Computers

BSOD Update

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In my Laptop Spring Cleaning post, I mentioned that Lois had been suffering from daily BSOD’s (the infamous Microsoft Blue Screen of Death crashes). I also mentioned that after the spring cleanup, she went five days without a crash. That joy was short-lived, as the crashes returned.

Some days, the machine wouldn’t boot. You could hear the drive spinning, but the Post (what the BIOS shows while it’s starting up) was blank. The only reliable fix was disconnecting the battery for a minute, or worse, disconnecting the hard drive cable, and reconnecting it. Clearly, both painful solutions, since I had to open the bottom of the case to get at those devices.

On Monday this week, neither of the above tricks worked! Oh oh, I couldn’t get Lois’ machine to boot, and this was not a happy situation. Then, I got a partial Post screen (it still hung), but I saw that the number for the amount of RAM in the machine was wrong. Lois has (or had) 1GB of RAM, two sticks of 512MB each.

The machine was now showing 512MB. So, I assumed that one of the sticks went bad. I searched online for 1GB RAM prices, and the newer DDR2 chips are so much cheaper. I didn’t care if they would run slower than they are capable, as long as they ran as well as the more expensive correct memory would.

I decided to write to the owner of the company that I bought the laptop from, PowerNotebooks.com. I have a ton to say about them, and have been procrastinating writing a long post for weeks. I’ll get that out at some point (probably next week). I asked him whether the PC5300 sticks would work in my PC3200 machine. He cautioned me that they might not and gave me a very good suggestion on how to find out.

But, much more importantly, he told me that it could just as easily be a bad RAM slot (rather than a bad RAM stick). Honestly, that never occurred to me (I don’t know why!). At the end of the day, I removed one of the sticks from Lois’ machine, and it still wouldn’t boot. I moved the stick from one slot to the other, and the machine booted instantly.

I switched the chips and the machine booted instantly. I inserted the second chip (yes, I’m using chip and stick interchangeably here) and the machine refused to boot. Voila, Mr. PowerNotebooks was correct, the slot was bad, not the stick!.

This morning, it occurred to me that when we ordered Macs for almost everyone here at Zope, we ordered the memory separately (way cheaper than from Apple!) so we had extra 1GB PC5300 memory chips that we pulled from the Macs. I tried one in the good slot, and it doesn’t fit. The small slit that fits around the small plastic protrusion (forcing you to put the stick in correctly) is a drop smaller than on the PC3200 sticks.

Oh well, at least I now know all of the answers and mysteries of the universe (or at least of Lois’ laptop!). We ordered a single 1GB PC3200 stick today to get Lois back to where she was on memory. She’s been running for the past two days with 512MB, with zero crashes. Of course, we’ve gone a few days in a row before without any BSODs, but I’m betting that this bad RAM slot was deteriorating all along, and was causing intermittent (irreproducible!) errors. At least I’m desperately hoping so!

Testing Windows Live Writer

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I’ve never been that tempted to try a fat client blog writing application. I’ve been reasonably pleased with the built-in WYSIWYG editor in WordPress. I don’t typically blog when I have no Internet connection, which is one of the better reasons given by those who use these tools.

One of my friends (Jamie Thingelstad) swears by a Mac program that he uses to create his posts. Today, I was reading a post on 10 blogging tips on Life Hacker. In the comments below, I was amazed at the number of people who were wildly promoting the Windows Live Writer (WLW) client for authoring their posts. Clearly, this wasn’t one MSFT lover trying to push a lousy tool.

So, I downloaded and installed it. It took me a while to get past the configuration, which was quite frustrating. It won’t even start up until you get the config correct. That seemed silly, since the errors weren’t useful in helping me debug the problem.

Anyway, the problem had nothing to do with WLW. I had a rewrite rule (Apache) on my server, which prevented WLW from sending the appropriate commands. Once I fixed that, the rest of the configuration completed automatically, including bringing down my CSS/theme so that WLW could show me roughly what my post would look like as I type it (which is way more than the WYSIWYG part of WordPress, which doesn’t apply any CSS to the real-time typing).

Anyway, this will be my first live post with WLW (assuming it works). I don’t know (yet) whether it will be my last, but I suspect not. I haven’t investigated any of the settings/options as yet, so it certainly didn’t require any work to figure it out.

