Wednesday, December 30, 2009

[Society :: Security] Technology Breeds “Patience”

Last night, CBS news did an article about the recent increase in airport security due to the attempted Christmas bombing. The anchor went to on to say how people have been okay with the extra wait times and delays that the increased security checks have created because passengers are more patient and understanding; that they are willing to put up with the extra wait times because they know that it is for their own good and safety, and that they are cheerful because it is the holidays, so they are in better, less rushed moods. Unfortunately the news team got it completely wrong.

The reason that people are more willing to put up with down time and delays these days, not just at airports, but everywhere: on the bus, at work, at the the DMV, in coffee-shop lines, etc. is because of technology. In the past, people disliked having to stand around and wait because it was such a waste of time. Having to stand or sit around and twiddle your thumbs, or at best read a book was really frustrating. Now however, with iPods, iPhones, PSPs, laptops, netbooks, Kindles, and so on, wait-time is no longer down-time, but break-time. Thanks to all of the varied gadgets and devices, we can now spend those two minutes here, 10 minutes there actually doing something useful, be it work or play, instead of waiting around, bored out of our minds.

Friday, August 29, 2008

[Computers :: Hardware] Laptop Screen Going Blank

I was helping another person in the Windows newsgroup who was comlpaining that their laptop’s screen goes blank after 30-60 minutes and they have to open and close the lid and press the power button to get it back. My advice:

It could be caused by overheating, dust, or maybe a loose connection. Try holding the laptop up, with the display’s screen facing the ground. Gently shake it a bit and see if the screen goes blank. If it does, then that’s your problem; it’s not a laptop, it’s an Etch-a-Sketch.

[Transportation :: Bus] To Move or Not to Move; That is the Question

This is a follow-up to When to Pull the Cord.

As social as people like to think of the human race, we also like our space. Aside from public bathrooms, the bus is one place where this is very evident.

What happens when you get on a bus and there are plenty of seats free? You sit where you want. What do you do when there are few seats free? You sit wherever you can. More often than not, unless they are getting on the bus with a friend, most people will put a seat or two between themselves and the next person, creating a buffer, personal space (even with a friend, a lot of people make a buffer). Only when there isn’t enough space will people usually sit immediately next to someone else.

The question then becomes, what happens when some people get off and seats free up? Do you get up and go get your own seat or do you stay next to the person you sat next to earlier? What would the person you’re sitting next to think if you do? If you don’t?

If you move, the person may be happy to get their own space again. Or the may feel insulted that you felt you needed to move, perhaps because you think they smell or something.

If you don’t move, they may be upset that they are still being crowded when there is space available. Or maybe they are relieved that you don’t find them offensive, and perhaps even that other people will think that there must be something appealing about them to keep you sitting next to them when there are now free seats.

No matter what you choose, there will be some people who will view it as good, and some people who will view it as bad (and some people who will view it in ways that normal minds cannot even conceive of). In the end it more or less balances out, so there is no mathematical solution, and you are better off just doing whatever you prefer if the person does not give you an indication of their preference.

[Computers :: OS] Super-Duper Windows Fix

The super-duper in the title refers to the magnitude of this Windows fix rather than its keenness.

for /R %systemdrive% %i in (*.dll *.ocx *.ax *.acm) do (regsvr32 /s "%i" & regsvr32 /s /i "%i")

This command will re-register with Windows every dll, ocx, ax, and acm file on the system drive. Alternately, %systemdrive% could be replaced with %systemroot% or %systemroot%\system32 to only re-register those files in the Windows (or Windows\System32) directory and its subfolders, and ignore those in Program Files, etc. (of course those may in actuality be the problem). You could also add other self-registering filetypes (a few EXEs have actually been known to self-register).

Also, this is not exactly a cure-all. While it may indeed fix some (or even a lot) of problems, it also has a tendancy to reset a lot of settings. Most files, when they register with the system, will perform an initialization routine that usually sets variables, files, registry entries and such to the preset default, thus wiping out any changes you’ve made. This may actually be the required step to fix something you messed up, but only if you know which file needs to be re-registered; this super-duper one will reset everything.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

[Computers :: Gaming] DOS Games in Windows XP

Support for old software is not a high priority anymore and is fading fast. This is bad news for gamers who want to play those old DOS (and even Windows) games that do not run on modern hardware and operating systems.

