Archive for the 'rant' Category

Rant: USB hard drives and warranty

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Thinking of buying a USB hard drive?

External USB hard drives at Officeworks.

Obviously you’re gonna go for the one with the longest warranty – three years will surely see you through your CompSci degree, yeah?

Hold on for a minute. There’s a point I’d like to make.

Hard drives are reasonably equal beings, nowadays; some tend to fail more than others, but it’s impossible to tell for years after they’ve hit the market, and nobody’s going to wait that long. They’re also a very competitive market, where prices fluctuate by mere dollars and cents every week, and when the pressure gets as high as it is now, they’re going to cut costs everywhere they can to stay in the game.

They can’t cut many corners with the drives themselves. I’m talking about the cheap crappy boxes they put them in.

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Two times two is five

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

In fixing a computer, you must narrow the problem down to being one of two types: hardware and software.

A software problem is a genuine bug in a program, where clicking something ordinary produces an unexpected and often inexplicable result, like incorrect output or a funny error message and a crash. These problems are often fixed by updating the software to a newer version, or replacing it with something equivalent.

A hardware problem is a faulty video card, or a failing hard drive, which often mainfest themselves in software-problem-like ways (programs glitch or crash) as far as the user is concerned, but are part of an overall pattern that can point to hardware. A dying hard drive can cause a computer to run slowly, programs to crash on startup, Windows not to start up at all.

It’s important to differentiate between the two, and recognise that one may look like the other. One can also cause the other; bad memory can corrupt data to the point where Windows doesn’t start, and you’ll still have to reinstall after replacing the faulty RAM.

There are also, I’ve come to realise, two types of computer users.

The first type will say they know just enough about computers to get themselves into trouble. They are often wrong about this, and their computers will be clean as a whistle, with very few desktop icons, they’ll know how to email spreadsheets to people, they’ll ask intelligent questions (and be honest about the dumb ones) and they’ll eagerly listen to every word you say with deep fascination and concentration. These are my favourite customers.

The second type are more than happy to admit they tinker with their PCs, often without knowing what’s happening or how it can affect things. Then, when they show you the computer you built them and it’s got scratches and cat hair all over it, they’ll arrogantly accuse you of selling them a useless antivirus program and that they clearly have a massive infestation of some sort. Then you’ll discover they’ve moved the folders for those apps out of C:\Program Files\ and into C:\Documents and Settings\Greg\Desktop\Spies and Nasties\, and argue til they’re blue in the face it’s not their fault Spybot doesn’t load anymore.

This second category of user brings me to my point: There’s a terrifying, third kind of computer problem you can encounter. Console modders will be familiar with the concept of a semi-bricked device – not quite a dead write-off, not quite alive enough to be usable, hovering between this world and that in a curious limbo state.

They don’t sleep, they don’t communicate, they walk aimlessly forever unless you cut their heads off, and they can’t be brought back. I’m talking about zombies. There’s nothing you can do except to step back, nuke from orbit, and start all over again.

One lady dropped her computer about a foot onto a concrete floor. No cracks in the case, no cracks in the motherboard, no bad sectors on the hard drive, nothing verifiably wrong with it, but it… ran… slowly. Installing XP would take three hours. It’d take minutes to get to the desktop. Everything would work, but at a snail’s pace. We sold her a new computer.

One old guy did something to Device Manager or the drivers, and his computer wouldn’t recognise PS/2 mice. USB mice were fine, PS/2 keyboards were fine, but that PS/2 mouse was an unknown device and nothing could ever be made of it. There was no fix – this was not a problem that sensible, normal people have with their computers, so nobody had ever written a fix for it. We reinstalled Windows and told him not to do it again.

Another guy ordered a computer with four gigs of RAM last week – specifically, two twinpacks of 1GB DDR2 made by G-skill. Because the days of random memory incompatibilities are long over, we agreed, and he brought it back a week later because it bluescreened five times a day and it was essentially unusable. We narrowed it down to the RAM, and G-skill told us we should’ve bought a 2x2GB kit instead of using four 1GB sticks to ensure compatibility. We put the Gskill RAM into other computers separately (they work fine when there’s not four of them together) and sold the guy RAM of a less-picky brand.

