25 January 2012

Some thoughts on computers

I've been into computers since the card era.  Not the smartcard, RF card or adapter card era, but that era which featured paper cards with data grids on them that were either punched or had a reader that would accept pencil filled in rectangles... that you filled in with a pencil.  My first computer interface was a paper-fed terminal.  My first computer language that I learned the basics of in 7th grade was APL.  Yes, I've been around to see a few things change, and gone are the days when the teacher said that you only got so many sheets of paper to do your work per month... and then my dad would bring in boxes of used terminal paper from his workplace as they only used the lined and colored back part of the sheets.  Amazingly at the end of the month I was the only one still using the terminals.

From time-sharing on a mainframe to my first almost PC to the first PC and then through the 386/485/Pentium eras all the way to today's quad core, LED display monsters with terabytes of drive space and gigabytes of memory, I have been around the block a bit on computers.  I am not, of necessity, retro on my computer use but it is purpose driven.  Purpose driven use concentrates on certain aspects of computing, such as document creation or gaming.  Back in the day it was document creation that drove the early days of computing for office use, and the gamers had to adjust to the advances that getting simple work done on a computer drove as it was the marketplace.  That changed just around 2000 and now the gamers and, increasingly, entertainment use of computers drives displays, memory and storage.  This means that usability has gotten much, much, much better from the paper terminal days and the systems are pretty 'user friendly' and have been for awhile.  Yet, because I have limited uses for computers, mostly in the document creation and research areas, that means that a stock, out of the box computer or Operating System comes with all of the fun, glitzy, entertainment stuff turned on.

Growing up through the era of the early PC and early Internet means that there are some credos and maxims that exist for computers that haven't changed much, although a few have changed greatly.  I'll go over a few of those as a personal look at computers, overall.

The first great maxim of computers from the mid-1980's to just a bit after 2000 has been: the computer you want always costs $2,500.  Add in an extra $500-$1,000 if it was a laptop.  For a few short years between 2001 and 2005 that dropped to $1,500 and it was in this era that the gamers finally took the lead at high end computing and office document generation dropped off the screen.  For general office work without glitzy presentations, you can get a computer at $300 that will do absolutely everything one of its mid-1990's predecessors did and much, much more.  The only thing that would be the same with this $300 Nettop or sub-notebook is the screen size, but the resolution today is much higher and the color rendition much, much better... do note you would be dropping from a 14" CRT monitor to a 10-12" LED display in that transition.

The second great maxim of computers that still holds (and may for about 5 more years) is a simple one.  The greatest resource of your computer is the screen real estate space and this dates to the Windows Icon Mouse Point concept of interface.  Your screen real estate (even in 3D) is limited and, therefore, it is the most precious commodity of a computer since it is the one that allows you to interface with it to know just what it is you are doing.  There have been a number of proposed solutions to this, but they all involve creative ways to compress or otherwise shift the use of the screen real estate while presenting more on it.  Getting a larger screen is the first and best way to increase computer functionality for a desktop machine, and while it is a pricey option, there is nothing as valuable as an extra 4 square inches of screen real estate space.  This is mandatory because of the 1960's WIMP paradigm and will not change until the interface space expands beyond the screen and nothing delivers information in such dense amounts as visual interfaces.

From Jerry Pournelle, the man doing stupid things with computers so you don't have to, comes a few key and essential concepts of computer troubleshooting.  The main one is: if it isn't the cables its the memory, and if it isn't the memory its the cables.  Most computer problems can be solved by taking out and reseating the memory and the cables of a system.  If you need to ensure good electrical contacts, use Stabilant 22A and an eyedropper bottle I got in the early '90s is still going strong today.  Unfortunately for sealed devices or those where your ability to actually get to anything beyond the memory is limited, like laptops, nettops, etc. you either have to have the basic confidence to strip something down and get it back into original condition or send it to a shop... or buy a new one.  When I was more actively building computers this set of advice meant that I could easily find the problems on a system and then ID it.  Early on I had problems with cables, and not just the low-end cheap stuff, either... and that was in the early '90s.  By the end of the '90s I had a few bad memory sticks that showed up during the era of the memory wars for pricing.  Since then has been relatively trouble-free computing, but the few problems I have had are right back at cables and memory.

