Posts Tagged ‘computer’


Sibling Parity, Take Three

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

In the great rush of things that usually comprises my Mondays, I further continued the saga of my sons’ computers, which started back in March. As you may recall, there has been spirited rounds of “one upmanship” between the two of them over who has the most capable computer. First it was a shared machine, then I built up a computer for the younger son, and finally I tried to upgrade the older son’s machine yet again but it didn’t work out. It seemed we had reached an impasse, and that perhaps everyone would be satisfied at least by all the work I had done to make things even between them.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t satisfied, and looked for a better solution. Without going through a lot of details, three weeks ago my wife and I worked out a way to purchase a newer machine that would give our older son more capabilities, and once again it appeared that the universe was in balance.

But it was not to be.

Both of my sons know their way around computers pretty well, but the younger one is more tech-savvy. He has been fascinated with the newer Windows Vista and Windows 7 operating systems; his machine has been running the older Windows XP, which is very solid and dependable. When the older son’s newer machine came in, it had Win 7 on it…and by now I’m sure you the reader can see where this story is going. The younger son checked his machine and found it was capable of running Vista, and petitioned me to upgrade it with a copy I had available after upgrading my own machine from Vista to Win 7 earlier this year (thanks to a gift from my daughter). After several requests, I relented on Sunday afternoon and agreed to upgrade it.

I wish I hadn’t been so easy to convince.

Upgrading from XP to Vista is not for the faint-hearted. My son understood the risks and still wanted to do it anyway. So, I made him back up all of his files, and when he was satisfied that he had everything he needed I began the upgrade process. Two hours later, it appeared to have finished successfully, but there were a lot of adjustments to be made and well over 100 updates to be added. I worked on those long into Sunday night, then took a break to sleep and started on them again early this morning.

Because today was also a work day for me, I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between my office work and his machine, making changes and downloading updates. By 2pm, it appeared to finally be ready for him to use. I decided to leave it running to “burn in” a little, and when he got home from school at 4:30 he jumped on it and start installing all of his software. By his bedtime, it appeared he had most of his programs reinstalled, with nary a whimper or complaint.

Have I finally achieved a balance between these two? Maybe.

I’m certainly not holding my breath for it.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am a fledgling watch collector. I currently own about a dozen wristwatches and three pocket watches. I am also a member on several online watch forums, where people get together and talk about – what else? – watches. They post photos of their latest purchases, there are all sorts of philosophical discussions about the merits of one brand or movement over another, and there’s even some buying and selling and swapping going on.

The part that stands out to me in all of this is the diversity in the forum members’ locations – the main forum I visit is based in Sweden, and there are members on it from every continent except Antarctica. You could find yourself posting a question, and having no two responses coming from the same country or even the same time zone – say, the first from Australia, followed by Germany, Canada, somewhere in the Caribbean, India, South Korea, and so forth. Many different backgrounds, many different lives and lifestyles, but all brought together by a common interest.

Members also help other members with locating and sometimes purchasing watches that are not always available in their home countries. I was recently involved in two such transactions – one for a watch I wanted that is made and sold only in India, and one for a U.S.-sold watch another member in England wanted for his collection, but could not afford to get shipped to him otherwise. Thanks to online ordering, global financial transaction services like PayPal, and the skillful mastery of each home country’s postal systems, these types of activities go on all the time and are perfectly safe. The watch I received from India took less than a week to travel halfway around the world, while the one I sent to England saved its new owner about 2/3 of the original cost he was quoted. Both arrived at their destinations in pristine condition.

I use all of this to illustrate how much smaller the world has become here in the age of the Internet. The transformation has been dramatic: in about the same amount of time it has taken for my daughter to grow up to adulthood, our society has moved from slow, crude (compared to today), one-to-one computer bulletin board systems (BBS’s) to sophisticated websites and e-mail services. Simple text files were a major stumbling block in the BBS days, and sending graphics like photos to one another was unthinkable; now, we can have live streaming video from the other side of the world sent to our desktops with a picture quality that rivals cable TV. Those watch transactions would have been impossible to complete or consider. Even this blog’s graphical appearance was unimaginable all those years ago. The latest breakthrough? Being able to carry the Web with you in your pocket or anywhere else in the world using smartphones or laptop computers and wireless networks.

