Computer ethics

Damsels in distress. Every time I turn around, there’s a girl who needs her computer fixed. Not that I’m complaining. I was having a beer the other night with the music director from my church and told him about it, to which he said, “That’s not a bad situation at all to be in.” He’s right.
So that’s what I was doing Thursday. I don’t exactly get it, because I always have great luck with the PCs I build myself, but when I build a PC for a friend, we always manage to get a bad power supply, or a bad video card, or something else–even though I use the same type of components in their systems as in mine. That’s why I’m not in the computer building business, and I may get out of the business of building them for my friends. I’ll find ’em a good deal if they want, and I’ll play hardball to get a good price and the best components for them, and I’ll gladly set it up for them, but when it comes to procurring all the parts and assembling them, it may be time to give it up.

But I got dinner out of it last night and got to meet some interesting people. That was good.

Computer Ethics. I found out last night that this friend once dated an IT professional I know. I don’t know him well–I didn’t put the name and the face together until she showed me a picture (he knows me better than I know him, apparently). She knew him about eight years ago.

Eight years ago, a typical date for them was him taking her to a weekly 2600 meeting. He evidently learned everything he knew by hacking. We’re not talking writing code here. We’re talking infiltration of systems illegally. At one point he had a notebook full of private phone numbers: people like the Pope and the Prime Minister of Canada. For kicks, he’d call the numbers and record the conversations. He also had her address and phone number in the notebook. One day he left the notebook on top of his car in a parking lot, then drove off. Someone found the notebook, couldn’t believe what was in it, and turned it over to the authorities. Since hers was the only non-VIP address in it, the Secret Service showed up on her doorstep. Her parents were less than amused.

I don’t really understand this. This guy isn’t the only “reformed” hacker I know who has a high-paying, high-security, high-integrity job. And that’s a real problem. If you didn’t have integrity at 18, you probably don’t have it at 25 or 26 either. You can’t count on eight years giving you any measurable amount of maturity, let alone integrity. If you have no respect for other people’s property at 18, you won’t have much a few years later. I don’t understand why anyone hires these kinds of people. You can sum up my run-ins with the law really quickly. I’ve been pulled over three times since the age of 16. I recieved two verbal warnings and a written warning. That’s the extent of it. But I’m not sure I’d trust myself in these peoples’ jobs.

———-

From: Paul S R Chisholm

There have been a series of excellent articles, written by Martin J. Furey and published at Byte.com, describing how the sound cards and microphones can effect the success of using Dragon Naturally speaking. Rough summary: 128 MB RAM or better, PIII or Athlon (speech recognition is one of the few applications that can use that much power, and the latest versions have installation options with executables tuned to those processors), very good mike or headset, very good sound card or USB headset, perhaps Win98SE. More detail:

http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19990720S0003
http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19991020S0004
http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19991103S0001

In particular, a PIII or Athlon is supposed to greatly reduce the training time. It’s not clear how much its power is needed once the software is fully trained.

I ordered my Dell system based on these recommendations. (I got a 700 MHz PIII.) Since I didn’t want to spend the time putting a computer together, and since Dell didn’t have much of a sound card choice, I got the USB version of NaturallySpeaking Preferred, which comes with a USB mike in a headset form factor.

I haven’t tried writing a book this way. I did write up technical review comments for a book. In my experience, I could get a rough draft out much faster than if I’d typed it; even after making a review pass, something I probably would have done anyway, and which found some truly odd typos, I think I saved time.

It’s not STAR TREK. One Byte.com reviewer “had to speak like Queen Amidala of the Naboo to make it work right”. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d lean in that direction.

I had less luck using NaturallySpeaking for total control of my PC. Mouse-clicking was surprisingly good. Saying “Press” and the name of a key was surprisingly bad. (My office mate tried this for a few weeks and had even less luck.)