Another Pournelle rule is that cruft builds up in the computer's disk system over time.  'Cruft' is left over parts of programs, bits that didn't uninstall or install properly, left over pointers in the registry that didn't go away properly, old drivers that interfere with new equipment, and the general slow scattering of data on a hard drive as bits and pieces of programs get fragmented due to poor disk maintenance on the part of the OS.  Every OS ever created has that problem, just that some have it to a lesser degree than others.  A system that slows down over time is due to cruft, and the cure is to either get a cleaning utility that will remove old parts of programs and clean up registry entries and then do a boot disk fragmentation on it, or get a back-up copy of your disk contents, wipe the disk and re-image the hard drive.  There are a plethora of things between those, including getting a new hard drive and ghosting the old one over to the new one with an optimization routine.  Depending on what you use your computer for cruft can start showing up in a few days (if you install and uninstall lots of software) or years.

Just after the beginning of the Internet era came ads.  Lots and lots of ads.  Mostly the 1-cent per click-through type that then dropped to tenths or hundredths or thousandths of a cent per click-through.  In the beginning there wasn't much to deal with, but as advertising for revenue increased the need for weeding out ads arose.  Why?  Simple: you own your computer, your screen and your screen real estate is the most precious part of your computer and if you don't want something on it then there must be a way to make it GO AWAY.  The Firefox browser has all sorts of nice add-ons for that, like AdBlock Pro and NoScript plus a few others to get rid of the tracking leeches and so forth that try to infest your browser. Users of MSIE have only recently gotten a semi-useful pop-up blocker that Firefox has had for some time, and unless you are using Avant as your MSIE shell, then you don't get much beyond that for blocking ads.  The alternative is to block the stuff before it gets to your browser via Privoxy, which has a plethora of geeky hand coding capabilities and a few free action scripts that you can modify to start getting rid of entire sub-domains of advertisements so you never, ever see them and they never, ever get to your hard drive.  For me Avant through Privoxy tends to be my main browser, but I use Firefox for a lot of work, and then things like Opera and Google Chrome to see if I can't get around user-hostile sites that don't like being weeded badly on the ad-side of things.  Basically, I don't see many ads... and when I do it is because I have temporarily gone to a direct connection or otherwise shut off the blocking capability so I can get to other content.  The moment I have the content (the wanted part) the rest goes back into place.

As I'm no longer in the gaming world of things (the rise of the FPS and the decline of my health basically leave me out of gaming now) I am not into the spinning, twirling and always there aspects of the modern OS that have started to become standard features.  Basically my computer screen real estate is devoted to simple document creation and, therefore, I don't want many features to clutter it up.  Thus there are no widgets or small apps infesting my screen real estate.  There are no transparencies enabled for the 'ooooo! neat!' of getting blurred material from around material I need to concentrate on.  I do not mind simple warnings from the status bar, and the clock there in simple text is useful.  The taskbar is small and permanent, I don't need it sliding around and out of the way or doing other fun things.  In fact I turn off anything that tries to fade in menus or otherwise do neat animations with them as when I want a menu I want it now, not in 3 seconds and when I get what I want it is to go away now, not in 3 seconds. 

As I can get around my hard drive pretty easily I have two directories I added after reading an article in PC Magazine back in the 1980's.  One is download and the other is TEMP.  When I download things I don't want an OS created place that you can't easily get to because they have decided to hide it on you, but one directly off the main drive (or data drive if I have one) called download.  Similarly if I need to expand or unzip material, or work on items they get a sub-directory in TEMP.  Over 95% of all my user generated material resides in TEMP.  And if I have to back up anything then that directory gets a priority as it is, by and large, data that I've created.  A final directory I have started to create is Programs Contained which are programs that do not get registered in the registry, run as standalones, and really should have a nice place to be contained so I can find them.  The first time I get one of those, I create Programs Contained to hold them.