When a printer’s quick setup guide tells you not to plug the printer into the computer until you’ve installed the software and it instructs you to do so, do what it bloody well says, because if you plug the printer in first and Windows starts in with the “oh crap, where’s the software for this thing?” dance, you’ll need someone with a steady hand, deep knowledge of Windows, and a twinkle of danger in their eye to make things right afterward. I don’t know how anybody can be proud to sell a consumer-targeted inkjet made by HP, because troubleshooting those things is like trying to debate philosophy while being repeatedly hit in the face with an angry wombat.

They don’t want my Australian money.

Monday, April 6th, 2009

So I decided to finally bite the bullet, and actually pay for some music.

Back in 2005 or thereabouts, I wrote on another blog somewhere I wouldn’t do so unless I could give some website a very small amount of money for some very high quality, DRM-free mp3s. I had no intention of being forced to change how I listen to my music just for the privilege of paying for it, and I still don’t.

It’s 2009, though, and the internet’s all growed up. We don’t have to go to Russia to buy mp3s anymore.

The very first shop-like Google hit for the album I want – unexpectedly, it’s Divenire by Ludovico Einaudi – is Amazon’s MP3 store. You can get it from for US$8.99, or for £7.99 – AU$12.55 or AU$16.66, take your pick.

Except my carefully converted Australian prices are utterly irrelevant – I’m not allowed to buy from either site, because their Digital Content providers refused them the right to export outside the US or UK respectively. Seriously, what they’ve done is copy and paste identical text to the local subsidiary’s T&Cs of each approved region, job done, let’s go home and watch something patriotic on teevee.

This is stupid. I have money. They have a completely automated online shop. I want to give their automated online shop my money in return for their music, and they won’t because of… moo?

A friend reminded me the iTunes Music Store now features DRM-free MP3s, which would be the ultimate solution…….. if I still used an iPod at all. The iTunes software for 64-bit Windows is a 70.4MB download; this is a drop in the ocean compared to how much music the average blogger torrents, but it also comes with Quicktime and tries to talk you into Safari and wants to steal file associations from Winamp and nags me to death with fifty unnecessary tray icons and popups and have you considered buying yourself a new iPod Shuffle, they come in dark grey now?

Why no, no I hadn’t. And never will. My Cybershot mobile phone already makes me a corporate whore sellout extroadinaire, I’m not very interested in cramming a separate PMP with fewer features into my minimalist pocket ensemble.

Um anyway, back to Einaudi – Googling his name in Australia produces no dice, the only results are people who want to sell me his sheet music (relative value and merit of making the mp3s myself, I leave open for debate), and Sanity who want to sell me CDs. I had to go to his website to find someone who’ll let me buy mp3s instead, and their two suggestions are these guys who also can’t sell outside the UK, and iTunes again.

I caved into something for the second time tonight and installed iTunes. Which confidently informs me Divenire will cost me $16.99. And I have to sign up for an account before I can pay for it. And give them my birthdate and stuff.

And you know what? I’m not going to do it. I’m going to dig right back in, and wait for a website that’ll let me pay for the music I’d like to buy. Russia’s no longer a mandatory visit, but I’d still have to leave my hemisphere to get what I want.

Thanks for nothing, interblag.

in which tim yells at bios programmers

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Dell have used F2 for their BIOS key practically forever. Any Dell laptop or desktop, it’s F2 to get into the BIOS.

Compaq? F10, but you’ve gotta be on the ball or you’ll miss it.

For most whiteboxes, it’s either F2 or delete. Although I’ve seen control-F2 on a laptop before. Sometimes it’s F1 (isn’t that the help key?), or F11 (which is sometimes the boot menu), or F12 (which is sometimes network boot – hands up everybody who’s needed that option at home?).

The Toshiba I worked on today was a fine example. The splash screen said “hit F2 for boot menu”, which worked, but to get into BIOS you had to hit escape, and then F1 when it told you. If I wasn’t armed with google and the thing’s model number I’d have been mashing random buttons before figuring that out.

