Why I Do Not Buy E-Books

Five reasons why I do not buy e-books:

  • You cannot buy; you license (although the Amazon page does refer to buying?)
  • Amazon deleted more paid-for books without notice after promising not to do it again
  • DRM
  • They are impermanent
  • They are often tied to a particular machine

Why I Do Not Buy E-BooksPoint 1: We can argue that nobody buys the contents of normal books, either. One only buys the physical book, but at least you do have a physical book to hold, which no one will come and take away unannounced. Which leads to…

Point 2: In 2009, Amazon deleted books by George Orwell from customers without notifying them. After an uproar, the company promised not to do it again. It did. Linn Jordet Nygaard had her account wiped clean without warning. The link tells what happened and closes with the interesting observation that one might consider ripping rather than buying. That is, the woman might have been better off as a pirate from the start! Amazon probably had good legal grounds to do what it did, but it had promised something different. At best it is a PR fiasco. Which leads to…

Point 3: How do we assure a fair return to creators of literature? In the past, publishing required a vast infrastructure that still wants to be fed, but times have changed. Copyright laws grew up when copying was pricey. Now copying is essentially free. The support industry must change, and so should its rewards. DRM was a response to free copying. One can argue that DRM is not perfect, but it is better than nothing. But DRM enshrines prohibition. Prohibition can work somewhat at great cost. Consider prostitution and recreational narcotics as counter-examples of prohibition’s effectiveness.

Remember music. The RIAA fought piracy, and it grew. The RIAA wanted prohibition. Customers did not. Steve Jobs did more to reduce piracy than the draconian measures of the RIAA when he introduced iTunes. It also is not perfect, but putting individual songs for sale cheaply (against the music companies’ desire to package albums) had a great effect. Most people would rather pay a fair price than pirate, but will turn to piracy if they perceive they are not being treated fairly.

Larry Lessig had a lot of good things to say about these issues.

Point 4: Contrary to what people think, digital is temporary. I can read hundred-year-old books and not read Apple ][ floppies. I have antique photographs anyone can access and images on an old Zip drive, which few can read. Do you think that Amazon, B&N, and Apple will provide updated e-books for free? Floppies are gone and CDs will likely follow soon. The only way to assure you have continued access to digital literature is to copy and convert to the latest format — but DRM does not permit that.

Point 5: This is a puzzling one. The policies have changed, and with cloud computing, this is probably not as big a deal as it once was, provided you are comfortable with buying a proprietary machine to read books in a proprietary format. I rebel.

Alternatives: An alternative to paying for e-books is to download public domain and other freebies, for instance, from Project Gutenberg. Some authors post their works for either free or a nominal fee. More adventurous people might consider whether making copies of copyrighted material for private backup is legal (I am not a legal expert!) and simply convert commercial e-books into an open source format without distributing. There are applications for organizing e-books that also convert between formats.

“Borrowing” e-books from a library is awkward at best and sadly humorous, but it is a viable alternative.

The most evil thing about prohibition is that it entices otherwise honest citizens to piracy. Loss of honesty is far worse than loss of treasure. How many times must we learn that lesson?

Image: Nonsense Books, by Edward Lear (via Project Gutenberg)

Yahoo! Toolbar Removal for Firefox

Yep, you read the title correctly. Yahoo! can become your default search engine without your knowledge. After finishing my recent piece on fighting Incredibar, I innocently looked at all the browsers on my computers and was surprised to find that the default search engine for Firefox had been changed from Google to Yahoo! on one of them!

When I say default search engine, I do not mean the contents of the search window in the upper right bar. That is whatever you make it when you click the down arrow and select an engine. In my case, it was still Google. To see what I mean by Yahoo! taking over my browser, open Firefox and enter “about:home” where you would normally put a URL address, and enter. This opens a useful site with what looks like a standard Firefox Google search window in the middle. Enter a search term and note if the results page shows a change of default engine. If it is still a Google page, you are good. Otherwise…

In my case, the results page was definitely from Yahoo!, not Google. I had never deliberately changed default engines. What happened? Since the affected computer is one that I used in preparation for a class on “Downloading Nifty Things from the Internet Safely” (yeah, I get the irony), very likely when I was downloading something, there was a magic check box that either needed to be checked or unchecked to keep my default search engine. Failure to be observant meant that in addition to the stuff I wanted, the providers also gave me something extra. At least Yahoo! is not a pain like Incredibar or Babylon. Still, it is not something I wanted, so regardless of Yahoo!’s value as a search engine, I decided it must go.

Yahoo! Toolbar Removal for Firefox

There might be several ways to reset the default search engine in Firefox, but I could not find any simple ones. The method I used was to type about:config in the browser’s URL field. This takes some fortitude. See the image of the opening page. Go ahead and click on the promise to be careful. Then in the window that opens, search for mstone. This will filter the bewildering array in entries down to the one shown in the image above. As you would in regedit or similar applications, right-click on the entry and open a drop-down choice window. At that point, you can either simply reset the engine to the original default, or you can enter whatever you wish.

So the nuisance is removed, but that leaves the question of why there was a nuisance at all. Yahoo! is certainly a reputable organization; one would not think it needs to resort to stealth installations to get customers. I also doubt very much that Yahoo! participates in re-direction and other nefarious activities. But the fact remains that because I was in a hurry preparing for a class, I neglected to note an option box and was given something I did not ask for. I have seen similar opt out boxes for McAfee (in association with Adobe downloads) and others. This must be a profitable method of marketing — otherwise it would die out — but I do not like it. The technique has an air of desperation about it that turns me off. I would rather wade through various download buttons that could lead me in the wrong direction (another common ploy) than have the option coyly placed in the download windows.

What is your experience? Have you been accidentally saddled with unwanted system changes in this manner? If so, what did you do? Please share.

How to Remove Incredibar and IB Installer

The Nuisance That is Incredibar and IB InstallerHow do we get infected computers? Most attacks are thwarted easily, but if you snooze, the bad guys are waiting to pounce. That happened to me recently. A lapse in my attention span got me an infection of the Incredibar hijacker and adware provider. If you have not seen this one, consider this description from Spybot Search & Destroy:

  • Incredibar is an adware toolbar that gets installed along other software.
  • It shows advertising within Internet Explorer and Firefox and changes the default search engine and startpage.
  • Even uninstall does not revert changes to search engine and startpage.
  • The Firefox addon installs without a request and does not uninstall with the Windows uninstaller and remains fully functional.

