Archive for the ‘Computers’ category

Making the Connection

August 29, 2007


Our internet connection has been a trifle temperamental of late. This represents an enormous problem for someone so devoted (?) to the task of regular blogging. Understand: our wireless arrangement has always needed the odd bit of focused persuasion to do its job properly, but would usually only require of a frustrated would-be internet user that they right-click on the little network icon in the bottom right, and left-click on ‘repair’. A panacea for all connectivity complaints.

Things took a turn for the worse recently, and it all started with our CD/DVD drive. One day, it decided that it would point-blank refuse to play (or indeed acknowledge) any DVD that wasn’t either Aliens or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This amusingly selective deficiency did not extend to CDs, on which it seemed to have imposed a blanket refusal policy. And so, I gathered my faculties for an expedition to PC World.

For those who have ever actually asked the immortal question ‘where in the world is PC World?’, you’d have no problem spotting the enormous, lilac aberration that represents the Corstorphine branch. It’s only once you’re inside that the real problems begin. The moment I pass through the entrance turnstile, I am confronted with the vivid reality of my technological ignorance. Most of the things in PC World I simply do not understand. This may come as a surprise to some, particularly those who thought my genius extended even unto the realm of computing. To me, a Quick-Start manual reads like quantum physics.

With an affected air of confidence, I strode (via every possible aisle) to the CD/DVD section. On witnessing the myriad choices available, I realised I would need to obtain assistance from one of the pallid youths that represent the PC World staff. This was quite difficult in itself. My first strategy was to stand still, whilst arranging my face into a suitable ‘help me’ expression. Nothing doing. Next, I decided to amble around in the general direction of the lilac-shirted, but whenever I was in speaking distance they seemed to sense that I was about to make demands of them, and would scurry away. Eventually, I homed in on a small group of employees. They duly dispersed at my approach, but I managed to isolate a slower individual from the rest of the pack, and corner them against the printer cartridges.

I escorted this chap back to the CD/DVD section, as I gave him a rundown of my problem. He agreed with my astute diagnosis (“Yep. Sounds like it’s knackered”) before directing me to the most appropriate (i.e. cheapest) replacement drive. Concerned as to how it might be made to function, I piped up with what I hoped was an endearing innocence:

‘I suppose you just plug it in and away you go?’

‘No, no’, said he. ‘This is an internal one. It goes inside the computer. Do you want one that just sits by the side?’

‘Is that better?’ I asked.

‘Not really. More expensive. But you don’t need to take your computer apart to install it, which some people prefer’. He had me pegged, obviously.

That shan’t be a problem’, I blustered. ‘I suppose it’s, um, easy enough?’

‘Yep, it’s a doddle’.

‘When you say a doddle, would I be able to do it?’ I hoped he would read between the lines.

‘It’s like this,’ he said, clearly tiring of my thinly-disguised ineptitude. ‘There’s two wires to plug in at the back. One’s small. One’s big. If you can’t tell them apart, I’d say that a broken CD/DVD drive’s the least of your worries.’

So that was it. I’d been goaded into purchasing something I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to get working. And in order to look at the instructions, I would need to break open the box and thus render the purchase irrevocable.

A note for would-be computer enthusiasts. There is almost certainly a way of opening up your computer without the aid of a screwdriver and splinters of plastic flying in all directions. I was as surprised as you to discover it after an extremely effortful half-hour. Check your manual for details.

Anyway, I got in, and yes, the two wires were in there, and yes, I could readily distinguish them. I swapped the broken drive for the new one, put everything back together, and booted up. Luckily, Windows is usually clever enough to automatically install the software (some call it a ‘driver’) needed to run whatever bit of new kit you’ve just plugged in. What’s less clever is that it seems to assume all your existing bits of kit can be elbowed out of the way to make room for the newcomer. Thus I discovered that the introduction of the new CD/DVD drive had somehow knocked our internet connection for six. Is there no end to it?

Eventually, it was all made to function again, but I had to carry the whole computer upstairs to the access point (where the internet cable comes into the house) and start from scratch with the ol’ wireless. Everything’s working much better now, though.

A more taxing problem turned out to be the issue of removing a forgetten CD from a broken CD/DVD drive, once the drive is out of your computer and sitting on your kitchen table. Try it for yourself, using only kitchen implements. Sounds easy…

Just To Help Us Out

April 17, 2007

At the risk of sounding like a tired-out observational comedy post, have you ever noticed / isn’t it annoying (delete as applicable) that whenever an organisation attempts to further their own interests at the expense of yours, they make it sound like you ought to be grateful.

We’ve already hinted at this practice with Lothian Buses. Just to remind you, they span their 25% price hikes as a favour to customers tired of having to root around for the right change.

The other day, I was tootling along on my computer (blogging probably) when a message from Microsoft popped up, advising me to get a free software upgrade. One of the things it wanted me to install was something called Microsoft Genuine Advantage, which would allow me to obtain the full functionality and security of legitimately licensed and distributed software. In practice, I would judge that the sole purpose of the software is to sound an alarm in Bill Gates’s office should a pirated copy of Windows be detected.

I’m all for buying legitimate software incidently, but why try to promote something like Genuine Advantage as anything other than what it is: a clampdown on copied software. We’re not daft.

Then again, maybe we are. Maybe that’s why our banks keep sending us booklets about the ‘important changes’ to our accounts, in which the details of increased penalty charges are inobtrusively buried. Of course, all this is to ensure that ‘customers continue to receive a first class service’. Not in order that shareholders can receive a hearty pat on the wallet, then.

