Monday, March 28, 2005

Cool High-Tech Things

When I made the leap from MS-DOS to Windows NT in 1997, I continued using the DOS version of Norton Commander for a while. Norton Commander (NC) was a wonderful file manager for DOS, and even the clunky DOS version was more useful to me than Windows Explorer. NC would display the contents of two directories side-by-side and provide a command prompt. (Cygwin provides something similar called Midnight Commander.)

However, one big problem was that NC wasn't made for a multitasking environment. When other programs tinkered with files in a focused directory, NC blithely ignored those changes.

Symmantec no longer supported NC, so it was time to search for a Windows file manager to replace it.

I found one of the most awesome pieces of software -- Servant Salamander, by ALTAP, which is short for Alternate Applications.

I've been using some version of Servant Salamander daily for about seven years. It's stable, intuitive, feature-packed and useful. ALTAP continues to add features and just released Beta 8.0 of version 2.5 on Friday.

I have a lot of cool programs on my computer. Servant Salamander is one of the coolest.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Weather in New England

If I had to rank things in order of increasing slippery-ness, I'd put snow at number three, mud at number two, and ice at number one.

During yesterday's backyard Easter egg hunt, I had a chance to compare all three. Fortunately, no one fell, and the dog and house are still fairly clean.

Douglas Adams on Technology

Here's some brief, witty commentary on technology from Douglas Adams. These snippets can be found in The Salmon of Doubt, which I just finished reading.
  1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

We notice things that don't work. We don't notice things that do. We notice computers, we don't notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don't notice books.

We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works. How do you recognize something that is still technology? A good clue is if it comes with a manual.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

How to Prevent School Shootings?

In the aftermath of every tragedy, it's natural to ask, "How could we have prevented this?" Many schools installed metal detectors after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed fellow students at Columbine High School nearly five years ago. But the metal detector at Red Lake High School didn't prevent Jeff Weise from killing seven classmates last week.

Is the answer more technology? There are those who will advocate for more.

I hear that Jeff Weise fit a profile. He was a quiet loner. That will lead scientists to wonder whether there's a genetic marker that predisposes someone to such violent acts as mass murder. If we can identify at-risk youths, we can prevent the next tragedy.

This is preemptive thinking. We were preemptive in getting rid of Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and its non-links with terrorists. What's to stop Patriot Act proponents from preemptively detaining a bunch of Goth school kids?

Of course this cessation of rights won't start with school kids. It'll start with the lowest of criminals, a class of criminal even the ACLU won't want to defend -- the sexual predator.

John Couey, who confessed to molesting and killing 9 year old Jessica Lunsford, is the ideal poster boy for genetic testing. "Hey before we put you in prison you need an exam. Just wonder what a bit of your DNA might look like in my handy Genome test kit?"

Perhaps this is already being done on numerous sexual predators nationwide. Once the data is collected, a correlation is made. And then you start being preemptive.

The Human Genome project wasn't initiated with the idea of segregating people based on their DNA. But that's the way it goes with technology. Once you put it out there, you can't control how it gets used.

So now I hope you'll excuse me while I rid my wardrobe of every article of black clothing I own....

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Why This Blog (Part 2)

At the end of Part 1 of Why This Blog, I referred to our daughter. Here's an excerpt of my journal that features our daughter:

On Saturday (12/15/01), my wife and I took our daughter to The Farm to have breakfast with Santa Claus and the Grinch. We called in advance to buy tickets, and we were thrilled that "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was broadcast on television the night before; furthermore, we were happy that our daughter seemed to enjoy certain parts of the animated special.

We arrived and were told that we should gather eggs in the chicken coop. The "snowman" showed us to the coop, which was about the size of a large living room and was filled with chickens and straw. Our daughter collected the eggs and placed them in the basket that my wife held. I just walked around a bit and took pictures. After we got outside, a strong wind blew the snowman's hat off, and our daughter chased after it. I picked it up and gave it to her, and then she gave it to the snowman.

We took the eggs to be graded. Our daughter placed them on the machine one-at-a-time. Then we washed our hands and went to have breakfast.

I sat down with her while my wife went to get three plates of food. There were scrambled eggs, sausage and pancakes. As we ate, the Grinch came in and foraged in the garbage can for food! Our daughter was hysterical with laughter! "The Grinch eats garbage! The Grinch eats garbage!" she shouted between fits of laughter.

Then Santa came over and said hi to us. He asked our daughter her name and what she wanted for Christmas. "A hobbyhorse," she replied. That's what we've been brainwashing her into wanting for about a month.

Soon after that, the trolley ride was announced. The Grinch drove the tractor that pulled the trolley. He drove by his "reindeer", which were panels of wood cut into the shape of reindeer and painted appropriate colors. After the seventh reindeer, we came upon Rudolph. This was a deer-like mannequin suspended on a wire so that it "flew" as we rode past. The red nose blinked.

