USB Insanity

A while back, I wrote about how I have a lot of USB devices hanging off my computer.

Well, these days… I have even more.

My current computer has 4 USB ports on the back and 2 on the front, which is pretty typical. (The ports on the front though aren’t very useful for stuff I keep attached permanently; I like to keep my wires in the back & out of sight.)

I also recently added a USB 3.0 card, giving me another 2 ports on the back, and I have an old 4-port (powered) USB hub plus a 2-port (unpowered) port in my keyboard. This gives me a total of 14 USB ports (some of which are taken up connecting the hubs of course, so really there’s just 12 available).

And it’s still not enough.

I had recently picked up a new 7-port powered USB hub, but it turned out to be rather cheap and died on me (freezing and taking down the entire USB subsystem with it!). So I had to go back to my old 4-port hub… which leaves me a bit pressed for ports to plug in the simply obnoxious amount of USB devices I have connected to my computer.

And if that wasn’t enough, one of the ports on my old 4-port hub recently died after a power fluctuation, so now it’s a 3-port hub.

So, I’m on the lookout now for a new hub – a good one this time – that has at least 5 ports (preferably more) and is externally powered (a necessity for using USB to charge devices).

In the meantime though, I figured I’d update my list of USB devices, just for fun.

  1. Dell Multimedia Keyboard (my favorite keyboard, both for its volume knob instead of just buttons, and for the fact that it has a 2 port hub built-in – very handy for where to plug in mice)
  2. Microsoft Comfort Mouse 3000
  3. Logitech Trackman Marble (for when carpal tunnel pain forces me to switch mouse hands)
  4. Printer
  5. Microsoft LifeCam VX-1000 webcam (for the bunnycam)
  6. Microsoft LifeCam Studio (for Skype)
  7. Logitech headset (for Skype, audio recording, & other VoIP stuff)
  8. UPS (battery backup)
  9. 1 TB external hard drive (for local backup, in addition to my cloud-based backup)
  10. Microsoft eHome infrared receiver (for using my Windows Media Center remote)
  11. 8 GB USB flash drive for Windows ReadyBoost

I think it’s fair to say… I have an obnoxious number of USB devices! And this doesn’t even count the USB gamepad (only sometimes connected) or the USB bluetooth receiver (also only sometimes connected).

The American’s Guide to Australia

Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Australia but were Afraid to Ask.

Just a handy little reference guide for anyone who wants to know more about that crazy land down on the bottom of the Earth.

(Note that some of these terms may not be specific to Australia – for example, some are common to the UK as well as other Commonwealth Realms.)

Prepare to be confused!

Flat White: An espresso based drink, like a latte but with little or no foam.

Tea: The evening meal, what Americans would probably just call “dinner.” Not to be confused with “tea” the drink. Also not to be confused with “teatime,” which is the time you drink the tea, not the time you eat tea (which would be “tea time”, or “time for tea”). Confused yet?

Ute: Short for “utility,” as in “utility vehicle,” what Americans would call a truck or pickup truck. More often than not, this refers to a uniquely Australian type of vehicle that bears more than a passing resemblance to the old Chevy El Camino car/truck thing.

Wrong side of the road: Unlike most of the civilized world, Australians drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car. This, combined with their relative isolation, means that most Australian cars are either locally produced or come from Japan (which also drives on the left – a.k.a. “wrong” – side of the road), with a smattering of European models (the right-hand drive versions, of course) thrown in for good measure. Even more oddly, one of the biggest Australian car companies (Holden) is actually a subsidiary of GM (General Motors), and there are also a lot of Fords running around. Go figure.

Petrol: Like their UK cousins, this is what Australians call gasoline. Also don’t forget that it’s sold by the liter, not the gallon, and that liters are smaller than gallons… and don’t forget to factor in the exchange rate too. (Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that gasoline is more expensive in Australia, much like it is in Europe.)

$2 coins: Unlike here in the US, where the largest denomination coin you’re likely to run into in normal usage is a quarter ($0.25), in Australia you’re very likely to run into their $1 and $2 coins – the latter of which are ridiculously heavy, given their small size. So don’t just toss your change into your pocket or cup or whatever – it’s probably worth more than you realize!

Alfoil: Aluminum foil, or what Americans might colloquially call “tin foil” (even though it’s not made of tin). A rare case of when the Australian term for something actually makes more sense than the American term, and also an example of the Australian habit of shortening the names of things.