πŸ™‚

OK, so I hit the Post Draft and Edit Online button (a very cool idea), everything just did what you’d expect. It created a draft on the server, and messaged Firefox (yes, WLW didn’t hijack me to IE, but rather respected my default browser choice!) with the correct URL to the draft post! I’m adding this paragraph and the one below it in my normal online interface.

The only glitch is that the Alt-Text for each of the above links was lost (I filled it in on the WLW side, so I’ll have to look into that). Fixing it was easy, but everything else just worked. Of course, I haven’t done anything like upload photos to a gallery, so that might be an adventure as well. So far, so good.

Updated Linux Distros in VMware Player

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I’ve written before about running Linux under Windows XP using the free VMware Player. It works really well. Even though I’ve done it before, I don’t really have much of a need, so other than making sure most big-picture features work, I don’t really exercise the distribution.

Recently, I’ve had two reasons to crank it up just a drop (literally, just a drop, I’m not yet using VMware Player for anything serious). First, the possibility (however distant or unlikely) that my next laptop may be running Linux as the primary OS. Second, there have been a flurry of new (updated) Linux distros released this month, some that I have had a long curiosity about.

In the past, I’ve had little more than glimpses of Ubuntu releases (6.06 and 7.04). I didn’t really give either a whirl, but my initial impression was less than enthusiastic. The color scheme alone (I know, easy to change) was muddy and boring looking. On a more important note, I have always struggled (with little information!) as to whether there is a material difference between choosing a Gnome-based distro, or a KDE one.

To my eye, KDE looks better, but as much as I enjoy eye candy, it’s not the over-riding reason for me to select an OS (or I’d be happy with Vista, or I would have run to a Mac). If Gnome is more functional, or has a more likely future, I’d happily put up with a less-pretty UI, and even put up with less user friendliness.

Recently, I read a review of a late beta of Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron). The guy raved about it. In the past, I noticed that it took a day or two for KUbuntu (and other derivatives) to be released after the main Ubuntu distro, and that made me feel that they were step-children, possibly not as robust or integrated.

This time around, all of them were released on the same day, including a KDE4 version of KUbuntu as well.

So, in April alone, I downloaded and tested the following Linux distros:

  1. Sidux 2008.01
  2. Ubuntu 8.04
  3. KUbuntu 8.04
  4. KUbuntu-kde4 8.04
  5. DSL 4.3 (Damn Small Linux)
  6. SystemRescueCD 1.02
  7. CDLinux 0.6.1

Sidux (last year’s flavor) was one of my favorite distros. It’s based on Debian (as is Ubuntu) but it is tied to the unstable repository so you get more frequent updates (of things like Firefox for example). The 2008.01 release is a DVD iso, all of the other ones mentioned above are CD isos.

While it booted up fine (in Live mode, under VMware Player), it was not able to run in any resolution other than 800×600 (the default). That’s not entirely true, it could be made smaller, not larger). I hand tweaked the xorg.conf file and tried a few other things, none of which worked, and I quickly gave up. Remember, I don’t really have a short-term need, so struggling wasn’t appetizing and I had other distros to check out anyway.

I have installed every version of DSL for quite a while, so adding 4.3 to the mix wasn’t a surprise. It’s a good distro for getting small jobs done. One thing to keep in mind (not necessarily a downside) is that it’s still based on the 2.4 kernel branch. Anyway, this one works just fine. If it wasn’t for the next distro I am about to cover, this one would get some use from me whenever I needed an X Server on my desktop.

CDLinux 0.6.1 is the latest version of CDLinux (Compact Distro Linux). I hadn’t heard of it before this release. It’s a little larger than DSL (about 10MB bigger), but it still clocks in at under 60MB. What intrigued me was that it is significantly more modern. It uses the latest 2.6 kernel, Xorg, XFce (window manager), the latest Firefox (2.0.0.14), etc. I have to say that I really like this one for quickie jobs. It’s clean looking.

I am writing this post on CDL (under VMware Player) running Firefox. I scp’ed over a certificate for Firefox and I am using OpenID to log in as me to WordPress. I’m running the Live CD image, so my disk drive is ram. It’s working delightfully well. My only semi-complaint is that at the resolution that I’m running it (1400×1050) the fonts aren’t all that attractive. I don’t know if that’s a CDL issue, an XFce one, a resolution only one, etc. I don’t really care at the moment, but I thought I’d mention it.