After the trolley ride, we visited the animals. We've seen the horses, emu, llamas and sheep before. But this time there was a goat with two babies. They were black and about the size of our puppy, but taller and less long. But they were shy and agile, so it was hard for us to get a good picture with them.

Stay tuned for Parts 3, 4 ....

Bluebird House

Bluebirds are making a comback in the Northeast. Some have been spotted in our town. So my wife, who just started a new job, bought a bluebird house today, just like the one pictured on the right. This is made by Woodlink. It's from their American Tradition Series, and it's called simply "Bluebird House."

Edited to add:
  • I mounted the little house on the trunk of a yellow birch tree. The ground is too frozen to drive a special pole into, which is what's recommended.
  • Check out the North American BlueBird Society's website.
  • Copyright to image of bluebird house most likely resides with Woodlink.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why This Blog (Part 1)

Many events led up to my starting this blog.

Journal writing is in my blood. My first handwritten journal entry appeared when I was in the seventh grade. How long ago was that? I just did the math in my head. It can't have been that long. Thirty years?

My first attempt at putting my journal on a computer failed almost immediately. It was back in the mid 1980's, before we even had personal computers in my department at work. The popular home computer at the time was the Commodore 64. And that's what I bought. The word processor it ran could display only half a screen at a time, 40 of 80 characters. Switching from the left of the page to right wore me out very quickly.

What I really wanted to do was write sections of text and then link to them from other sections of text. I hadn't heard of HTML yet. But if I did I would have wanted to use it.

Another ten years went by. And then my employer's LAN became established, and we had dial-up Internet access. If you think 56K is slow, imagine 56K shared among ten people. Despite the slow access, I established my first web page. A lame first attempt, it merely consisted of a list of links.

It wasn't that I couldn't think of content. Rather, I couldn't think of a way to bare my soul and remain anonymous. (As soon as I finished it, I sent an announcement to everyone.) So I let it collect virtual dust.

As our daughter started to grow and do interesting things, I became more interested than ever in journaling. I committed myself to writing it on computer. This time I had HTML to work with, and a wonderful text editor that understood HTML syntax.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Technology as Management

I work for a company that proudly bills itself as a lean manufacturing company. That's a euphemism for "a company with too few managers because we're too cheap to hire more." So at every opportunity, they manage with technology.

One example is how they decided to limit Internet access and game playing among the hardworking, hourly workers who assemble and test our products, and upon whom our livelihood depends. The big boss doesn't want them to fritter away valuable time. Time is money, and all that. He also prefers to sit in his office rather than walk among them.

At the time, I was a "sort of" member of the IT team. The first thing we did was install Microsoft's System Management Server (SMS). We did this not to address the time frittering issue, but because SMS was really cool. We loved playing with SMS.

My favorite aspect of SMS was the way it would run programs at certain times on remote computers. I used it to deploy virus updates, before we switched to an enterprise virus tool.

SMS could also restrict certain users from running certain programs at certain times of the day. So we used it to restrict Internet Explorer, Solitaire, Freecell, Minesweeper, and so forth.

Of course, it was easy to circumvent SMS restrictions simply by renaming the restricted file names. One could rename IEXPLORE.EXE to MSACCESS.EXE, for example. I knew this at the very beginning. I'm not sure whether the other IT guys did. I didn't bother to mention it. I felt that anyone smart enough to figure this out should be rewarded. I knew that the big boss didn't know this. He seemed satisfied that we had an answer to his issue, a technological answer in fact.

So we went on like this for a good while. And I'm proud to say that we had only one case of virus infection (Melissa), and I shut the email server's service before it spread to other computers.

But SMS was a resource hog. If the network was busy or the server was slow, we'd experience a frown-inducing delay before running any application because the computer needed to wait for SMS to say, "Yes, you can run the program this time (but don't make a habit of it.)" So when we hired the full time IT guy, he brought in an enterprise virus tool and eradicated SMS.

The new guy approached this issue differently than we did. He took the request seriously. He was determined to make his solution work. What he did was this. He renamed IEXPLORE.EXE to something else, and set its folder's local permissions to deny access. He omitted the standard games from the installation. And he set peoples' local accounts as user accounts as opposed to administrator accounts. That's to prevent them from installing games or other web browsers.

By then, programs had evolved to offer HTML-based help, which required IE. Restrict IE, and you restrict access to help. Although I mentioned this to him, it wasn't until I told him I needed everybody to use IE that he came up with a new idea. He set the IP address of the default gateway on certain computers to a bogus value. The default gateway is the address of the computer or router that traffic needs to go to in order to get on the Internet. If that address is not known, a computer cannot access the Internet.

This is the current method of limiting Internet access. IE is free to open local files or network-based files. Yet no programs can access the Internet. So it has the added benefit of preventing "malware" from "phoning home."

As nice as this seems, there's still a problem. Suppose someone who's allowed to access the Internet needs to use one of the restricted computer? No dice.