Biscuits: The sweet kind, not the savory kind. What we in America would probably just call “cookies.”

Cool change: This is exactly what it sounds like – a change in temperature (getting cooler). Often – but not always – accompanied by some rain showers (which often come with the cold front that causes the “cool change”).

Weber: A generic term for an outdoor grill. Usually means the big round “kettle” style kind made by the Weber company, but not always. Sometimes even used to refer to any grill – including gas grills!

Barbie: No, not the doll, the stereotypical term for “barbecue,” which I have never actually heard used. If you use this term, you are basically identifying yourself as an ignorant tourist.

Yank or Yankie: Slang term for us – that is, Americans. Generally not used in a negative sense.

Top End: The top (northern) end of Australia, which it is important to remember is closer to the equator, and therefore tropical. Oddly enough, it does not refer to the northernmost part of Australia (which would be Cape York), but instead to the 2nd northernmost part (around Darwin).

Outback: Generally speaking, the large, remote, and very sparsely populated interior of Australia.

The Bush: What we in America would probably just call “the woods” or a “forest,” but drier and of course filled with native Australia trees (usually Eucalyptus trees – see “Gum tree” below).

Gum tree: Colloquial term for a Eucalyptus tree. May refer to any of the several actual species of trees (much the same way we here in the US use the term “pine tree” to refer to any of several different species of trees). Variations on this term include “Red Gum,” “River Gum,” “Snow Gum,” “Ghost Gum,” etc. Have a nasty tendency to drop dead branches without warning, so watch out when walking around them. Has absolutely nothing to do with the stuff you chew.

Ayer’s Rock / Uluru: More commonly referred to these days with its original native name of “Uluru,” this is that big (as in, friggin’ huge) rock out in the near-center of Australia.

Aborigines / Indigenous Australians: The original native people of Australia. Basically, these are Australia’s equivalent to our Native Americans – the people who lived there before Europeans came along and stole their land and destroyed their culture. Be careful what term you use when talking about them – it’s a bit of a sensitive topic, not unlike using the term “Indian” (when used to refer to Native Americans) would be here in the US.

Vegemite: It’s spreadable yeast. It’s gross. Don’t eat it. Trust me.

Chemist: Strangely, this refers to what we in America would call a pharmacy or drugstore. May also refer to the person in the store, which we would call a pharmacist.

Thongs: Amusingly enough, in Australia this refers to footwear, not underwear. What we would call flip-flops or sandals (the kind that have that little strap that goes between your big toe and the next one down).

Toilet: This means both the toilet itself and the room in which it is housed, but NOT necessarily the bathroom, which is often in a separate room.

Track pants: Basically, sweatpants.

Prawn: This means shrimp, for some godforsaken reason. (Actually, “prawn” are technically a different suborder of animal entirely, but which still looks – and tastes – like a shrimp, so this one isn’t as odd as it seems.) Also note that the stereotypical “Australian” catch-phrase “throw another shrimp on the barbie” is technically incorrect – an Australian would almost certainly not say “shrimp,” they’d say “prawn.” And as I mentioned before, they’d probably not use the word “barbie” either. So really, the phrase should be “throw some more prawns on the webber.”

Mince: Ground beef (as in, “minced beef”). Another case of Australia’s love of shortening the names of things.

Pies: Might refer to the things you eat for dessert (fruit pies, etc.), but might also mean meat pies – which are just what they sound like: pies with meat (and gravy) in them, instead of sweet stuff.

Chips: French fries; as in “fish & chips.” Outside of fast-food restaurants, they are likely to be much thicker than typical American french fries (often more like what we would call “steak fries”). Which brings us to…

Chips & Gravy: French fries doused with brown gravy. Surprisingly good!

Wedges: Fried potato wedges. Like french fries, but thicker and more… wedge shaped.

Hungry Jack’s: Australian Burger King – so named because someone else owned the trademark to “Burger King” in Adelaide, South Australia.

Crayfish: Just to make things really extra-super-confusing, this is what Australians call the lobsters they get from the ocean… but this is actually a spiny lobster, which doesn’t have claws like our lobsters, and in fact is not a true lobster at all! Compare with true crayfish, which are a fresh water species, and which DO have claws! Speaking of which…

Yabby: As if things weren’t confusing enough, this is what Australians call their freshwater crayfish (and these are true crayfish), which look more like the true lobsters Americans are familiar with (although they are somewhat smaller).

