Friday, December 28, 2012

The Sad State Of Operating Systems

I have become somewhat despondent in regards to current operating systems.  I feel like everyone is messing it up so badly, that there is nothing worth having out there.

This had been brewing for a while, but here is what tipped me over the edge.

This Christmas, Santa brought my boys a couple of new laptops with Windows 8.  After spending numerous hours setting them up I finally have to agree with the pundits.  Windows 8 is a schizophrenic mess.  It is neither fish nor foul, and in not making its mind up, it is poor at both.

First, the not to be called "Metro" interface, which I can see would be beneficial on a tablet, stinks on a traditional notebook.  It just doesn't work well.  Things that I could easily do in one or two clicks before, I now have to think "is that on the desktop or in Metro?" go to the appropriate interface, and then work through the incoherent menus to get there.  I went into it thinking that it was just different, and would take time to get used to, but no, it is just really bad.  They have tried too hard to not be like Apple in core areas, and are now too much like Apple in the bad ones.

It reminds me a lot of Windows 3.1 where there was the Windows side, that had its issues, and the underlying DOS side, that didn't quite work like it used to.  It was a tough transition, but at least then it was a move that was necessary and there were tangible benefits.  I don't see any such benefits in this move.

Live tiles are neat and all, and when they get it all sorted out the Family Safety stuff is a miracle, but the bads just way outweigh the goods.

And that is the problem I am facing will all of the available operating systems right now.

The next obvious choice is OSX.  It is really pretty but drives me nuts.  Here is my number one gripe, let me choose the font size on the windows and operating system components!  Seriously, you are the ones pushing the whole "retina" thing, and even you have realized at full resolution your OS becomes an unusable mess, and have limited it to half resolution.  So what is the point of a retina display then?  Don't start me on trying to scroll on the side.  It is like playing wack-a-mole with a one pixel wide bar!

This problem first came to my attention setting up my Mac Mini as an entertainment center server on my HDTV.  At full resolution, which you want so your videos look their best, it is impossible to read the OS windows from the couch.  To do anything on the OS I have to sit on the ottoman 4 feet from the screen to be able to read anything, and I have better than 20/20 vision.  It is ridiculous.

Another issue I have is that it takes a doctorate in physics to add a network drive, but one errant click will delete it with no warning.

If you want to do anything but browse the web, or get email, you had better be prepared to delve into menus and technical stuff.  For the computer that "just works", it doesn't.  Couple that with the IOSification is is going through, and you are going to end up with something that is just too dumbed down to be what I want in an OS.

So what are the options?

Linux is interesting, and it has come a long way.  Better yet, it is free!  Unfortunately with free comes its own set of issues.  For instance, is the program you want to run compatible with your chosen build?  How often do you have to jump into the command line to get basic things done?  Not only are the builds available a bit on the quirky side, but major software isn't available for them.  Sure in many cases there are open source alternatives, but for a lot of things you need the real deal.

Where does this all leave me?  I really don't know.  I have always been a Windows guy.  I looked long and hard at OSX, and while it has its merits, it fails on too many key points for me.  Linux is still too much the realm of hackers, and I have quite frankly gotten too lazy to really want to mess with it on a daily basis.  I run a server with it, but I don't want to depend on it for personal computing.  So, sadly, I don't have a solution.

One thing I am clear on, and I seem to be at odds with the major OS and computer makers, mobile OS's and desktop OS's are very different beast with different needs, interfaces, and expectations.  I like IOS on a tablet.  It is great for consuming information.  Android is a very viable alternative.  Neither works on a desktop.

Mobile OS's are for consuming information, and light creation.  Think answering an email or text, perhaps a note written while on a bus.

Computers are for content creation.  That is why they are having such a hard time "Metro"ifying Office.  That is why when you are doing detailed or extensive creation, one migrates to a laptop or desktop PC.  Tablets are great for consumption.  That is why people read so much on tablets of all kinds.

The sooner those making the technology figure this out, the better off we all will be.

