Thoughts Amid 2020

Well, here we are, midway through 2020 – a year I did not expect to be writing about, but 2020 has turned out to be the year that keeps on giving – but in a bad way.

I used to think the Internet was the greatest invention of mankind – that it would erase barriers to communication, bring people together, and spread knowledge to all.

I was wrong.

What I’ve seen instead is that new barriers to communication have been erected, people have been driven apart (or brought together, but only in hate), and instead of knowledge, propaganda, messages of hate, and outright lies have been spread instead. Even the very idea of “truth” has become questioned, as we doubt (or are told to doubt) the sources of information.

Technology was supposed to be the triumph of mankind – something that would eliminate barriers and advance us all towards a better future, a tool we could use against the forces of death, disease, and disaster to protect ourselves, extend our lives, and make us all happier. But instead we have turned that tool against ourselves, selfishly withholding it from some under a misguided thought that sharing it would somehow diminish our own share.

Sometimes I wonder if we invented the Internet too soon – that we, both as individuals and as a society, were not ready, not advanced enough, grown enough, wise enough to handle the power that it gave us.

Pandora’s box is open though, and there’s no way to undo what has been released into the world. All we can do is either fight one another to hide under the lid, or use what remains – hope – and go fight the demons of our own doing.

What’s been done cannot be undone, but we can stop it from going further. And unless we want to spend the rest of our lives cowering in fear of the monsters we created and released, we must stop it.

Computers & Optimism – Then vs Now

Looking back at the optimism I felt about computers and technology when I was young

Ever since I was very young, I was enamoured with computers (and this should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me). But from the very beginning, I was also excited about the potential of computers – of computing in general – to improve the world and to help people.

Even as a little kid playing pretend (because I couldn’t afford a computer; they were too expensive back then), I realized how world-changing computers could be.

I looked forward to the day when we’d be able to have the complete sum of all human knowledge instantly available to everyone, to being able to communicate almost instantly with one another regardless of distance – all for free or at virtually no cost, because why wouldn’t you?

As a side note, this is why I was so excited when Wikipedia first started up – in many ways it is a realization of at least part of the dream I had, to bring together all the knowledge that humanity has and share it freely for the benefit of all.

Now it’s been some 30 years since I was that naive little kid playing pretend computer – but I still hold on to that same belief, that computers (and all the technology that goes with them) can – and should – be used to solve problems and improve the world.

Indeed, I think we have a responsibility to do so, which is why it pains me so when I see computers and technology used to create problems rather than solve them, to hurt people rather than help them, to hold on to systems of the past rather than new and better systems for the future.

There is a moral aspect to computers and technology in general that I think I missed when I was a kid – but maybe that’s just what being naive means – you don’t think about how things could be used for evil; it never enters your head that someone would even want to take something so fantastic and twist it in that way.

As I grow older, I continue to think about these things, about how we can learn from our failures to use computers in the way that most benefits us all… and I hope other people think about these things as well.

New Year, Another New Computer

It’s been 7 years since my last new computer, and so I decided it was time to finally bite the bullet and not only upgrade, but build a new computer myself.

The last two of my computers were pre-built PCs, bought mainly because in both cases I didn’t have the time to invest in selecting parts and building my own machine. But this time I had the time to spare, so I started picking up parts bit by bit until I finally had everything I needed.

These are the parts I selected for my new computer:

  • Intel Core i7-6700 (Skylake) 3.4 GHz CPU
  • Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO CPU cooler
  • Asus Z170M-PLUS motherboard
  • 16 GB of DDR4-2400 RAM
  • Intel 256 GB 600p M.2 SSD
  • Fractal Design Core 1500 MicroATX tower case
  • Corsair 430W power supply
  • Sabrent USB 3.0 media card reader

I’d also be re-using the same video card (an NVIDIA GForce GTX 750) from my old computer, along with an extra USB 3.0 expansion card (I have a lot of USB devices), as well as my old SATA SSD and the 1 TB &  3 TB hard drives.

