I’m going to make some changes going forward, and while not many will be affected, it will definitely make my life easier. Moderation of comments will continue, since that seems to be working well, but I’ve decided to automatically turn off comments on posts older than 14 days. Two weeks should be plenty of time for people to have their say. And if it isn’t, there are other venues like Facebook and Tumblr (not that I’m on either of those much these days with the new job, but what can you do).

So hopefully this helps.

OH, one other thing: pingbacks! Does anyone have any opinions on these? There the little pseudo-comments that show up when I (or someone else) links to an article. Helpful? Annoying? Didn’t even notice they exist?

Data Maintenance Complete, Buffering Personality…

I’m not exactly what you’d call a “neat” person. My office seems to exist in a perpetual state of low-grade clutter, much to the chagrin (I’m sure) of my parents. Luckily my girlfriend and I are largely compatible on that front. But every once in a while, I’ll get the urge to clean an organize. Now, picking up the apartment, or even my office, requires effort, both temporal and physical. Organizing my digital life, however, is much more sedentary and intellectually stimulating.

It’s an odd dichotomy: the surface of my desk can be cluttered to the point that I can barely see the fake wood veneer of its surface, while my computer desktop is pristine, populated by only the most essential shortcuts and information widgets. You may wonder if I have my priorities straight, but I think I do. The virtual world, where I spend the majority of my time while at the desk, is easy to navigate and well-ordered.

This tidiness is reflected (I like to think) in my data structuring as well. For instance: while in grad school, I had a separate folder for each class, housed in a folder for each semester. Within each class folder were other folders for essays, drawings, pictures, et cetera. What you may call anal-retentive, I call basic good practice.

Why do I bring this up? Well, over the past few days I’ve been in one of my organizing moods, and have decided to tackle the goal of organizing and tagging my growing ebook collection. Largely without realizing it, I’ve managed to amass quite a digital library. Most of these acquisitions have been through various bundles (Humble, Story, and Vodo, for example), while a few have been through the fortuitous packaging of bonus CDs with library books (like the Honor Harrington series) or other sources (Cory Doctorow releases a lot of his writings for free, to say nothing of Project Gutenberg).

I’ve been using Calibre, a free/open source program, to organize my collection. It’s a pretty neat program. While most times I can just import the ebook file and be done with it, I often have to add tags that make sense to me, and sometimes have to reformat the publication metadata (author, title, etc.) manually. When properly set up, it allows me to sort between fiction and nonfiction, view series in chronological order, and even sync them to my Nexus 7 tablet for reading on the go.

Of course, all this data wizardry isn’t without its consequences.

While I didn’t spend the entire day at my computer, the afternoon has left me feeling a bit fried and out of it. One can only spend so much time in the digital realm before the physical one starts to fit oddly. I’ll step away in a bit, attempt to re-integrate myself into meatspace before my girlfriend gets home. But right now I’m having fun cleaning up my ephemeral, virtual goods.

Maybe sometime soon I’ll do the same for my browser bookmarks. I could lose entire days!

We Are Star Stuff

Hey, have you guys heard about the new Cosmos? The sequel to the original Carl Sagan PBS special, but this time hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and airing on Fox of all places? No? Well then what are you doing reading random blog posts? Go watch it now! I’ll wait.

Now I’ll admit I never watched the original series, as it was a little bit before my time. But the idea was one I can totally get behind: making science and astronomy accessible for the masses. And who doesn’t love Carl Sagan?

In that sense, the new series is a worth successor. Tyson does a good job explaining the mind-boggling scale of space and time. Although I have to wonder if I’m the true target audience. After all, there hasn’t been much presented so far that I have not been exposed to some time in the past. But then again, I suppose I’m not the “typical” average TV viewer: I’ve had training in physics and astronomy, and it’s been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. One of my greatest regrets is that I never got to see a Space Shuttle launch.

So if I’m not learning anything new, am I watching the show for anything more than the pretty visuals? Yes, actually. I absolutely love how unapologetic they are about science. The second episode, “Some of the Things That Molecules Do,” touched on the role evolution has played in the history of our planet, both through natural and artificial selection. In this day and age, when creationism is still sadly being trotted out as “science,” it’s quite refreshing to hear someone on a major network say “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact.”

And it saddens me that science is still so misunderstood and denigrated, even in the 21st century. We’re seriously still debating this? Maybe the producers were on to something when they defended their choice to air the new Cosmos on Fox, saying that (for better or for worse) the kinds of people that needed to see Cosmos weren’t the kinds to watch PBS.

So why do I watch Cosmos? Because it gives me hope, promising a more rational and scientifically-minded world. It illustrates that learning can be fun and enjoyable. It reminds us that even though we may be extremely small and insignificant on the grand scale of things, we are still a way for the universe to know itself.

And that, in all senses of the word, is awesome.

Computers and Education: Modern Era

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

Dell Inspiron 4100

The computer I went to college with. Once I decided I was going to the University of Denver, with its requirement that every incoming student have a laptop computer, I started eagerly poring through the various Dell catalogs that kept getting delivered to our house. In a fortuitous development, my parents decided they would sell the upright piano (that had been practically untouched since elementary school) in order to pay for my new computer. In other words, I was trading one computer for another.