As I look back on my post from March,, I am unfortunately realizing that things have gotten worse, not better.  That is not what technology is supposed to do.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Defense of Apple's New Mapping App

Apparently the blogosphere is on a witch hunt about IOS6's new Maps app.  It looks like there are a lot of issues that people are having and some changes in functionality.

First, my impression so far is that it is actually MORE accurate than Google Maps.  When I type in my home address, the pin ends up somewhere down the street.  On my iPhone 5 it was dead on with the pin in the middle of my roof on the satellite view.  Sorry, but I see that as an improvement.

Same with my work.  Rather than being half a block away and in the middle of the street (before I corrected it on the business listing), the new Maps app was spot on.

In fact, the only issue I have has so far was not directly Maps fault.  Yelp had the local plumbing supply store listed as 300 East when in fact it is 300 West.  I submitted an error report, but just to confirm it, I looked on Yelp, and there it is in all its glory, on the wrong side of town.

Most of the errors I have seen have been perfectly understandable, and while they do need to be corrected, to get all huffy about them is a bit childish.

I propose the reason for all the hubub is not that the Maps App is SOOOO bad, but rather we have become SOOOO bad at navigating because we don't have to pay attention to where we are going anymore.  Type it in and drive.  Trust the machine.

Actually I was in California a few weeks ago using Google Maps, and not only did I keep going to places that were no longer there, but even things as simple as Disneyland were needlessly complicated and off.  So don't tell me Google is all perfect and everything.

I'm sorry, but learn to navigate people.  Have a general idea of where you are going so that when you are led astray, you can tell before you park you car in a lake.  Be smarter than the machine!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Apple is a Hardware Company - and That Sometimes Surprises People

Let me start this by saying I am not an Apple hater.  Just to give my Apple cred, I have a Mac Mini, an iphone 4s and 5 and an original iPad.

I still run a Windows desktop though.

Let me explain...

My feelings towards Apple have morphed and changed over the years, along with technologies and the fortunes of those that compete with them.  I think both sides of the PC/Apple argument miss the point most of the time.   Apple touts how secure its systems are vs Windows, to which I say "of course".  If you are a hacker, are you going to spend your time working on the systems that cover 80-90% of the market, or one that covers 10-15%.  The choice is obvious.  It isn't that OSX is inherently any more secure, it just has fewer guns pointed at it at any given time.

This can be seen by the fact that now they are starting to make some market headway, trojans and viruses are starting to pop up at what Mac users would consider an alarming rate.  More market share equals more scrutiny.  Get used to it.

Most of the other arguments are similarly pointless.  There are some differences that count though.

First off Apple is, at its core, a hardware company.  The operating systems support the hardware.  This is very evident in some of their choices.  For instance, scalable fonts on the desktop.

I have used Windows, OSX, Ubuntu, CentOS, and several other operating systems.  Every system but OSX allows you to change the size of the fonts on the desktop relatively easily, and it handles it well resizing elements to compensate.  The only way to resize the fonts on the desktop of OSX is to use a hack, and it is kludgy, ugly and basically unusable.  As the fonts enlarge the header bars don't, and pretty soon it just becomes an unreadable mess.

The practical upshot of this is as you go to these beautiful retina displays that Apple is putting out, it is impossible to use them at native resolutions and you have to reduce the resolution of the OS anyway.  I use my Mac Mini as a media server, and even at 1080p on my 56" big screen TV, I have to sit 4 feet away from the screen to be able to read the fonts when I am in the OS.  Seriously?  In Windows I would blow up the text enough to be readable and keep the icons at the same size, and voilla!  All is swell.

At some point in the development of OSX is was decided that the font size would be a fixed number of pixels.  In my opinion this was just to simplify programming and get the product out.  Make it big enough that it is readable on what was then the highest resolution screens and leave it at that.  If they have a higher resolution screen that must mean they have a bigger screen, and thus it won't matter.

Except it does.  Every monitor has its own resolution.  Now with the "retina" displays coming out, if you dare to run OSX at the native resolution (as I understand it actually takes a hack to do it) the text gets so small that you can't do anything.

The OS was designed for their hardware, and if it didn't work with other stuff, tough.  But now that they have changed their direction on hardware and gone to these ridiculously high resolutions, the old way isn't cutting it.  Now everyone is going to have to wait for the OS to catch up to the hardware.