A quick mention of SystemRescueCD. That’s another one (like DSL) where I download each version, and have been doing so for quite a while. It’s a very nice emergency CD, and while I rarely need one, this is the first one I turn to on those rare occasions. The only thing I do when I download a new version is check that it functions correctly under VMware Player, then I burn a real CD, as this one is for real emergencies, not for playing around in a virtual machine.

Now the Ubuntu family. My first impression (also not detailed in any way) is also extremely positive. Even the less-attractive main Ubuntu (Gnome-based) is reasonably nice. The KDE one and KDE4 one are both more attractive. While the KDE4 one looks very nice, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the look of KDE3. I have no problem with KDE4 and could easily get used to it, and perhaps the only reason I prefer KDE3 is that I’m already used to it.

As opposed to Sidux, the rest of the distros mentioned above all resize easily and flawlessly to any resolution I like. Cranking them up to 1400×1050 was trivial, and worked immediately. My native resolution is 1600×1200, so I have plenty of room to run a 1400×1050 sub-window for Linux.

One curiosity. All of the Ubuntu distros automatically release the mouse at the borders of the VMware window. This is a default behavior that I prefer, making the Linux window feel like just another app on my XP desktop. The only theoretical downside is that alt-tab doesn’t cycle between the windows within Linux. The other distros (including CDL which I’m currently using to write this) trap the mouse at the borders, and force me to press Ctrl-Alt to release the mouse. It’s not that big of a deal, but I am curious as to what each distro is doing, as none of them knows about VMware.

Anyway, all are fine distros and may see more time on my desktop over the coming months. Like I said above, while it’s still not likely, there’s a possibility that my next laptop will be Linux, and my primary distro will either be one of the Ubuntu flavors or Sidux.

New Twitter Followers

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I’ve been using Twitter for a very long time (thanks Jamie, even though you deserted us for a while). πŸ˜‰

I have had it set to IM me (via Jabber) whenever anyone tweets, and forever, that was working. A while ago (quite a while ago), those messages stopped coming. I was able to send tweets via IM, but I never got an update for someone else any longer.

On time, also a long time ago, I turned off the IM channel, then turned it back on, and for a short while (days?) I received tweets via IM again, then they stopped.

Recently, I installed Twhirl (an Adobe AIR fat client for Twitter) so I didn’t care. Then I installed (same day) AlertThingy (also an AIR client). AlertThingy (at first) only attached to FriendFeed stuff, so I still had to launch Twhirl in order to see tweets from people that I am not also a FriendFeed subscriber of. Ugh.

A recent update of AlertThingy (or I missed it originally!) now also includes full Twitter integration, so I no longer have to launch Twhirl.

Anyway, none of that has to do with the title of this post. πŸ˜‰

This morning, I noticed that two of the people that I follow both tweeted that they have seen a big jump in followers. Having nothing to do with that (but having it lodged somewhere in my brain), I logged on to twitter.com for the first time in a very long while.

I accidentally noticed a tiny link on the bottom right hand corner showing 14 new requests to be followed. That was quite surprising. Who knew how long they’ve been sitting there?

So, out of the 14 requests, I knew eight of those people (and approved all of them right away). A ninth person is someone I don’t personally know (or at least I don’t think I do), but he’s a good buddy of two people I do know, so I happily accepted him as well.

That left five strangers. Of them, one seemed to have a very interesting business take in her tweets, so I accepted her. Two seemed to be following over 50K (yes, thousand!) people, so I can safely assume that I’m not all that special to them, and I declined them. The other two I just haven’t decided yet, and I’m letting them sit.

So, I’ve gone from four followers to 14 followers, in a five minute span. Nothing like the one buddy who tweeted this morning that he’s up to 1000 followers!

That said, I keep my tweets private, as I do for my FriendFeed as well. I’m honestly not sure why I do. Everything that I tweet about is personal (no big business secrets to worry about spilling to the world). After the fact, I often blog about what I tweeted about in advance. In other word, my tweets are often “Going to a concert”, followed the next morning by a blog about the concert.

Clearly, the blog is available for all to see, forever, so why not just open up the tweets as well? I don’t know, but since I have zero need/desire for a complete stranger to know (or care) about what I’m about to do, it just makes sense to me.

The blog side is different. I am shocked (and pleased) as to how many people find my posts via normal searches, and I know (hopefully they would agree!) that often my post has answered their exact question (if they have the patience to read my long-windedness). πŸ˜‰

If any of you have strong opinions as to the benefits of opening up my tweets and/or FriendFeed, please feel free to weigh in here.