I had a ton of fun customizing various options and configurations on the Dell website. I remember being quite excited that I could customize the color of my laptop. Unfortunately, the green panels ended up costing extra, so I went with a quite outlandish School Bus Yellow (this was also during my phase of wearing obnoxiously loud Hawaiian shirts as often as possible).

I actually still have this computer sitting on a shelf in my office. It was quite the beast when it was purchased in 2002, and actually aged fairly well. It had a whopping 512 MB of RAM, a GeForce 2 graphics card, and a native resolution of 1600×1200. The front bays were adjustable, meaning you could replace the floppy drive with a DVD-ROM or even an extra battery. Unfortunately, it did not have a built-in WiFi antenna, so I had to add an external one through the built-in PC Card slot.

I ended up using this computer for about six years, until I went back to grad school. It traveled to France with me. The battery is long dead, and the DVD drive tends to crash the computer if it’s not seated just so, but it still holds a soft spot in my heart. It was even the source of my first hard drive crash scare (TL;DR, I lost all my pictures from France, but years later was finally able to recover them).

Man, good times. Good times.

Dell XPS M1530

 

Still my current system, and the first one I had to pay for outright with my own money. I bought this one when I decided to go back to grad school, as I figured I would need a more robust system for doing things like running AutoCAD and modeling in SketchUp (to say nothing about the new games I was itching to play). Plus, I still had money at the time. So back I went to the Dell website, tweaking and customizing the specs to get the best computer I could for my money.

I think I did a pretty good job. I was able to get a staggering (at the time) 4 GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a 320 GB hard drive (how would I ever manage to fill that up?), and a nice, fast Geforce 8600 graphics card (my current gaming bottleneck). The only downside was that it came pre-loaded with Windows Vista. So the first thing I did, once it came in the mail, was take my Windows XP disc from my old laptop, format the hard drive, and install the old OS on it. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that XP didn’t have the proper audio drivers for my system hardware. I begrudgingly re-installed Vista, but XP SP3 eventually fixed that issue. I have since upgraded to Windows 7 (64-bit, to take full advantage of my RAM and GPU memory), and it’s been working great.

But like its predecessors, it’s beginning to show its age. While I definitely got my use out of the 4-year warranty (which I can heartily recommend), my hard drive started giving up the ghost. Luckily the failure wasn’t catastrophic this time, but it was still too close for comfort. I ended up replacing it with a solid state drive (which I’ve written about previously), and it feels a lot faster, which should let me squeeze a bit more life out of it. But I can feel the new tech itch already starting to build.

* * *

So there you have it: a brief account of my history of using computers for school. I know I didn’t go into much detail as to what I used each platform for, but I imagine you’ll be able to fill in the blanks. Just try to keep your mind out of the gutter, alright? I’m pretty sure my parents read this blog.

Anyway, to me, it’s less important what was done with each technological iteration as the feelings and memories each one invokes. For instance, I hadn’t thought about that Brother computer in years, and once I finally found a picture of it online, the memories came flooding back. Same with the AlphaSmart and IBM laptop.

Also interesting is how my technological upgrades have, in the past, been primarily motivated by educational needs and opportunities. Now that I’m done with grad school (and have no intentions to go back [for the moment]), it’s going to be a bit different. I’m going to be upgrading because I want to, not because I have to. As someone who sometimes has trouble doing nice things for himself, this will take some getting used to.

Does anyone else chronicle their computing history like this?

Computers and Education: Pseudo Era

I have long said that I type faster than I write. This has been especially notable when it comes to tasks that require both speed and accuracy, like taking notes in class. While it’s not uncommon these days to see a college classroom filled with glowing laptops of various sorts, using a computer for education is not a new thing for me. In fact, it started pretty much as early as Mario taught me to type. Over the course of my educational career, I’ve had the chance to use some, shall we say, interesting computing platforms.

Brother Power Note

I started using a computer to take notes as early as elementary school. The first “computer” I used in this respect was a Brother Super Power Note. I’m not sure how this brick of a computer came into my possession, probably via a family friend that had finished using it. The biggest thing I remember about it was the black-and-green LCD display, which had an odd interface that looked like a three-ring binder. I have a memory (more of a fragment, really) of me sitting at a counter along the periphery of some elementary school classroom with this thing plugged into the wall. Thus began my journey, which continues to this day, of searching for seats with easy access to power outlets.

AlphaSmart

In middle school and early high school, things improved a bit. If nothing else, the “computer as learning accommodation” thing was not as unheard of. As such, I actually got some official support from the school. This came in the form of access to an AlphaSmart, a basic word processor that wasn’t much more than a keyboard with a tiny LCD screen that showed about three lines of text at a time. It saved notes as a regular TXT file, which had to be regularly offloaded to a more capable desktop computer. My big memory of this one is of me tapping away in biology class while the other students scribbled in their big binders. That, and the odd gray-green color of the plastic housing. Since these were school property, I couldn’t really take them home, but I think my parents were able to get me one on a more semi-permanent loan.