I have witnessed people with their computing screen real estate taken up by documents.  Sometimes there are so many of them that it is hard to figure out where the important system level icons are.  There is a way to clean that up and it is by use of a desktop folder.  The best way is to store those documents in TEMP, of course, so they NEVER appear on the screen interface which needs to be clean so as to make it easy to use and not prone to click errors.  Simple desktop folders and saving to them would solve most of the problems, as would creating such folders and dragging and dropping the icons into them: problem solved.  But having a simple TEMP directory means you don't even have the folders to clutter your computing desktop.  And since so many documents seem to come from one or two applications, opening the application will be something that will have to be done and then finding the document you want from its place on the TEMP directory is an easier task... made easier by applications that keep a Most Recently Used list of the last 5 or 10 items you have most recently generated.  Mankind invented folders and filing cabinets for a reason, and even though I enjoy a physically messy desk, my computer desktop can be kept neat via a bit of forethought that I never have to think about again.

A good keyboard is hard to find.  I use an old clicky style that should survive through Armageddon and still work on my main machine.  For other machines... there are keyboards that aren't bad on laptops... and there are keyboards that aren't all that good, either.  If I could get a custom clicky keyboard for laptops, I would, but I can't so I'm stuck with what the designers have put on those types of machines.  I can use a mouse, touchpad, arrow keys, joystick or trackball.  I prefer a trackball since it doesn't require much motion nor actual desk space.  Mushpads...errr... touchpads aren't bad but, like some keyboards, they aren't all that good, either.  If you get the idea I have a very modern monitor, old fashioned keyboard and out of step pointing device for my main desktop computer... you are absolutely correct.

If you get the idea that I don't have much on my desktop, you are right.  In general there are a few items of necessity that end up on the desktop and they include: My Computer or just a C: drive shortcut, browser icons, one spreadsheet I use constantly, a writer application, one calculator that can do a few math shortcuts, an alarm app, and a folder of Utilities.  Bluetooth puts a couple of shortcuts I can't move on the desktop, as well, so they stay there by default.  I used to use the Quick Launch area of the task bar a bit, but have found that it is more a short-short menu of items I use a bit less often.   That's it.  The rest is a pleasant blue with high contrast to it and the smallest icons I can use for the screen resolution.  The status bar is the equivalent of the computer items of interest and letting me know that the network is connected, battery or UPS system is OK, and a very few other things to let me know things are working well.  There are a total of 12 items there and if I got rid of the Bluetooth I could move that down to 10 items.

What I know is sacrilege to many is that I also don't listen to music much any more so there are no music apps, no background music and the speaker is muted at all times.  Anything that must get through from the OS can go through speaker for beeps, very simple. 

I also don't watch much video and it is usually short items from blog presentations and if I want it I will click on it.  And if it auto-runs, well, the speaker is muted... its almost like there was a plan, there.  I do have the free software tools to do all sorts of video but they sit on my main computer mostly unused with just enough skill to do some transcoding if I need to.

I don't need a weather app as I have this thing called a 'window' that I can look outside and see what is happening.  If I want more weather related information I can go to a website.  I don't need an app to tell me it is daytime or raining, I have that capability built into this thing called a 'house'.

I also have zero RSS feeds coming in.  Yes, zero.  None.  No one is saying anything important enough to cause me to want to subscribe to them and I don't need an app on my desktop for it.

I am also on zero social media sites.  Yes, zero.  Since I have no wall to deliver messages on, I don't have that to worry about.  No Facebook, no LinkedIn and no Twitter.  If you see someone using a hashtag related to me, its not me.  I do have a cellphone, I turned it on and made one call that was free to make sure it works.  I turned it off after that.  I turn it on periodically to check its charge.  It will probably go in my medical bugout bag.

In no way am I a Luddite, and I love computers and the capability they have with them.  They are, as with any firearm or any of the woodworking equipment I own, useful tools.  A well maintained computer should last you five years before something critical goes on it.  Often it will last much longer, but the Mean Time Between Failure has you on the decreasing half of continued function that is now below 50%.  Just like you can still find Edison bulbs from the 1900's dimly glowing here and there, the majority of them didn't make it this far and out of the thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps million or two of them produced you now have a few left and their MTBF still holds.  Like any tool it is best when it is suited to your purpose and requirements and does what you want it to do... not what some marketer decided would be a neat thing to put on your desktop.

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