bookmark_borderA is for “ailanthus,” Z is for “zoom”

RIP Driveway Ailanthus ~2005 – 2019

Here’s a word from Zoom, letting us know that they are taking things “extremely seriously…”

Overall, this is a good message. Zoom appears to be taking the right steps to fix both their existing problems and the mistakes they have made in developing/marketing their product.

Nobody could have forseen the huge increase in volume that Zoom has had to deal with in the last few weeks. They found themselves in the coveted position of “easiest option that currently sucks the least” for a service a lot of people have suddenly needed. That’s as good as it gets.

Performance and support issues are understandable in explosive growth situations like this, and honestly, Zoom has done a much better job at both than I would have given them credit for. They must be paddling like mad, struggling with the best and most daunting problem a tech company can have.

So kudos–and all the patience you can muster–go to them for that.

It’s important to keep in mind however, that the majority of the security and privacy issues that they are now rushing to correct were baked into the product BEFORE this increase in volume, and that increase in volume in no way caused those issues.

They did not underthink the use of the FB SDK, nor fudge the definition of “end-to-end,” nor include the spooky attention tracker, nor release a buggy, insecure Mac OS version because they suddenly had millions more users. In fact, those things were exposed in part because they suddenly had millions of users, and their product came under much more scrutiny as a result.

Zoom built something that had some serious problems, millions of people used it anyway, and the suckage was exposed. Now they are trying to make it right.

I really hope they do. I really hope Zoom ends up with a secure, solid, kick-ass product that does what is supposed to and maintains the ease of access, usability, and low cost of use that attracted people to it in the first place.

But keep in mind that most people did not choose the best possible solution when they chose Zoom–they chose the easy option that sucked least. Most people continued to use it while it was doing things they didn’t want it to do, because it was too much work to change to something else.

If Zoom ends up a solid, kick-ass secure product that does what it is supposed to do and respects privacy and leaves a lemony-fresh scent, it won’t be because people chose that product.

It will be because people are willing to use a worse product.

bookmark_borderCan you remove the default screen savers in Mac OS?

Spoiler: Don’t.

This applies to Mac OS 10.15.3

By default, Mac OS comes with the execrable “Album Artwork” screen saver. When activated, this thing tiles any album artwork that it finds in your Apple Music (formerly iTunes) folder across your screen. That’s fine, but if you happen to click on your mouse while it is running, it starts Apple Music and tries to play something from whatever album you clicked on.

I usually click the mouse to deactivate my screen saver, and I don’t want to open Music all the time, so this behavior completely sucks. You can not disable this behavior in the screen saver settings, which also completely sucks.

Because I’m an exciting devil-may-care kinda fellow who lives on the edge, I like to set my Mac to use a random screen saver. But I don’t want the Album Artwork screen saver to run, and Apple doesn’t let you choose which of the default screen savers are randomly used. You either use one screen saver, or all of them. This also completely sucks.

All that suckage lead me to the question “Can you remove a default screen saver from your Mac?”

The shortest absolute answer is “Yeah, but it’s not simple.”

The shortest workable answer for most people is “Nah.”

The best answer is “If you want to use a screen saver, use Xscreensaver.”

The actual answer is “You can, but I decided not to, and you probably will too.”

Everything from here on pertains to bad decisions. Your life will be better and simpler if you just leave this page now and go learn how to make cheese.

But if you are determined, here is what you need to know in order to make a bad decision about the default screen savers on your Mac.

I warn you now that I am not going to explain how to do each step. Knowing what you are doing is the cost of entry here.

If you don’t understand what you are reading, I STRONGLY suggest you stop doing it and either go learn more or give up entirely.*:

The default screen savers are located in /System/Library/Screen Savers.

Doing things in Terminal

  • CD /System/Library/Screen Savers
    You will need to tab-complete or escape the space in “Screen Savers.”
  • ls or ls -la to see all the screen savers. Yep, they are directories.
  • You can then nuke the directory of the screen saver you hate.

I recommend you copy it somewhere else first, in case your plan to delete a system file doesn’t work out as smoothly as you’d planned. Because you planned this, right?

Doing things in Finder

  • Open Finder, hit CMD+shift+g and type in the location of the screen saver folders.

