Jerk

Back in prehistoric times when I studied elementary classical physics, things were pretty simple. And linear. And smooth. And predictable. We learned about displacement, velocity and acceleration and that was that. Forces and acceleration were steady and unchanging, if they applied at all.

Since then I’ve learned that physics (and life) is a bit more complicated, of course. Today I was reading about the pace of technological change, and discovered that not only is such change accelerating, but the acceleration is accelerating. They have a name for the acceleration of acceleration. It’s called jerk.

I suppose there are examples of jerk all around us if we care to look:

  • A garage door opener starts the door moving by jerking its chain.
  • A freight train gets underway, banging and crashing its couplings as it does.
  • A dog owner hauls back on the choke chain to stop his enraged canine from tearing another hapless animal limb from limb.

I can think of other more violent jerks but I don’t have the stomach to discuss them here.

If jerk is involved in your process it’s called a jerk system. Unlike the smooth linearity of (say) the planets in their orbits, jerk systems are rather nasty and brutish. Many of them are chaotic, with feedback, complexity and the possibility of becoming a Black Swan. The growth of the Internet, programmed stock selling in crisis times, a global epidemic, the development of an F5 tornado – all jerky examples I can think of.

We were all told in our workplace career to “embrace change” but I believe what our masters had in mind was orderly change, not chaos. In fact, I’m not sure how programmed humanity is to deal with jerk systems. Our earliest ancestors understood well enough the concepts of walking around to gather nuts and berries, and run away from predators – but those are linear situations most of the time. Introduce chaos and jerk into that and you have “things that go bump in the night.”

Oh sure, Tom Peters talks about “thriving on chaos” but there is still some element of control in his approach to it all. Real chaos is like Hurricane Katrina and the Superdome. It’s survival, not thriving that is at stake.

So even if I learned today about jerk and jerk systems I’m not anxious to experience them beyond opening the garage door, thank you. “And lead us not into chaos, but deliver us from jerks. Amen.”

 

Windows 8, Windows 8…

 

doncha just love it? (Apologies to Daddy Dewdrop.)

It’s possible to avoid the annoying Start screen with its playing card sized “live tiles” and bring back the Start button and menu. All you have to do is install Classic Shell.

But Windows 8 – or even its supposed improvement Windows 8.1 – has some other really crazy “features” that any sane developer should have fixed by now.

First, when you shut down Windows 8 you don’t really shut it down. In order to get faster boot times, the Windows gurus set it up so that Win 8 goes into hibernation rather than full stop shutdown. An image of your system is put on the hard drive and you reboot from that.

As a result certain applications – notably Norton and McAfee Security – do not fully update and as a result do not work properly when you start the computer again. Two of my senior “clients” have had trouble with their antivirus protection as a result. No, to really make sure everything is updated and shut the machine down completely, you don’t choose “Shut Down” from the menu, but “Restart.” Then you can Shut Down after you Restart I suppose. Makes a lot of sense. NOT!!!!!

Second – and this one drives me nuts – certain wifi adapters that worked OK with Windows 7 don’t work with Windows 8.1. I have one of these – Qualcomm AR956X – in my laptop. You can sign on OK but after a few minutes the adapter loses contact with the network and shows up in your system tray as “limited” wifi. You can’t browse, download, or do anything on the Internet until you disconnect and reconnect. Then you are OK for another few minutes, then rinse and repeat.

Neither Microsoft nor Qualcomm have done anything to update the Windows 8 drivers for the wifi chipset, and this is afflicting a whole bunch of Lenovo and Toshiba laptops, so be warned. The only solution I found was to disable the internal wifi card in Device Manager, and plug in a tiny USB wifi adapter from a different manufacturer. That appears to work but nobody should be expected to do something like this.

Perhaps the solution to the wifi dilemma lies with Windows 10, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Right now I can’t upgrade anyway because Microsoft says my Lenovo laptop hasn’t been verified as compatible. That figures, come to think of it.

The hardware that hosts my blogging site runs on Linux. So does the PC I am writing this post on. Anyone wonder why?