I’ll leave the final word to John Ousterhout, creator of Tcl/Tk, who dictates even code but still “mouses by hand”:

http://www.scriptics.com/people/john.ousterhout/wrist.html
Good luck! –PSRC

———-

Yes, I read those articles myself after David Pogue suggested I try Naturally Speaking. So I’ve ordered an Andrea ANC-600 mic, which got good marks in the series, from www.speechcontrol.com (good price and quick delivery; the makers of the highest-rated mics say 6-8 weeks for delivery, while speechcontrol.com can get the ANC-600 to me in 4 days and the owner answers questions very quickly). Now that DNS 5.0 is out, I’m going to order it and an SB LIve! Platinum, the successor to the Sound Blaster card that came in second-best (I’m leery of buying the best-rated card, since it’s ISA and there’ll come a time when my fastest PC won’t have ISA slots), and we’ll see how that works. As for a P3 or Athlon system, that is something I’d probably get anyway, but I’ll see if the C400 has enough punch first.

As for ViaVoice, I guess I can hang it on the wall along with all those AOL and MSN CDs.

Personality profiling

Personality profiles. I was fixing a good friend’s computer over the weekend, and she was just marveling at how I steadily and confidently took apart (completely) a computer I’d never seen before, ripped out and replaced a power supply, then put it back together, and it worked. The first time. “You’re a ‘C’, aren’t you?” she asked. Huh? “The DiSC profile, remember that?” Vaguely. We both took it about two years ago; the only specific I remembered from it was being difficult–difficult to work with and difficult to understand. Curious, I dug out my profile last night and looked at it. It was a three-stage process, and each stage could associate a word with your personality. The three words that described me: Creative, creative, and creative. How unoriginal and boring! Can’t they think of anything else to say? (Of course such a description would bother someone who’s creative).
Specifically, I was a D/C blend, with C getting a slight edge. Cs are analytical, deep thinkers, and like rules. They’re also the most complex personality type. (So of course that’d be the one I’d pick–it matches everything about me.)

The word that best describes Ds is dominating. They also like rules, but they want the rules to be open to interpretation. That means I want the rulebook to be there, but I want to think for myself. By-the-book people strike me as weak-minded. (I know when I put the exceptions to each rule in Optimizing Windows, I drove my editor bonkers. And I think my superiors dislike how I know the exception to every rule in computerdom.) Thinking over the events of the past few months, it all makes total sense. I’ve heard the words similar to “dominant analysis” or “overly dominant overanalysis” uttered in close proximity to my name many a time… And of course, being the ever-analyzing Dave, I tried to figure out where she was (I didn’t ask, which was just as well because at the time I wouldn’t have gotten it). I think she’s the opposite, an i/S blend–which is a good thing to be. Much less complicated–so long as you can avoid being stepped on.

Tongue-tied

Anything to say? My sister (yes, she has a name–it’s Di) mailed me and asked me if I had anything to say today. Not really. I finally won a major victory at work that will result in the departure of two Macintoshes that have become the bane of my existence. The battle came at a high personal price–I’m exhausted and have little to say. Other than an observation that AppleShare IP 6.3 appears to be about as rude as its predecessors. It seems to like MacOS 9, but it also seems very willing to crash MacOS 8.6 and earlier clients. Seeing as these are 100, 120, and 132 MHz machines, upgrading to 9 isn’t exactly practical or worthwhile or cost-effective. So they’re getting brand spanking new Micron PCs with Pentium III 600 chips or whatever it is we’re buying these days. I will be very joyfully installing them in the morning.

———- From: al wynn
Does McAfee still sell Nuts&Bolts?

Exactly how do you use Nuts&Bolts to “sort directory entries by the file’s physical placement on the hard drive” (ie. under which menu item can I find it ?)

Also, what are some good web links (or other resources) that will show me how to optimize Norton Utilities configuration ?