I could go on. In fact, I think I will.

I was in the Post Office the other day, whereupon I read that a new queuing system had been instituted ‘to enable staff to deliver an efficient and high-quality service’. I’ve no quibble with this, particularly. However, when I got to the counter, I fell victim to the new Royal Mail pricing scheme. You know the one – it takes into account the weight and size of your parcel, combining these with some mysterious hocus-pocus in order to come out with a rather inflated fee for postage. But make no mistake: this is not about Royal Mail trying to increase revenue by the back door. It’s in order to make things fairer for us, the customers. That it always tends to cost me more is just a co-oincidence, seemingly.

Let me conclude with an interesting flipside. When companies really do have our best interests at heart, they try to cover it up. Have you ever noticed that, when your plane takes off or lands at night, the cabin crew dim the lights ‘as is standard practice’. Ever wondered why they do this? Apparently, if your plane were to crash and you needed to get out sharpish, your eyes would find it easier to adjust to the darkness outside if you were not coming from a brightly lit environment.

Why on earth wouldn’t airline staff tell us the truth about light-dimming? I think it’s a very sensible precaution, now that I’ve had it explained to me. In fact, I think that it demonstrates a far greater concern for passengers than most of what the airline staff tell us is for our benefit.

Absolutely No Help

January 26, 2007


Technology, eh? I know it’s very smart, but why is it always trying to muscle in on our lives? It appears that, whatever we do, some hi-tech brand of help is never far away, and invariably wants a piece of the action.

Nowadays, I cannot even type a letter without some obsequious animated paperclip fawning all over me. I am always given the option to “just type the letter without help”, but clicking it seems a bit rude, somehow. Perhaps we are hard-wired to be very polite when offered help. You can almost hear the petulant ‘tut’ as your would-be assistant mopes back into the bowels of the computer. Still, he needs to be told.

The last time I typed a letter, I included in it the address of the person about whom I was writing, and was intrigued by the appearance of a little information icon by their address. Thinking I had unwittingly typed in an address with particular significance to Microsoft (maybe Bill Gates once lived there, or something) I clicked on it. Microsoft Office then offered to give me directions to the address, in the event that I should wish to abandon my letter and pay the person a visit instead (not likely). Fascinated, I thought I’d call its bluff and give it a click, upon which the whole system gave an audible cough and keeled over. Ha!

Technology promises so much, but each development in technological intelligence seems to be accompanied by a certain deterioration of our own.

It would be churlish not to mention Satellite Navigation Systems here. These are everywhere, as are the cautionary tales of what can happen when their suggestions are allowed to replace common sense. Only this morning, I read of a lady who, in dilligently following the instructions of her Sat Nav, found herself driving for some distance along an active railway line. Oops.

We mustn’t switch off our brains as we switch on our gadgets. Otherwise we’ll all end up like this next poor chap. The Weirton Daily Times ran a story a couple of years back, about an unfortunate Oklahoma chump who, thinking he would test the capabilities of the cruise control feature in his new Winnebago, set his crusing speed to 70mph and ‘calmly left the driver’s seat to go into the back and make himself a cup of coffee’. Luckily (for him) Winnebago were found to be to blame for the inevitable carnage, since they hadn’t warned him of the likely outcome of such a course of action.

Of course, they had recognised the limitations of the technology, but had (mistakenly, as it turned out) assumed that others would too.

I say just stick to the pedals. Press down equals go fast. Simple. And just write your letters with a pen. And learn to read a paper map. All this artificial assistance just complicates things.

The Autistic Spectrum

January 2, 2007


Readers, I am beside myself.

I apologise that this post will only appeal to a select few. Bear with me, the rest of you.

The other day, I received an email from my Invernesian pal Jamie, with an attached picture labelled ‘Deliverance’. Expecting a light-hearted depiction of certain fun and games on the banks of the Cahulawasee (above-left), I opened it up in haste. I was confronted with the image above-right.

Depicted are the only 1000 copies of The ZX Spectrum Book 1982 – 199x in existence, one of which has been earmarked for your humble author. The order went in about a year ago, and has finally borne sweet, sweet fruit.

Might I be allowed a brief moment to reminisce about the ZX Spectrum? This loveable beast was a small, rubber-keyed affair, which you would connect to your television, a tape recorder and a temperamental power pack via a snake-pit of wires that would have fire-safety inspectors turning green at the gills. If you were feeling brave, you could try loading up a game. To do this, you would type in the mysterious incantation LOAD””, then pop the desired cassette into the tape recorder, and press Play. With luck, the game would be loaded after five minutes of tuneful digitised chuntering. During this time, you would sometimes be treated with a ‘loading screen’ to stave off boredom, and also to distract you from the possibility that the whole loading process could go belly-up at any moment.

A reasonable proportion of the time, you would then be playing a game. These were tremendously exciting in their own right, but imagine the extra tension generated by the fact that one nudge of the powerpack would reset the whole kit n’ kaboodle, and you would have to start again. Magic.

Anyway, I’m rambling now. I expect I’ll return to this topic at some point. Y’know, just to finish it off.

In the meantime, interested parties (perhaps the plural is a bit optimistic) may wish to visit the excellent World of Spectrum website to get themselves a ZX Spectrum emulator and a handful of the oldies to while away a quiet afternoon. Others may wish to take a closer look at the book that started this errant waffle, in which case they should head over here. The real die-hards will want to look at the RZX Archive, which contains loads of demonstrations which can be played on an emulator. You might even spot an entry from your humble author, in which he can be seen completing Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.