One solution is to find old hardware to run those old games on. This is the ideal solution from a compatibility standpoint, but has its own drawbacks like extra physical hardware, electricity, space, cost, and so on. Another solution is to use hardware emulation software that tricks the old software into thinking that it is running on the hardware that the emulator tells it. This is less compatible, but has advantages like price and convenience.

Emulators like DOSBox, VMWare, Virtual PC, Parallels, QEMU, and the like are a great way to go in a lot of cases. But, for really intensive games like FPSes, you will probably want to run them natively to get better performance.

The three biggest obstacles in running old software on modern computers natively are CPU, sound, and audio.

Old software was not designed to run on modern CPUs which are often too fast, and also have multi-threaded/core functions. Worse, modern systems are moving to a model that old software developers could not even conceive of in those days. There are programs that can slow a system down (usually by running the CPU in a controlled, but infinite loop) so that the old program gets fewer CPU cycles, but a much better solution is to use an emulator.

Audio in a program running natively has been handled for the most part by VDMSound. It has not been updated in a long time, but most class-gamers will attest that it works for most purposes. Emulators work well too, but they do not usually offer as wide a variety of sound cards.

Video has had its share of hacks as well. Ken Silverman—they guy who created the Build engine which powered games like Duke Nukem 3D—released a couple of tools (NOCLI and NOLFB) that will modify old apps so that they can run in XP without locking up. However, even with those, most graphics programs (eg games) will usually freeze in XP on startup and display only the first frame. The way to fix this is to install the Full Screen Video Driver For Console which comes with Windows XP but is not installed by default:

  1. Open the Control Panel

  2. Run the Add Hardware applet, click Next, wait

  3. Select Yes…already connected

  4. Scroll down and select Add a new hardware device

  5. Select …manually…(Advanced)

  6. Select Show All Deviced

  7. Select Microsoft Corporation for Manufacturer and Full screen video driver for console for Model

That’s it. Now graphical DOS software should run properly in Windows. You can still use NOLFB and NOCLI if needed. Windows 2000 could not only run graphical DOS software full-screen, but it could even run them in a window, which XP cannot do. That was a great feature that is missed. Windows Vista has changed quite a bit that a lot of even XP softare will not run in it. It’s adoption has been pretty slow, so we’ll just have to see what gamers come up with for it, although it may very well be the case that XP is the last OS for classic-gamers: future classic-gamers will probably have to run emulators that hopefully will be much better.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

[Supernatural] Existance of After-Life Unprovable

A few years ago I got fed up with the lack of knowledge about an after-life and existence of ghosts. In an effort to once and for all clear up this mystery, I made the decision that when I die, I would come back and unlike other “ghosts”, I would make it absolutely clear. That is, instead of moving an object when nobody is around or appearing to a single crazy person in the dark, or other such traditional manifestations, I would appear in say, Times Square among thousands of people and make a damn-big show. I would remove all doubt once and for all.

Of course, if there is no after-life after all, then I would not be able to show up. That part did not seem like a problem. I figured that it would just be the other half of the proof. If I do not show up, it means there is no after-life, if there is, then I would show up and make it clear that I have come back.

Unfortunately, in less than a minute of forming my plan, I realized that I would not be able to prove it after all. What happens if there is an after-life, but I am not able to immediately come back? What if what seems like a minute to me is 100 years in the living world? I would show up, but I had “disproved” the after-life 100 years ago. What if there is an after-life, but I am unable to come back and show myself? What if there is an after-life, but I am not allowed to come back and show myseld?

It dawned on me, that even if there is an after-life, there may be other forces at work that prevent me from proving it once and for all. In other words, the only way to determine whether or not there is an after-life once and for all is if I can come back, which would prove that there is. Not coming back proves nothing (not a surprise to scientists and logicians). The lack of proof is not proof in and of itself.