The special no-award goes to whatever genius recently decided F8 was a sensible boot menu key. That’s gonna come back and bite you in the ass the very first time you want safe mode, genius. (And probably every other time thereafter also.)

Listen up guys, Apple have had this down pat for centuries now. Hold C to boot from a CD, or N to boot from the network, or T to start that fantastic computer-is-a-firewire-disk mode I wish all laptops had. In the shiny white universe, you can basically guess at a cool feature you’d like your computer to have, and it’ll have it, accessible through the first keyboard shortcut you guess.

Us in the dark universe however basically have to guess every time we encounter a new computer. When your job involves fixing computers for complete strangers, this becomes a factor in your blood pressure.

Here’s my solution. Instead of everybody picking an F-button out of a hat every month, we make Tab the official “stop the process and give me some options” button. It’s already the button you press to get rid of the motherboard brand’s splash screen, giving you a fleeting glance at what drives are present and accounted for and which aren’t.

I want tab to mean “stop right after you finish detecting hardware and loading extra controller cards, so that I can tell you exactly what to boot from, or go to setup, or temporarily pick a boot device, without an arbitrary time limit decided by someone who thinks every technician is chained to his keyboard and his eyes glued open in front of a screen”.

Seriously. You want BIOS setup? Hit tab for a few seconds after turning the PC on, and then probably the enter key because that’d be the first menu option. You want to boot from a CD? Hit tab, then the down arrow until your favourite CD drive is highlighted, then hit enter. You want more than a 3 milisecond look at the thing that says whether you’re in dual channel mode or not? Hit tab, then probably the up arrow and enter to wrap to the bottom of the list and continue booting normally.

A really smart setup like this would also pretend to hit a button when the Windows CD asks “Press any key to boot from CD or DVD…” so it actually DOES that, instead of timing out after 5 seconds and booting from IDE-0, despite you explicitly already telling the computer you want to boot from a CD. I have to make other people answer the phone because I’m stuck waiting for your shit-slow BIOS to wake up and give me options in case I boot from the wrong disk and Windows irrepairably messes up the drive letters.

Okay, that was a little angrier than intended, but the point stands. Tab for BIOS menu – who’s with me?

the disk drives of the future

Friday, December 26th, 2008

USB flash drives

Nobody uses floppy disks for anything regular and important anymore. They’re slow, they’re physically huge yet hold so little, and they wear out and die too easily. CDs and DVDs have their place, but today people mostly use USB-attached flash drives to cart their files around.

This is my newest flash drive. It’s a 4 gigabyte OCZ ATV, and it goes like the clappers. HD Tune clocks it at just under 31MB/sec for sustained reading, which is about as fast as you’ll see any USB-connected drive go on a current PC. It’s the fastest flash drive I currently own, and has now replaced my Corsair Voyager GT as my everyday bit bucket.

It’s also a bit more practical than the Corsair; that dangly thing at the back fits snugly into the cap, so you don’t have to keep track of it when the drive’s plugged into a computer, meaning you’ll never lose that little bit of protection. I have absolutely no idea where my GT’s endcap is.

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emergent behaviour

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Lead a child to a sandbox and he’ll dig a hole in the sand. Bring him a playmate and they’ll throw the sand around, put it in their pockets and drive trucks through it.

You get the same scary effect from putting two scripted AI characters in the same room, and making them interact. I just observed the following exchange between two people in Rivet City:

Security guard: “I’m looking for troublemakers, seen any?”
Resident: “Why don’t you look where you’re going!?”

If I hadn’t already heard both phrases before, elsewhere in the game – most of the guards state their own business, and people often complain if you push past them – I’d have written this off as a coincidence, game AI doing something that feels so out of place it breaks that precious fourth wall.

Except these two independent, randomly-governed entities got together and had a conversation – a snitchy, unfriendly conversation, and one that was obviously an accident of programming intended to look intelligent… but isn’t that what intelligence is? Two creatures coming together and becoming more than two creatures?