The main goal of this new PC was to build something that would both last me a long time and also vastly improve performance in the one place I really needed it – disk speed. My old PC was actually holding up quite well for its age – especially since I had an SSD for the boot drive – but my old PC’s motherboard only supported the older, slower SATA interface, which prevented me from taking full advantage of that SSD.

The new PC would have one of those new SSDs that used both the M.2 connector and the PCI Express (PCIe) interface, which should allow me to take full advantage of the speed of a modern SSD. This, combined with the faster RAM (double the amount my old PC could handle) and the slightly faster CPU, would give me a machine with impressive performance for everything I needed it to do. Additionally, I should be able to upgrade this computer to keep it going for many years to come.

Now, keep in mind it’s been something like 15 years since I last put a computer together myself – I’m a little out of practice. But then again, there’s nothing fundamentally difficult about building a computer from parts, so I wasn’t too worried.

Probably the hardest part was figuring out how to mount the absolutely massive CPU cooler I’d bought – it used a fairly complex bracket mounting that I’d never seen before (remember again how long it’s been since I’ve done anything like this). But after staring at the directions for a bit it finally “clicked” and I got it attached without much fuss.

The rest of the computer was pretty much just plugging things together and trying to keep all the wires neat & tidy. But the moment of truth was when I finally switched it on for the first time – and it booted!

After that, I installed Windows 10 and all my programs (and boy howdy was it a long list of things to reinstall – I use a lot of programs on a day-to day basis since this is both my work and personal computer) and transferred my settings over with a program meant for that purpose.

Since I was re-using my existing drives, I didn’t really need to move much in the way of files – I even re-mounted the drive volumes to the same drive letters as I had on my old computer, so all the paths and shortcuts I’d set up would work just the same as before.

Once my programs and settings were installed, I could finally start to get a feel for the new computer I’d built – and I was immediately impressed with how fast it was! Even with all the programs that run at startup, it booted (POST to desktop) in about 14 seconds, which was much faster than my old machine.

Additionally, all my programs now opened almost immediately and everything was just faster and smoother. Adobe Lightroom – which was one of the programs that lagged quite a bit on my old machine – now opens very quickly and the complex UI renders on screen without any delay. I can switch between photos without waiting for the screen to draw and all my edits and adjustments are applied quickly and smoothly.

Another thing that saw a big gain for me on this new machine is my virtual machines – I run a number of VMs for compatibility testing and so forth, but using them was often a bit of a pain because they were so slow. Now though, they run much better, and once I’m satisfied that I don’t need anything from my old SSD, I’ll wipe it and move my virtual machines to that drive for even more speed (disk speed is a huge factor in virtual machine performance).

Aside from the usual new PC headaches (mainly of the “now I have to put everything back the way I like it” type), the new computer has been a rousing success – I’m exceptionally pleased with it. It runs fast, and it also runs quite cool – at idle the CPU temperature is not much above room temperature. The new motherboard has a ton of high-speed USB 3.0 ports, which makes writing to my external backup drive go much faster, as well as downloading RAW photo files from my camera’s memory card.

All in all, I’m very happy with how my new PC build has gone, and I think I’ll be happy with it for just as many years as (if not more than) the last one!

The Quest for the Perfect Alarm Clock

How hard is it to find a good alarm clock these days?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little bit picky when it comes to alarm clocks. Not very picky, mind you, but I do have some standards. And in the last 5 or 6 years or so, it’s been increasingly difficult to find a reasonably good alarm clock.

Let me explain.

My requirements for a good alarm clock are:

  1. Has a decently large display (I’m nearsighted so unless the digits are fairly large I can’t read them at night when I’m not wearing my glasses)
  2. Can be dimmed (bright lights at night are not good for sleeping)
  3. Doesn’t use blue lights (these appear much brighter than any other color – the best would be red because it doesn’t destroy your night vision)
  4. Has 2 (or more) alarms
  5. Can plug in to an iPod or something to play music instead of just beeping

My old alarm clock was a variant of this.
My old alarm clock was a variant of this.

Years ago, I used to use an alarm clock with a huge red LCD display and 2 alarms, and it was perfect (except for the iPod thing). I could put it across the room and I’d still be able to read the time at night when I didn’t have my glasses on, and the red display was dimmable so it didn’t disturb my sleep.