That’s about all I’ve got for now – I hope you found this little guide to be useful, or at least entertaining. Although Australia can be somewhat confusing, it really is a lovely country, and if you find yourself there, just relax and have a great time!

Breathing New Life into an Old Netbook

Lately I had been getting a bit frustrated with the performance of my old netbook, Ryo-Ohki. Oh, it’s still a great little computer, but it was beginning to show it’s age… or rather, I was starting to notice it. Basically, I was getting frustrated that everything took so long to start up – Windows, Ubuntu, Firefox, etc.

The two typical ways to speed up an older computer are to:

  • Add more memory (RAM)
  • Add a bigger (or faster) hard drive

Generally speaking, what you upgrade depends on what is being “stressed” in your computer at the moment. For example, if you have plenty of hard drive space, but only 1 GB of RAM, you’re probably hitting your RAM limit more often, which means you should upgrade that first. Likewise, if you have only a 250 GB hard drive, but dozens of large programs (Photoshop, Office, etc.) and a large collection of music, movies, and pictures, then you’re probably hitting your hard drive’s space limits, so you should upgrade that first.

In the case of my netbook, RAM was not the issue – while it does only have 1 GB of RAM, it can only hold (at most) up to 2 GB – and I usually only have one or two programs open at a time, and they are generally not RAM-intensive (just a browser or video player).

Instead, the real limit for my netbook – and, increasingly, the limit on almost everyone’s computer these days – was the hard drive. While my hard drive of 160 GB was technically rather small, I don’t have a lot of files, so the problem wasn’t the amount of space – the problem was the speed.

Hard drive speed isn’t just a limiting factor for netbooks and laptops, either – hard drives have been the slowest thing in computers (of any type) for years now.

SSD drive iconFortunately, the past few years have seen a new type of hard drive appear which helps us get past this hard drive performance problem – the Solid State Drive, or SSD.

Solid State Drives are sort of like giant USB memory sticks; they are the same sort of chip-based non-volatile (i.e., it doesn’t lose its contents when the power goes off, like RAM) memory that you see in USB drives or even in memory cards for your digital camera.

The benefit of an SSD is that, being totally digital, they have no moving parts, and since they are purely electronic, there is no mechanical delay in reading data from different parts of memory (like there is with a regular hard drive, which has to spin a disc and move an arm to a particular part to read the data). Basically, an SSD can be as fast as the memory chips that make it up, and the interface used to connect it to the rest of the computer… which means they can be made very fast.

The downside to SSDs is that they are relatively new technology, and therefore the price is still quite high. You can easily buy a regular hard drive with 1 TB of disk space for about $99 (possibly even less these days), which works out to about $0.10 per GB of disk space. On the other hand, SSDs are currently hovering around about $1.00 per GB of space – that’s about 10 times the cost per gigabyte.

I’ve been mulling over SSDs before, and while they aren’t quite practical for my desktop computer (with its huge disk space requirements), I thought they might be a good fit for my netbook. So I started price-stalking a few different models, and eventually one of them went on sale for the very reasonable (for an SSD) price of $120 (for a 120 GB SATA II SSD), so I snapped it up.

Since the new drive was slightly smaller than my old one (which was 160 GB), I didn’t even bother with the idea of transferring my old installation over to the new drive. Spending hours trying to resize two main partitions (one for Windows, one for Ubuntu Linux) plus all the recovery & swap partitions was just not very appealing to me. Plus, my netbook doesn’t really have anything on it – all my files live on my desktop, after all – so reinstalling the operating systems was not a big deal.

So, I popped out the old hard drive and put in the new one. This involved exactly 6 screws (2 to open the cover, 4 to secure the drive in a tiny little bracket) and took all of 5 minutes.

Even though my netbook is a little on the old side, it recognized the SSD without a hitch. All that was left now was to boot from the USB drives I’d prepared with Windows 7 and Ubuntu and then reinstall my programs.

Windows 7 was the first thing I installed (I prefer to install Linux last, so that it installs GRUB as the boot loader/OS chooser, which I like), and the installation itself took relatively little time (about 20 minutes.)

After that, it took several hours to download and install all the Windows Updates – and this version of Windows 7 I installed already included Service Pack 1! (To be fair though, some of these updates were for Microsoft Office as well.)

Installing Ubuntu went much faster, thanks to its ability to download updates as you install it (hint, hint, Microsoft?).

After installing the OS, I installed the few programs I use (Firefox and Chrome, Skype, Dropbox, and VLC media player, basically) and then I was up and running!