A lot of behaviour looks smarter than it actually is. Some of it isn’t, but my point is that AI is getting scarily real. Not necessarily in combat – tonight I killed six super mutants at once, because I sometimes hid behind a letterbox and they took too long to circle around it – but just in little interactions between well-meaning folk. It makes the game freakishly immersive.

I need to finish Fallout 3 fast. I’m starting to eye up garbage bins for precious bottlecaps.

and now, the truth

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

I’m not really into RPGs. Every time I try my hand at one, I get about a third of the way through the game and then irretrievably stuck because I forgot to pick up a swirly purple potion from the 3rd room on the left as you walk in the 2nd door on the 5th level.

The only thing that’s changed between the last time – when I was about 11yo or so – is that the internet appeared, and information and hints and cheats for PC games became instantly accessible, thereby making huge-item-inventory games playable for the casual FPS guy who feels like trying out a slower genre.

Unfortunately, the only other thing that’s changed since Ultima Underworld is that games have become utterly massive (Fallout 3 takes up about a thousand times more space on my hard drive than UW did, no exaggeration), and the bigger something gets the more complicated it is and the harder it is to get it right.

I’m saying F3 has bugs. They’re painful.

  • Critical NPCs will randomly disappear, leaving you unable to talk to them to finish certain missions; this happened twice in my first foray into the game, one of them something important to the storyline, so I couldn’t have finished the game no matter what.
  • I don’t think gamesaves/loads are 100% accurate. I’ve made neutral characters angry with me, reloaded the game to a few moments before I pissed them off, and they’ll be just as angry and try to kill me. In one case, when I reloaded to escape a particular enemy and went back to where I was at the time I saved, that enemy’s actually warped back with me and continued trying to kill me.
  • Fallout 3 has this thing where if you’ve ‘discovered’ a special location like a city or a particular landmark, you can instantly warp between them as long as there’s no enemies near you. This saves hours of gametime where you’d otherwise have to jog for 30 minutes to go back to somewhere particular. Problem is, the game thinks nothing of spawning tons of very strong enemies directly surrounding you at your destination. Surely it makes no sense that you’d just walk out of the desert into the middle of a triangle of 3 super mutants, and then suddenly everyone realises who’s there and starts attacking?
  • Actually, warps are extra-buggy, because they do weird crap with physics and clipping and corpses that’re already there. Frequently I’ll warp to somewhere I’ve killed raiders or dogs or whatever before, and their bodies will suddenly be catapulted into the air, sometimes landing stuck in another object and they’ll bounce forever.
  • You’re meant to run into random enemies when you’re wandering around in the wastelands – a hungry dog, or a pack of molerats, or ants or a super mutant or whatever – but there’re obviously places in the game where certain enemies are scripted to appear with certain weaponry. I hugely doubt that having killed the two mutants camping outside Big Town with a rifle and a rocket launcher, two more mutants with exactly the same weaponry would show up later on and camp in exactly the same spot.
  • Stuff in my inventory changes sometimes. I’ve just realised I have two of a very unique key you pick up very early in the game. Come to think of it UW did something similar once or twice, maybe there’s some particular thing about RPGs that make them near-impossible to code right.
  • Apparently there’s a patch out that fixes all the random crashes when you reload, or warp, or just quit the game anyway.
  • More a design flaw than a bug, but two separate skills you have to build up in the game are Lockpicking and Science, the latter of which lets you break into various computers to gain information or turn other systems on/off. Your skill in a particular area is a number between 1 and 100, but unlike the Medicine, Repair, Explosives or Small Guns skills which give you a straight-out percentage of effectiveness based on how high you’ve made that skill, you can’t even ATTEMPT to pick “hard” locks unless you’ve got 75 lockpick skill points, or hack “very hard” computers until you beef Science up to 100, despite the minigames that represent lockpicking and hacking being identical at every skill level. It just feels like an arbitrary thing that wouldn’t work the same way in real life (you can’t pick more than “very easy” locks if you’re on 24, but the instant it goes up one point another 25% of the locks in the game become available to you).
  • I’ve been playing for a few days, and I’ve already found a few spots in the map where you can get completely stuck, or where there’re textures missing or models wrong or something. I hesitate to even mention it, considering how insanely HUGE that map is and how hard it’d be to get it flawless, but it’s pretty striking to walk past a giant rock and see one whole face is missing:

