Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Saga of the New Laptop 

Well, entropy has finally caught up to my trusty Fujitsu LifeBook C2210 laptop. Approximately a year and a half ago, it suffered numerous indignities and significant damage whilst on loan ot a project I was working on at the time. After roughly US$1,000 in repairs at that time, bits and pieces have been going wrong since. Now, in addition to all but one USB port being nonoperational, the power system being very unreliable, the display case being cracked at the right hinge, the hinges being very loose, etc., etc.... almost all metal parts of the case are now electricaly live. Needless to say, this can have rather shocking effects when the system is used for a hands-on demo with a prospective client.

I have been using a Toshiba M45-S331 laptop as well for some time. What can I say about this thing? NEVER buy a Toshiba laptop! Even if you think that all you'll ever need it for is Microsoft Windows, it is always good to have alternatives available to you, and the Toshiba has been specifically and deliberately designed to eliminate them for you. No Linux or BSD CD will even boot. There is no standalone BIOS; you adjust BIOS settings from insideWindows. It has some interesting hardware quireks of its own - unplug power and plug it back in - instant hard lockup; press the power button until the system shuts off and then restart. Plus, since it's XP, it can't be secured.... even with a hardware firewall and software firewall and all the other usual security goodies, I know I'm getting hit with lots and lots of malware. I've got work to do - which means that I need to get rid of Windows in my face all day. Hence the new system.

Anybody who has comments based on experience with any of the following, especially with a proper operating system, would be greatly appreciated:

  • Compaq Presario V3352AP (1.73 GHz, 512 MB, 60 GB, 14" screen, DVD+RW);

  • Acer TravelMate 4154NLCi (2 GHz, 512 MB, 60 GB, 15" screen, CDRW/DVD combo);

  • Acer TravelMate 3214NWXMi (2 GHz, 512 MB, 60 GB, 14" screen, DVD+RW);

  • Compaq Presario M2246AU (1.6GHz Turion, 512 MB, 80 GB, 15", DVD+RW)

The first three systems are all within 10% of each other, pricewise. The Turion is 25% less than any of the Centrinos. Why? Too good to be true? Comments, please...

Friday, December 23, 2005

(Picking up the) Bits and Pieces 

For those of the relevant faith, Merry Christmas! -- for the rest of us, relax and enjoy the time off :)

I'm starting to get my home/work-at-home computer infrastructure back up to scratch following the near-death of my longtime trusty Fujitsu LifeBook C2210 and the increasing flakiness of my Toshiba Satellite M45-S331 talking to my old wireless router. (I do not recommend the Toshiba under any circumstances; more on that in another post, or write me.)

So I obviously have Net connectivity, and it's probably as fast as the monopoly telecom provider here is going to give me, and once it's inside my walls it's solid as a rock. I strongly and enthusiastically (so far) recommend the NETGEAR WGR614 router; decent features for the price, good docs and support (rare these days), and while it may not be the be-all and end-all of SOHO network connections, it does the job. Next step: affording and getting a replacement for the Toshiba...

I'm looking for regular work again. Office politics in small companies is always potentially lethal because there's so few individuals to win a specific prize; strength of ego and connections become key to survival. I've found a small project that will probably pay the rent next month while I go find bigger things. (Anybody who's interested or has any leads, feel free to browse my résumé here or here, and email me here.)

Personal life? Away from the PC? What's that? :-P

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Humour in Technical Support Masking a Deadly Problem 

Still trying to fix my Toshiba laptop. (an M45-S331, if you care...but you shouldn't: don't buy a Toshiba laptop!) While flailing around the Toshiba support site, I came across a humorous "Knowledge Base" item. Entitled Virus or Worm Infection on New Machine or After Running Recovery, the Resolution area reads, in part:

Toshiba Recommends that all users make use of the Windows Update link available in the Start Menu of their computer in order to download and install the available updates for the operating system software.

Perhaps a more truthful/accurate paragraph might have resembled
Toshiba punts. You're on your own, suckers! If by some miracle Microsoft happens to have a fix that actually works, you can try their support pages, but rotsa ruck, guys! Bwahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaa.....

OK, perhaps I am being a bit flippant, but really, it is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this problem if a user is actually affected by it. It has been well-known in IT support circles for years that the time to download and install the security patches needed to (minimally) secure Windows against attack greatly exceeds the mean time between when a system is connected to the Internet and the median time to successful exploit.