Update: I have been able to find a more recent version of the Windows 8.1 Qualcomm AR956X driver on a (wait for it) unofficial Czech website. Sounds very safe and secure, right?

Anyhow I downloaded the driver and updated via Device Manager. It seems a bit more stable, so we’ll see.

 

 

Windows 10

 

When we got our Acer Veriton business class desktop a few years ago it came with Windows 7 and it was purchased just before the Windows 8 debacle – exactly for that reason. No way was I going to buy the next Vista.

Now Microsoft has apparently realized the error of its ways, and has made a free Windows 10 update available to anyone with Windows 7 or Windows 8 on their machines. What I’ve read online has indicated that Windows 10 is the real deal and worth the upgrade. So I signed up a while ago and today got notice that my upgrade was ready to install.

I’m no stranger to upgrades. I upgraded from Windows 95 to Windows 98 and from Windows Me to XP so I know it can be done with Windows. And I’ve done many an Ubuntu upgrade on the Linux side. There are some advantages to an upgrade as opposed to a completely clean install:

  • You don’t lose all your personal data (although you’d better make sure you have a backup just in case.)
  • You don’t have to reinstall all your programs or customized look and feel.

There are some disadvantages too:

  • You can be certain any upgrade won’t be 100% smooth and easy. Some things won’t work with the new system.
  • There is a small but finite chance you’ll brick your system completely. It has happened with this upgrade.

There isn’t much choice here though as the Microsoft “free” upgrade is coming via Windows Update and you have to use the OEM software licence that came with the desktop. They don’t give you another option.

Well as it turned out the upgrade went pretty well. After an automated check of my licence key, Microsoft made the upgrade files available in Windows Update. All I had to do was start the process. There were three phases:

  • Copy over the files from the update.
  • Install the software and drivers.
  • Configure the system.

There were restarts after each phase and  a progress “clock” kept track of things. The whole job was finished in about 45 minutes.

When I restarted and booted into Windows 10 for the first time, my video card settings were not working so I had a very ugly looking display. Another restart fixed this.

Then my BitDefender Internet Security didn’t start. I had to remove and reinstall BitDefender before it worked.

Finally an Intel Rapid Storage Technology Driver failed to launch. I was able to find the latest Windows 8.1 driver on Intel’s website and that worked fine. Pretty good considering all the complexity of an upgrade.

One of the “features” of Windows 10 is that they have bought back the Start button AND the Start menu. However the Start menu is (to use an oxymoron) pretty ugly. Unlike the sleek and useful Windows 7 Start menu, the Win 10 one has a bunch of weird “live tiles” winking and blinking at you. They aren’t as gross as they were in the Windows 8 Start screen but they are still there. Some of them are outright money makers for Microsoft like the offer for Live 365 Office. Others are social media apps or what passes for news these days. Personally I don’t want to see the fate of the Subway guy in my Start menu.

There are other features I find rather lame – such as another “Bing Search” box in the Taskbar Panel and an annoying personal assistant named Cortana.

Also I don’t want to sign onto my desktop with the same Microsoft Outlook account I use on my laptop. If you do that the dumb software synchronizes both machines and you get a brain dead low res laptop display on your big screen desktop. Lots of work to be done.

I started out by signing onto the desktop machine with a “Local Account” instead of the Microsoft one. I can’t buy those flashy apps from the Microsoft Store but who  cares?

Next I unpinned all the live tiles from the Start Menu. Better but still ugly. I decided to install Classic Shell and replace the Windows 10 Start button with the classy Windows 7 orb I am familiar with.

Then I dismissed Cortana, disabled Bing and hid the Search box from the Taskbar. Now we’re talking. The result can be seen above. Windows 10 technical advantages and Windows 7 look and feel. Windows the way I like it.

Some days it’s good to be a geek. I am sure there are a lot of folks out there who will upgrade to Windows 10, be unhappy with the look and feel but won’t know how to fix it. Maybe I can help them, now that I know a trick or two.

Is Windows 10 my new favorite O/S? Nah. I’m finishing up this post on Linux Mint 17.