It also causes other difficulties.

The process of cleaning is not difficult, but I made it worse by stubbornly trying to do it on my own. Help is available.

The adventure started when I was given an older Dell laptop with XP and not much else. I wanted to convert it to a working spare, but I did not check the anti-virus software situation until after I had downloaded several useful things. After I deleted an old copy of Norton and installed MSE and Malwarebytes, the damage had already been done. IE, Firefox, and Chrome were installed. I used Firefox for downloading most things. That is critical because it and Chrome were contaminated, but IE was clean. I had only used IE to download Firefox.

Initial symptoms were a novel home page and a strange search engine as default. Other bad things happened. The infection had to be removed. Not to fear: I had conquered the Babylon Toolbar and posted an account of my struggles with it. Based on what I learned then, I first tried to uninstall anything that looked like Incredibar. Then I searched through the registry and manually deleted all references to it. Then I was ready to fix Firefox. Since my bookmarks were synched with another computer, without pain I uninstalled it — remembering to click the box that said to delete personal preferences, also! (Fail to do that and, when Firefox is re-installed, you will be surprised.) With a flourish, I downloaded Firefox via IE and it installed clean! Wow, I was a hero. Then it was time to do the same with Chrome. Oops, no good.

I searched online for Incredibar. It has too many references to rate them. This is one I used. Do not click any site promising to help you clean this infection unless you have WOT or the equivalent installed. Several sites have red warnings. Bad guys will try to pull a double scam. Searching showed me what caused my initial failure to eliminate the pest. You must also uninstall “IB Installer.” A few minutes of research would have saved sweat.

There are many YouTube videos, but several of them have annoying audio tracks (why do people do that?). This one seems reasonable.

http://youtu.be/sHHXPuCMRjc

Cleaning Firefox as described in the link above includes making a promise to be careful. To clean Chrome, and this is not always described accurately, you must follow the instructions, but also click on the icon that looks like three bars. Click on Settings. In On startup, click Set Pages. If Incredibar or any variation is present, drag it to the trash can. Failure to follow this step makes all for naught.

After I got things fixed, I found this on Bleeping Computer:

Please downloadAdwCleaner by Xplode onto your desktop.

  • Close all open programs and Internet browsers.
  • Double click on adwcleaner.exe to run the tool.
  • Click on Delete.
  • Confirm each time with OK.
  • You will be prompted to restart your computer. A text file will open after the restart.
  • Please post the contents of that logfile with your next reply.
  • You can find the logfile at C:\AdwCleaner[S1].txt as well.

I have not tried this fix, but Bleeping Computer is reliable. If you have used this or had any other issues with Incredibar, please share.

Image: Warning by karl.herler via Flickr

Are Computer Clubs Dead?

Are computer clubs dead? The answer depends on what you mean by a computer club. I can only speak of my own experiences. Maybe you have different observations. If so, please let us know. But skipping to the final point right now: isn’t LockerGnome a type of computer club? Chris also supports traditional computer clubs — check out this video from 2007.

Just as the hardware and software have evolved, clubs devoted to sharing an interest in computers have evolved. I predict physical (i.e. compared to online) computer clubs will be with us for a long time just as there are active VW owner clubs still in existence. Most people now understand a VW club to emphasize classic Beetles, not Jettas or new Beetles. Would a VW owner from the sixties recognize a modern club? Functions have changed. In the same way, the functions of computer clubs have changed with the evolution of hardware, operating systems, and software (particularly gaming).

The first computer club I attended was interested primarily in hardware. We sometimes made things on jury-rigged breadboards with wire wrap technology (wire wrap was once king — now it is probably filed next to buggy whips). Data input for advanced machines was via an audio cassette tape. Later clubs became concerned with various ways of making commercially available computers useful. Interpretive languages such Basic and Forth were popular. Hardware tweaks such as adding true descenders to an Apple ][ were common, but things had changed and it was easier to buy a ready-made computer than make one from scratch.

Are Computer Clubs Dead?This was before bit-mapped displays. Who can forget hours of exploring Adventure and what the snake was afraid of? We formed informal sub-groups to compare notes on various text-based games. Digital Dungeons & Dragons bookkeeping was useful and the basis of other groups. VisiCalc quickly became a vehicle for Conway’s Game of Life.

Time passed and clubs morphed further from hardware geek meetings to user-oriented meetings with tutorials on applications and the latest operating systems. Gaming changed with the introduction of graphics. Those who still built computers became a decided minority. In the clubs I attended, this change was accompanied with a steep decline in attendance. (Some spurts in popularity came with the advent of netbooks and tablets.) I think this decline in interest is a natural outcome of the maturation of computing in general.

Professional societies are closely related to clubs in function. Certainly, meetings of some user groups of the IEEE resemble (on a more professional level) the activities of an advanced computer club. For years, I attended meetings of SigGraph and thought it was like a big club with a helping of paranoia thrown in because of the competition in a rapidly changing market.

Interestingly, the clubs I still attend tend to not emphasize social media. They do not ignore it, but there does not seem to be much interest. This is likely because many of the functions of early clubs have been taken over by Internet-based groups such as LockerGnome. We no longer need physical presence to share interests and pass around tips. I have friends online whom I seldom see in real space, but the social interaction of actually meeting in a physical room and putting hands on hardware is a different experience, which will keep clubs operating as long as there are new things to explore — and who knows, maybe someone in your club will have the idea for the next Facebook or Google.

Are computer clubs dead? No, definitely not, but they have changed. What we now call a computer club is radically different from those of 10 years ago, but the prime function remains the same: sharing information and learning about new developments. Modern computer clubs are more oriented toward mutual tutoring rather than building. But as long as people are interested in a subject, there will be some type of club to service their needs. Try searching for “ham radio clubs.” Smartphones and Skype have not killed ham radio, and computer clubs are not dead.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image: Electronics Club 1986 by Extra Ketchup

When Do You Know It’s Time to Buy a New PC?