The directory will show up as empty. That’s because it contains system files, which are hidden by default.

  • Hit CMD+shift+. and you can see the hidden files.
  • You can then nuke the directory of the screen saver you hate.

I recommend you copy it somewhere else first, in case your plan to delete a system file doesn’t work out as smoothly as you’d planned. Because you planned this, right?

If you are now asking yourself “Why can’t I just right click and move the directory to the trash?” then you have more research to do. I do hope that dissuades you from continuing.

*This is some pretty solid general life advice

bookmark_borderInformation and links – Mar 25, 2020 – The GIMPening!

Stuff I have learned–or at least looked up–recently.

How to fade an image to transparency using GIMP

Short version:
Create a layer mask for the layer you want to fade. Apply a black-to-white gradient to that layer. The area marked as black will show as transparent.

This worked in GIMP 2.10 on my Mac. I found that the stupid black-to-white gradient did not allow me to adjust the fade–it’s just locked at halfway. I made that work.
Here is the first useful link I found about this.

WTF is up with that stupid grey “Tool Options” box that appears on the top left of my screen when using GIMP?

Short version:
This bug has been around for a while. It happens when you click (and maybe drag) inside the “Tool Options” tab in the Tools window. A grey box that says “Tool Options” appears on the top left of your screen, covering up the “File” and other menu items.


You can make it go away by clicking (and maybe dragging) in the Tool Options box. Try dragging the “Tool Options” text to the right just a little bit. This worked in GIMP 2.10 to 2.10.8 on my Macs running both El Capitan (10.11.6) and Catalina (10.15.3)

Here is the first useful link I found about this

I just opened a really big image in GIMP on my Mac and now I can’t right-click on anything with my mouse!

Short version:
Gosh, this sure is annoying. This happened in GIMP 2.10 in El Capitan on an old Mac Pro with 16 gigs o’ RAM.

You might be able to get regular mouse functionality back by opening the “Mouse” settings in System Preferences. All I had to do was open Mouse–that must make the OS check in with the mouse and give it a Stern Look.

bookmark_borderAutomatically broken

panpet

ATTN: People who make video softwareses!
I know you all read my posts, so I thought I would mention this here.I know it makes you feel cool to just use the names of Chip Jewelry for output settings, but some of us actually want to know what those settings mean.

Seeing as you require me to put in the resolution, framerate, aspect, etc. in order to IMPORT, you can assume that I will want to know what those numbers are for EXPORT.

If audio software worked like this, you’d have presets like:

  • I have mpenge disks on my turntable spindle
  • “Audiophile” who likes vinyl (ironic)
  • “Audiophile” who likes vinyl (old)
  • “Audiophile” who likes vinyl (clean-shaven)
  • “Audiophile” who likes vinyl (bearded)
  • “Audiophile” who likes vinyl (because pictures on the cover!)
  • Liquid metal cables and blue felt pen on the CD
  • Metal guy (80’s)
  • Metal guy (90’s)
  • Metal guy (00’s)
  • Compressed all to ratshit, like on the radio
  • Streaming
  • Leave my shit alone and just render a .wav file (hidden deep in settings)

bookmark_borderWhy they come in boxes

Does not come with wafers
Does not come with wafers.

Just opened up a brand-new Lenovo laptop running Win7 to set up for someone who just bought it. I do this kind of thing for people.

If you are planning to do this yourself, try this: When you buy the laptop, ask the person selling it if you can just go ahead and open it right there in the store and try it out.

Not the demo on the shelf, the new computer you just bought.

This should be no problem.  Batteries aren’t the temperamental pains they used to be—you can, in most cases, just take the thing out of the box, plug it in, and start it up.  Most stores have wi-fi all over the place.  You should be able to fire up your new machine, get online, get to know it a bit, and start enjoying computing fun, You could even do your registration.

You’d think that would be pretty cool.  You’d think that would actually help sell computers. But of course, that isn’t what happens at all

What happens, with Windows machines anyway, is that you will spend the first hour with your new laptop wading through the crap adware the manufacturer included, saying “No” to all the “Do you want to activate/buy this thing you’ve never heard of?” dialogs, downloading updates, having the machine do a bunch of stuff without knowing what it is, and wondering why the thing is so slow.