———-
It’s in Disk Tune. Click Advanced–>Directory Sort–>Sort Criteria. There you can select Cluster number as your directory sort criteria. Under Win95, this makes N&B’s Disk Tune the best defragmenter/optimizer, but under Win98, NU’s Speed Disk and Fix-It’s Defrag Plus have features that will make them outperform Disk Tune in spite of this feature (they actually do some strategic fragmentation to increase speed). I suppose you could optimize the disk with one of the others, then try to get Disk Tune to skip the defragmentation part and just optimize the directories, but I think I tried to figure out how to do that and gave up. Alternatively you could optimize with Disk Tune first, then defragment with one of the others and not do anything with the directory entries–assuming you want to save absolutely every microsecond possible. (Be aware that Disk Tune is a very slow program, so we’re talking diminishing returns here to run it, then run one of the others.)

I haven’t seen a better resource for the utilities suites than chapters 3 and 5 of Optimizing Windows; those chapters were the result of about seven years’ experience messing around with disk utilities (starting under DOS, of course). I’ve never seen a Web site on the subject (good or bad); nor much other information outside of the manuals that came with some of the older versions. That was part of the reason why I wrote my own. I tried to explain what to do with whatever suite you happened to have, as well as the reasoning behind it.

Aging ungracefully

I’m now officially old. I can’t think of anything computer-related to talk about, so… I was in KC over the weekend, looking forward to checking out what 105.9, The Laser, one of the premiere alternative stations in the country, was playing. I tuned in, and was introduced to Brittney Spears and Jessica Simpson. What the? Sorry Dave, alternative music is dead–get with the program.

Then today I find the likes of The Bangles and Joe Jackson are now considered classic rock. So does that make The Beatles and Badfinger oldies? I could tune into a classic rock station to hear my stuff, but the last time I did that I got a mega-dose of Ratt, Extreme, Firehouse (not to be confused with Mike Watt’s punk band Firehose), and Poison. Those were four good reasons I got into alternative music in the first place.

So here I am now, listening to bootleg recordings of Jules Shear, coming to the conclusion that his reputation as a songwriter is well-earned, but finding that like Bob Dylan, I like his songs a lot better when someone else is singing them. And with that, I guess I’ll go back in to work, now that everyone’s probably long gone, so I can see if I can figure out why Retrospect (a Mac tape backup package) is causing the stupid Mac server at work to crash every time you run it. The obvious answer is yes, it’s a Mac, but unfortunately throwing it out the window isn’t an option. Nor is turning it into a Linux box, though I’d very much like that.

Mac OS X. Oh yes, there IS something computer-related to talk about! Early criticisms of OS X: Too much like NeXTStep. What’s wrong with that? The biggest problem with NeXTStep was it ran on hardware that cost as much as my college edumacation. Mac fans are aghast; I’m of course turning cartwheels in the halls (figuratively speaking). I’m just thrilled that there’ll finally be a protected-memory environment in which to run Mac software. Of course the backward compatibility is awful, but backward compatibility is always a huge problem with the Mac anyway.

I’m supposed to be getting my hands on OS X Server soon, but I’ll be surprised if I see the desktop version within a year. I’m looking forward to playing with the server though, and maybe that’d be a solution to the Mac server problem at work. Who needs Retrospect when you have the time-tested tools cron and tar?
———-
Does McAfee still sell Nuts&Bolts ?
Do you know if McAfee still markets the Nuts&Bolts program, since they bought out that company ? Do they sell it under a different name? The last version that I see is Nuts&Bolts 98, a while back.
Also, which program do you prefer (Norton Utilities or Nuts&Bolts), or some other utilities package?
———-
Not very actively, but I’ve seen Nuts & Bolts 98 discounted pretty heavily. It seems like McAfee is willing to sell it, but they’ve pretty much conceded the market to Norton Utilities and the Ontack/Mijenix Fix-It suite. There are literally about two things I liked better about Nuts & Bolts than about any of the others (an option to sort directory entries by the file’s physical placement on the hard drive, which will give you better speed, and its registry tools seemed a little cleaner) but a lot of other things I didn’t like. Overall, Norton Utilities or Fix-It is much better. I gave Norton Utilities the nod, reluctantly, because it was pretty consistently the second best at everything. If Fix-It had any kind of configurability whatsoever, it’d be the best. Since Norton Utilities can be configured to give better results, I prefer it.