When Do You Know It's Time to Buy a New PC?When do you know it’s time to buy a new PC? Or, more important, how do you tell clients when it is time for them to buy a new PC? I do not need an algorithm to tell when to get a new computer. When the impulse is on me, I build a new one. Clients who come to me for tutoring or repair do not build computers. Clients tend to fall into one of two categories:

(1) They hang on to whatever they have, dumping money into it occasionally long after it should have been trashed, or

(2) their computer “gets slow — it must be old” so they go to Best Buy or Costco and get a new one that looks good — then they come to me to set their new one up and dispose of their old one.

The second class of client has certain benefits. Their old computer is often just fine, but they no longer need it, so they may give it to me (I never solicit donations!). I scrub their personal information and prepare it to donate to some worthy person. This class of client might not spend money the way I would, but they do not cause me heartburn.

The first class is more problematical. On the floor behind me right now is an ancient Dell with a too-loud fan running long enough to make sure it will not crash. I last saw this computer two years ago when the owner complained it was slow. At that time, I maxed out its RAM to two gigs and she was surprised at the difference. As politely as possible, I suggested she hang on to it for another two years and then consider an upgrade to a more modern machine. Two years passed, and she called saying that the monitor had gone funny and a warning popped up saying a serious error had occurred. Shortly thereafter, the computer shut down by itself. She lives nearby, so I went to her house and reminded her of my prediction and suggested that while I could likely fix whatever is wrong, the cost would be more than the value of the computer and almost certainly something else would happen to compromise future operation. I was thinking of a head crash since it still has the original hard drive. Two years ago I had set her up with an external backup drive, but it was turned off when I arrived (sigh). Budgets are important, but this client could afford a new entry or mid-level computer. She declined the suggestion. “I do not use it enough to justify getting a new one. Please just find what is wrong and fix it.”

Given that directive, no one can fault a professional who takes the commission. But I do not feel good about it. After the routine security checks and upgrades, I opened the box with a bit of dread. My notes from the previous visit had prepared me (I keep all repair records and invoices — do you?). The client has cats and her tower is stored on the floor under her desk where the cats also like to hang out. In spite of my admonitions, she had not moved or cleaned the box in the two years since I last cleaned it for her. The inside looked like a dry hairball. I tried to blow it out, and succeeded in getting hair over my whole workspace. The CPU heat exchanger was totally clogged. The PCI graphics card heat exchanger was almost completely covered with hair wedged between it and the adjacent card. I cleaned everything and put it back together. It has operated almost 24 hours now without problem.

In writing my invoice, I will emphasize what I told her when she gave me the job: unlike my normal policy, I do not guarantee this work. I promise only that it is working on delivery and that it has been burned in for a day without issue. Also in writing, I will again suggest she consider another (new or used) computer. I do not mind making money maintaining old computers, but moral dilemmas must be navigated.

How do you know when it is time to buy a new PC? The correct answer has little to do with the installed OS and a lot to do with the age of the components and how the computer is used.

Image: World’s Dirtiest Fans by teemumantynen

How Do You Know when a Download is Safe?

How Do You Know when a Download is Safe?For a couple of years I have presented a course on How to Download Nifty Things from the Internet Safely for senior computer users. The course has two parts: (1) establishing that some pretty nifty things are available for free, and (2) there are ways to reasonably protect yourself against simultaneously downloading some unwanted trouble along with the desired application.

The course looks at freebies ranging from whole operating systems (mostly Ubuntu) through complete office suites (several available: we emphasize LibreOffice) to trivial eye candy like Iconoid, which turns desktop icons transparent after a mouse is inactive for 20 seconds and brings them back upon detecting mouse motion. Along the way, we also examine search engines and browsers, which qualify as things we get from the Internet for free. Establishing the availability of quality applications that can be downloaded for free is not as easy as you might expect. When showing a class the variety of offerings on SourceForge, they always look puzzled and ask questions about the open source community.

Establishing the availability of useful things is relatively easy. But the meat of the course, and the more difficult part to present, is how to distinguish between quality downloads and unwanted or potentially harmful packages. These are often students who routinely open attachments on forwarded emails without hesitation, but are often afraid to download obviously benign applications because they have heard so many horror stories.

Because I have developed my own ways of trying to download material safely (with occasional mishaps like when I picked up an unwanted Babylon toolbar and had real difficulties getting rid of it), I was interested in a recent TED lecture by Markham Nolan that examines a closely related problem: how do we know if information posted is true, and how can a person reasonably wade through the overwhelming flow of uploaded material to find useful stuff?

Nolan approaches this problem as a journalist mining the Internet for breaking news. At first, you might think this is a long way from trying to decide whether to download and install freebie applications, but the underlying issues are the same: filter the data stream to find what you want and then validate it. The main differences are the tools used to determine the credibility of a source and the volume of data.

Recently I had a chance to watch how I approached the problem of finding something I wanted on the Internet. Windows 8 has a nice feature of allowing a desktop wallpaper to span across two monitors rather than repeating the same image on both as is more common. “That’s cool,” I thought, “now where can I get some nice panoramic images to use?” Within minutes, I had found several sources from sites that my handy WOT (Web of Trust) add-on indicated were probably safe. But that is not sufficient since malware can be hidden in jpg images. Call me a worrywart, but I also manually scan pictures that I download. I now have a pleasing custom desktop theme that cycles though several panoramic nature scenes. The total cost was nothing, and if some of the desktops have a discrete logo or faint watermark with a URL leading back to the site where I can pay to download a bigger variety, that is okay and a fair trade.

The first rule of safe downloading is to establish realistic expectations. That is true whether you want to download applications or information. The second rule is that realistic expectations evolve quickly. I never teach the same course twice because the availability of stuff and the associated hazards on the Internet change.

By the way, if you clicked on any of the hot links above, you are following one of the tips I give to students: if someone you know recommends it, and they are trustworthy, then they are acting as a pre-filter for your exploration. This does not mean that everything I link to is safe; it only means that I think the links I put up are safe. It is up to you to decide how reliable I am. Notice I did not provide a link to the Babylon toolbar (a red indication from WOT), although I could have provided many links to instructions for how to get rid of it (green indications on WOT).