Hint: It will quite slow until it has been running and online for at least half an hour, and then restarted at least once.

Normally, you HAVE to do all this crap when you get home. At that point, you are excited about your machine, then surprised, then annoyed, then frustrated, but you’ve already bought the damn thing, so you just eat your lemons.

It seems odd that your first day or so with your spanky new computer is going to be the worst time you spend with it until it either gets bogged down with cruft or malware, or the fan dies.

If you spent your first few minutes on a new laptop in a store, there’s pretty much no way you would leave with the machine. And if you were watching someone else go through this, you probably wouldn’t want to buy the machine in the first place.

At this point, if you have owned a computer and paid any attention at all to it, you might be thinking “Yes.  This is exactly what happens. That’s just how it is.  SO?”

Well, after 30-odd years of consumer computing, it is just incredible that this is how it is.

bookmark_borderIt’s so hard to swim cross the mainstream

HOORAH!  Ubuntu is now a sure-nuff mainstream operating system!  Here’s a transcript of a conversation I had with it just the other day.  I couldn’t figure out why it felt so familiar, but then I realised that it’s the same conversation I’ve had with the more popular operating systems.

a picture
Find one in every car

netdud: Hello Ubuntu computer I use for three things! I would like to do one of those things now.

Computer: This version of Ubuntu is no longer supported

netdud: Hey, good to know. Anyway, if we could just do the thing

Computer:
You should totally upgrade.

netdud:
Yeah. I don’t really use this machine for anything but those three things, and it doesn’t see the outside world, so it really doesn’t matter

Computer:
We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that’s new and doesn’t look anything like the version you’re using. You totally want that!

netdud:
No. I don’t. Can I just do the thing…

Computer: We’ve cloud got cloud the cloud cloud services cloud TOTALLY cloud integrated cloud into cloud the operating system.

netdud: That sounds horrible.

Computer: We’ve got the awesome Unity interface, for people who can’t use computers, and don’t want to buy a tablet that does much.

netdud: Oh right! Took me a couple of hours to get that utter toss off this machine last time. No. Not interested

Computer: Your version isn’t safe.

netdud: What?

Computer: Yeah–the version you’re using right now, if you keep using it, uh, all kinds of bad things are going to go unpatched.

netdud: BS

Computer: I’m totally SRS! Also, cloud!

netdud: FINE. I just want to do my one thing!

Computer: OK! I’ll just sort out all the stuff you don’t need–

netdud: HEY! WHAT? No! Just leave stuff alone and change the OS crap you need

Computer: Uninstalling GNOME files, removing My SQL…

netdud: What the WHAT? GET OUTTA THERE!

Computer: Download complete. Installing the upgrades. About 6 hours remaining.

netdud: WHAAT?

Computer: About three hours remaining

netdud: OK. That’s better. I guess. For an OS I need to do THREE THINGS

Computer: About five hours remaining.

netdud: Oh. We’re doing that, are we?

Computer: About three hours remaining.

netdud: Whatever

Computer: Unable to delete the directory containing the thing that we are replacing with another thing that does the same thing but has a new name you won’t remember. So I’m just going to leave that directory full of old junk for you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy nothing more than reading all the log files for this six hour install, so of course you will find all the directories I left like this.

netdud: Yeah. I love doing stuff like that. You’ve got my number there.

Computer: Moving obsolete conf file [XXX] out of the way.

netdud: Did you REALLY just say that?

Computer: Moving obsolete conf file [XXy] out of the way.

netdud: What the hell does that even MEAN? Did you go to “Bad command or file name” University or something?

Computer: Moving obsolete conf file [XyX] out of the way.

netdud: Again?

Computer: I’m going to fill the screen with those. You can read all about it later in the log file I guess.

netdud: Sorry–missed that. Just decided it was a good time to get a drink

Computer: About 1 hour and 27 minutes remaining.

netdud: I just wanted to..

Computer: Now I’m replacing a whole shit-ton of packages like GREP and Chrome and fonts that you already had, but I just stopped updating them because you didn’t upgrade the entire OS.

netdud: Yeah. Woulda sucked to just get those a bit at a time, in the background. On a machine that runs 24/7.

Computer: About three hours remaining.

netdud: It’s like I don’t even know you any more, dude.