However, eventually that clock died and I went to replace it with something newer. Unfortunately, about that time was when most alarm clocks switched to using blue lights instead of red – it was almost impossible to find anything that didn’t use blue (and often quite a bright blue).

In the end, I went with a small Sony alarm clock – the display was not quite as big, and it was still blue, though it could be dimmed. And it had a dock for my ipod – sweet!

The "DreamMachine." The face of the clock is actually blue in real life.
The “DreamMachine.” The face of the clock is actually blue in real life – for some reason the only photos I could find of it all have the colors very faded.

However, after a few years, when I moved to my new house, this clock started to show its faults as well.

My new bedroom was bigger than my old one, which meant the clock was further away – and I was having trouble reading it. Also, the alarms were not easy to change and the blue light was starting to bother me.

So I started looking for a better alarm clock.

Sadly, what I found is that the idea of a small bedside LCD display alarm clock is basically a dead item nowadays – nobody seems to really be making anything beyond the most basic, simple of models. Additionally, anything that has any sort of iPod/iPhone dock in it tends to be:

  1. Very large
  2. Very expensive
  3. Small display
  4. Blue display

The reason, I think, that small bedside alarm clocks have gone the way of the dodo is because everyone has a smartphone these days which they tend to keep by the bedside, and they just use that as an alarm clock instead. “Need an alarm clock? There’s an app for that!”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either – I mean, after all, it’s one less item to have plugged in, and one less thing cluttering up your bedroom. So once I accepted that I couldn’t find a physical clock, I started looking for the perfect alarm clock app.

Now, you might be asking why I didn’t just use the built-in alarm feature found in most phones. The reason for this is that although perfectly functional as an alarm, the built-in alarm feature is (in my opinion) very clunky to use and of course does not display the current time unless you press the home button to wake up your phone… and what I wanted was an app I could run while my phone is plugged in to charge on my bedside table that made it look at least somewhat like an actual bedside clock.

So I started looking at alarm clock apps and almost immediately found that despite there being dozens and dozens of them, most of them are absolute crap.

Free alarm clock apps that emulate the look of an old LCD display are all over the app store, but most of them are poorly thought out and just cheap cash grabs (many of which are ad-supported to boot). They might look neat, but they fail to perform in the ways I actually need them to. Either they aren’t dimmable (strike 1), don’t offer music playback (strike 2), or don’t allow multiple alarms (strike 3).

There were a few apps that showed promise, but they always seemed to have one last niggling issue or shortcoming that was just annoying enough to keep me from using it. Sadly, it almost seems to me like the glut of crappy free alarm clock apps has discouraged anyone else from trying to develop an actual good app. Non-free apps didn’t fare much better, either – probably because they are so crowded out by the free ones – which is a shame because I was more than willing to pay for a decent app (if I could find one!).

In the end though I did find one app that suited my needs. It’s called “Rise” and it hit all the important features for an alarm clock for me:

  1. Large display
  2. Can be dimmed
  3. Doesn’t use blue
  4. Has multiple alarms
  5. Plays music instead of beeping

That said, it doesn’t hit all of these points perfectly. The large display is limited of course by the size of my phone screen – but that’s not much of a concern anymore since I keep it beside my bed. The display can be dimmed – almost to the point where you can’t see the time anymore – but the screen itself still gives off a slight glow, even though it’s glowing “black.” I think this is an oddity of the iPhone hardware itself though.

The "Rise" app, from SimpleBots
The “Rise” app, from SimpleBots

The display for the time doesn’t use blue – but it does use white, with no option to change the color. I’d rather it use red, but since it can be dimmed quite low this isn’t too bad. The background for the display can be switched to black as well.

The number of alarms it can have is virtually unlimited – as you’d expect; it’s software after all and not limited by physical switches. The alarms are also super-easy to change as needed, which is nice – all my old alarm clocks were a pain to change the alarm time, usually requiring pressing & holding multiple buttons.

Finally, the music playback is great – it even slowly turns up the volume so it doesn’t startle you and wakes you up gently. Though it can only play 1 song – I’d like it more if it could pick randomly from a playlist. Still, it works.