And that is the difference.

Windows and Linux variants need to anticipate a variety of environments, because they can be used on a virtually infinite number of configurations.  OSX is designed to only run on a limited number of configurations, even if you could theoretically use it in others.  Thus, they don't need to make the OS as flexible and can lock things down that shouldn't necessarily be locked down such as font proportions and size.

This is why they will ship out the iPhone 4s with a beta Siri, or the iPhone 5 with a flawed and barely beta maps program.  The hardware and design rule, the software follows.

Is this bad?

It depends.

Because Apple has such control over the whole ecosystem, their hardware is spectacular.  Seriously, run an iPhone 5 through your fingers.  It is an unbelievable accomplishment.  In every way it is a design icon that will stand the test of time.  It is all you can do not lick it.  It pushes all the right buttons.  But for all the detail in the hardware, things were left hanging on the OS side.

Apple is a hardware company first, with the OS and software following the lead of the hardware.

That is why there are so many people who run Windows on Macs.  You get the best hardware, and a great OS.  You pay through the nose to do it, but you get the best of everything.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Where Are My Moon Men?

I sit here watching shows commemorating the moon flights after the death of Neil Armstrong.  What happened to us?  The budgetary considerations were minor.  NASA's budget is a drop in the overall bucket.  What really saddens me is the loss of public will.  How can you become bored of men walking on the moon?!?

In watching the landing of Curiosity, I began to feel some of the excitement of space building. The death of the first man on the moon, sad as that is, will hopefully make those in power realize we have taken too long to get back on the horse.

We are a species that needs to explore.  We need to expand.  We need to do new things.  Sometimes there is risk.  Sometimes there is cost.  Sometimes we need to do the uncomfortable.

Let's get back into space!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Inapproprate Job Actions #1: Quitting by Email

OK, this is a plague among us.  I don't care if it makes me sound old, but the current generation of 20somethings are very much concerning me.

Here is the deal.  When an employer hires you, they invest time, money and energy in getting things ready for you to begin your employment with them.  To email them the day that you are meant to start your employment and turn down the job is inappropriate, disrespectful and wrong.

First, when you accept a job unless you have prepared the potential employer that you will be continuing your search for work so they can make an informed decision, you now have a job.  Stop looking.  You have committed and should honor that commitment.  It is dishonest to accept employment and then bail.

Second, under no circumstances is emailing your "resignation" the day you should be starting appropriate in any circumstance.  On those rare occasions where another opportunity is of significantly higher value that you have determined it is worth breaking your commitment (as the man said to the woman, we have determined what you are, now we are just negotiating) you should give as much advance notice as possible.  If that is not possible, then you owe it to those who were willing to give you an opportunity to explain yourself in person.

I have historically thought as an employer, better to lose them now than two weeks or months into it.  I still think that.  But the level of disrespect and lack of honor is becoming rampant.  Have some pride in who you are, and be willing to stand up to your problems.  If you are going to make an unpleasant decision, fine, but have the guts to own it and mitigate its effects on others to the amount you are able.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Just Got My Raspberry Pi

I have become one of the chosen.  My Raspberry Pi just arrived.  For those that don't know the RPi is a revolutionary little computer.  Not only is it about the size of a pack of cards, but the whole thing only cost about $45 with shipping.

It was funny.  After getting everything together and plugged in, my one son started counting things up, and realized that the cables plugged into it probably cost as much or more than the whole computer.  In fact, by the time you add in an SD card, power supply, HDMI cable, ethernet cable, a USB keyboard and mouse, and probably a case of some kind, you could be into it over $100.  That said, in most cases I think people will have the necessary stuff kicking around.

I am using the charger from my old Palm Pre.  It has the micro-usb cable I need to power the thing up, and it is rated for a good 1 amp.  This is important.  It looks online like a lot of the problems are due to lower wattage and cheap power supplies.

Otherwise, the rest of the stuff was kicking around.  I'm guessing most of the people to whom this appeals would be in a similar situation.