Computer: I’m installing the Wifis and Bluetooth support. Yes, I DO still have the list of hardware currently on the machine, but I didn’t look at it. Just installing stuff. That’s what I do.

netdud: This box doesn’t even have… Nevermind

Computer: Also replacing the eleventy-billion printer drivers we installed with the last upgrade with eleventy billion printer drivers which are not ALL the same as the last ones, just in case you suddenly want to use eleventy-billion printers right after this upgrade.

netdud: That’s awesome! Thanks! But the driver that worked perfectly with the one printer I actually use, that’ll still work fine, right? Because that’s one of the three things that I…

Computer: About one hour and twenty minutes remaining.

netdud: Why am I excited that this is suddenly going to take on a stupid amount of time, instead of a ridiculously stupid amount of time?

Computer: Moving on–remember that package you tried, and then found out that the project was discontinued, and that it didn’t work anyway? I just replaced it with the point release you didn’t bother upgrading to because it was discontinued.

netdud: Thank you for that. As I recall, that package wasn’t part of the distribution

Computer: Just one of the services we do on upgrade.

netdud: Oh, I can see your point–that’s just the sort of thing you SHOULD add to a 1.5 gig, four-hour automatic upgrade. I’d hate to go through all this and find out I’m a version behind on software you don’t support and doesn’t work. What would my friends say when I try to tell them how user-friendly Ubuntu is?

Computer: I’m replacing the LAME codec right now. The old one was working fine, but there’s a new one.

netdud: Why are you doing that?

Computer: Because I’m going alphabetically.

netdud: Good plan. And I mean, what are the chances that someone would have a problem with the awesome sound subsystem on Linux, and have to do some bodgy junk to get it running? You should TOTALLY screw around with the stuff and set it up in a nice generic way to use a sound card I don’t have installed, and move all my codecs somewhere exciting.

Computer: Updating your version of OpenOffice.

netdud: Really? Why? What does that have with the operating system?

Computer: We include it WITH the operating system!

netdud: Yeah, but that means I already HAVE it. Why are you including a new install of the fattest piece of bloatware on the entire system with an OS upgrade?

Computer: Same amount of time remaining as the last four times you looked, even though the list of things I am doing keeps changing.

netdud: I’m going to bed. Check on you in the morning.

Computer: I’m going to change some config files, and I need you to tell I can replace them. Or you can tell me to keep the old ones. I’m not going to tell you if the old ones might have a different effect after the upgrade.

netdud: Hang on–let me see the two files

Computer: I can let you compare the two by dropping them in a big long vertical window with codes in front to show what each file says.

netdud: Can I see them side-by-side?

Computer: Don’t be ridiculous! What good would that do?

netdud: Uh, let’s keep the old ones

Computer: I will accept that with an off-putting ease, making you wonder why I didn’t just keep the old one as a matter of course. But you will pay, stupid. You will pay.

netdud: I’m really sleepy. I’m going to bed

Computer: Hang on–I want to show you how I am testing for the right audio drivers by saying that things are failing, and then test a bunch of drivers that have brand names not even remotely related to this machine.

netdud: Wait–I’ve never even owned a Dell laptop!

Computer: I don’t blame you–that driver is teh fail!

netdud: Cool, thought you were losing your mind.

Computer: I’ve installed the HP Crudsucker 760 driver, it’s totes wikkid!

netdud: That’s a laptop! This machine is an old desktop!

Computer: So that should have the sound squared away. I’m just going to tell you there are 24 minutes remaining for the next 24 minutes.

netdud: All the hope in me has died. I feel strangely free.

Computer: I’m going to leave a sentence that ends with the word “completed” on the screen, and but the fans are all going to come on like mad and the drive light is going to stay lit for the next three minutes straight. Everything’s fine though.

netdud: So sleepy

Computer: Hey–you want this old config file? Looks like the only difference between it and the new one is that the old one is set up to run headless.

netdud: Yeah–this machine only runs headless.

Computer: Y’don’t say. Wow. If I knew that before I started, there’d be no need to keep stopping and waiting for you to compare conf files and click yes.

netdud:
Gosh, that would really be something.