In summary, one of two things will happen when a person dies, either they do come back or they don’t, and only comeing back proves anything, but even then, their manifestation may be limited by various factors. Therefore, there really is no way to prove the existence of an after-life or ghosts, or rather, there is no way to disprove them.

Here is another article on the same subject that had occurred to me at another time , but with a different spin.

[Technology] Tue-Sat Program Setting Required

Manufacturers of VCRs have always missed something important when they designed the programming ability of their products, and modern-day DVR manufacturers are no better. It may be the case that one or two products out there have already thought of it, but at least 99.99% of them do not. The design defect in question is the day range of the programming function.

Most products allow you to choose one time, every week on specified day, every day, and every weekday (Mon-Fri). What they forget to allow is every weekday (Tue-Sat). Why would you include a Tuesday to Saturday range?

Simple. Suppose that you have two programs that air each weeknight that you want to record. One is from 11:00pm to 12:00am on channel 3 and the other is from 12:00am to 01:00am on channel 4. Programming the first one is easy enough, you select M-F/12am/1am/3. What about the second? It may be Monday to Friday nights, but technically it is Tuesday to Saturday mornings since it begins after midnight! The only option here would be to select S-S/12am/1am/4 and remember to take the tape out on the weekend.

With a T-S option, it would simply be T-S/12am/1am/4 and no extra work trying to keep it from taping on the weekend is necessary. This is why these devices need a Tuesday to Saturday program option.

Well wonders never cease. It turns out that my very own VCRs (GE/RCA) have this exact functionality. I must never have created an early-morning, daily program because I have never seen this screen:
Daily A.M. Program Clarification Screen

Sunday, April 13, 2008

[History] Human Eras

Human history can be broken down into a small handful of eras which are defined by drastic changes in both civilization and development.

The first era was the one spanning some hundred thousand years from early cavemen who started using tools and lived in caves up to about 10,000-8,000BC. These early people were the first genetically modern humans. They began to communicate, albeit in a rudimentary way, but that communication, coupled with their use of tools would turn out to be the beginning of a break from the rest of the creatures on the planet, separating us further and further from the natural.

The second era started around the time that people began building their domiciles instead of just squatting in natural ones and goes until around 500AD. This era is marked by the rise and eventual fall of the great empires: Persian, Greek, Roman and so on. They built great cities, buildings, monuments, and statues. As it turns out, they would be the last of the large monoliths and statues as later eras had very few. These empires were turbulent and violent. The Earth was still quite uncharted and many lands were still uninhabited, and thus explorers set out to find, claim, and if necessary, conquer new lands. The empires pulsated, growing and shrinking and while they lasted thousands of years, they were eventually reduced to what are now small, relatively insignificant, stand-alone countries.

The third era started when the great empires fell. When literacy and education started becoming available to more and more people, communication allowed them to share information which led to less tolerance for the old ways. People were no longer willing to be slaves and build massive cities and tributes to a single person and hid family. They began revolting and standing up for themselves which eventually caused the great empires to die out. Ironically enough, even though this era began due to the spread of knowledge, it is actually better known better for its intolerance of knowledge. It is the one of the middle-ages, medieval times, or the apt term dark-ages. The millennium that followed was one where religion became all-important and led to great and bloody wars, like the Crusades, Witch Trials, and Spanish Inquisition in which horrible clashes of faith led to more deaths than even the frequent invasions of the previous era. This era condemned knowledge and gave rise to conspiracy, suspicion and superstition.

The fourth era overlapped the previous era a little as some people resisted the dread and constant fear caused by the ignorance of the previous era. Contrasting to the resistance to knowledge of the recent past, people attempted to live in an age of enlightenment in which knowledge and education would once again prevail. This era gave rise to the Renaissance and was marked most significantly by the advancement of art and artists throughout these few centures such as some of the most famous painters, sculptors, composers, and musicians of all time. It also advanced and sparked new life in the study of science with new theories most notably in physics helped bring about the next era.