Optimizing Windows questions from readers

Do you still think Netsonic is the best browser cache program ?Is there anything better than Netsonic, to speed up web surfing ?

Is there anything better than EasyMTU/ispeed to optimize one’s modem ?

———-
I haven’t found anything better than either. All of the MTU-type programs do essentially the same thing, the question is how much you want to pay for a utility that flips a couple of bits in the registry. EasyMTU and iSpeed do the job, and they’re free.

As for NetSonic, I haven’t found anything I like better. That program category, like fastloaders, was a great idea that never really caught on and it makes for slim pickings today. —

Subject: What new book(s) are you working on now?

Who will be your publisher, and what is your planned publication date for your upcoming book(s) ?

Is there a way to search all of your views (from #1 to #37) for a
particular topic or string ?

———-
The new book will be from O’Reilly. The topic is Linux, from the point of view of someone familiar with Windows (something that’s desperately needed, as I adamantly disagree with the view some hold that Linux needs to look, breathe, and act just like Windows. Next thing you know someone will be wanting it to crash like Windows too. The solution isn’t 4.3 billion clicky utilities that do one thing and give people RSI from too much mousing when there’s already a time-tested three-letter command with more power than most mortals can possibly imagine to do the job sitting right there–but I digress.) It’s maybe half-finished, so I don’t know yet when it will be finished, published or released. It hasn’t been announced yet, so very little has been decided (including the title). I understand there will be a “small mammal” on the cover. Sorry to be vague; that really is just about all I know.

As for a search engine, I’ve looked into some possibilities and haven’t really liked any of them. I know I’ve been indexed by Google and possibly others, so you could search for “Farquhar” and certain strings. It’s a crude solution. I do have something better up my sleeve but it’s likely to be a few months before I get a chance to implement it, as it will require me to change providers along with a whole bunch of other work.

What are “fastloaders” programs, mentioned in you email below ?

Can you give me the names of a few, and from where can I download them, to test them out ?

———-
I talk about them on page 71 of Optimizing Windows. One came with Norton Utilities and one with Nuts & Bolts; neither is compatible with Win98. (The Norton tool was better.) SuperFasst, from www.webcelerator.com, is compatible with both Win95 and 98. These programs use various tricks to shave a few seconds off program loading times. This was a bigger deal in 1995 than today (modern disks can load Word in 3 seconds, after all–SuperFasst might cut that down to 2-2.5, which isn’t a very noticeable difference). You might find you like it. I found it didn’t make a big enough difference for me to be worth the decreased stability now that fast hard disks are common and dirt cheap.
———-

More Windows speed-ups. I took a look today at www.webcelerator.com. These guys provide Superfasst, which I mentioned in Optimizing Windows. They’ve got a few new utilities to offer now, the most interesting of which creates images of CDs and then emulates a CD-ROM drive. This would be very, very useful for wringing more performance out of games that use a CD-ROM.

The downside to these guys is they want to monopolize your browser’s homepage. Change your homepage to something other than theirs, and their programs stop working. That’s a bit obnoxious. It would be nice if they’d offer a payment option. It is nice that they aren’t opting for the adware/spyware route (I think–I haven’t examined any of these tools in well over a year). I thought I’d pass along what I found though.

Voice recognition

Voice recognition. The great David Pogue e-mailed me over the weekend, at Tim O’Reilly’s urging, to talk a little about Dragon Naturally Speaking, which he says is better than ViaVoice. He says he gets about 110 wpm out of it.
So I did a ton of research to see what kind of hardware you want for Naturally Speaking. Consensus seems to be the SoundBlaster Live! Platinum is what you want (retail $199), plus a noise-reducing condenser mic, which can be had for around $75, and as much CPU power as you can muster. David’s had good success with a PII-300, so my Celeron-400, refitted with the SB Live! and a good mic, ought to be OK. If it turns out to be inadequate, the AMD Duron-600 is dirt cheap and suitable mobos are finally widely available.