Rise also has a very, very minimal UI – almost to the point where it’s a bit obscure and hard to figure out. But once you get it, it makes sense, and I have to admit it does look pretty neat.

Now, in my case I had to stick to iOS apps – it is entirely possible that there’s an even better alarm clock app out there for Android devices. Sadly though, I don’t own one, so I’m out of luck if that’s the case.

Still, although I never thought I’d end up using an app as my alarm clock, in a way it makes a lot of sense. I never have to adjust the time for Daylight Saving Time or when I travel – I’ve always got my phone with me, which means I’ve always got my alarm clock with me. (And it is nice to not have a big clunky clock cluttering up my bedside table.)

So although it took me quite a while and also probably more effort that most people would consider reasonable, in the end I did find a nearly-perfect alarm clock that I think will serve me well for the foreseeable future.

Windows 10: FINALLY

Finally!
Finally!

I’d been playing around with the Windows 10 Preview on my virtual machine and I liked what I was seeing, so as soon as the “reserve your copy of Windows 10” thing popped up on my computer I filled in my name so I would be able to upgrade when it was ready. Despite this fact, it’s been over a month now and my main computer still hasn’t been notified that the upgrade is ready (even though everything is downloaded and seems ready to go).

My laptop was in the same position, but I got tired of waiting – so I tweaked a single registry setting to force my laptop to upgrade immediately. The upgrade started without a hitch and about a half-hour later, it was done. Other than re-arranging some icons on the Start menu and doing some slight preference tweaking, it was ready to use as soon as it was done and there have been no problems with it so far – everything that worked before still works just the same after.

So, now that I’ve finally got Windows 10 running on real hardware, what do I think of it?

Honestly, I think it’s pretty good, though there’s nothing to get particularly excited about. There are no earth-shattering changes or improvements to performance, just lots of small improvements and little tweaks all around. Essentially it’s just “Windows 8, but a little bit different.”

That said, there are a fair number of small things that have been improved and when you add them all up, it does come out to a pretty nice version of Windows – and definitely one I’d recommend over Windows 8 or 8.1. With that in mind, let’s go over some of the most noticeable changes and improvements!

(Oh, and a quick disclaimer: this is all from the perspective of a desktop user; if you’re running Windows on a tablet then I can’t really say how the tablet-specific stuff will have changed for you. Sorry!)

Start Menu is OK

Yeah, yeah, it’s nice to have the Start menu back, but honestly did we really need it back? I’m not so sure.

The Start menu is back... but will anyone really care?
The Start menu is back… but will anyone really care?

I know I’m going to get reamed for saying this, but I thought the Windows 8.1 Start screen was just fine. Yeah, it took up the whole screen but it was simple and elegant – all your icons in a nice, even grid. Power and logout options at the top and all your other apps easily searchable or you can click the little arrow at the bottom. You could give the Start screen a separate background, or let it be transparent to your desktop (which is what I always preferred).

Windows 10 sort-of brings back the old Start menu… kind of. It still has icons as tiles (and for some reason all tiles now all have the same background color, instead of being based on the icon color as they were in 8.1), but there’s sort of a side-section that kinda/sorta functions like the old classic Start menu. But I don’t really see the point – the icons here are smaller, making them harder to click with the mouse, and most people only use a few programs regularly so why have the full list taking up space when you don’t need it?

Still, I don’t hate the “what’s old is new again” start menu, and it does have some nice touches. I like being able to customize what folder shortcuts are on it, and it’s nice to be able to arrange the tiles for program icons.

Oh, but one thing I do not care for is that the Start menu and start screen now scroll vertically instead of horizontally. With most monitors and screens being wider than they are tall, why would you do this?? The horizontal scrolling of the Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1 was one thing that actually made a lot of sense. Changing it back to vertical scrolling does not make sense, and sadly there is no way to change it back through options. Not the biggest deal in the world, but still, I really wonder why they made this particular change.