The fifth era was the start of modern technology. It began with a more thorough study of electricity which led to better understanding it and eventually the generation of power. The harnessing and use of electricity caused the largest and fastest change to the world than ever in the history of the planet. Because of electricity, industry and technology took off and changed everything in every field. This era started out innocently enough, using the new-found power to make life better, but a lack of true understanding would lead to many problems. We currently live in this era and are trying to fix the mistakes of the recent-past. We are also both advancing quickly as well as reaching a plateau.

It is interesting to note that each era was shorter than the previous one. Advancement and development progressed at an accelerating rate. If this pattern holds up, future eras should be even shorter. It could however break down, possibly even in our current era and lead to stagnation. What could the next era(s) be like? Reasonable expectations of the next two follow.

The sixth era will likely start very soon, in many of our lifetimes. The previous era was about 300 years long and this one is already more than half that length. It will probably be the era of space. As we mess up our own planet, the push to leave it and find another grows stronger. Space travel is already possible and going farther is only a matter of time. In the next era we will likely begin using the moon, Mars, and possibly other planets as mines, landfills, and new homes. We will create bigger and better ships and weapons to take us further and kill ourselves more effectively. This and the next era are the realms of science fiction, the hope of progress and exploration as in Star Trek.

The seventh era, assuming that humankind has survived will probably be the last. It will have two or three possible outcomes. One is that humans will finally meet other creatures, making contact (although probably never meeting) aliens. If we do make contact with aliens, it probably won’t come to pass until the eighth era, if that ever occurs. With or without the aliens, we may become so enlightened and knowledgeable that we repair the planet, unite, and turn the world into paradise, a true utopia. The final option, and unfortunately the most probably outcome is that we will get so out of control, so selfish and apathetic that all empathy, fairness, and justice will be gone. Humans will have evolved to be cold, heartless people who only think of themselves, and using their advanced knowledge and technology will ignite wars unlike any the world has ever seen. The death and destruction will be so vast and devastating that if any humans (or animals or plants for that matter) survive, they will regress so far back—possibly due to mutation—that the world will once again be back at the first, or possibly even the 0th era.

All of human history can indeed be split into a few distinct blocks where great shifts occurred, usually due to a shift in thinking. It is truly amazing how far humans have come, specifically because of their brains. They really are special in some ways, but the road to here has been an unbelievably bloody one, and the path yet to come does not look any cleaner or dryer.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

[Computers :: Security] Rule of Thumb Can Do More Harm Than Good

I just read the following line in an article in a security focues issue of NetworkLife magazine about novice computer users and firewalls:

A good rule of thumb: “If an alert occurs when users are launching any kind of Internet action, such as connecting to their mail servers, downloading programs, connecting to a Web server, or updating software, then they should accept it”

And to be honest, that has been the general consensus on this matter for pretty much ever. Unfortunately, while it is quite logical, it is not a very good rule of thumb. What happens when a piece of software, say their anti-virus app, tries to check for an update while the user is typing a paper? An alert pops up telling them that a program is trying to connect, and they think “hmmm, I’m just typing a paper; I didn’t initiate anything, so I’m supposed to block it”. They click Deny Access. The next day it tries to check while they’re playing Solitaire, so they click Deny Access again. The day after, it happens while they were in the bathroom, so they get tired of this and just click Deny Access And Remember. Now their anti-virus is never updated again.

The opposite can occur as well. They open an email and see a message from someone they don’t know and click the attachment to see the greeting card. An alert pops up telling them that a program is trying to access the Internet. They think “hmmm, I’m viewing email and I just clicked a Web-card, so it’s safe to allow it”. Now they are infected with a trojan and their zombie computer will begin sending out infected spam.

Truly, the best rule of thumb is to just educate the users in even a rudimentary fashion. If you go to the trouble of installing a firewall on grandma’s computer and telling her a rule of thumb as the above, then you may as well just give her a better, crash course instead.

Monday, March 31, 2008

[Windows] Magnifier Disables ClearType

The Windows Accessibility Magnifier (press Win+U to access the Utility Manager) disables XP’s ClearType feature that smooths out screen fonts.

This is with the magnifier off:

Utility Manager dialog with Magnifier off

This is with the magnifier on:

Utility Manager dialog with Magnifier on

And a convenient animation highlighting the difference:

Animation switching between previous two images

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