Friday, September 28, 2007

computers: Thinkpad dock, applications, Norton

The new Thinkpad T61 laptop computer for my domestic partner other significant arrived. It's quiet and well-designed.

Its dock is great. Unlike port replicators that require drivers to route signals, the Thinkpad actually brings out the wires, so it's purely hardware and the external video can run at high resolution. Push a button, turn a key and the keyboard, mouse, monitor, printer, microphone, speakers, and Ethernet on the desk all connect/disconnect when you dock/undock.

Getting Vista to cooperate with my network and other computers was so awful that I blogged it separately.

I copied over my Dreamweaver and Fireworks applications and pasted in their registry settings, but they complain about missing libraries and fail to export files. The applications that migrated flawlessly were Mozilla SeaMonkey e-mail+browser and Bitpim phone sync, both open source. Simply download the latest version of the app, install it on the new computer, and copy over one data directory. All the effort commercial software companies waste on license checking, registry keys, and serial numbers doesn't add any value to their product and makes it hard to migrate.

The Norton Internet Security that Lenovo provided fought me all the way. Its firewall rules allows "local" file sharing, but its idea of "local" is to hardcode some common private network addresses that routers use by default (192.168.1, 192.168.11, etc.). However I had set my router to a non-standard network address for compatibility with work. Is Norton smart enough to determine or ask you what your local network's address is? Is Norton's configuration able to label an address range as "my home network" so you can reuse it in rules without having to manually change every single one? Will Norton prompt you when its general rules block Windows operations? No, no, damn you Symantec, NO! Networking just fails and you waste hours checking cabling and routers and other computers.

Lenovo has some additions to Vista that just confuse things. Their network security lets you enable/disable "Windows firewall", but it seems Norton Internet Security's firewall runs anyway. They have a network places manager, but it mostly confuses things with another network icon in the system tray. They have a Thinkvantage security center that keeps starting up, with its own upgrade service that didn't work.

Likewise, Intel graphics adds its own monitor control. So there's the Thinkvantage software to choose a layout when you plug in an external monitor, Intel's software to set up your graphics, and Vista's display appearance control panel. They're all covering the same ground! Yet their help explains their relationship to the other competing software.

If this were Linux open source, Intel and Lenovo would modify and extend Microsoft's O.S. code for network management and multiple monitors, they wouldn't have to reinvent it. Any improvements or bug fixes they make would show up in the core software, benefiting everyone.

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computers: a Vista of pain

I'm sure Microsoft Windows Vista is OK if you have no other equipment, or if everything else you have is less than three years old. Getting Vista to work on my mixed network and with my existing software has been awful:
  • gratuitous DHCP incompatibility with older routers
  • switch to Link-Layer Topology Discovery broke Network Neighborhood
  • Windows XP can't see printer attached to Vista.
  • stupid incompatibility with NTLM v1 authentication broke file sharing with NAS and XP
  • older USB drivers won't install
  • HP scanner incompatible (a $40 third-party driver is available)
  • Office 2000 mail merge broken
  • Windows Address Book change breaks Outlook 2000
There are hacks and registry settings and workarounds for most of this, but it was a miserable four day slog and I seriously considered demanding a downgrade from Lenovo. However, Microsoft will drop XP eventually so you suffer the upgrade incompatibility pain now or suffer it later.

Other software and hardware vendors go along with the gratuitous incompatibilities Vista introduces, because it's their big chance to sell new hardware and software. Gratuitous obsolescence hurts consumers but companies love it.

Compared with XP, Vista is slow to boot and slow to go in/out of standby. The Thinkpad has 2GB of memory and a fast drive and doesn't seem to have a lot of crapware on it, so I blame the O.S.

So far the only nice thing about Vista is its additional metadata fields. A view of a folder full of images can track the date taken and camera details and has tags and star ratings, so you don't need an image manager like Canon's ZoomBrowser. The Aero "show windows" feature is way less functional than Mac OS X's Expose.

I should have upgraded to a Linux distro.

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a FLOCK TORT NECKET invitation to adultery

Kendra, also known as Tami Leon (but receiving mail as MonroeRemsen), sent the following to BartholomewStark (but blind-copied me as well):
Subject: Is sex okay with someone else if your separated from your spouse?

Hello i'm Kendra
I'm 24 years old
I saw your profile online and I like what I read
Reply to me if you want to chat
I will send a picture and some of my information right away if you reply
Thank you


Her naive affection is cute despite her unfamiliarity with the apostrophe required in "you're separated". But over half her message is dedicated to overwhelming spam filters. What idiot responds to this anonymous drivel? And how are spammers coming up with these non-words, are they using a search engine or a word generator? And where's the money in sending this spam, it doesn't sell me a product or infect my computer.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

computers: saying NO to the Office tax with Google Docs

There have always been free alternatives to Microsoft's huge bloated expensive Office suite, particularly OpenOffice.org.