Computer:  Hey!  Why don’t you go to bed and I’ll just sit here with this dialogue box waiting for your input and the drive light and all the fans going full blast.

netdud:  No, I’ll sit up here with you. I’ve suddenly got a bunch of reading to do about unpopular Linux distros..

bookmark_borderFree to read

Beer and Computers
“Free” as in “How the HELL do I pay my rent?”

“What is ‘RSS?'”  Pooh asked, as if he’d forgotten how to use a search engine, which once again, he had.

“It’s short for ‘Rich Site Summary'” said Christopher Robin, though he liked to tell people it meant “Really Simple Syndication.” But he just couldn’t be mean to his friend like that.

“All the new information from a web site gets put into a ‘feed’ that you can read without having to go to the site and wade through all the advertising and bad design.  It’s a great way to get just the news from news sites, or blog posts, or any content from sites that update often. You can collect and read all  your feeds in one place, which allows you to organize, filter and read a lot of information from a lot of sources very quickly.”

“So it’s like a FaceyTwitPlusR newsfeedticker?”  asked Pooh, quoting Buddha, or maybe it was Ghandi.  Or Oprah.  Evs.

“Well, it’s the other way around–those are kind of like what you can do with RSS if you aren’t very clever and like seeing the same thing over and over”  said Christopher Robin, photographing his cat eating lunch.  

“You don’t sound very much like yourself today, Christopher Robin.”  said Pooh.  “You sound kind of like a cranky person who just had a tooth removed and is very tired of yoghurt and Jell-o and smoothies just wants something crunchy something goddamn crunchy for chissake is every ad on TV for goddamn crunchy goddamn things? “

“No, I’m afraid I don’t sound much like myself at all, and it was a terrible idea to think that I would.  I’m sorry.”  said Christopher Robin, who was in no mood to think of a better character to use.

“Let’s never do this again.” said Pooh.  And they never did.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to use Bloglines, which was an online RSS aggregator. That means that I signed up for an account, which was free, and then I subscribed to a bunch of RSS feeds, and then I could read and save the articles in those feeds on the Bloglines site.  That was really cool, because I could read my feeds from any computer that had an Interweresds connection.

Bloglines closed down, and then it didn’t, over and over.  I left the first time it closed.  I then started using Google Reader, which was pretty much exactly the same service as Bloglines, except I didn’t like the interface as much.  It worked just fine, but Google services are really a trade-off:  On one hand, the services are usually really good, and really reliable, for as long as Google feels like providing them.  On the other hand, it’s not much work to find the same services that don’t track and push advertising in my face all the time.

The other hand won, so I started using a desktop RSS feed reader. There are about infinity of these—you can get RSS feeds in your email client or through your web browser or whatever, if you want.  I was using a dedicated client for the Mac called Vienna, which is FOSS, and worked just great for me.

I don’t like being tied to one machine though, and I have hosting for my domains, so I knew that eventually I would want to set up my own web-based RSS reader on it.  I wanted something like Reader or Bloglines, that I could get at from anywhere, but not dependent on the whims of the pretend Inderenet “market.”

Then the power supply on my Mac let go.  That forced me to do something, because I couldn’t use Vienna to read my feeds.  Necessity is a mother, and all that.

I looked at a bunch of options.  I wanted Open Source stuff, and not just because I am cheap and clever and rugged and brave and very very handsome.  Generally when (when) the developer bails on an Open Source project, there is at least the chance that someone will pick it up, or at least document how to get your stuff out of it. With very few exceptions, when (WHEN) companies bail on closed-source, commercial software (or versions thereof), they give it  two to the chest and one to the head, lock the remains in a vault protected by ninja lawyers, and act like it never existed.

I didn’t want to get screwed AGAIN by some third party’s business plan, or lack thereof.

I quickly discovered the limitations of my hosting.  It’s running old versions of PHP, PostgreSQL and My SQL.  Most folks developing stuff will make it work with the current version of those packages, or only be one or two point versions behind. As a result, I couldn’t install the current versions of pretty much ANY web-based RSS reader I found. This is not the fault of the developers—in fact, it’s a virtue—but it meant more work for me.

Eventually, I found Tiny Tiny RSS.  It is small and light and simple and works very well.