Do you have a system of your own for cutting the wheat from the chaff on the Internet? Please leave a comment below and share it with us.

Image: Warning by karl.herler via Flickr

Moving Back to Windows 7 from 8 without Really Trying

Moving Back to Windows 7 from 8 without Really TryingTo keep up with my clients’ needs, I have machines with various editions of Windows and Linux installed. Switching from one to another is a bit like a jazz musician switching instruments. The underlying song is still being developed, but the implementation changes a bit.

This analogy came home recently when I suddenly realized that the Windows 8 computer I now use for most purposes has slowly morphed back into Windows 7. Instead of keeping a separate identity like the musical instruments would, the 8 machine now operates and looks like a normal Windows 7 computer. That was not my intent. It just happened. Actually, it has not totally reverted to Window 7 yet because I have not found a way to restore the “Exit Windows” sound. That is a frustration not easily solved with a quick search on Google.

After installing a Start button (many varieties are available for free download — that ought to be a message to Microsoft by itself), I seldom bother to open the Metro GUI because my computer is touch-challenged. So the user experience on my 8 computer is similar to the old Windows 7 except that this system is protected by Windows Defender instead of Microsoft Security Essentials. My logon password is more complex than with 7 because 8 got snarky unless I followed the protocol of including upper case, lower case, and numerals. Okay, I get it, but remember the year that cars would not start unless all passengers fastened their seatbelts? That regulation quickly changed to sending a gentle audio reminder if the driver is not belted in. Software developers could take a lesson from that adventure into over-control and customer rebellion.

But since I spent good money to upgrade to Windows 8, I decided to make a list of at least five things that 8 does better than 7 if you are not using a touchscreen. Making this list would emphasize the importance of upgrading and justify the expense and the effort. Note: the necessity of re-installing programs that worked quite well under 7 before the upgrade is part of the upgrade effort. That requirement was a bit of a surprise since it has not always existed in other upgrades.

The List: What 8 Does Better Than 7

  • Item 1: The first thing that came to mind is the ability to span a panoramic picture over two monitors. That is nice. Under 7, I could only do the same thing by using the Tiling command with back and forth cropping until it fit. That is ugly. With the Span option in 8, I was able to grab a snippet from Google Earth of our neighborhood and install it as a desktop spanning two monitors in minutes with no problem.
  • Items 2 through 5: I could not find any. The App Store might qualify.

Fellow LockerGnome writer Ron Schenone assures me that those who purchase a new PC have downgrade rights if they have the Pro version. But since I have not found compatibility problems with the Pro installation, and since it seems like a tame version of 7 (after installing a Start button), why change? Maybe someday I will replace the monitors with touch-enabled ones and then the Metro option will shine.

(There is one minor compatibility issue: Firefox does not seem to want to play videos, but Internet Explorer and Chrome have no issues.)

So here is my challenge to you: Try to fill out my list of five things that 8 does better than 7 for non-touchscreen installations. Then list any incompatibilities or missing things you could do in 7, and subtract the two numbers. If the result is positive, then 8 is better over all; if it is negative, then upgrading was a mistake. Please share your results in the comments below.

Harvesting Power for Fun and Profit

Harvesting Power for Fun and ProfitWhat limits gadgets? Often it is power consumption. The lower the power needed to run a gadget, the more applications are available. Early computers less powerful than my phone took massive cooling towers to operate. Another major limitation is cost. Both cost and power requirements have fallen sufficiently that new ways of doing things are slowly becoming mainstream. Low-cost power-conserving devices produce effects beyond simply making computers portable.

Scavenging power is sometimes referred to as a parasitic power supply. That is an unfortunate name for a good thing. Consider the changes that scavenging can make in construction. My father was an electrician. I spent many summers with him running wires in new houses. Houses built today are wired essentially the same way they were 70 or more years ago. To control a light, wires run from the switch through the walls to the overhead lights. Electricians are good at drilling holes to run wires. But with reductions in price and power consumption, a new paradigm is possible. Several companies make wireless switches that do not require expensive drilling and manual running of wires through walls. Some switches are battery powered, but the more interesting ones scavenge power from the effort of throwing the switch. Pressing the button generates electricity, which is stored in a capacitor to power a wireless signal to the light fixture. Lower power consumption combined with low-cost electronics will change the way that houses are built.

Scavenging power has interested me ever since I saw a perpetual clock around 1950. It is an amazing example of mechanical technology. Changes in temperature and barometric pressure are harvested to power the mechanism. It never needs winding. Similarly, I had a mechanical wristwatch that wound itself by harvesting energy from my arm movements. Today, my solar-powered Casio G-Shock not only powers itself, but it also listens to WWV to keep itself accurate. YouTube has many videos on scavenging or harvesting energy; for instance, see this excellent presentation:

Scavenging power is related to green energy, but is not necessarily driven by the same considerations. I was a consultant to a company that makes micro-metering devices to monitor water consumption in apartment buildings. Normally an entire building is on a single meter, and residents are not individually motivated to conserve water, but by adding individual meters, they can be charged fairly. Retrofitting is an issue since the devices need power and need to communicate. Sufficient power can be generated by the sensing vanes inserted to measure the water flow. Power is harvested as the vane spins to send occasional updates to a central unit without the expense of running wires throughout. This results in water conservation since now tenants are charged for what they use (which is good for everyone), and probably results in the owner collecting more income (which is bad for tenants).

Self-powered remote sensors can optimize irrigation by reporting ground conditions to a central unit.

Some uses of scavenged energy are just for fun, like the lights on children’s shoes that flash when they walk, but more serious technology can power a wearable computer. Embeddable sensors inside a human body can be powered by temperature differences or muscle flexing. The December 2012 issue of Scientific American mentions the possibilities of electronic tattoos, which could be purely decorative or contain sensors to monitor body functions. Heart pacemakers are traditionally powered by replaceable batteries (which requires open heart surgery every seven years or so — ouch and $$s). New devices that harvest power internally can eliminate that process.