Cortana is “Meh”

windows 10 cortana
Still not quite HAL 9000

Windows 10 is meant to be used on tablets and it seems like having a “digital assistant” thingy is a mandatory requirement these days, but on a desktop the new Cortana thing is just… meh.

Maybe if you use the built-in Windows calendar and mail and whatnot it’d be more useful, since it can look up and search your appointments and so forth, but if you don’t use those built-in apps, it’s basically just a glorified Bing search with speech recognition.

Also, I don’t like how much space the Search box takes up on the taskbar – it’s huge! Fortunately you can shrink it to an icon (or remove it entirely).

Multiple Desktops are Neat

It’s been possible to do multiple “virtual” desktops for years – I remember using them back in Windows 2000 – but it’s nice to finally see them available and supported natively in Windows. However, I do really think that most people will never use this feature. Instead, it’ll be used mainly by the more techy types. Still, it’s nice to have and I’m glad they (finally!) added it.

Double the desktop, double the fun!
Double the desktop, double the fun!

Perhaps once I’ve had a chance to use this feature on my main desktop while actually working (rather than just casually on my laptop) I’ll have more to say about it, but for now, it’s just a “nice to have.”

Notifications At Long Last

It is good to see Windows finally get a unified notification system but holy cow has this been a long time coming! Now we just need to wait for more applications to take advantage of it, instead of using pop-up boxes/balloon tips/etc. for their notifications.

If a notification center has no notifications, does it make a sound?

I also like the new “action center” bar, which I tend to think of as an extension of notifications (since that’s where they show up after). It’s a very nice touch and a long-overdue addition to Windows (especially for those using it on mobile devices – tablets, laptops, etc.).

More Consistent Control Panel

The Control Panel was long overdue for an overhaul, being an inconsistent mish-mash of Windows 7-style and Windows 8-style. Fortunately, Windows 10 goes a long way towards dragging it into the future. The main screen of the Control Panel is simple & clean, and most sub-screens are also done up in the same Windows 10 “flat” style, with lots of slider-type switches (instead of checkboxes) for options.

windows 10 control panel

Resizable Windows

Not being able to resize certain Windows 8-style windows used to drive me absolutely bonkers. It was a very jarring break from the standard Windows UI experience, so I’m very glad they fixed this and allowed all windows (including the “it’s-Windows-style-not-Metro-style” ones) to be resized (like they should’ve been from the beginning).

Flat UI is Getting Better

I’m still not a fan of the overall “flat/tile” visual style that started in Windows 8, but at least it is improving. Someone over at Microsoft finally realized that when you make everything flat & monochromatic you need to add other visual cues to help people know what can be clicked on. Too many things in Windows 8 and 8.1 were just completely undiscoverable unless you actually tried clicking on them. In Windows 10 at least things have outlines and hover effects to clue you in to the fact that they can be interacted with.

NO MORE STUPID CHARMS BAR

I’m not going to lie; I hated the charms bar – with a passion. It was perhaps the stupidest idea in all of Windows 8/8.1 and I am glad it is gone. If the charms bar had a grave, I would be dancing on it right now. (And, I would assume it’s buried right next to everyone’s other favorite bad idea, “Clippy” the Office Assistant.)

In Summary

All of these little improvements add up to a very nice experience in Windows 10. Sure, it’s nothing that’s going to blow your mind, but it’s worth upgrading for. Some people have had trouble upgrading, but this can usually be attributed to driver issues and not Windows itself. (As usual, many manufacturers take their time updating drivers and correcting problems – but this is true with almost every new Windows version.) My upgrade on laptop was quick & easy, and eventually I assume it’ll be just as easy on my desktop as well… eventually. (I’m still going to try and hold out until it tells me that the upgrade is ready – I’d like to try it without having to hack the registry to force it to happen!)

Windows 10 - like Windows 8, but more so?
Windows 10 – like Windows 8, but more so?

Overall, Windows 10 is a solid upgrade and if you were holding out because you didn’t like Windows 8 or 8.1, I’d say give it a go. And if you have Windows 8.1, upgrading is a no-brainer – at the worst, you probably won’t even notice much of a change, and at the best you’ll appreciate some of the little changes & improvements that have been made.