…and that’s just the stuff I’ve come across. The Fallout 3 wiki has tons more (lots of spoilers there) if you’re interested. The game isn’t completely unplayable; I’m just quickly tiring of wasting ammo killing enemies I’ve already taken care of, and then restarting the game after it crashes because I tried reloading because I warped into the middle of 3 giant enemies with giant guns.

tim demands modern nomenclature.

Friday, October 24th, 2008

I’m sitting at my desktop computer. Before me are my keyboard, my mouse, my monitor.

Behind me sits my broadband modem, my backup hard drive, my wireless access point, and my laptop computer. My printer’s over there *points* and there’s a stack of compact discs on the floor just *points* there.

I am completely bored with every word in the above three sentences.

“Computer” is such an old word, despite its most common meaning. It’s even more generic than calculator, which is a pretty stock standard little device that hasn’t changed its appearance in a number of years. We still talk about personal computers (duh), desktop computers (instead of room-sized electronic caves), laptop computers (instead of desktops), and keyboards (it’s a board of keys. We get it now).

Automobiles are just cars now, mobile telephones are just phones… why can’t computer stuff get nice modern names too?

I think “Wifi” was a good start, but it’s such a silly word nobody took it seriously, and so we still sell wireless access points. We don’t even call FM radio “wireless” anymore; we need to move on and start calling it RadioLAN (“W-LAN” is awkward to type and say). This is a more annoying problem than you think – have you ever tried to explain the difference between wireless networking and wireless internet without spontaneously combusting?

Desktops and laptops are okay – use both words in the same sentence and people can separate the two ideas in their heads. For some people, though, they’re still just “computers”, and calling the desktops “towers” offends my love of small computers. One term you may not have heard is deskside, which is vastly underused and IMHO outrageously cool.

Here’s a sign computer nomenclature is far behind that of cars: Top Gear throws the words “supercar” and “hypercar” around like confetti, and they do it while talking about unbelievably awesome things. Meanwhile, a supercomputer is still something that takes up a room and predicts the sodding weather for a living, and hypercomputers are so unexplored, Wikipedia still describes them as hypothetical.

I dunno what to do about modems. I instantly hate on sight people who talk about input and output (unless they’re discussing RAID 5), or the super information highway (even if they’re being ironic). We should all be calling them gateways, and better distinguish between those, and routers, and wireless access points, so when we make all-in-one devices it doesn’t take half an hour to explain what they actually do.

“CD” is alright, and “DVD” is still cool, but compact discs aren’t compact anymore, and if you still refer to computer stuff as “digital” then you’re as irrelevant as the word analogue.

Bluray and Bluetooth are stupid words too; is anybody else as bored of blue as I am? I bought a new LED fan for my desktop this week, and it makes my room glow purple. It’s divine.

We seem to be over lasers now, probably because the general population’s realised we can’t make super burny handguns out of them (and the really cool ones are banned in my country, because idiots were pointing them at helicopters).

I’m happy with mice for the time being – mine would look like a stealth car, if it didn’t glow orange in places – but keyboards give me the shits. It’s 2008, and we can’t custom-order nice looking keyboards with our own exact layouts and shapes and functions? I’ve looked into this, and it seems if you don’t like what Logitech or Microsoft make, you’re completely screwed. Custom, made-to-order keyboards go to entities like airlines and point-of-sale outfits that need lots and lots of buttons that do weird non-normal-computery stuff, or people with serious disabilities. And they look like 20 year old model M boards.