Or at least, the version I am using does.  Because of my elderly PHP and database installs, I can not run Tiny Tiny RSS in a standard–or recommended–configuration.  Here are the problems, and how I solved them:

  • My PHP version is too old.  I found this very useful site by a person who has hacked/patched Tiny Tiny RSS to use older versions of PHP.  It works!  That is very cool, and I’m glad there are folks like this out there.
  • Tiny Tiny RSS can use either PostgrSQL or MySQL as the backend database.  The developer, along with everyone else who has tried both, recommends PostgreSQL, because the performance is just way better (faster).The version of PostgreSQL on my hosting is too old to work with Tiny Tiny RSS, so I used MySQL.  It works!
  • The developer, along with every non-annoying person who posts on the Tiny Tiny RSS discussion board, EXPLICITLY STATES that if you run Tiny Tiny RSS on shared hosting, you are on your own.  Also, probably dumb.  I am on shared hosting.  It works—ON MY HOSTING!  This does NOT mean that it will work on any other shared hosting, and if it doesn’t, tough. About the LAST thing you should do is bitch about that, because it says RIGHT ON THE TIN not to use shared hosting.

It took about an hour to get this up and running–most of which was spent reading and tracking down ways to make this work.  It took a few more minutes to subscribe to all my feeds.  It’s been working just splendidly for a couple of weeks or so now.

To recap:  Tiny Tiny RSS is FOSS, and I am running it in a configuration that it is NOT designed for—or supported under—and everything I am doing should give me terrible performance and problems.  And it is working just fine.

That is the highest, most backhanded compliment I can think of:  I am using this software the worst way I can, and I like how it works.  I am pretty sure the developer would slap me upside the head were I to tell him this over a beer, and I would not blame him if he did.  But I would still pay for the beer, because this is great stuff.

Speaking of which, Tiny Tiny RSS is developed by ONE guy, who is doing it in what probably used to be his spare time. He also posts on the discussion board for the product’s support.  The software is free, but he does take donations. I’d be shocked (and happy) if those donations bought him even a quarter of the beer and coffee it must take just to get through the discussion board posts every day.

He’s kinda crabby on to some people on the boards—those who ask stupid questions, bitch about how this free software doesn’t do what THEY want it to, or make stupid demands—and I find that incredible.  I don’t know how he finds the time to even respond to that kind of crap. Much more patient guy than me.

Think I’ll buy him a beer.

bookmark_borderThe baked beans are off.

not spam
With lots of pepper!

A while back, there were some big takedowns of a couple very large spam sources, which caused an enormous drop in the amount of spam worldwide. It appears that other parties have recently picked up the slack.

There has been a marked increase in the amount of email spam firing around over the last week or two.  I’ve been seeing a few hundred showing up in my filters daily, and the number seems to be growing.  There are a couple of things that can be done to protect yourself and others.

Luckily, these new attempts are pretty clumsy (eg emails claiming to be from MySpace containing warnings about bank accounts), but these new spammers won’t stay clumsy forever.

Also, because so many people are depending more on “private” messaging services (Facebook, Skype, etc), and/or have got new devices that use mail apps with limited  or hard-to-find controls, a lot of folks simply aren’t aware of what spam is and how to deal with it.

There are lots and lot of resources on the Weebs to help you find out if a message is spam.  Here’s an old one that is still pretty good,  and here is one more with more detail and a charmingly naive opening sentence.   I recommend you learn more about this stuff, but the most basic way to protect yourself is simply not click on anything–either a link or an attachment–unless you know FOR SURE that it is OK.  This applies even if the message has made it past your spam filters.  You can always send a reply to whomever sent you the message and ask if it is legit.

Oh, and spam occurs–and usually looks similar, on all them fancy chip jewelries you kids spend all day rubbing as well.

A quick and simple way to identify spam is copy a couple of sentences from the message and then paste them into a Google search, surrounded by quotes. It doesn’t always work, but if the spam has been around for a day or two, you’ll usually see search results about it.  This also works quite well with heartwarming stories and pithy quotes that have political overtones, talk about “a local [profession]” or use the term “studies have shown” but don’t cite any ACTUAL studies.

Some basic mail account maintenance would also go a long way in slowing this stuff down.