I can't thiink of a real-world analogy for how serious this is. The closest I can come is if your brand-new car's engine had a 50-50 chance of exploding before you could get the engine started, warmed up and in gear. Think about everything that you keep on your PC. Think about all the sensitive information - passwords, credit card numbers, and so on - that you enter on your PC. Now, imagine some teenager in East Slobodnia - or, more likely, a Chinese Mafia type or an al-Quaeda Cyber Strike Force Team member - having access to all that, and the ability to read and modify anything on your PC at will, completely without your knowledge. Even if you've applied all the security patches and updates that Microsoft has released, and you have a fully-updated anti-virus system, and you have a software firewall like ZoneAlarm. If you run Windows, you will always be vulnerable, because many of the fundamental architectural "building blocks" that make Windows work the way it does were committed to years before Microsoft had ever heard of the Internet.

If you go back and read Bill Gates' (original version of) "The Road Ahead", it's clear that his concept of "Information At Your Fingertips" was something very much llike the Net, but under the centralised control of Microsoft, with no need for the user to trouble his pretty little head with things like "security". The result of all this, of course, was to force every user (usee?) of Windows to become an administrator; to worry about operating system updates and security management and so on, so that the old joke about the Windows user being the one who "talked about everything he had to do to get her work done", while the user of a competing, longer-established system "talked about all the great work she got done".

If it takes you an hour a day to 'manage' your system, to apply patches, make sure your antivirus is up to date and so on, and if it takes you another hour a day to clean up after program crashes and get back to where you were in your work, then you're wasting 25 percent of your work day, from the point of view of your boss or client. How'd you like to get that time back?

"It's no use", I can hear you saying. "Everybody uses Windows." Do you care how the people you work with get to work? Does it matter to you if they drive a Proton, a Mercedes, a Yugo, a bicycle, or they take public transport? No, it doesn't - you only care that they're in the office with you when they should be.

What do you need Windows for? What do you use a PC for? Lots of studies have shown that 90% of office workers spend 90% of their time in four applications: word processing, spreadsheet, email, Web browser. All of those have viable alternatives - whether you're considering an Apple Macintosh or your existing PC with Linux or BSD Unix. Microsoft even makes a version of Office for the Mac - and most people who've used both insist that the Mac version is better than the Windows one. Whether you're on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD or a dozen other systems, OpenOffice 2.0 can read and write most Word and Excel documents well enough that Microsoft Office users won't even be able to tell the difference - whether they're on Windows or the Mac. And there are other alternatives; one of the nice things about each of the non-Windows systems I've mentioned here is that they reward experimentation and creativity - because they offer solid guarantees that no matter what you do, it's extremely unlikely that you'll accidentally cause any damage to your system. Sure, errant code can lock up the window manager - but a Control-Alt-Backspace later, you discover that nothing has really been damaged. The computer goes from being the centre of attention and fear to just another tool that you use to get your job done.

Now, wouldn't you like to get done more quickly so you can get out of the office on time? If only the commute home was as easy to improve....

Friday, December 02, 2005

Reality Sometimes Stinks 

I've been going through a few major life changes here lately...

  • I'm no longer affiliated in any way with Cilix Corporation Sdn Bhd of Kuala Lumpur; if anybody is interested in the details, please contact me separately;

  • I'm still going through more drama than I'd care to in my personal life. I don't think I'm asking for the unattainable in a woman; just someone who can hold my interest on all levels and can accept me the way I am...

  • The 'old' laptop, a Fujitsu LifeBook C2210, which has been failing for some time now, seems less and less likely to last beyond my birthday (6 January, for those of you who have ideas). It was a great Linux PC and an OK Microsoft Windows PC; its main limitations in Windows were:

    • Microsoft Windows, and

    • it was bundled with Microsoft Windows XP Toy Home, which, even if you're unshakably committed to Microsoft Windows in general, should be avoided like bird flu; either get XP Pro or do The Right Thing and get a Mac - or at least put BSD or Linux on your PC. Anyway....

    dauntless, as the PC is named, is in need of hardware repairs that would cost at least half as much as a new (desktop) system. So, I'm saving my pennies again...

  • I expect to be a lot more active for the next few weeks on my other blog, Archimedes Lever: Observations on the craft and art of software development. Moving the world with a virtual toothpick. I'd be glad to know what you think of the things I have to say over there, which are more related to my work than this blog is. Thanks again.

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