Yes, I’ve seen the steampunk keyboard. No, I’m not impressed. I want a normal keyboard without the completely unused numberpad, but I don’t want a trendy “compact” keyboard that forces you to press a laptoppy Fn key to do normal everyday tasks. Gaming keyboards are sometimes pretty cool, but usually go in completely the wrong direction in terms of size (you could use the Logitech G15 as a land bridge between here and Saturn).

this rant brought to you by C8H10N4O2

don’t you have one?

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Here’s a common conversation at work:

  • Customer: Hi, my laptop has a problem, can you look at it?
  • Me: Sure… oh, it’s a blue screen of death? That could be hardware. We’ll need to book it in and look closely at it… did you bring the power adapter for it?
  • Customer: The what?
  • Me: …the power adapter. The big power cable that charges the battery.
  • Customer: Oh. don’t you have one?
  • Me: Not for every single make and model of laptop, we don’t. And definitely not (glances at laptop) for Vaios.

Fair enough, we’re a computer store. We do occasionally order in and sell laptop power adapters, and we have one or two universal adapters for our own use, but it’s easiest for everyone if customers bring their own in.

It’s common enough that it’s no longer annoying and I’ve grown my own natural response to it already. Today, though, we had an entirely new take:

  • Customer: Hi, I’m having trouble with my printer. I’ve brought my computer, can you plug it in and take a look?
  • Co-worker: Sure, have you got the printer with you as well?
  • Customer: No… don’t you have one?

I can completely understand people being ignorant about how their electronic possessions work. I’m a great example myself – I fix computers, but I couldn’t tell you what volts and electrons and transistors are for. I still think the microwave oven is some kind of voodoo trick aliens gave us to make nachos at 3AM.

But come on, would you book in your car for a service and deliver them the parcel shelf and the seat covers to examine? Are people really so afraid and ignorant of their computers they don’t even have the basic knowledge to identify what components need to be present to figure out why they can’t print?

Not that I’m calling her ignorant. I’m sure she’s just too busy to sit down and spend time learning about the device she places so much trust in.

how old computers die

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

Plenty of older computers die not because of overheating, or power surges, or your nephew fiddling with them, but because of faulty capacitors.

Wikipedia dubs the phenomenon the “capacitor plague“; at work, we just point into an open PC and say “blown caps“.

Here’s a video card I pulled from a machine at work today. It’s not hugely obvious – I actually missed it myself at first glance – but zoom in and you’ll see the two leftmost caps are actually bulging at the top.

This, frequently, isn’t completely fatal to a bit of computer hardware; I see plenty of computers that seem to work just fine with several leaky capacitors, and obviously this doesn’t just happen overnight.

Here’s the back view of the same video card:

Note the green discolouration. That’s heat damage, from a very unhappy transistor.

This was not the only problem with that particular computer. It also had faulty RAM, which combined with the video card, made it very annoying to troubleshoot.

(The heatsink had also fallen off the northbridge chip. I don’t think that actually caused any damage, but if that’s not bad juju, I don’t know what is.)

All electrolytic capacitors will eventually wear out this way, but the story surrounding the current plage involves industrial espionage and theft of formulae for new, untested capacitors. The competition put them into production early, sold them to millions of people, and a few years later tons of computers and DVD players and such just started dying.

Soltek motherboards were notorious for these early-death-prone caps; rumour has it they actually went under because of the losses they took honouring warranty for all those dead boards.

Nowadays, hardware manufacturers offer “solid caps” as a premium feature. They cost a bit more, but are supposed to last longer than normal caps; it’s a peace of mind thing.

I personally don’t see the point, because I reckon if you care enough about your hardware to know about bad capacitors you’re already going to spend the money on quality stuff in the first place. You’re also likely to upgrade your whole PC before the age of any of the components grows into failure territory, so you’re probably not the one who’s going to have to deal with it anyway.

I guess solid caps look nicer, though, and on that basis I’d spend the extra $20 if given the option. I’m that kind of geek.

It’s worth knowing about, though. The computer at work beeped like it couldn’t detect a video card at all, it’d failed that completely. A motherboard with bad caps may not be completely healthy or completely dead; it’ll be wandering some thin line in between. You don’t want something like that responsible for your family photos or your essays, now do you?