If It Ain’t Broke…

 

This is my basement desktop unit that I built a couple of years ago. It’s fast and works pretty well. It was cheap to build because it uses AMD components – the processor actually is an APU – combines video and general computing on the same chip. And the operating system cost nothing.

It runs Linux – an operating system that powers a great number of Internet servers and companies like Amazon and Facebook. Linux was also the basis of Android – you may have heard of Android if you have a non-Apple smartphone or tablet.

You can also download and install a desktop version of Linux that looks a lot like Windows 7, works great for email, web surfing, office tasks, is safe and secure, fast, and above all is free. I saved at least $100 by using Linux on my homebuilt system. What’s not to like?

One problem you might run into is when you upgrade a piece of hardware in the box. 90% of the folks who run PCs are using Windows, so most hardware is designed for that. Some of it works with Linux and some does not – you have to research ahead of time.

My grandson uses the box to play video games in a browser and sometimes the games are a bit slow –  I decided I should maybe upgrade the video. The old video in the APU dates back to 2012 and wasn’t that powerful to begin with.

I carefully chose a new video card – mature technology that should work, although it has been upgraded with larger video memory and faster speed. It is AMD designed just like the APU, but faster and more powerful.

Linux has two kinds of video drivers – one that is developed by the community and called “open source” and the other that the video card manufacturer provides called “proprietary.” The open source driver is your first choice and in general the AMD based one is very good. I have used it for years.

So I plugged in the card, started the machine and – zero. I had no 3D acceleration from the card at all although the system recognized the new video card. As far as I can determine, the open source driver has not been updated to “see” this new card’s ID. Maybe it will in a future update to the software, but it doesn’t now.

So what to do? I installed the proprietary video card manufacturer’s driver and – instant Karma. 3D worked and the tests I did with 3D in the browser were much faster. I am sure my grandson will be pleased. All’s well that ends well.

So even after a careful search and choice of appropriate compatible technology I still ran into a glitch with Linux. Such is the life of a Linux user – in many cases the Linux motto should be: “If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it.”

Impressive Innovation

I bought my last film SLR in 2002 – it was an F80, a mid grade Nikon body. I got the usual kit lenses with it, and over the years acquired a nice collection of prime autofocus lenses to go with them. It was, and still is a nice film system.

That same year Nikon came out with its first consumer grade DSLR – the D100. It was based on the F80 film model with digital innards. At that time I didn’t regret sticking with film though for a few reasons:

  • The digital unit was considerably more expensive.
  • The digital camera had “only” a 6 megapixel sensor – at the time film offered more resolution.
  • Although the digital unit offered a higher potential sensor ISO (1600) at that level the images started to look ugly.
  • The DX sensor in the D100 was smaller and hence my wide angle lenses didn’t work as well any more. A 24mm lens became effectively a 35mm.
  • The flash control for digital didn’t work as well as it did for film.
  • The sensor got dust bunnies and smudges appeared on the images.

This last issue was a real deal breaker for me.

Well I did get into digital eventually but never with an SLR. I had a Nikon Coolpix, a couple of Canons and a Fuji bridge camera, but these were all fixed lens machines with either an optical or electronic viewfinder or just an LCD screen on the back of the camera. Many times I longed for the functionality of a real through-the-lens viewfinder, or the speed of an SLR for kids photos. My last serious film photography with the F80 was in 2006. After that it was stored away and I made do with lesser equipment to shoot digital only.

Well recently I weakened and finally bought one of Nikons latest consumer DSLRs – and what a difference a decade has made.

  • The camera now has an impressive 24MP sensor producing images twice the length and width of the D100.
  • ISO goes up to 25600 (a 4 stop increase in light sensitivity.)
  • There’s still the problem of telephoto crop with my old lenses and their antiquated screw autofocus is absent on the new camera body. I either had to focus them manually or buy a much heavier and more expensive camera body that was compatible.
  • The new camera body is lightweight and strong and very compact. It is built of carbon fiber reinforced composite.
  • The new zoom lenses I got with the camera are amazing. They are specifically designed for the DX sensor, are compact and lightweight, and have VR image stabilization. I doubt I’ll ever need to take a tripod again, except for very long exposure photos. Dim light inside a church will be a snap.
    In fact it was cheaper to buy the more compact camera body and new lenses than it would have been to just get the more expensive heavy body that works with my old lenses. I can still use the old ones anyway if I want to focus manually – as the new DSLR meters and works great in any mode I wish to select. Just no screw AF.
  • Exposure control with the built-in flash is perfect.
  • There’s a special ultrasonic cleaner that shakes the dust bunnies off the sensor (Yay!)