April 2008 Poker

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Well, it’s a few days early, but I honestly don’t think I’ll be playing any (or much) poker before the end of the month. If there is a material update, I’ll post again.

In keeping with my new schedule, even though I had a ton of time to play this month, I still played a pretty light schedule. Because of that, I paid the full freight to enter one of the Sunday big tourneys. In that one, I came in 66th out of 907. That was my one nice hit for the month ($500 returned for $215 invested).

In addition to that, I won qualifiers for the big tourney twice, but bombed out in both of those tries in the actual tourney. One of those was frustrating, as I came 140th and they only paid to 100th. I also won another nice qualifier for a big Omaha Hi-Lo tourney, but bombed out in that as well.

I played in a number of my normal 7pm Omaha Hi-Lo tourneys, and cashed once or twice (minor prizes), but also bubbled (finished one out of the money!) at least once, and 3rd or 4th out of the money a few other times.

In general, my play this month was as good as it’s ever been. I had some great luck in at least one of the qualifiers where I won an entry to the big tourney (still turned into no cash), but in the actual tournaments (more so in the Omaha ones, but a little in the Hold’Em ones too), I had one of the worst runs of bad luck one can imagine.

It’s one of the main reasons I bubbled so many times. For a change, rather than easily drifting into a minor prize, I risked all of my chips (repeatedly!) with much the best hand. In general, I was an 80-90% favorite when I got all my chips in. In nearly every case (this month), the river (or occasionally the turn) brought a miracle card to my numskull opponent, and I was out with no money. The frustration was enormous, but I also felt vindicated at my bet when the other person flipped over their cards.

Oh well, that didn’t help the account value, just the ego… Total for the month was a very disappointing -$316. Nothing material (given my account size), but not a happy situation either.

As for why I won’t be playing, as of today, my site has radically changed their tournament structure. There are almost no Omaha Hi-Lo tourneys left, including their removal of the nightly 7pm that I love so much. They’ve even revamped their normal Hold’Em schedule, blowing away the more interesting (given my risk appetite) ones in the times that work best for me.

I am now seriously considering just emptying my account and giving up online poker for a while. Of course, I could search for another site (many of them still likely have tons of tourneys that would fit my profile perfectly), but it’s a lot of work to pick one, and to get the money in there now is a hassle, so I’ll mull it over and decide.

Of course, I could just keep my money here and play in the big one any Sunday that works for me, and just ignore them the rest of the week. At least that would give them a chance to realize what a boneheaded move this new tournament schedule is (the 7pm filled up every single night, so it was popular and profitable for them!). I suspect that’s my most likely (short-term) course of action!

CSS Hack Added

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When I upgraded to WordPress 2.5 I articulated a few UI problems on my site. Here’s the relevant section:

  1. The Sociable plugin is once again formatting the bullets in a block list, rather than inline. This can be fixed with my own css (as I’ve done in the past), but I have no idea what broke in the upgrade…
  2. TinyMCE (in WP2.5) won’t allow me to display the link editor (AJAX form). It comes up blank. I am posting this from IE until I figure that out. Not cool, but also not stuck…
  3. This ordered list is not showing the numbers in IE7, but is in Firefox. πŸ™

#1 above turned out to be simple. There was a checkbox that I needed to set in the Sociable options to apply the sociable.css file. This was either a new option that I didn’t need to set before upgrading both the plugin and WordPress, or something in the upgrade to WordPress coupled with a deactivate/activate of the plugin caused that setting to be lost.

#2 auto-corrected itself. I’ll guess that the next time I restarted Firefox it just worked, and I panicked prematurely.

#3 was the real thorny problem, and is the subject of this post.

It’s likely that this bug existed for a few weeks before I upgraded to WordPress 2.5. Most certainly, it is not related in any way to WordPress at all (any version).

When I installed the SandPress theme (based on the Sandbox Theme Template) which is linked in the footer of every page on this site (unless you’re reading this in the future, and I’ve changed my theme again) πŸ˜‰ I decided to tweak it (which was a CSS change only).

One of the things that I did was remove the attribute “list-style-position:inside”. I hate the fact that ordered lists that span multiple lines have text under the number. It not only looks bad (IMHO) it makes it less readable. By removing the “inside”, I got the default of “outside” (without specifying it), and I immediately tested in Firefox (my default browser), and it worked correctly, and I was done.