My wife and I have a beach bag painted with a design that changes color in sunlight. This is just one example of flexible fabrics being used to harvest solar power. That application is decorative, but some people charge laptops from solar energy collected by a normal-looking backpack.

Do you know of any novel way that energy is being collected on small scales? What small-scale energy now being wasted will be harvested in the near future? How will that change the way we live? Would you volunteer to test an embedded electronic device like a direct access calculator or Internet?

Image: Perpetual by Ghetu Daniel

Spanning Dual Monitors with Windows 8

Spanning Dual Monitors with Windows 8Whether clunky CRT or sleek 23 inch LCD, I have long preferred to operate with multiple monitors. In the Windows 98 days I saw a stockbroker with three monitors on his desk and was instantly hooked. Without knowing exactly what a normal person would do with twice the viewing space, I soon had the extra board installed on my home computer and had worked my way through some obscure instructions to get dual monitors operating — more or less. But it was only with the introduction of Windows 8 that the powers that be have finally concluded that multiple monitors are more than niche applications and they should be taken seriously. Windows 8 makes the whole system much easier. You can even make a wallpaper span across from one monitor to another with a single selection from a drop down window!

This latest adventure started when I sacrificed my only Vista-based computer to a Windows 8 Pro upgrade. After the initial disappointment of learning I had to re-install a bunch of things that should have been no problem for the upgrade to include, the installation proceeded without problem. Since the computer was already connected to dual monitors, I expected some hassles in setting them up the way I want. Surprise! The system recognized the native resolution of both with no problem. Even more surprising, the taskbar extended to the second monitor. Some quick experimenting showed that icons pinned to the taskbar on one monitor would be properly displayed on the other, also.

Further experimenting (yeah, I know, one can read the instructions, but experimenting is better for learning) showed that the corners of the second monitor were “hot” in the same way that the prime monitor was. In fact, putting the second monitor to the right of the first one did not change the operation of the rightmost corners. But here is some additional good news. If you are on the desktop on one monitor and click start on the other, then you can have both types of displays up. For a newbie to Windows 8 like me, that has been comforting. For instance, I can be writing this article on one monitor with my mail client open on the second and press the Window key to go to the start screen temporarily to find this link to some nifty “how to” videos by Ryan Matthew Pierson discussing Windows 8 and return without lifting my hands from the keyboard. All the time, I have undisturbed access to the second monitor.

So how do you coax a wallpaper to span across multiple monitors seamlessly? There might be several ways, but the one I found is simple enough. Just navigate to the normal display of available wallpaper and click the drop window under the title Picture Position. About midway through the options is one for spanning. Click it and click Save Changes. That is all there is to it with one exception: your spanned wallpaper will look terrible. To get the effect you want, first find some images that are at least 1650 x 1050 or so, depending on the resolution of your displays. After accidentally creating highly pixilated and awkwardly cropped wallpaper spanning my displays, I looked for some free downloads and found an appropriately sized image of a spiral galaxy that looked stunning spanning across the displays — it’s like looking out of the windows of a star cruiser. Nature panoramas look particularly good, as well.

All this begs the question: Why have two monitors if you are not into heavy-duty gaming? For normal use, I leave my mail client open on the second monitor and do my composing and other work on the main (larger) monitor. When I do serious image processing, the taskbar is set to auto-hide, and all the toolboxes are opened on the second monitor. This leaves the largest possible screen available to view my work. Sometimes when writing, I keep a browser open on one display so I can do research on one and write on the other.

By the way, using multiple monitors seems to be going mainstream even with Ubuntu. The earlier distros made it awkward at best to enable more than one display. However, the latest versions have made it almost as simple as Windows. That is good for me since my Windows 8 machine is set to dual-boot to either Windows or Linux. Either way, it works.

What works for you? Do you use multiple monitors, or do you stick to one? If you consider yourself in the former group, do you find that operating systems are more on board than they used to be for setting up more than one display? Please leave a comment and let’s discuss!

CC licensed Flickr photo shared by Filip Skakun

Could a Geek Run the Country?

Could a Geek Run the Country?Could a geek run the country? That is, assuming a geek could be elected (unlikely), would the country survive or even thrive with a geek at the helm? Since geeks tend to be at the higher end of the IQ spectrum, we might think one would be able to understand the national and international issues and be able to deal with them better than the less intellectually endowed (but more socially adept) persons who usually run for high political office. Is the best person for the job the one who can get elected?

Another way of looking at this question is to ask another one: What is the primary function of a president? If the answer is to look at internal and foreign problems facing the nation in a logical manner and come up with clever ways of solving them, then a geek might have a better chance than a traditional politician who often has little, if any, background in critical thinking but is endowed with great social skills. Unfortunately, the job requires more than just finding clever answers: A good president must be able to implement effective solutions using human resources. As we’ve learned from recent history, implementing solutions is much more difficult than finding effective solutions. While geeks might be good at finding technical solutions, using the human resources necessary to run a country is more difficult. “Reaching across the aisle” is more elusive than finding the best OS. In a way, geeks tackle the easy problems — easy because they have solutions. Politicians and psychologists tackle problems that are poorly posed and might not have solutions.

This line of thought was provoked by Governor Romney’s frequent boast that his successful career in business has prepared him to be an effective president. To me that sounds like saying that a successful career as a sidewalk artist prepares one to be a nuclear engineer or brain surgeon. So I looked up the careers of all the presidents to see what kind of background prepares a person to run a country. (This is easy to do thanks to Wikipedia.) If you want to see the presidents morph from one to another, check out this video (the music is good):

Strictly speaking, we have had no geek presidents, but what about the claim that a business background prepares one for the presidency? Excluding military service, teaching, farming, and law, we have Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and George W. Bush, who had business backgrounds. I think the consensus would be that none of these were exceptionally good presidents of the caliber of Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. So maybe without trying to espouse a political position, we can say that a business background is not proven by logic or experience to prepare a person to be president. Being a lawyer or surveyor is much better training. Presidents with a military background have a varied history including Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower.