All in all, there has been some impressive innovation going on in the DSLR space in the past 10 years. Light weight, improved lenses, better performance. I still like my pocket sized Canon S90 for travel but this Nikon will be a lot of fun to use around home. It’s the DSLR I was waiting for.

Back to the Future

I’ve been taking photographs for well over 50 years – I started out with an Ansco Cadet box camera that used 127 roll film – 12 exposures and wait a week. Later on I switched to a Yashica 35mm rangefinder, and from 1981 to 1986 I was an SLR shooter. I started with a manual focusNikon FE and in the early 2000s switched to an autofocus Nikon F80 (N80 in the US.) I still have my F80 and a nice collection of old school AF Nikon glass.

However around the time I got my last film SLR, digital imaging started to take over. I followed the trend – my last great film based holiday was in 2006. It was my first cruise and I ran out of film in the middle of a port day in Oslo and had to scramble for some ISO 400 Fujifilm. Not gonna happen today when a memory card can hold close to 6000 image files.

Although I gradually migrated to digital, it was never with an SLR. The earliest Nikon DSLRs were a bit quirky – they couldn’t match the resolution of a film camera, they didn’t work as well with dedicated flash, there was the problem of a smaller sensor and “telephoto effect” – which multiplied a 24 mm wide angle into a 35mm wide normal lens. Worst of all was getting dust bunnies on the sensor which showed up in the images and were expensive and difficult to clean off. Who needed the aggravation?

So I made do – first with a Nikon digital rangefinder, then a Fuji bridge camera and most recently with a Canon S90. This last little gem worked great on the recent cruise and all the photos you see here were snapped with it. It’s surprisingly sophisticated considering it’s the size of a pack of playing cards. I’d never go on any holiday without it.

However, as good as it is, a tiny point and shoot like the S90 still falls short when it comes to serious photography. You can never get good photos of fast moving grandchildren with it, as it’s slow to focus and shoot. Also the wonderful rear LCD dispay still gets washed out in bright sunlight. It’s often a matter of rough guessing rather than precision when you take an outdoor photo. There’s no viewfinder of any kind.

So you guessed it – I’m coming Back to the Future with a new Nikon D5500.

I did my research, and at first I thought it would be cool just to get the digital camera body and use my collection of late 90s auto focus lenses from the F80. Nice idea but – in order to get a digital camera with a focus motor to drive the AF screw on these lenses I would have needed something very expensive, very large, very heavy. Also after all that I’d still have the “telephoto multiplier” unless I got a phenomenally sophisticated and expensive FX digital camera body. I have no intention of schlepping a huge camera and a bunch of heavy lenses any more – not after 12000 miles with the S90.

Besides, the camera and lens technology has changed so much it’s not necessary to have a whole bunch of lenses. Today’s cameras can dial up ultra high ISOs that were only a dream 10 years ago. Modern lenses have the focusing motor onboard, not in the camera. The new lenses have Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction – I enjoy that feature immensely on my Canon S90. It was cheaper and better to get a couple of new VR zoom lenses. They have good optics and you don’t need to worry if they are a bit slower, since uber high ISOs are now possible. Low light photography without a flash or tripod is now routine with the latest digital camera – lens combinations.

Best of all there is an ultrasonic cleaner on the newest cameras that blasts away the crud from the sensor.

Oh yes, my old Nikon glass will still mount and meter effectively. I have to focus them manually, but at least I can try them out. If I don’t like the results, I still have them for use with the film camera. Or I can trade them in on another VR lens I guess. We’ll see.

I’m looking forward to trying out the new technology in a new and interesting format. Back to the Future, indeed.