My biggest issue was formatting the SD card.  I couldn't get any of the suggested programs to actually see my cards.  And I tried several.  It was driving me nuts!  Windows Disk Manager (the suggested program) never worked, Disk Image errored, Fedora Arm Installer never saw the card, and neither did a few other options.  Finally I found HDD Raw Copy and it worked.  I kept getting an error on close, but it finally did the job.  Interestingly I later decided to go with RaspBMC and it worked like a champ with no errors.

I have been running a Plex server on an old 2006 Mac Mini, and I am looking at using the RPi as a client for my upstairs TV.   After messing with RaspBMC, I am realizing I may really want to move over to XBMC as my media server.

I am going to have some late nights over the next few days!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Academics Don't Get It

I was reading the article "DEAR JOURNALISM STUDENTS: Don't Mean To Intrude, But Your Professor Doesn't Get It

I think he has hit on a problem with academics in general, in particular those holed up in universities. Professors are out of touch with the "real" world, and almost by definition are several years behind the times. 

In thinking about this over the years I have come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for this, but it is still disturbing.  There are two kinds of people, those who feel they know it all, and those who feel that the more they learn, the less they know.  Those in the second category are always innovating because they can see there are other, often better, ways to do things.  They get good jobs because they are respected and keep pushing their respective fields forward.

Those that think they know it all, teach at universities. 

Let me now say that, yes, there are exceptions.  But those exceptions are notable for their rarity.

The problem is that once you think you know it all, what is there to stimulate you?  What keeps you pushing forward?  There is a near compulsion to foist your brand of "what is" upon those coming up in the food chain, yet your grasp of what is going on in your field invariably slips.

A sure sign of "knowing it all" are regular complaints about all those new-fangled things those upstarts are using.  That attitude is a sure way to a world of irrelevance. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

DVDs are Here For a While Longer

I keep seeing predictions of the demise of the DVD and Blueray disks. I am here to tell you it is bunk. CDs are a goner though.

So how do I rectify the two? Three little letters, DRM.

When I download a song from Amazon or iTunes I can move it to any player I have, no restrictions. This means that I can have it on my phone, regardless of manufacturer, on my Notebook, and on my multimedia center PC. I can also choose the interface I use to play that music, regardless of manufacturer or operating system. Because of this flexibility the reasons for maintaining physical copies is pretty much done for.

Actually, I had some music I purchased from iTunes back in 2006 that I lost the CD I had made to play it in my car. I went to iTunes, and there it was, waiting for me to download a fresh copy of my lost purchase. Try that with a CD.

The pricing of CDs have even made buying used a losing proposition.  Unless you are buying something not available as a download (Really? Pop Goes the World by Men Without Hats is not available for download?) you really don't save any money.  The one advantage of CDs is that you have something physical you can sell and get some of the money back, but if you look at it as a deposit on the music, you still are ahead on the downloads based on the paltry amounts they will give you for CDs these days.

Unfortunately videos are a completely different story.  Downloaded videos are so locked down that your ability to use them becomes severely compromised.  In reality you can only play downloaded video files on some of your devices, and certainly you are limited in which players you will view it.  So if I download Reckless Kelley from iTunes, I can watch it on my iPad, or in iTunes, but I can't import it into Plex, my main media player.  And so I am stuck.

This leaves you with two options.  You can buy the DVD (which takes time, but is the route I have chosen), or you can download it off of some of the free torrent sites.  Honestly, the pirated video is actually the most useful in that you can have it immediately and just move forward.  I buy the DVD, rip it to a format that my iPad is happy with and upload that to Plex.  It will often take several days to get the DVD, and then 3-6 hours to actually rip the files.  What a pain.  But by going this route I have the option of using the file as I see fit.

And that is the downfall of video downloads.  So long as they are hampered by DRM, pirating and DVD/BR disks will be around to stay.  Maybe that is how they want it, but it is a dumb model.  I just purchased a used DVD of Johnny English Reborn for $7.  With shipping it was $10. It cost me the same (or less) than a download, and if I wish, I could resell it and get most of that money back.

