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!

New Laptop

After an extended power outage forced me to work from my netbook, I realized it’s time for me to get a proper laptop – and this is what I ended up with.

Back in October of 2012, I was stuck without power (and thus, unable to work) for the better part of two weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. During this time, I tried to keep up with my job using my little 10 inch Acer Aspire One netbook, Ryo-Ohki.

Unfortunately, even with a SSD to help speed things up, this little netbook just couldn’t keep up. With only 1 GB of RAM and (perhaps worst of all) just a tiny little 10 inch screen, trying to work all day on this was… difficult, to put it mildly.

So once life returned to normal, I decided it was time to upgrade to a newer, better laptop – one with a decent sized screen that I could actually use to get work done, should I ever need to be away from my desktop computer.

The landscape of portable computers has changed a lot in the intervening years since I bought my little netbook. For one thing, netbooks have basically disappeared – that niche instead being filled by tablets and low-end (but normal-sized) laptops.

My criteria for a new laptop were pretty simple:

  • 14 or 15 inch screen – big enough to get work done and for most modern web pages to fit on the screen without having to scroll too much.
  • Lightweight – one of the main reasons I have a laptop is so I can use it when I travel, and I don’t want to be lugging around a big heavy laptop.
  • Good battery life – as a portable computer, it wouldn’t make much sense if it didn’t last a while when unplugged – especially since I plan to use it while traveling (i.e., on a plane).
  • Good keyboard – I can be a bit picky about keyboards – but really all I want is one that is easy to type on and doesn’t mess with the standard placement of important keys like some laptop keyboards do.
  • Decent, relatively modern CPU – basically, something that won’t be obsolete in a few months, and can handle playing video with ease.
  • Not too expensive – my budget was basically “less than $500.”

After doing some research (and a bit of price-stalking), I settled on another Acer – specifically, an Acer Aspire Timeline X 4830T-6682 (geez Acer, what’s with the ridiculously long model names?).

Acer Aspire Timeline X 4830T notebook

This laptop hit all the right points for me – the 14 inch screen was just the right size, it’s not too heavy, has a very respectable Core i3 CPU, a good-sized 6-cell battery, and a nice keyboard that reminds me of the keyboards used on Apple’s Macbook Air computers.

To make things even better, I swapped out the SSD I bought for my old netbook and put it in this new laptop, which took this from being a relatively decent laptop to being an absolute speed demon.

I’m not even kidding here – from the GRUB boot loader (I still dual-boot Windows and Linux, of course) it boots up completely in just about 12 seconds.

Oh, and have I talked about the battery life yet? The battery life on this laptop is pretty good on its own – easily reaching 5 or 6 hours with light usage – but when you throw an SSD in (which uses less power than the traditional spinning-disks hard drive), along with Windows 8 (which is really good at conserving power), I easily find myself getting 8 hours of battery life with light to normal usage. Even my old netbook couldn’t approach that kind of life, not even with the extra-big 9-cell battery I bought for it!

Of course it also has all the other standard features you’d expect from a laptop these days, including a very handy USB 3.0 port, HDMI, a DVD/RW drive, a memory card slot, and even an option to let one of the USB ports remain “powered” even while the laptop is turned off, so you can charge something off of it (a handy feature, though one I’ll probably never use).

As usual for me, I dual-boot both Ubuntu Linux and Windows (Windows 8 in this case, but I’ll talk about that in another post), and both operating systems are just great (although for some reason, Ubuntu still can’t use the built-in webcam microphone – a problem I think is particular to Acer computers).

Naturally, as with all my computers, I had to give this one a name as well – and since this one happened to come in a dark-blue color, which happened to match this particular wallpaper picture I had handy very well, I ended up going with the name “Luna.”

luna desktop (windows)
Luna (Windows 8)

Luna desktop (ubuntu linux)
Luna (Ubuntu)

All in all I’m quite happy with this new laptop – I’ve had the opportunity to take it with me when I traveled recently, and it was both great for entertainment use on the flight, as well as occasional work-related stuff while I wasn’t at home.

So if you are looking for a nice, inexpensive but well-balanced laptop, something along the lines of the Acer Aspire Timeline X series of laptops (combined with a SSD, if you can swing it) is not a bad way to go!


USB Insanity

A look at the absolutely insane number of USB devices I have hanging off my computer, and the fact that there never seem to be enough ports!

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).

Bringing back the classic “netbook remix” in Ubuntu 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot)

How to bring back the old-style “netbook remix” user interface in Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot.

I’ve talked before about how to bring the netbook remix user interface back to Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), but since 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) came out, Unity has become even more the default – so much so, that you can’t even get back to the classic GNOME desktop (which you need to set up the old netbook remix UI).

I’ve been using the new Unity UI on my netbook since this update, and it’s… OK. It’s better than it was in 11.04, for sure, but it’s still not quite what I’d want for a netbook. (The bigger icons in the netbook remix still win when it comes to ease of clicking.)

Fortunately, there IS (in theory) a way to bring back the netbook remix, although it takes a bit of work.

First, you need to bring back the classic GNOME desktop. To do this, open a terminal and issue this command:

sudo apt-get install gnome-session-fallback

Once you’ve done that, you should be able to follow the steps outlined in my original article. Be aware that this time you’ll need to follow the links to manually download the packages for maximus, the go-home applet, the netbook-launcher, and the window-picker applet. And you may need to install some additional packages as well to get it to work – just watch whatever the Ubuntu Software Center’s UI tells you is required as a dependency, and then go get that.

For those who are too lazy to go to my previous article to get the links to the required packages, here they are:

I hope that this works – I’ve been able to restore the GNOME session, but haven’t taken the time to re-download all the packages required. For me personally, I’m giving Unity a try (since the netbook remix is no longer technically supported). But if this works for you, then more power to you.