Anyway, this "locking the cookie jar" technique of barring Internet access really does ensure people won't waste time on the Internet. That's because they'll be wasting time figuring out how to gain access! As well, it sends the message, "We don't trust you to do your job. We'd rather micromanage your job rather than support your growth." It's how you treat children.

Why not be smart about this? If people are so bored (or addicted or lazy) that they'd rather fool around on the computer and risk losing their jobs, treat the boredom (or addiction or laziness.) Have a merit-based reward system in place. Make sure they always have work to do (but not too much).

Monday, March 07, 2005

Technology as Marketing Follow Up

Frivolous technology that's used as a marketing tool results in an Arm's Race of Technology as manufacturers try to out-do their competitors. We consumers encounter expensive, feature-bloated products instead of the basic, trusty, inexpensive things we've grown up with. It may be that eBay will turn out to be a Luddite's best friend. Some of those quaint, clever gadgets we're so familar with are no longer made. Expect to see eBay affiliates opening brick-and-mortar shops soon.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Technology as Marketing

I'm about as suspicious of technology as I am about email from Nigeria. That's because technology is the snake oil of the twenty-first century. Adding new "bells and whistles" to something, regardless of whether they're needed, is considered a good way to get consumers to buy something they already have.

For example, if you manufacture coffee makers, there are a limited number of circumstances under which people will buy your product:

0. Their old coffee maker broke and needs replacing.

1. They finally moved out of their parent's house (or divorced) and need one of their own.

2. They need to give a practical gift.

3. A new one will make life much easier.

Over the first three circumstances you have little control. (Well, actually, you could ensure that their old coffee maker breaks if they bought your old model and you made it cheaply enough. But then who would be daft enough to buy the same brand of coffee maker that broke? Then again, if all your competitors also made their coffee makers nearly as cheaply as yours, all you'd have to do was make sure the thing outlasts the warranty. Or you could simply market the same coffee maker under a few different brand labels.)

Where was I? I seem to lost my train of thought. So while I'm looking for my train (and wondering where my luggage has gone off to) let me explain the business with starting the above list with zero.

I wanted to present content in this blog with a good balance between Ludditism and Geekiness. But I'm a bit concerned that there may be much more Luddite than Geek here. Of course, the fact that this is a blog should help balance things out. It's not like I'm scratching this into parchment under candlelight with India ink and a nib. No right-minded Luddite[1] would dare go near a computer let alone build a blog using one.

What does this have to do with my zero-starting list? I think I can answer that. Starting at zero is something programmers do. If we have a list (or array) of ten to "iterate" through, we go from 0 to 9, not 1 to 10. I do know the precise reason for this, but to explain it would diverge even more from coffee-making than ever. So let me wrap this up by convincing you that programming habits pervade my being to such an extent that they leak out into daily life, if you could call this a life. And thus I am a geek. QED.

Now then, I was leading up to the idea that if you want someone to buy your coffee maker, and that person already has one, you have to convince that person that yours will make his/her life better. In the absence of technology, you might achieve this by making the coffee maker look more attractive in some way by some combination of redesign and advertising. You'd pay a gorgeous model to appear in a commercial while using your coffee maker. Then you'd pay her some more to make bedroom eyes to a bleary-eyed man who was using your coffee maker during another commercial.

Or, you could use technology. It's cheaper than a model. And some people are tired of gorgeous models, especially the homemaker who has to get up a 5:00am each weekday and get three children off to three different schools before racing to work, hopefully remembering to drop the fourth child off at daycare on the way.

So what you do is hire a couple of engineers to add a few features, like the ability to tell the difference between a weekday and the weekend in order to automatically brew at 5:00am on the former and, say, 5:10am on the latter. (Don't forget, her kids have soccer on Saturday and Sunday school on Sunday.) And you add another feature where it knows if any particular weekday is, in fact, a holiday. And another feature that keeps the coffee maker's clock synchronized to the NIST atomic clock in Boulder CO. Because you know and I know that Super Mom doesn't have time to set her coffee maker's clock every time junior presses the GFI Test button and cuts off the power to it. More importantly, she knows it.

But what she doesn't know is that your coffee maker doesn't know the difference between really important holidays such as Memorial Day, and those lesser ones such as Veteran's Day, with the difference being that her work place doesn't open on Memorial Day but does open on Veteran's Day. She also doesn't know that the coffee maker will utterly fail to synchronize with the NIST atomic clock because the signal is too weak. Worst of all, she doesn't know that if she forgets to add the water one night, it'll try to brew anyway the following morning, turning the hot plate on under an empty pot. And that night will happen to be the one that the kids are sleeping over at their Gramma's house so that Mom can sleep until 8:00am. Except that she'll awaken at 6:37 when her smoke alarm pierces her precious sleep.

But that's a good thing, because then she'll need to buy another coffee maker!

[1] "Right-minded Luddite" is, of course, another oxymoron.