A lot of people have moved to newer email providers (Gmail being the most common) over the last two or three years, and just abandoned their old accounts without emptying or deleting them.  This provides a great hunting ground for bad guys, because:

  •  Those old addresses still seem legit to the people who used to receive mail from them
  • A lot of those old accounts were started back before people learned to use stronger passwords
  • Those old accounts are full of email addresses that are probably exploitable as well

If you have old accounts out there that you no longer use–especially if they are web mail accounts  (like yahoo.com or whatever MS is calling hotmail this week), please take a moment to shut them down.

If the mail provider is foolish enough NOT to provide means to delete your old account, you can do the following:

  1. Log into the old account
  2. Send a message to all your contacts telling them that you are no longer using that address, won’t be receiving messages sent to it,  and that they are free to block it.

    You should probably include something that makes it obvious that you are you, such as your current email address, in case they have questions.

  3. Delete everything in the account, including all sent messages and especially all contact/address book entries.
  4. When you are sure that you will never need to get back into the account, reset the password to a very long string of gibberish with capital letters and numbers.  At that point, you can just mash the keys at random, using caps and numbers and stuff, and make as long a password as the thing will accept.

Spamming asshats will always be with us, but we don’t have to make it easy for them.

bookmark_borderI don’t even know what’s real any more

8_bit_heartAs a part-time IT crank, people ask me a lot of questions. One of the questions I get asked a lot is “What’s the difference between ‘emulation‘ and ‘virtualization?'”

This is a good question–both are ways of using one type of computer to do things as if it was some other type of computer. They are different in how they work, but is that what matters to the basic end user?

I’ll answer that question first: No. It is not.

Here then, is the best working distinction between the two, as far as users are concerned:

Emulation means that someone has figured out how to make games from some other system work on a computer that currently has a resale value greater than $1000. So when someone says “Have you tried the Intellivision emulator?” they actually mean “You should have your childhood destroyed by realizing how crap Body Slam Super Pro Wrestling actually was!”

Virtualization means that someone has figured out how to make a computer that currently has a resale value over $1000 pretend that it is a computer that you didn’t actually want to buy, except that it won’t play any of the really good games that you would have played on that other computer. So when someone says “You can do all the work you would normally do in Windows in this virtualized environment on your Mac.”  they actually mean “We really REALLY don’t want you to play games on this computer.”

bookmark_borderUpgrading to worse

It all starts with my mother. Now with more better than nothing!

My mother has an Intel Mac Mini that she got a few years ago. It works like a champ, and she has had fewer problems with it than any other computer she has ever had.  She does not have the need, interest, eyesight, or digital dexterity to use chip jewelry.

Before she got the Mac, she was using a Windows 98SE machine.  It was old, she’d had it quite a while, and it worked just dandy for her.  She liked it very much, and was pretty choked when she finally had to replace it.

There were two programs that she particularly liked on her Windows machine:  Quicken, and Maximizer. Maximizer is/was contact management software, which she used as an address book, calendar, to-do list and more.  (I used to work at the company that made Maximizer).  These two programs, along with a Web browser, email client, and some Word-compatible word processor, were pretty much all she used on the computer.

They don’t make a Canadian version of Quicken for Mac. Maximizer has unfortunately remained convinced that their only market is Windows users (too bad, as it was very useful stuff, and there was nothing quite like it).  Mom had to make a decision, and at the time, any new Windows machine she got would have run XP, which was as different to her as anything else would be. Also, I was using a Mac as a daily driver, and I’m the one who gets called when Mom has questions.  So Mom went with the Mac because the reasons for doing so were stronger.  It doesn’t matter whether you agree with this or not.

It is hard to explain to people who don’t know much about computers but actually think about what they are buying why computer X can’t run the same software as computer Y.  Normally, when dealing with boring products that perform a function, we define product Foo as being “better” than product Bar largely because Foo can do everything that Bar can do, and/or do more than that, or do it better.

You know–“This vacuum can pick up everything that vacuum can, AND it can pick up bigger things, and it can do stairs and it filters more crap out of the air.  So it’s better and it costs more.”

But because the personal computing market has been fundamentally defined by operating systems, we’ve been comparing apples to oranges (sorry) the whole time.  You can not buy an operating system that does everything the other operating systems do AND more.  Not simply.  And shut up about virtualization unless you are willing  to go set it up for my mom.