Which presidents are the closest to being geeks? Depending on how you define a geek, Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter could qualify. I would include Jefferson because he was always fooling around with the latest technology and did not keep really good track of his finances. He pushed the limits of social respectability, and he was smart. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter were both engineers before running for office. Both were considered highly intelligent. The country did well under Jefferson, but under Carter the prime rate soared to over 20% and we had international problems. In spite of being a recognized humanitarian, Hoover’s actions are associated with deepening the Great Depression. (In fairness, some conservative commentators disagree with this, but I disagree with them — so there!)

Neither a military nor a technical background has been definitely shown by experience to be determining factors in becoming an excellent president. So maybe electing a geek is the better way to go. Stephen Colbert has already laid the groundwork by forming a highly successful Super PAC (political action committee). This could be the path to 2016 for a geek ticket. Why not?

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (modified)

Mix Geeks and Seniors – Get Ageism?

Mix Geeks and Seniors - Get Ageism?Does being a geek carry an automatic bias toward ageism? Geeks often possess knowledge unavailable to earlier generations. Unlike tribal times when elders were respected as repositories of culture and knowledge, modern times are characterized by large numbers of young people who know they are hot and anyone older than them is not. Rapid technological and cultural advance promotes this view.

This is not a new phenomenon. It happens whenever technology or culture changes more rapidly than can be accommodated. Technology example: When horses and guns were introduced to the plains people, young men suddenly became more powerful than the elders and the culture was upturned. Cultural example: When I was a boy, we knew instinctively that Glenn Miller music sucked and Elvis was hot. We pitied the old folks who did not get it. Now I am a senior and experience the ageism we practiced back in the day. And I have come to realize that media play a more important role in promoting ageism than I realized.

Count the seniors you see on television and see how many are portrayed favorably.

Some types of deliberate ageism are technically illegal, but that is not much of a deterrent. When a company I worked for was bought, I volunteered for the inevitable reduction in force. As a condition of being laid off, we executives were offered an outplacement service. I went because I wanted to start another company and thought that would be a good place to meet competent executives hungry for another opportunity. We sat in a briefing and were told how to fill out résumés. The instructor was firm, “Say you are experienced. Under no circumstances say you have over 20 years of experience.” Ageism in hiring might be illegal, but if you admit to 20 years of experience, then you will not get hired. It is that simple. As a test, I sent out two sets of résumés; one with and one without my actual age apparent. I never received a single response from an honest form. No rejections, just no response. Maybe they all got lost in the mail.

Other forms of ageism occur daily. A member of the Geek Squad looked at me with total bewilderment when I described how I had recovered data from a client’s failing hard drive by thermally shocking it so that I could copy files before it crashed totally. The idea that a BHOF would actually know something useful to show him was a new concept (by the way, it does not always work — I was lucky). Young geeks simply assume that I can barely use an XP machine for email and surfing. When I point out to them that data from space-borne instruments I designed are still being analyzed, the doubt is obvious in their eyes.

Over the years, I have developed the habit of meeting new geeks (club members, clerks, service people) with a detailed and correctly posed technical question. With some quick back and forth, I can establish the equivalent of geek street creds. Then the conversation can proceed between equals. But at technical conventions, you can watch twenty-somethings enter a booth and automatically be assumed knowledgeable about whatever is being displayed without resorting to artifice. Seniors are treated differently.

Why does ageism persist? As with all stereotypes, there is sufficient correlation between age and technical knowledge to make it a useful energy saving tool. Compare ageism to sexism or racism. If you educate a group, such as young girls, to think they cannot succeed in technical fields and you support this education by not hiring or even promoting them, then surprise: you do not have many female geeks. The stereotype correctly predicts the average behavior of females because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy with no proven rational basis. An HR person tasked with finding a new hotshot engineer might want to save time and energy by filtering from the applications all those who are older than a certain age, or are females, or based on some guesses, belong to a disfavored race or religion. I hope there is a special place in hell for such perverts.

So do me a favor and do not assume that the next senior you meet is technically naïve. That might be the case, but it does not justify a condescending attitude. To me, an honest geek is driven by passion. An honest geek wants to share that passion. And the funny thing is, that the more you share, the more there is of it.

Graphic Design on the Fly: What Do You Use?

Graphic Design on the Fly: What Do You Use?Effective communication goes beyond texting, blogging, and YouTube videos. Effective communication often requires images and graphics. Images you can get from a camera and massage them with Photoshop, or the equivalent, until they meet your needs, but the graphics must be made. Construction of effective graphics requires a combination of artistic thrust and the mechanical ability to use software tools without thinking about where to find the icon that allows you to [fill in the blank].

Good graphics can communicate your selling point far more effectively than a page of text, but bad or cutesy graphics are an immediate turnoff for most people. And no matter how naturally gifted you are, unless you invest the time to become proficient with your chosen software, the production will be painful and the quality will suffer. I have no hints on how to improve your artistic ability, but I have some familiarity with several graphics packages.

The accompanying announcement of a Fourth of July party was made in a hurry as a last-minute request. All told, I spent about 10 minutes total on it. This is not a work of art for the ages, but when it was printed on 11 X 17 inch paper and laminated, it could be hung on the exit gate of our HOA to catch residents’ attention as the gate opened. We have no way of determining the actual effectiveness of this announcement, but the attendance was a record breaker. No one would claim they had not seen it. Would a simple text announcement have been as effective? I doubt it. Could anyone create this announcement? Yes. I chose this example because it contains no advanced effects or effort at all. Anyone with a hour or two of experience with any reputable software could do it.