When I upgraded to WordPress 2.5 I did it on my laptop first. I just happened to test in IE first, and noticed that I have no numbers on any ordered list. I tried a number of things but couldn’t get it to work. I thought that it was something related to the WP 2.5 upgrade, so I needed to decide whether I’d just live with it temporarily, or back off the upgrade. I decided to live with it.

It altered my behavior. In a recent post, I really wanted an ordered list, but I hated the look in IE without the numbers, so reluctantly turned it into a bulleted list. πŸ™

Earlier this week I finally took some time to track it down. That included installing an IE development addon which does what the Firefox DOM Inspector does. I had assumed that in IE, the problem was the “list-style-type” wasn’t being set to decimal. I was wrong. It was correctly set to decimal! I was truly stumped. I tried a number of other things, and then gave up.

Today, it occurred to me that there’s no way that the original SandPress theme was broken this badly. So, I switched (on my laptop) to the untweaked SandPress theme, and voila, IE showed ordered lists with numbers. Good. Now I did a diff on the original style.css file with my tweaked version. The difference was obvious, namely the inclusion in the original file of the attribute “list-style-position:inside”, which I had removed.

So, it appears that the designer of SandPress knew that IE7 couldn’t correctly render “list-style-position:outside” (whether explicitly set, or defaulted). So, he threw up his hands and set it to inside, and lived with it. I totally understand that decision, but for me, I wouldn’t be happy with seeing it this way in Firefox.

So, I did a quick search and found this blog showing a variety of CSS hacks. Here’s the relevant section on targeting IE7:

Target Internet Explorer 7:
[className=”actualClassName”] { … }

In case you aren’t familiar, you can either target or filter specific browsers. Targeting means that the rest of the line will only apply to that particular browser. Filtering means that the rest of the line will not apply to the specific browser.

In this case, I wanted the default to be outside for all browsers, but for IE7 to be inside. That meant targeting IE7 with the inside clause.

It worked perfectly. Now, ordered lists look like I want them to in Firefox, and look poor (to me) in IE7, but at least have numbers. Whew.

Back in business. πŸ™‚

Welcome WordPress 2.5

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My last post announced a physical move of this server. Before the server was shut down, I saw the announcement for WordPress 2.5 final. I installed it locally on my laptop, and saw that everything on my site worked, with the exception of the Popularity Contest plugin. I had the time to update the main server before it was scheduled to be shut off, but I chose to take the more conservative route, and wait until it came back up.

The server move was very successful, with one unfortunately notable exception. I had an artifact in my IPTABLES firewall rules that made the machine semi-invisible to the outside world when it came back up, even though all of the appropriate DNS updates had been performed.

I count myself as wildly lucky that one of the few things I was able to do successfully was to ssh onto the machine using a direct IP address. It took me a while to accidentally discover the one bad firewall option, but once I changed that, everything started working. Whew! Queued mail started flowing as well.

That left me free to update to WordPress 2.5. That went pretty smoothly too. Of course, just like with the laptop, Popularity Contest doesn’t work, so it’s not on now. There are three other wierdnesses, neither of which I have the time to track down at the moment, but hopefully will later this afternoon:

  1. The Sociable plugin is once again formatting the bullets in a block list, rather than inline. This can be fixed with my own css (as I’ve done in the past), but I have no idea what broke in the upgrade…
  2. TinyMCE (in WP2.5) won’t allow me to display the link editor (AJAX form). It comes up blank. I am posting this from IE until I figure that out. Not cool, but also not stuck…
  3. This ordered list is not showing the numbers in IE7, but is in Firefox. πŸ™

So, welcome WordPress 2.5 to this space. Welcome this server into the new data center. Hopefully, this will be the last move for this specific server, not that it was that much of a hassle. Thanks Dave for taking care of the move and making it so painless! πŸ™‚

Server Relocation

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Tomorrow night, probably at roughly 8pm EST, the opticality.com server (the one serving up this content to you) will be heading south, literally.

It will be moved from one data center (in Northern Virginia) to a data center in Central Virginia.

For a number of reasons, I have chosen a less than fault tolerant setup for this server. The most notable example is that there is no secondary MX server. That means that while the machine is in transit, all email sent to it will be deferred (at least I hope it will be).

Also, this blog will be down (obviously).

While the downtime is expected to be 3-4 hours, I may not be awake when the machine comes back online, and I have little doubt that I will have to update things once the machine is back, in order for it to perform its public duties in the manner it currently does. That might not happen until the morning, though I hope that email just works.