What’s next? That’s hard to predict, but one thing is certain: the world will be even smaller then than it is now, and the generations to come will likely shake their heads and wonder how we were able to accomplish so much in our “larger” world.


Sibling Parity, Take Two

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Once again, one of my sons’ computers took the spotlight over the weekend. This time it was the older son, who until recently had a more powerful machine than his younger brother. The older one got a little testy when he lost his “top dog” status, and made sure everyone in the house knew it in no uncertain terms. What he didn’t know was that I had already been working on a solution.

I had anticipated this conflict, and determined there were two things left I could do to his machine to make it more like his brother’s – change the processor and change the video card (the memory is already maxed out). The processor was simple enough; I found the most powerful one his machine could handle, and fortunately for my wallet it was at a rock-bottom price, so I jumped on it and got one shipped quickly. The day it came in I swapped out the old for the new, and made sure everything still worked after I had made the switch. Fortunately for me it did. Every analysis I could find indicated he should see an improvement in the machine’s performance by 30 to 40 percent, which by any measure is significant.

He wasn’t home at the time I made the swap, so I asked his brother to test it for me. His brother found that while it was still a measure behind his in performance, it did run certain things more smoothly than before. Then, when he did get home, I had him try it out. He quickly pronounced that what I had done didn’t make any difference at all; in reality, I think he said that more because he was upset that HE didn’t get to try it out first.

Since that didn’t seem to placate the situation, I moved on to the second upgrade – a new video card. I found one at a reasonable price at my favorite electronics store, and on Saturday I made the long drive down and back to pick one up. What followed that was four hours of the most frustrating nonsense that I’ve ever experienced in working with any computer. The card would go in easily enough, and the computer would recognize it and run just fine as a “generic” video card. When I tried to install the files that would let the computer recognize it as a specific model, the computer went berserk. Most of the time it would get to a certain point in starting up and then reboot itself, and repeat the cycle over and over. Every time I tried something different, it would fail. Searching through online forums and trying other’s suggestions didn’t work either. In the end, I gave up and put the old card back in.

It’s a rare time when a computer completely baffles me like that, but it does happen. At this point, there is nothing left to upgrade short of replacing the motherboard, and that’s currently out of the question. The good news from all of this is, he could see that I was trying, and while I had some success the machine itself set the limits of what I could do to it. He’s a bit more sympathetic now, which is a far cry from where things were a week ago. He has a very solid computer now for doing his school research and class assignments; it just doesn’t play video games quite as well as his brother’s.

He’ll have to get along with what it can do until he graduates from high school in a couple of years; after that, he’ll want a newer laptop to use at college. Will he outgrow the video games by then? Probably not, but at least he knows I did my best to make things work better. Hopefully in his mind that will count for something; it does in mine.


Upgraded Software, Downgraded Minds

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality, Yesterday's Memories

When it comes to computer software, I suppose I’m a little behind the times. Like a lot of PC users I have Microsoft Office software to take care of all my writing, spreadsheet, presentation, and e-mail needs; in fact, I use it to write and proof all of my blog entries before posting them. Where I’m behind is with the version I’m using – Office 2003. It’s already one release older the rest of the world (Office 2007) and soon will be two releases back (when Office 2010 arrives later this year).

Is being behind the times always a bad thing? I don’t think so. Neither does my employer; we’ve only recently been given approval to upgrade our office computers from Office 2003 to 2007. One of the reasons is that Office 2007 has a significantly different look, and would require a lot of people to go through expensive retraining to learn how to use it. I often enjoy being on the “bleeding edge” of technology, but having to relearn how to use something I already know how to use doesn’t make sense. I’ll have to upgrade it eventually to keep up with the rest of my office, so I’ll have to learn to use it eventually as well.