Years ago I started making graphic illustrations using CorelDraw. Since then, I have used several commercial and freeware packages including MS Publisher, LibreOffice Draw, and Inkscape. The previous example was done with Inkscape, an open source application — the price is right (free) and it comes with great tutorials. It is my favorite at this time for this type of project. But this by no means is a complete list of the available 2D packages. And for those enthusiasts who want to progress beyond 2D graphics to the wonderful world of 3D, you can try Blender, another open source application, but please be warned that by my standards, learning Blender is not for the faint of heart. It takes much more investment of time to master it, but check out this example of its power, which contains both static and video segments:

Graphic Design on the Fly: What Do You Use?Since I am not a professional graphic artist, the graphics projects I do tend to be in response to some immediate need. My wife belongs to a volunteer group that arranges monthly tours. She wanted to publicize a tour she has arranged for December, but needed to have the group learn about it in September to collect fees so the buses, lunches, etc. could be ordered in time. This second example shows how I responded, again with Inkscape. This project took more time. I spent maybe 20 minutes on it. Note the appearance of the font at the top. That was done by applying a simple filter. The Christmas stars are one-off creations made on the spot. I could write a whole article about the star-making feature of Inkscape. The images have a subtle drop shadow. Those are the only elements in what is really a simple graphic design, but it was extremely well received by the group.

What type of graphics do you make (examples?) and what software do you use? What have you tried and found wanting?

Internet Use Shortens Attention Span – So?

Internet Use Shortens Attention Span  --  So?Internet use shortens attention span. Nicholas Carr has a lot to say on this subject, but we will get to that in a moment — you can wait, can’t you?

I ask you to wait, knowing that a one-second delay in page load time results in 11% fewer webpage views. No one is willing to wait to see anything. If it is not immediately available on demand, we go elsewhere. This is true, but is it the same as having a short attention span? And, if so, is a short attention span a bad thing?

To answer that question, we need to first define attention span. Wikipedia points out that the length of an attention span depends on the definition being used: focused attention or sustained attention. Focused attention is a very brief response to some unexpected stimulus. This might be what we are using when surfing for new pages. Sustained attention is what you give to an interesting book or movie over an extended period.

The squishiness of this distinction should give one pause before inferring that Internet users suffer mental decline. Attention span seems to be one of those concepts that everyone understands intuitively, but when looked at in more detail, is sufficiently poorly defined as to be almost useless. In 2011, Virginia Hefferman writing in the New York Times referred to The Attention-span Myth, and she gave several examples of why we should be wary of assuming an overall decline in attention span, whatever it is.

Perhaps one unusual product of the mythical decreasing attention span is the flash mob. Time magazine ran an interview with the person who supposedly invented flash mobs. After watching the phenomenon of flash mobs grow, he came to the reasonable conclusion that he did not invent anything at all. Although he does not say so in the interview, it seems that the original flash mob mentality was probably fed by the same desire for immediate response as the search for quick webpages. Then flash mobs morphed into something else.

Certainly the planning that went into that video did not represent a decrease in brain power or lack of attention span, but it does provide some immediate entertainment for the audience.

But what about the evidence that rapid surfing can cause measurable changes in the interconnections of a human brain? Is shortening attention span related to ADD (attention deficit disorder)? Nicholas Carr has shown convincing evidence that surfing causes measureable changes in how a brain operates. But is that good or bad (answer: yes)? We also have good evidence that the invention of writing changed how literate people organize thoughts and even think. But there have been many further technical advances between clay tablets and iPad tablets. Each of these advances has had an effect on how people think or organize data. I have often referred to the tremendous change in attitude brought about by the proliferation of railroads; these, along with their accompanying telegraphs, were the first Internet, and they changed society just as much as our Internet changes us.

We often overlook the similar importance of typewriters. The spread of affordable typewriters also had an often overlooked change on society. One example of this we also owe to Carr. He points out that the philosopher, Nietzsche, slowly went blind and found it difficult to write his books longhand, so he bought a typewriter and taught himself how to touch type. This enabled him to continue his work, but had a subtle effect. The way he constructed sentences and arguments after he became an accomplished typist differed from his earlier works. This seems to be a real effect and not just the result of maturing. Using the tool of typing affected how he constructed his thoughts.

Two other examples of technology that have changed how we think are the movies and television. Look at any movie made prior to about 1945. Note the length of the shots and how transitions are made. Then look at any current film. They have many more rapid cuts, often with the sound from one scene carrying over to the next in a way that would have been unintelligible to our great-grandparents. Storylines often have more intertwined sub-plots than were included in early movies. Perspective changes are frequent (see East of Eden for some early examples of the transition).

Television carries this trend even further simply because, with the addition of cable, many channels are competing for your attention. By hooking you into a rapidly changing story, they hope to keep you from flipping. This trend peaks with MTV-type videos.

Then you add in at least a generation that has grown up playing rapid response video games, and I doubt that Nietzsche, even with his typewriter skills, would have the proper inter-neural connections to follow the actions of an avid gamer. Hey, I’m a senior and I cannot do it!

So we have scientific proof that activities requiring rapid response affects the way our brains are organized, and we can trace a continual decrease in likely average attention spans from the attention of sailing boat captains to freeway drivers, from cuneiform writing to cloud storage, from Renaissance painting to MTV. Still, I do not believe we have a very good definition of attention span and what it means. All I know is that if I spend too much time on something, I lose inter…

Image: illustrationsof.com

Stereotypes: Geeks Vs. Artists

Stereotypes: Geeks Vs. ArtistsGeeks, like other identifiable groups, tend to be schizophrenic. This is not because of any inherent quality of geekness, but results from the pressures other groups exert. Most identifiable groups probably demonstrate some schizophrenia. For example, I am the only technically trained person sitting on the Arts Commission of our town. This is an official branch of the local government. The other commissioners are all either professional artists or somehow connected to the greater arts community. My closest approach to being an artist is teaching graphics construction using Inkscape. How I behave with artists is different from how I behave at a computer club — not a lot different, and maybe you would not notice the subtle changes of behavior depending on the venue, but I can catch myself doing it. In fact, my desire to associate with people of differing backgrounds got me on the commission.

Not all of us can be professional artists, but all of us can become knowledgeable art lovers. As an art lover, I sought and won my commissioner’s status. An unexpected reward of this activity has been to see how the stereotypes we all use as labor (or thought) saving techniques come into play. The artists have a stereotype of how I, a self-admitted rocket scientist and general techie, should behave. If the artists have a pre-manufactured pigeonhole labeled “geek” to shove me into, they save mental effort. More shockingly, I discovered that I harbor prejudices about artists. If I can take the tremendous diversity of humanity that is called artists and shove them into a single category without considering the vast differences between them, then I have saved energy at the cost of lack of understanding. Sadly, these inadequate stereotypes have value, otherwise they would fade away under the grim pressure of Darwinian evolution.