Anyway, sorry for any inconvenience, and here’s hoping it goes as smoothly as possible…

Microsoft Madness

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Yesterday, I read the following article on PC World’s website. It mirrored my thoughts about Windows XP vs Windows Vista perfectly, including direct experience not just theory.

What I learned in that post (which I probably should have known earlier but didn’t) is that Microsoft intends to stop most sales of Windows XP as of June 30th, 2008. I’m not really sure what most means in this context, but either way, it’s boneheaded.

I just did a quick search, and apparently it means that they likely won’t be offering it to OEMs, so if you expect to get Windows pre-loaded on a new laptop after June 30th, you’ll have a choice of Vista or Vista (or Vista or Vista, given that there are four version of Vista available!).

John Heckman questions whether Microsoft won’t bow to pressure and push back the June 30th date.

The minute I read the article I knew I was going to post this. My first instinct was to title it Wake Up Microsoft. Then this morning, it came to me, this is the perfect season to aptly and correctly use the term Madness.

It’s clear that Vista is a bomb. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone without an ax to grind that would seriously defend the merits of Vista over XP. It’s not the first time Microsoft has bombed with an entire operating system. How many of you are still running Windows ME?

At least with Windows ME, it died a relatively quick and painless death. With Vista, for any number of reasons, Microsoft isn’t willing to give up. Given enough time (and money), they will likely make it decent, though it’s unlikely to ever be great (given it’s core), and it’s not even likely to get decent given that they are already working on it’s successor.

The madness isn’t in not killing Vista (I understand that the investment and marketing bets that they’ve made are too big to simply throw away). The madness is taking away the only viable choice that still puts money in Microsoft’s pocket!

Folks, there’s no doubt that XP is eating into Vista sales. That’s the only reason that Microsoft wants to stop selling XP, they want to remove the competitive choice and force new computers to be pre-loaded with Vista! Will it work? Of course, there are many people who wouldn’t consider Linux or Mac under any circumstance, and they will grudgingly (or ignorantly) accept a machine with Vista on it, if they have no other choice.

This doesn’t make it a smart strategy. The sane move would be to keep offering XP as a choice (while heavily promoting Vista). Then, whenever Vista truly rivals XP (don’t hold your breath), or Windows 7 (or whatever it will be called when it finally arrives) is available, stop selling XP.

In the best case scenario, Microsoft will sell exactly the same number of licenses in total (Vista only, instead of a mix of Vista and XP). They will get to declare a huge PR win for Vista (look how sales ramped so nicely!). They will not get any additional profit (since they will be maintaining XP for years to come anyway). They will create a slew of miserable users who will equate Microsoft with pain (or worse).

In the worst case scenario, they will push people toward alternative operating systems like Mac and Linux.

I haven’t done a scientific survey, but I honestly believe that nearly every technology professional (business people too, not just developers) that I know has switched to using a Mac as their primary computing platform (most on laptops, but I know a number of people who use iMacs as well!). When I say “nearly every” one, I believe the number is pretty close to 90%.

Examples include Zope Corporation. While 100% of our services to customers are delivered on Linux-based servers, there is only one developer in the company that hasn’t switched to a Mac. Even the SAs (System Administrators) all got Macs recently (though one of them decided after the fact that he’s more productive on his Linux laptop).

My friends (you know who you are) have been needling me for years to switch to the Mac. I have very long experience with the origins of Mac OS X (NeXT), so no one needs to convince me of the power and the beauty of the underlying software.

I haven’t switched for two reasons:

  1. There are programs (some cool, some necessary) that only run on Windows, or at the very least, run on Windows way earlier than they become available on Mac.
  2. The value proposition of generic hardware (laptops and desktops) is overwhelming vs the Mac stuff. The Mac stuff is gorgeous, and brilliantly designed. Ultimately, it’s not worth the money and locks you in. They also have enough quality problems to make me pause.

My non-technology professional friends (neighbors for example) still prefer Windows. There are a number of reasons but they are all valid (games for their kids, Windows is used at the office, I know Windows, I don’t want to have to buy new copies of software I already paid for, etc.).

In April 2004 I bought my current laptop. In fact, I just wrote about that in this post. I bought it without an operating system pre-loaded because I was committed to switching to Linux full time. The experiment lasted six weeks (not too bad), but once I started running Windows in Win4Lin, I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to cut the Windows cord full time, and I installed Windows XP Pro.