 

 

 

An Offer I Might Refuse

Recently I got an email about new Internet packages offered by my ISP who shall remain anonymous (Rogers.) Then just yesterday I got the same offer in a mailout. As usual they offer a 3 month discount window where you’d save $25 a month but you have to sign up for 2 years. I’m grandfathered in with a plan that was up to date two offerings ago.

So what exactly is Mr. Rogers offering me?

  • Supposedly a bit faster “up to” 60 Mbit download speed. I just checked mine with the “old plan” and I’m getting about 25 MBit speeds in the basement over the wireless N LAN. I have gotten over 35 wired in to the router upstairs. Not sure what results I’d get with the new plan, frankly.
  • 200 GB of bandwidth. Right now I have unlimited bandwidth in the “old plan.”
  • Hockey on my desktop and a SHOMI subscription. With the Game Centre Live and SHOMI features I supposedly get $300 /year extra “value.”
  • A new “Rocket” gateway with AC wifi capability. This probably would not be as good as my current Rogers DOCSIS 3 modem and D-Link N personal router combo. It would likely be incompatible with my wifi range extender and most of my equipment doesn’t support AC so I’d be back to N router speeds anyway.
  • I would have to pay $50 for installation and $15 to switch plans so that eats up $65 of the $75 “savings.” After that I’d be paying $10 more a month.

So I wouldn’t save anything after three months, pay more, get some features I don’t need and probably would not use, a gateway that isn’t an upgrade, plus give up my unlimited Internet. I could probably get by with 200 GB if we don’t stream a lot in a month but who knows?

Sounds to me like an offer I can pass on, thank you.

Gain (and Loss)

The online and digital revolution in music has obtained a lot of benefits – it’s hard to imagine how cool it is to carry thousands of songs round on a iPod or smartphone, or stream music videos seamlessly from the Web. But I can’t help thinking there have been some losses in the process. And I’m not just referring to the demise of the CD – sad though that may be.

It seems to me we’ve also lost that particular piece of artistry called the “concept album.” When vinyl started to disappear in the 1980s, the idea that you played an LP from start to end went with it. A CD can be just as much a random access device as a linear one. So away went the thought of a long playing record as a body of work put together with a purpose. Musical appreciation of a rock group became as vacuous as a “Greatest Hits” LP.

As an example of my thesis, I present the Moody Blues’ 1971 masterwork “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.” You have to listen to the tracks in order – especially note the way the Mellotron tour de force “Procession” (Desolation…Creation…Communication) segues seamlessly into the Top 10 powerhouse “The Story in Your Eyes,” and then reappears in “One More Time to Live.”

The great Philip Travers sleeve art that went with the LP was diminished when it appeared on a CD and probably has been forgotten if you just put a few tracks on your MP3 player.

I note the revival of vinyl in some quarters and while I am no fan of the “click and pop” of LP records, I do hope that the folks who have rediscovered the turntable will also rediscover the concept album and the way to experience it properly.

By the way, there is at least one way to “play through” an album on line and that is with Spotify. You can look up any album by the Moodies there and stream it start to finish. So maybe we haven’t lost as much as I originally thought.

The Technology Bin

I’ve been restoring and updating old PCs with Linux for nearly as long as I’ve been in Almonte. That is one of the great features of the Linux operating system – just about any old piece of junk will run it. When I first started these projects my starting material was 1999 or earlier stuff with low grade single core processors and massive CRT displays.

A lot of this detritus ended up in my basement computer museum. I got rid of the most egregious stuff a few years ago but not before I stripped the old machines of anything I thought would be useful in future builds. As it turned out, much of it was not useful – so yesterday I loaded it into boxes and today it went to a recycle depot. I’ll document some of this legacy crud below just to remind myself not to store it in the junk room again.

By the way if a used computer doesn’t have at least a dual core PC and DDR2 memory it isn’t worth keeping around today. My principal desktops are all quad core machines and so is my notebook. I do have a dual core or two still around but one is a jukebox and the other’s in mothballs. They both could run a 64 bit O/S as well. No point in 32 bit machines nowadays.

But there’s a lot more dead technology that I sent to the bin. Here are some examples.