What the market demands is easy access to content on our choice of device and interface.  I'm willing to pay a fair price for that, but I must be able to use it where I see fit.  Until then don't get too worried about the immanent death of your videos on DVD or Blueray.

Oh, but CDs are a goner.  No doubt about that.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

I added TED to my video channels on my Plex media server, and have begun spending an inordinate amount of time watching these really nifty videos.

If you don't know what TED is, it stands for Technology, Education and Design.  Speakers who are influential within their respective spheres are asked to speak, and they are given a notoriously short 20 minutes to opine on their topic.  What ensues is like the modern day Cliff's Notes of just about any topic you care to mention.

For instance, one video is Neil MacGregor: 2600 years of history in one object, a fascinating look at the Cyrus Cylinder and how it's influence has come down through the past 2600 years, and will continue doing so well into the future.  It is something I never would have known about, but it was really interesting to stumble upon it.

Another interesting video is Susan Cain: The power of introverts.  This is a very interesting and insightful look into the value and marginalization of the introvert in modern society.  It made me want to go and unashamedly curl up with a book.

I guess that is what is great about TED.  You can stumble upon all kinds of interesting things from the humorous to the truly jaw-dropping.  No really.  They are actually classified that way.  Need a laugh, look it up.  In the mood to think, click on a fascinating one.  There really is something for everyone.

The best part is that TED doesn't take itself too seriously.  If you think it does, watch Lies, damned lies and statistics (about TEDTalks).  I love when people use statistics in unexpected ways!



OSs and Going Forward

Despite my art background I have been a Windows guy most of the past 20 years. It has its shortcomings, but I know it and work well with it. I have been, due to work mostly, stuck in an XP world, and it is getting to be time to move forward. The problem with me moving forward is that I have to bring my extended family along, kicking and screaming.

I have found myself becoming somewhat computer agnostic over the past few years. First I started running my own web server, and settled on CentOS. I started with the GUI, but have become quite comfortable in VI and Pico. I now understand all the uber-geeks saying you have to command line if you REALLY want to run Linux. Even in my brief dabbling in Ubuntu, you need some familiarity with command line functions or you will be very limited and frustrated.

And there is the rub with Linux. No matter how ready for prime time it gets, it will always be, at it's core, command line centric. That means you either have to be a geek, have an IT department to support the deployment, or be cheap enough you are willing to mow your way though it. This is not the OS for family based tech support.

I have an iPad (on which I am writing this post), an iPhone, and two iPods. I love them all, and thought it was time to revisit OSX. I bought an old Mac Mini with the latest Snow Leopard installed and set it up as a media server with Plex.

I've been endlessly tinkering, and have come to some conclusions there and I am horribly frustrated with it. Really. A modern OS you can't change the OS font size? OK, there is a hack, but it doesn't work well because it isn't uniformly manifest, and the header bars don't resize, so anything over a couple of points bigger and it is a mess. This means as your resolution increases, your font size decreases to the point that on a 55" hd screen you have to be within 6 feet of the screen to have any hope of knowing what you are doing. You can go to a lower resolution, but that defeats the beautiful interface.

I also find myself having to click multiple times to do simple tasks that take one click in Windows such as closing a program. Why does clicking the red X not kill the program? Why do I have to control-click the item in the task bar and click "quit".   Doesn't it believe me? And why are the eject buttons right next to the network folders so that when you finally manage to add one it causes you to disconnect drives if you even stutter your finger on the trackpad while going over to select it?

I love Apple hardware. I genuinely believe they have the best hardware in the business, but OSX is a frustrating mess. If you don't think so, it is because you don't know any better or just have very different priorities than me in an OS.

So, it is back to Windows. I am eying Windows 8 very carefully and, while I have some significant concerns, I think it is the only real option going forward. Actually I can see me on a MacBook Air or Pro with Win 8 in the next 6 months or so. That has its own issues of an incompatible keyboard, but I think you may end up with the best of all worlds that way. I just hope Apple does a better job with their Windows drivers because I really don't like virtual machines. Dual boot is the only option, and too many things break when going down that road.

Here is hoping the next six months are good to both Apple and Microsoft.