IBM Workpad z50

The Workpad z50 was the closest thing I had to a “real” laptop in high school. It even ran a version of Windows! True it was Windows CE, but it finally included Microsoft (Pocket) Office! It was light, portable, and had a large (at the time) color screen. It still wasn’t a standalone computing platform, but it felt the closest to one I had been able to use so far. I remember having a lot of fun customizing the look and feel of the OS. I wonder what happened to this one? Last I remember, it was in the bottom of my brother’s closet, refusing to turn on.

To be continued tomorrow…

*via katmellon.com

Welcome to the Future

Greetings, citizens of the Twenty-First Century! I would beg your attention a moment before I return you to your annual holiday lamentation, for I have good news! And no, it’s not that I have discovered the exclamation point key on the board of them in front of me! Nay, I call upon you to break from whatever drudgery inflicts your do hear me, for I have joined you in your wonderful silicon utopia! That’s right, I have finally cast of the shackles of mere cellular phone technology and come into possession of a smartphone! Huzzah! Felicitations! Celebration!

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Brain Transplant – Day One

Well, since I spent pretty much my entire day off in front of my laptop installing things, let’s talk about that! Not the most interesting topic, I’m willing to admit, but my brain is kinda fried and I’m not sure how much good I am for anything else at this point.

The day started early. I’m blaming Daylight Saving Time. It’s made me paranoid, and I’m waking up feeling far too rested for as early as work drags me out of bed. Seriously, waking up an hour later feels suspiciously like missing the alarm. But, seeing as the bed was warm and the room was cold, I managed to fight the urge to get up and tinker until my girlfriend’s alarm went off.

Once I got up, I spent a few minutes puttering around my computer, making sure everything was backed up satisfactorily. Think of it as taking one last look around a well-loved apartment, touching nooks and crannies where treasured belongings once sat. I was even able to get a second opinion on my drive’s health: Ubuntu said failure was imminent as well. Finally, I buckled down and started planning out my partition table. My new SSD was smaller than my failing hard drive, so I knew I was going to have to make some compromises.

Annoyingly, even though I knew this would be an issue, an advertized gigabyte is not necessarily a computing gigabyte. Most drives are advertized rated in gigabytes that are 10^9 bytes, which makes sense in a Base 10 system. Computers, however, use a Base 2 system, and in that case a gigabyte is 2^30 bytes. Which means that my “250 GB SSD” had only 232 GB usable. Oh well, such is life.

So I shut down my computer, unplugged it, and took out the battery. I removed the old hard drive with a touch of regret. As I inserted the new SSD, I was stuck by how much lighter it felt. Since there were no moving parts, it felt almost hollow. It went in simply enough (aside from missing the connections the first try because it was thinner than the old drive, and the computer was upside-down), and I set about the task of reinstalling Windows.

It went smoothly, aside from a small scare when it wouldn’t take my product key. But then I remembered: my Windows 7 was an “upgrade disc,” so it was looking for a previous installation of Windows Vista (ugh) that wasn’t there. Luckily a quick registry edit cleared that up with no problems.

The rest of the morning was spent downloading Windows updates, how many of which I eventually lost track. Luckily I had Netflix to keep me company; my queue is (finally) that much shorter. Once those were complete I started downloading my essential programs like Firefox (one of the few things Internet Explorer is good for), Avast! Antivirus, and LibreOffice. Once these were complete, I got around to re-installing some games, notably Minecraft and Team Fortress 2. I haven’t had much time to play yet, but here’s hoping there’s not too much to do over the next few days.

You know, when I write it out like that, my day sounds really boring. But in a way it was exciting: the thrill of a fresh OS install is like a crystal clear day after a snow, where the world is quiet and there are no tracks to be seen. You tramp through it soon enough, but for a while you can blaze your own path in whatever direction you may choose.

And how are things performing so far? You know, the question I set out to answer when I started writing this entry? Well, I will say that the SSD made the multiple restarts after updates and installations much speedier. A lot of the annoying quirks from before are also gone; whether that’s because of the new hardware or less OS cruft (there are a lot of programs I just dn’t need to reinstall) remains to be seen. Things do seem to be faster, though I haven’t done much in the way of gaming yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

You know, when they’re not needed on the keyboard.

Computer Woes (and Fixes)

I’m pretty handy with computers. However, I am also a bit of a tinkerer, which means that may tend to be a bit harder on my hardware than the average user. For example: my current laptop, which is now about 5.5 years old, can triple boot into three different OSes. I’ve got Windows 7 for day-to-day use. Ubuntu is there for playing around in Linux and occasionally modifying things that I can’t do through Windows (like shifting and resizing partitions). I’ve also got Windows XP on yet another partition, that I set up in an attempt to play a single game (GTA IV, if you must know, doesn’t play well with 64-bit operating systems). I’ve even got a separate partition set up for my documents and files separate from my operating system(s).

Needless to say, my laptop’s hard drive has seen some wear and tear over the past few years. I’ve installed multiple operating systems from scratch, resized partitions, moved them, and copied a lot of data to and from it throughout grad school. So imagine my chagrin when after a restart Windows popped up with a message saying that my hard disk had failed.

Failed?

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