  • PCMCIA boards – some old laptops didn’t have Ethernet or wifi connections so you needed one of these cards plugged in for Internet access. But that hasn’t been the case in the first decade of the 21st century, so..buh-bye.
  • Ethernet adapters – now obsolete as most motherboards have it built in. The oldest PCI boards don’t even work that well with modern modems and routers.
  • Parallel printer cables. You don’t even need a cable with a wifi printer now, let alone this dinosaur parallel port connection.
  • AGP video cards – old slow and obsolete 3D technology. Nuff said.
  • CD-ROMS and CD-RW drives – a far more capable DVD-RAM drive costs $20 new.
  • Low capacity PATA hard drives – when you can get a 64 GB thumbdrive for $30, who needs a bulky 40 GB parallel ATA drive in your PC? Even 160 GB PATA hard drives are questionable, although I did keep one around until the next cleanup. Got rid of a bunch of PATA cables as well. And don’t even get me started on VGA video adapters and cables.
  • PS/2 mice and keyboards – I had a bunch and they won’t plug into anything without an adapter. Besides most peripherals are wireless today.
  • Wired routers – even a basement PC needs wireless connectivity. You have it anyway for your laptop and tablet so why snake cables around the house?
  • SDRAM and DDR memory – nice if you want to fix a 10 year old PC but I don’t any more.
  • 56K dial-up modems – oh really? I have a real discrete 56K modem around here just in case there’s someone on the planet still using dial-up. It won’t be me.

I’ve become far more critical of what sort of hardware I’ll resurrect with Linux now so hopefully I won’t have another clean-up like this in my near future. No guarantees though. Technological time certainly flies.

 

19 Years Online

I read a good article recently about the death and possible (partial) resurrection of the Prodigy Online Service.

It got me in a nostalgic frame of mind because when I first got a PC capable of online access, Prodigy was the first service I tried. This was in early 1996 so I have been online for 19 years.

Prodigy (or P* as it was known to the insiders) predated the World Wide Web as we know it today. So did its principal competitors – Compuserve and AOL. Prodigy had its own proprietary protocol (not TCP/IP but NAPLPS,) its own server network and special client software you installed on your PC. It was sort of a parallel Internet at the time. Later on Prodigy developed a special browser so you could venture out into the WWW, but most of its content remained closed inside the NAPLPS cyberdomain.

To access P* you needed an account (which charged you by the minute) and a PC equipped with a dial-up modem. My first computer had a blazingly fast 14.4 Kbit browser. My current broadband speed is about 2500 times as fast as that and it really isn’t a speedburner compared to the FIOS connections out there.

Of course, the PC I had then would never have been able to handle those current speeds anyway. It was a Packard Bell desktop with a 100 MHz Pentium processor, 4 Megs of RAM and a 1 GB hard drive. I have 16 times as much RAM in my current desktop as I did hard drive space back then!

Needless to say I didn’t do a lot of digital photography or YouTube video in 1996. I hung out in mostly text based forums such as P*’s “Canada and Friends” and also the chat rooms for real time action. Prodigy provided some rather lame graphics to go along with it. Sounds wonderful, right? Right. To keep costs under control you could sign on, download your messages from your favorite forum and read them offline. Even I find it hard to believe I actually did this 19 years ago!

However the presence of information online revolutionized my work and leisure life. In 1995 I planned a trip to London and to see what shows were playing in the West End I had to buy a week old copy of The Telegraph. In 1996 I planned another trip and when it came to London Theater, I just looked it up online. We take online access for granted today but it was quite an information upgrade when it happened.

Sadly, Prodigy could not compete with the burgeoning Web and disappeared from Canada in 1998. In 1999 (citing possible Y2K issues with its aging technology) the venerable Prodigy Classic service disappeared from the online scene completely. Only a standard Prodigy Internet Service Provider remained and it’s gone today. I believe it was part of Yahoo for a while but you won’t find Prodigy as an ISP today.

Canada and Friends migrated its P* community to Delphi Forums and is still going today, after 20+ years.

19 years online and in terms of performance and activity it seems a Millennium away.

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