I don't use them because apart from programming in Eclipse I create my documents on the Web (like this one). If I need to send out a paper letter, I use Wordpad.exe.

So what do you do if someone sends you an Office document as an attachment? Wordpad will sort-of open a Microsoft Word .doc file, but an Excel .xls or PowerPoint .pps/.ppt is meaningless. Of course, no one should be sending attachments, since as Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, said in Upside magazine 10 years ago:
I'm trying to ban e-mail attachments. I just want an ASCII e-mail.
If you want to show me something, put it in a Web page, publish it,
give me the URL, and I'll look at it. That's the new model.
You can't stop others from sending you Office files, so most people give up and buy a copy of Office.

Enter another killer free service on the Web from Google, Google Docs. You can upload any of those file formats to it, or you can create a document/spreadsheet/presentation from scratch. More importantly, you can publish any file in Google Docs to the Web so other people can view it, comment on it, or even collaborate on it from their browser. The file format becomes irrelevant. No more sending a document back and forth in e-mail with lots of comments.

Next time you think you need to send an Office document to other people, put it on docs.google.com or create it from scratch there, and send them the link.

Just as YouTube is slowly but surely killing off the inefficient approach of e-mailing huge video files to share with friends, Google Docs should kill off e-mailing large jokey PowerPoint slide shows around. As a demo, here's a slightly naughty PowerPoint joke thing I received as an attachment, now on the Web at http://docs.google.com/Present?docid=dcvvrqtp_6c3vccz&fs=true.

I know it's hard to believe, so I'll repeat it:
You DON'T need Microsoft Office on your computer
Donate the $200 to charity.

Update There are other free Web-based applications besides Google Docs. Here's the same PowerPoint presentation in Zoho's "Show" app: http://show.zoho.com/public/skierpage/Oneofthosedays.pps

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Monday, September 17, 2007

ideas: interactive DVD credits

Movie credits roll on and on, often taking three pop songs to complete. They're often illegible on a standard-res TV.

Imagine if instead you could highlight any credit, and pressing a button would jump to a point in the film.
  • For cast you would see a key scene with the actor, as some credits already show non-interactively.
  • For technical crew you would see that person's highlight scene. No more wondering "What scene did CoolFXHouseFunkyFresh animate?" or "Why is Hollywood Animal Trainers credited when there were no animals?", you'd see it.
  • For songs on the soundtrack you'd jump to the point in the movie where the song plays.
That last one would be especially useful. Often I see songs in the credits that I have no recollection of hearing during the movie. I'm not going to replay the whole movie just to check out a song that might only play for two bars.

Everyone working on the movie gets more recognition for their work, soundtrack songs are better promoted which translates into more sales, and the credits are far more interesting and informative for viewers. A win all around.

Based on my limited understanding of DVD authoring, it would be hard to implement this as the movie credits scroll. It would be easy to do it as an interactive Credits menu, it's just like the Scene Selection menu on DVDs. You could also do a non-interactive credits extra where as each name rolls by, a scene from the movie displays.

If movie playback had a scripting interface (another idea coming soon), then you could play movie snippets under scripting control from a nice HTML or Flash interface . That interface would also avoid the stupid problem of illegible movie credit fonts.

This idea is worth ONE MILLION DOLLARS, but I release it to the world for free.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

computers: love the one your with

The computer industry has created the meme "Computers get slow and gunky after 20 months or so". I know lots of people who buy a new laptop every year or two because, well, that's just the way it is.

Of course that's completely untrue. Run anti-virus, uninstall programs you're not using, run a spyware remover, disable startup programs and services that don't seem to be important (note how these tasks are progressively harder for the average user) and your computer should work for years. I ran a Macintosh 128 with the "kitchen-table memory upgrade" for a decade.

After 8 years, we're replacing a Pentium III 500 Mhz desktop machine.
  • It needed more disk space. 10GB just isn't compatible with today's mega-bloated programs.
  • Contacts search in Outlook 2000 started mysteriously crashing and nothing fixes it.
  • Although the key program SeaMonkey (the latest iteration of the Netscape all-in-one browser and e-mail) works perfectly, lots of utilities and new versions didn't run well on Windows 98 SE, e.g. Photoshop Elements.
  • Network sharing and printing between Windows 98 SE and XP is slow and unreliable.
  • Most importantly, Windows 98 SE isn't getting updates and patches. Most security vulnerabilities are in the browser but occasionally the bad guys find holes in the operating system.
I could have performed surgery to address all of these, starting with the hard drive, but when you're that many generations behind, the software/hardware/documentation to upgrade your old computer is itself out-of-date and unsupported.

So an IBMLenovo Thinkpad T61 with ultra mini-dock is on the way. The hard decision was whether to go with Windows XP or Vista Home Premium. Cnet's laptop buying guide recommended Vista Home Premium. We'll see...

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