When everything was done, I had my new SSD cleanly split 50/50 between Windows 7 and Ubuntu, and everything was back up and running just fine.

Now though was the moment of truth. I’d rebooted many times already, but always to let some updates install… now it was time to see how fast this new hard drive could be.

Long-time readers will remember I did some completely pointless benchmarks of my computers a while back. The numbers I came up with from those tests showed that my netbook booted into Windows and Ubuntu to a fully-loaded desktop, ready to use, in 1 minute and 30 seconds and 47 seconds, respectively.

With my new SSD, those numbers have fallen to 1 minute even for Windows 7 and just 27 seconds for Ubuntu – a 33% improvement in Windows startup time, and a 42% increase in Ubuntu startup time.

Also, opening new programs is now much snappier (although not instant), and in general the computer just “feels” more responsive.

Keep in mind as well that my netbook, being a little on the old side, can’t really take advantage of the full speed of the SSD – the SATA interface is probably SATA 1, unlike the SATA II or SATA III interfaces that newer computers have. (The SSD drive itself supports SATA II, but it works just fine with SATA 1, just not as fast.)

While these startup times aren’t exactly “stellar” by modern computer & SSD standards, they are a significant improvement over my netbook’s old performance. Now the major limiting factor in my netbook’s performance is actually the old Atom CPU and the somewhat-sluggish graphics adapter.

Still, the SSD reduces much of the “lag” that my netbook used to have – and that’s always the way it is when upgrading a computer with more RAM or a faster hard drive. These things don’t really make the computer any faster, but they do reduce the things that used to slow it down (a subtle but important distinction).

In the end, the SSD was a good (and cost-effective) way to lengthen the service life of my little netbook. It may not be the fastest thing around, and new netbooks (and “ultrabooks”) are almost certainly faster, but I also spent a lot less than the cost of a new netbook/ultrabook.

Upgrading to an SSD is a great way to extend the life of any older computer – assuming that you don’t mind having to re-install all your programs and data. If you don’t want to do that, then you’ll need to buy an SSD that is the same size (or larger, if you can afford it!) as your old hard drive so that you can just copy (or “clone”) your old drive onto the new SSD. But at the current price of SSDs and the typical size of an average desktop or even laptop hard drive, that might be a very, very pricy option… at least for the next few years.

To put it another way: if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up!

SSD image credit: Thrasos Varnava (via Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial, no derivative works license), USB drive image credit: Crystal Icon Set

Unsubscribe me NOW, Damnit!

If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s crappy methods of unsubscribing from email newsletters and the like. You’ve probably seen it before – you get some email from a company you’ve bought something from in the past, or maybe a website’s newsletter that you signed up for. It’s not spam, but you decide that you don’t really want these sorts of emails anymore, so you click the “Unsubscribe” link down at the bottom.

And then you’re greeted with something like this (emphasis mine):

Thanks for unsubscribing.
It may take up to 10 days to process your request.

Ten days? TEN DAYS?!? Seriously?

While the exact number of days may vary, the point is that you aren’t unsubscribed yet, even though you clicked the link to unsubscribe.

What’s worse is that sometimes the company or website will send you another email during that processing period!

Personally, whenever I see something like this it tends to send me into a sort of rage, where I vow never to do business with this company/organization/website ever again. Because really, saying that it’s going to take days (however many it may be) to do what should be instantaneous is just a giant middle finger to whomever is on the receiving end of the original email.

I could understand delays in processing an unsubscribe request back in the dark ages of the Internet – maybe even as recently as 5 years ago – when email mailing lists were cultivated manually, but honestly in this day and age there is absolutely no excuse for not automatically honoring an unsubscribe request immediately after a link is clicked.

I have to imagine that all of these “unsubscribe processing delay” messages come from old or home-grown email systems, because all the modern email marketing systems I know of will honor unsubscribe requests immediately.

When someone clicks an “unsubscribe” link (and I’m talking about a true “unsubscribe me from everything” link, not just a “stop receiving offers” or “stop sending me the monthly newsletter” type links), that person’s email address should be immediately marked as “DO NOT CONTACT” and no more bulk-type emails should ever be sent to that person’s address until they do something to opt-in to receiving them again.

In other words, when I click the “unsubscribe” link in your email, I expect you to unsubscribe me NOW, not 3 or 5 or 10 days later. Immediate unsubscribing may not be legally required (e.g., by the CAN SPAM Act), but I’d like to think it is morally required – it’s just common courtesy.