With a good mic and a sound card with clean audio inputs, many people claim 95-97 percent accuracy out of the box, climbing to 99 percent accuracy within 1-2 weeks of heavy use. We’ll see. I’m still skeptical, but willing to take the risk. As I told David, sound cards and microphones are cheaper than wrists.

If you’re interested in taking the plunge, wait. Naturally Speaking 5.0’s release is imminent. Don’t race out to buy v4 only to find v5 on your next office supply run.

Attention, bargain hunters: The SB Live! Platinum, SB Live! MP3+, and SB Live! Gamer are all the same card. Avoid the SB Live! Value (now discontinued), as it used a different chip. The difference between the three remaining cards, besides the bundled software, is the 5.25″ bay insert that replicates all the jacks and puts them up front. I like that, so that’s the direction I’ll go. That insert costs as much as the card, however, so if you need a high-end sound card but don’t want to pay $200 for it, get one of the other cards in the SB Live! series.

You can upgrade later by adding an insert, but you’re looking at $150 to do it.

Busting ads

Spam. Brightmail caught three pieces of spam for me in the past week. Four got through. It’s disappointing, but maybe they’ll get better with time. And 3 out of 7 is pretty close to Mike Sweeney’s batting average with the bases loaded, and no one complains about that.
Calling it a week. My apologies for Wednesday’s post not making it up until Thursday night. I wrote it, then forgot to upload it. Figures. The things that make me creative also can make me eccentric and scatterbrained sometimes.

I’m out of town for a family event. I’ll be in Kansas City, and while I have relatives with computers there I doubt I’ll be using them. So have a good weekend. I’ll be back Monday, in all likelihood.

Mail.

From: “al wynn”
To:
Sent: Friday, September 08, 2000 1:15 AM
Subject: What is the best COMMERCIAL ad-blocking utility for Windows95 out there (that is better than Proxomitron) ?

Can you tell me what is the best COMMERCIAL ad-blocking program for Windows95 out there (that is better than Proxomitron) ?
h question. The only commercial program that did that that I know of was WRQ’s AtGuard, which is now part of Symantec’s Norton Internet Security 2000. I played around with AtGuard a while last year when I was writing Optimizing Windows, but I didn’t like it any better than Proxomitron or Junkbuster (or the enhanced version). You might also check out AdSubtract, which is based on the Proxomitron engine but is less configurable and does a better job out of the box.

eMachine upgrade advice

I got some mail some time back about eMachine upgrades that I never got around to posting. I’ll just summarize because that’s easier (it keeps me off the mouse).
First off, definitely look into a new hard drive. You can pick up a 7200-rpm drive of decent size (10-15 gig) for under $100 these days. I’ve had trouble getting Western Digital drives to work with older disk controllers, but no problems with Maxtors, and I get better performance and reliability from Maxtors anyway.

Next, eMachines tend to have problems with their power supplies. Get a replacement from PC Power & Cooling. It’s $45. Cheap insurance. And chances are the hard drive will perform better, since the PCP&C box will actually be supplying the wattage it claims to supply (which may or may not be true of the factory box). And remember: low-cost PCs have always had skimpy power supplies. Commodore and Atari made great low-cost computers 20 years ago, but they had horrendous power supplies. Given a properly made third-party power supply, a Commodore or Atari could run for 10-15 years or more (and often did).

Finally, get 128 megs of RAM in the system somehow. If you’ve got 32, just go buy a 128-meg stick. If you’ve got 64, get a 64-meg stick or, if you can afford it, get a 128.

Since eMachines have pretty wimpy integrated video, you might also look into a PCI video card with a Matrox, nVidia or 3Dfx chipset. Matrox gives slightly better 2D display quality, while nVidia and 3Dfx give better speed with 3D games. If you’re into gaming, definitely look into a new card.