There were two reasons that I switched back:

  1. 95% of the day I was happier on Linux than on Windows. 5% of the day I required a program that was only available on Windows. That 5% started to bug me more each day until I switched back.
  2. Linux was great in 2004, but it wasn’t quite as good on cutting edge hardware as it is today, and I had some real problems on my (at the time) brand new beast. It’s possible that I would have toughed it out if Linux had worked perfectly on my laptop back then. I have no doubt it would work flawlessly today.

My one direct experience with Vista came when my next door neighbor bought a new Dell Laptop for her mother. There was no choice, Vista only. I am their tech support team and she asked me to customize the machine for her mother when it showed up. I was amazed at the hoops I had to jump through to install programs onto the machine. I couldn’t begin to imagine what someone who was less technical would have done (other than throw the machine out!).

In addition, the machine crashed on me at least 10 times in one day during the setup. Sheesh.

Since then, I have been asked for laptop recommendations at least five times. In all cases, the buyer wanted Windows. In all cases I have vehemently recommended XP, and (amazingly enough) it was now available again as an option. None of those users has had a single problem with their new laptops.

Where does that leave me? As I mentioned in my spring cleaning post, I will likely be buying two new laptops at some point (possibly this year, but definitely next year if not in 2008). I have thought about this (before knowing about the demise of XP) for much longer than I care to admit, and I decided that I was going to stick with Windows. Sorry Mac fanboys. πŸ˜‰

If Vista is my only choice, I can guarantee you that I won’t be buying it. Best case scenario (for Microsoft) is that I will buy a retail CD of XP and load it myself. Much more likely scenario is that I will install Linux on the machine, and try really hard to avoid the few Windows-only programs that I’ve come to rely on. The least likely choice is that I will break down and buy Mac laptops, but it’s not impossible (the possibility is at least on my radar for the first time ever).

So, coming full circle to my original post title: Wake Up Microsoft!

Kodak Z712IS First Impression

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Lois is photo-biographer and always has been. Way before digital cameras were available, Lois was buying 36mm film by the truckload. Our godchildren can attest to the thousands (or is it millions) of times that they have been asked (yes, I’m being polite!) to pose for yet another photo.

Things got better in the digital age for Lois. the cost of film disappeared. The convenience factor of always having a pocketable camera on you, with unlimited picture taking was great. All that is gravy to the single best innovation, the trivially easy ability to share these photographs in emails, on the web, editing them (red eye removal, cropping, lightening/darkening), backing them up, etc.

She can now take 10 pictures of one thing in the belief that even if nine of them stink, one will likely be worth saving. Not that she didn’t do that with film, but now there’s no guilt. πŸ˜‰

A few years ago I bought Lois a Canon PowerShot S410. The 410 part means it’s a 4.1 megapixel camera. It takes reasonably good pictures, and is easy to operate. It has lots of user adjustable settings, but for the most part, Lois is not a techie (computers or photography) and the automatic settings are best.

She’s been pretty happy with it overall, but occasionally, she complains bitterly about the time it takes for the flash to be ready for another photo, or the shutter to react (she takes tons of photos while we drive on the highway). Over the past year, the complaints have gotten worse, even though she still captures some stunning shots with that old camera.

Her single biggest complaint is that it takes poor night shots. She takes tons of photos in concert halls (no flash permitted) and of the night sky. They come out (as you may have seen on my music posts where all the photos were taken by Lois) but they are disappointing in their quality.

A few months ago, I noticed that Geeks.com was running a special on the Kodak Z712IS. The link I just gave for the camera is not on sale, so don’t rush out and pay that amount. Even though the Z812IS (eight megapixels instead of seven) was already out, and now the Z1012IS is either out or already announced, I was happy with the 712 (you can read tons of articles, in particular by David Pogue of The New York Times) on why more megapixels isn’t always better.

Anyway, I procrastinated for a few months, and then Geeks.com ran a slightly better special, and I finally decided to surprise Lois with this camera. I knew it would not replace her current Canon S410 because the form factor would not have her running around with it all the time. But, I had hoped that the 12x optical zoom, plus image stabilization (the IS part of the model name) plus hopefully better night shots, would make this her preferred camera for shots taken from our house, which is where she takes the most pictures.

