Posts Tagged ‘software’


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.


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.


Death and Taxes…Mostly Taxes

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” ~Benjamin Franklin

My wife and I filed our tax return over the weekend. Ahh, taxes. It’s that special “season” that comes every year between January 1 and April 15 where, for a few hours at least and several days at most, everyone tries to remember their math skills as they fill in the lines on their tax forms. Some people have more forms to fill out than others; sometimes I think the number of forms grows exponentially with the number of people in the family. With three children, I shudder to think how many more forms it takes for me to file my taxes than for someone who is single.

Years ago, I gave up trying to fill out the forms by hand and started purchasing tax preparation software for my computer. It’s been a great help, especially when it comes to dealing with all the changes in tax laws that happen every year. How on earth would I have otherwise known I could have taken a substantial tax credit if I had purchased a new hybrid car? Of course, the tax laws don’t take into account the fact that I couldn’t afford to buy a hybrid car, or any other new car for that matter…but if I had, I could have received a credit for it.

Another advantage of using tax software is the ability to file taxes electronically. No paper forms to fill out or sign, no trips to the post office, and no chance that the return would get lost in the mail. Of course, it also means if you owe taxes, you can’t use any of those as excuses for not filing on time. But, the tax software can still help you there as well, by allowing you to electronically request a 6-month extension for filing. Yes, it looks like the software companies have thought of almost everything…except, of course, for how to pay your taxes in the first place.

My wife and I are getting a refund this year. Refunds, of course, are overpayments of taxes throughout the previous year. Some people try to walk a fine line and have just enough taken out of their paychecks to cover their taxes, and no more; that way they get the most in their pocket each payday. Raising three children, I already walk enough tightropes as it is, and I don’t need another one courtesy of Uncle Sam. So, I let them take more out than necessary, and I get it back as a refund the next year. Yes, that means I’m taking home a little less money each payday and it’s like giving the government a loan for a few months, but I’d much rather do that then get to the end of my tax forms and find out I need to pay additional taxes with money I don’t usually have in the first place. I like to think of it as a form of “indentured savings” where the government is helping us save throughout the year, and then they give it back for us to spend on the things we couldn’t afford to get all at one time otherwise, such as new wardrobes for the kids, or electronic gadgets, or appliances for the house. This year, it looks like appliances will take center stage; we have some that are in need of replacement, and others that could stand some repairs. If there’s anything left, it will probably go toward paying other bills that we’ve been putting off because, well, we didn’t have the money to pay them. Then, once the refund money is gone, the spending spree will be over with and life will return to normal, albeit with a few different things around the house.

At that point the cycle will start all over again, just as old Ben said it would over 200 years ago.