If you hold a stereotype, your behavior is changed, but the insidious thing about stereotypes is what they do to the person being typed. If a group of your peers act as though you should act in a certain way, it takes an extremely strong (or dense) person to resist taking on aspects of the expected persona. If the artists expect me to behave the way they think geeks behave, then I am given positive feedback whenever I meet their expectations, and wondering looks when I act in a way that they label “normal.” We all experienced peer pressure when we were teenagers. Whatever made you think it would go away just because you matured?

So without thinking about it, we take on different mannerisms in different situations. Not different enough to shock anyone. We are not all Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but we do bow to the expectations of the crowd. The most obvious difference is the use of specialized languages. In a computer club, jargon is freely thrown around with the understanding that everyone knows what a FPGA or a Linux distro is. Neither of those term would be understandable to my artists friends — and they are neither stupid nor uneducated. They just speak a different language, and some of the terms they use would be obvious to you. Do you really know what post-modernism is?

We can excuse language differences because the specialized needs of various activities naturally call for specialized language for efficiency. “App” and “distro” are not attempts to erect barriers to outsiders; they are simply abbreviations for efficiency. This is in contrast to the various species of gang talk in which a specialized language develops specifically to help distinguish between insiders and the enemy.

But the geek/artist schizophrenia goes beyond adopting appropriate language to adopting different modes of dress and behavior. All this is a stereotype, of course, but my observation is that artists are more social and gracious than geeks in spite of the legend of the lonely artist starving in a garret. If I go to an art reception, I am warmly greeted and easily join in conversations. At technical shows, few, if any, of the other participants will engage in casual conversation unless I have a prior relationship or if they are selling something. While standing in line at a buffet, I will try to engage fellow techies in conversation, but with mixed results. The problem is that I am acting like an artist in a geek situation.

So how prevalent is this taking on of imposed personae? Do you find that you are behaving differently in non-geek environments than when surrounded by a group checking out the newest way to jail-break an iPhone? Has your Prius been modified to allow watching video while you drive? Do you own any original art that does not have a sci-fi or fantasy twinge? What other categories do you find that people are trying to put you into?

Preying for Senior Love Online

Preying for Senior Love OnlineDoes Hell have a special place for scammers who bilk widows out of their savings by offering online romance? Normally I am pleased to get a new senior client, but last week a senior widow who could hardly talk through her emotions called to engage my services to help her file a complaint. Her story was difficult to piece together. She had been communicating with a man she met online. After she became romantically involved (i.e. after the hook was planted), he told her he had been robbed and beaten. He asked for money. In summary, he took her for $30,000. She is certainly not alone. Other women have fallen prey to similar scams.

I have no idea what fraction of her net worth that constitutes. She lives in a modest condo and drives a modest car. Her only computer is an old Toshiba laptop. She is not wealthy. That was money needed for retirement.

She wanted me to help sort through their online conversations (which she had saved simply because she did not know how to delete them!) to find the places where he asked for money and she agreed to lend it to him, and he agreed to pay it back. Again, she was not clear about the status of her official complaint, but it seems that he had responded by claiming she had given him money with no strings attached. She cried when telling me this, and said she was only crying because she was so embarrassed. Then she took a deep breath and said, “Let’s do it.”

So we set to work making .rtf files of the conversations by downloading and pasting them into WordPad. Her five-year-old laptop had the unactivated trial version of Microsoft Office that came with it and no other word processing software. (By the way, I asked what anti-virus software she had. She said whatever came with it, but it had expired.) This busy work allowed us to fall into a working relationship, and she caught on quickly. As we progressed, she slowly got over her embarrassment and essentially treated me like a physician with whom she could discuss private affairs. It became obvious she was an intelligent, caring, person who was lonely and would like a man in her life. She was an ideal candidate for scamming.

At one point in our initial session, she showed me a photo he had sent her of his passport to help verify his story. She had been impressed by this gesture until after the scam. She showed it to an investigator. He told her it is fraudulent.

After we memorialized about six days of communications, I suggested that this might be more than the authorities wanted or could use. She got emotional again: “They don’t want anything. I don’t know what I will do with these files, but I need to do something. My money is gone. I will never see it again, but I want to stop him from hurting other people.”

“But you said you had reported it to the FBI.”

“They said that they would not investigate it because the amount is so small.” That surprised me, but maybe there is more to it. The FBI has a site devoted to senior fraud. It lists eight areas of concern such as investment schemes or telemarketing fraud, but does not mention romance fraud. One thing the FBI site does say is that seniors who have been scammed are often too embarrassed to report it. They would rather eat the loss of money than the loss of face. That report made me more proud of my new client. She was fighting back.

By the way, I do not mean to assume that only senior women are scammed like this. Men get scammed, too. Sometimes it is crass, like a man seeking a younger, attractive woman from a third-world country to be a sex toy comforting his old age. But other times it can be a man honestly searching for a soul mate to share mature years. Men get just as embarrassed as women.

When we finished that first session, my new client had taken many notes and said she would try to do some herself, but we did schedule another session. Before leaving, I installed Malwarebytes and did a quick scan.

At our second session, I switched to tutor mode and said this time she would operate the computer with me monitoring and giving hints, but not touching it. She rose to the challenge and soon we were making progress on building her paper trail of the rip off. Just doing the work put her in a better mood. She said that not only the FBI, but the sheriff had given her a run-around. She did not know who to turn to. I told her that my role was to help with the computer, but perhaps she would be well advised to seek legal aid. There are several places where she could get advice cheaply or even free, given her circumstances. She was quiet at that, and I did not probe.

After our second session, she was beaming. “I have learned a lot. I want to learn more.” So we scheduled a purely tutorial session at which I promised to download and install LibreOffice for her so she could have something more powerful than WordPad.

Next week, with her permission, I will present the steps that led to her being scammed and what she is doing to help stop the creep from doing further damage to other vulnerable women. If you know of anyone who has been scammed like this, please share. Maybe we can help stop some of the scum.

Image from Nosferatu