I added a high speed 4GB SDHC Memory Card ($20.50 at the time, cheaper now!). With $9.00 in shipping charges the total came to $204.49 (camera, memory card and shipping).

The first thing that shocked me when I opened the camera was that it was way smaller (in the good sense) than it appeared in the pictures. While it has the style of a larger SLR type of camera, it’s quite smaller than those (typified by the Nikon D100 for example). But, it’s significantly heavier than the S410, so it’s still not going to replace it for Lois to always have with her. It’s also bulkier than that (won’t fit in any kind of pocket).

The second shock was of the negative kind. The camera ships without a rechargeable battery. Huh? If you had asked me to guess how many digital cameras available today shipped with a non-rechargeable battery, I would have honestly guessed zero! Obviously, I would have been wrong. This wasn’t as clearly marked in the ads as I would have liked either.

According to reviews, the included battery back would be good for roughly 275 photos. That’s about 10 minutes of usage for Lois (just kidding, but not by that much). πŸ˜‰

Given the price of the camera, I wasn’t actually as annoyed at the lack of the charger plus appropriate battery pack, but at not knowing it in time to have ordered it to arrive with the camera.

So, digging way too much (I’m not so much of a bargain hunter as I am someone who hates to reward those that overcharge!), I decided there was no way I was paying for a Kodak branded charger and battery pack. After much searching, and wanting it to arrive reasonably quickly (the best deal was from a seller on EBay who is based in Hong Kong!), I bought two of these batteries and one charger from Eforcity.com. I had bought from them before (through an EBay auction, not directly like this time) and was very pleased with the product and quick shipping.

Total for the two batteries, charger and shipping was $40.96. It arrived four days later, very good service, and the charger worked perfectly.

When I loaded the Kodak software on to Lois’ laptop, it asked if it could import her existing photos into its library. We said yes. It found 19,986 photos to import. I don’t know if that’s impressive or not (compared with the rest of you photophiles out there), but it impressed me. πŸ˜‰

One last thing before comparing the first photos taken by the camera. The full manuals are available in PDF online (and obviously, can be downloaded to your laptop). Excellent documentation (a minor surprise these days), with very clear instructions on how to use the myriad features available on the camera.

Today, I finally went to our backyard and took exactly two photos with the new camera. I took the same two photos with the Canon S410 as well. Normally, I both crop and reduce the resolution on nearly every photo that I post here, keeping them as small as possible. For this one test, I will not touch the photos in any way, so that you can get the raw (well jpeg actually) experience from the two cameras. That means that the photos are larger, especially the 7-megapixel ones from the Kodak.

Here are two shots of the Tappan Zee Bridge from our backyard. Both shots are with zero zoom. The bridge is four miles away. The first photo is the Canon, the second the Kodak. Click on either photo to see the full image:

Canon S410 Tappan Zee BridgeKodak Z712IS Tappan Zee Bridge

The next two shots were taken from the same spot, but this time with the camera on maximum zoom. It occurs to me now that a long time ago I set the Canon to never zoom digitally, but I don’t know if I allowed the Kodak to go beyond the 12x optical zoom. If I did, then that would be a bad test, because adding digital zoom makes photos much grainier:

Canon S410 Zoom Tappan Zee BridgeKodak Z712IS Zoom Tappan Zee Bridge

A few things to note. While the LCD on the back of the Kodak is dramatically larger, it was hazy (but very bright) outside, and I could barely see what I was pointing at! The viewfinder wasn’t turned on by default. I didn’t feel like poking around to turn it on, so I just aimed and shot. The zoom on the Kodak is simply incredible (which is the primary reason I bought it to begin with!). I didn’t even get the majority of the bridge into the single shot! Of course, I’m really hoping I didn’t accidentally over-zoom and use optical+digital at the same time.

Finally, the non-zoomed shot from the Kodak is dramatically brighter. That could simply be more megapixels, or it could be newer sensors. Either way, with only two pictures under the belt of this camera, the story is far from told. Now we have to see whether Lois takes a shine to it or not. This post is sort of meant to goad her into taking better photos than these. πŸ™‚

P.S. Just for completeness sake, here are two final photographs that are both cropped, slightly brightened (the Canon more than the Kodak) and filtered down in resolution. They are tiny (the Canon one is 10KB and the Kodak is 23KB) which is how I normally adjust photos that I post here:

Canon S410 Cropped Tappan Zee BridgeKodak Z712IS Cropped Tappan Zee Bridge