We use really screwy metrics to make our purchase decisions for personal computers, like:

  1. Computer X is faster (which is usually irrelevant, as all options are usually faster than the user needs)
  2. Computer X is what more people use (which is irrelevant, if you are only using formats that are cross-compatible)
  3. Computer X has more software titles available (which is irrelevant, because most people use their computer for a very small number of tasks, and almost becomes  a contradiction of #2 anyway)
  4. Computer X is ready for the next operating system (which is a really stupid argument, because despite what you see in ads from operating system manufacturers, most normal people don’t buy computers in order to get an operating system. They buy computers to do things.)

I used to look down my nose at people who bought computers because they looked nice, or were thin, or fit in their luggage, or matched their eyes. But you know, those are probably more reasonable arguments in most cases than any of the four above.  You’re better off making sure you like the screen, the keyboard and the mouse than the processor.

But let’s get back to Mom’s problem.  Last year, a friend of Mom’s sent her a Flash e-card.  It was one of those nice advent calendar thingies. It looks like an old town. You go to the calendar every day in December, and you click on the number of that day, and something nice happens–some decorations go up, some birds fly around.  It’s a sweet little thing.

This year, Mom got two of them.  She followed the link to get the cards, and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of Flash. So she tried to update her Flash plug-in and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of her browser. She tried another browser, and got the same message. So she tried to update her browser, and was told that the browser no longer supported her version of the operating system.

So there we are: Mom has to install a new version of her operating system JUST TO RUN AN E-CARD.

  • Does the e-card even use the new features of Flash?  Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need its new features to run the Flash plug-in? Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need all the functions of the new operating system just to run the Flash plug-in?  Who can say?

But nobody is going to say, and it wouldn’t matter if they did, because the answer is still “Install a new version of the operating system.”

Despite what it looks like in the ads, updating or installing a new O/S is not a super-fun happy time. You should back up your stuff first.  No matter what, a bunch of your settings will change, and a bunch of stuff will be in a different place, or have different names, than what you were used to.  It takes a long time too.  Oh yeah–and it costs money.  I live about half a continent away from Mom, so I have to bug a friend to help her out with this.

Yes, the easy way to look at this is particular problem is “It’s not worth it just for an e-card.”  But while it’s a masterfully-chosen example, it’s not just e-cards that this affects. I have recording hardware and perfectly functional computers in my basement which are no longer considered usable because they are no longer supported by operating systems.  The recording hardware and software I use on the current Mac I am writing this on will stop working if I “upgrade” the operating system.

It works just fine now.  And after I upgrade, it won’t work at all.

And the only solution is to buy more stuff–stuff that doesn’t work as well for me as the stuff I am using, by the way.  And of course, the new operating system does more, but not necessarily more of what I want it to do, and it does so at the cost of performance on the computer I am using.

In short, upgrading will make this computer worse.

Everything all the way along here is broken, as far as the user is concerned. Every link of this annoying chain of compromise was forged by a decision that something was more important than providing actual daily value to the user. And the user is the customer.

Here I go again: Software companies exist to make money.  They want to sell a new version of the same thing on a regular basis to an ever-increasing user base. I say that so often that even I am tired of hearing it, and I love the sound of my own typing.  It’s true though, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea.  The problem is that the model operating system manufacturers use is more appropriate to applications than operating systems.   I believe it was JWZ who said “My application shouldn’t break just because you did something as trivial as replace an operating system.”  I think he was going at that from a different angle, but it still obtains.

And it could get worse.  There is some conjecture that Microsoft wants to move to an annual OS update schedule like Apple’s. That’s a new operating system every 12 months. That’s an ASS-TON  (Kelvin) of broken drivers, suddenly obsolete software and hardware, and seriously non-productive users. Which is nothing but good news for hardware and software manufacturers and IT types, and thus pits them squarely against users.

You should not need to buy a bunch of new stuff just because a small thing on your computer has changed.  And when you get new stuff, it should work better than the old stuff.  All rationalizations about why this is not so ONLY make sense if you accept that this broken system is how It Has To Be.  It is not.

Right now, personal computing (including mobile) is a marketing scheme that happens to involve computers, and it is hurting itself and its users.

I had an idea though.  I’ll get to that next time.