That’s the strategy I follow with any upgrade. Get a modern disk in there, then get more memory, and replace anything else that seems underpowered. Do the disk first, then deal with memory, then possibly the video. Then, and only then, do I start looking at CPU upgrades. I’ve turned 200-MHz junkers into very useful machines again just by adding memory and a fast disk. The CPU isn’t the bottleneck in most systems.

Protecting your privacy online

If you’re concerned about Amazon, or online privacy in general… On a serious note, Amazon’s policies are gathering attention. As one who, as Pournelle puts it, “makes a living showing off” (and I have more or less since the age of 16), I’ve never worried about privacy. I quickly got used to the idea that if I drove down to Rally’s for a burger, there was a decent chance that someone who knew who I was would see me doing it, and that didn’t bother me much. Once I started seriously writing about computers, I couldn’t go into computer stores without getting a bunch of questions, not to mention introductions (“Hey! This is Dave Farquhar, the computer columnist for the Missourian!”) And of course people wanted to know what I was buying and what I thought of it and/or what I was planning to do with it. That didn’t bother me much either. If people like the stuff I write and respect my opinion enough to care that I like Rally’s hamburgers and Maxtor hard drives, well, that’s a high compliment.
It was a little different after I moved to St. Louis–I had a big crowd of people to lose myself in, but I still have far less privacy than the Average Joe.

Privacy? Never had it. Never really wanted it. But, as one of my friends at work is so fond of pointing out, “We’re not all like you.”

So. How to solve the Amazon (or other Web site) problem if you’re not like me? Spread misinformation. How? Easy. Go get Proxomitron, which, in addition to blocking ads, offers to reject all cookies for you. It also offers to lie about your referring page (it always says you came from a Shoenen Knife fan site), your browser version, browser type, and even your OS (the default is Win67, which makes for some good questions. Windows 1967? Windows 2067? 67-bit Windows?). If you’re paranoid that too many people will use Proxomitron and see the pattern, you can edit the filters yourself. (Try telling ’em you’re running Internet Explorer 7.0 under CP/M 2.2. That’ll get a laugh.) It’s a nice tool.

Remember, incorrect information is far worse than no information. If you want to stop people from gathering information, the trick isn’t to refuse. It’s to give them misinformation. I’m a professional information gatherer. Trust me on this.

Comeback trail marred by junk browsers

Another browser. You’ve probably heard of Galeon, but have you heard of K-Meleon? Win32 browser, looks like IE, uses the Gecko engine. It’s missing a number of usability features, such as the only reasons I use IE (and the only reasons are the ctrl-enter autocompletion of URLs and the backspace key working as a back button, letting me reduce keystrokes). As soon as K-Meleon improves its arrow key support and adds ctrl-enter, I’ll be apt to change browsers again. Admittedly, I’ve entertained the idea of getting the source and taking a stab at adding the feature myself but I don’t know if I have a C compiler that’ll compile it. Since IE 5.5 makes my Win98 system bluescreen and run slow as a P100, I can’t wait. (Maybe I should run IERadicator to strip out IE entirely, then install IE5 without Active Desktop, but that’s a bit of effort. Hmm.
I’m bitter at IE5.5 because it bluescreened my system last night while I was downloading a rare live version of Aimee Mann’s “Long Shot,” which, while profane, is probably the best song she ever wrote. And wouldn’t you know it, when I came back online, poof, it was gone. But I want to end on a positive note, so I will. K-Meleon lets you create your own keyboard shortcuts. Want F1 to stop? Got it. F2 for your homepage? Got it. Backspace to go back? Got it. And it’s small (2.8 megs) and quick. Definitely a good prospect.

Thanks to the well-wishers. If I responded to each and every one, I’d probably be back where I started, so hopefully this will suffice.

And my inning is up.

David L. Farquhar, computer security professional, train hobbyist, and landlord