There’s another element that comes into play here, at least for me: the old adage “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” For years, the old version (and even the one before it) worked perfectly fine for 99% of the tasks that make up my job. Most of the documents I write or spreadsheets I create aren’t going to dramatically change just because the software I use in creating them looks different. Some of the new features may turn out to be useful, but for the most part I’ll still be churning out the same-looking stuff. Why? Well, that’s what I get paid to do.

Also along with each new upgrade, it seems that designers are moving more toward the use of icons and symbols and farther away from actual words; Office 2007, for example, uses icons and symbols in the place of worded menus. For someone who has made a living designing complex business applications and writing the instruction manuals for using them, the use of icons is a mind-numbing shift in thinking. They also don’t make the writer’s job any simpler; instructional materials are much more elaborate now, adding pictures of each icon or symbol and describing what happens when you click on them. “Type ‘start’ at the prompt and press the Enter key” has been replaced with “Double-click on the square-looking thingy with the red and yellow stripes.” Who could have guessed when PCs were invented thirty years ago that we would go back to using hieroglyphics like the ancient Egyptians?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying all icons are bad. They do have their uses. My kids learned how to start up a drawing program and how to shut down a computer by using icons long before they knew how to read or write. But, I also made sure they understood what the computer was doing “behind the scenes” each time they pointed and clicked on something. I’m sure there are some adults who don’t understand what they’re doing when they use a computer, and probably never will.

But, they do know how to double-click on that square-looking thingy.


Sibling Parity

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

I have two sons aged 15 and 13. They’re both bright and talented (I’m not bragging – they get straight A’s in school and both play in the school band), and they are both really big into PC-based video gaming, especially sports like baseball or football, and role-playing games involving a lot of shooting and blowing things up.

Up until a few months ago the boys shared one computer, which seemed to take care of their needs. I’ve had to upgrade it a couple of times so it could run the more complex games they keep getting, but it’s done pretty much everything they’ve asked of it. They would argue over who would play what, and sometimes things would get pretty ugly, but they have always worked out their differences and no bones have ever been broken in the process. The conflict finally came to a head when both of them claimed the need to use it more for schoolwork, and between that and the constant bickering over games it finally reached the point where another machine was needed to restore peace in the house.

I’ve built most of the home computers I’ve ever used. As late as two years ago, I was still using a machine I had built from scratch, while everyone else in the house had a “store-bought” PC. Then, in a very sudden and dramatic fashion my homebuilt machine died, and I needed to repair it very quickly. When I found out it would cost as much for new parts as it would to buy a fully-loaded computer ready to run, I bought a new one; but, forever and always an electronic packrat, I held on to that old box, figuring I could use some of its parts one day to repair another machine.

Two years later and faced with the prospect of buying another computer, I looked at that old box and thought, “maybe I could find some cheap surplus parts and rebuild it.” After some complicated negotiations, my youngest son decided he’d be brave and take on the challenge of working with one of Dad’s electronic creations.

It took some time to find parts, but once I had them I was in my element, my hands deep inside the metal casing hooking up cables to components that would bring it back to life. A few last connections, and voila! The old computer was running again! After some testing, I turned the resurrected PC over to my son so he could begin installing and playing games.

He learned what worked and what didn’t, and fortunately the “didn’t” list was fairly short. But, he started clamoring for upgrades to be able to play those games. With Christmas around the corner, I decided to give him some of the parts he needed as presents. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t work. The new parts would fit, but the older pieces were unable to support them.

By this point, I was committed to getting the PC working. So, I ran to the nearest computer parts store (about 60 miles away) to get the pieces I had tried to avoid buying in the first place. After several more round-trips to the store over the next three months, and some strategic purchases off eBay, over this past weekend I was able to FINALLY get it running the way I originally intended.

But, now that I’ve got little brother’s computer running smoothly, big brother starts to complain that his machine’s graphics aren’t as good, and wants to upgrade his to match.

So, the arguments start all over again. This time, at least, the boys aren’t complaining to each other.