06 February 2006

Chaos Manor Wash Park

One of my dad's old computer magazines, Byte, had a column called Chaos Manor by Jerry Pournelle that described the trials and tribulations of life, a healthy portion of which involved trying to keep a set of computers running, and life hasn't changed that much in twenty years or so of computing. The rest of the magazine was utterly incomprehensible to a layperson (and quite frankly, I don't think my dad read those stories with much comprehension either), but the Chaos Manor column did ring true every time. (Pournelle still runs a blog based on the column which takes voluntary contributions and is syndicated through some online versions of the magazine.) My generation's do it yourselfers fix computers instead of cars and face essentially the same challenges. They did oil changes. We root out computer viruses.

Here in Washington Park, the challenge is to keep my laptop, two desktop computers, a Wi-Fi network running off a DSL connection, three printers (a laser, an inkjet and a photoprinter), two digital cameras from different companies, a web cam, and several kinds of storage media and displays operating harmoniously. On occasion, one or more of these computers needs to interact with other people's computers, generally via e-mail or the web.

Over time, I've made a number of strategic decisions to move this along. At one point we had a Mac, a Windows 2000 machine and a Windows XP machine. This was too hard. Now, all three computers run Windows XP, which isn't necessarily the best operating system. Windows XP is far less reliable than Macs or Linux, and is more prone to evil software (and has numerous annoying features and hogs memory), but it is consistent across all of the computers in the house and is also what I use in the office. I've also stuck with the genuine Microsoft Office programs, rather than open source alternatives or Microsoft Works or Wordperfect, for the same limited brain power reasons -- I need to use MS Office at work, and don't want to have to do something different at home. Open Office or Microsoft Works would be free, and Workperfect is actually much easier to control formatting in, but compatibility and the desire to learn only one program are hard masters.

We've essentially banished 3.5" disks from our system (along with the VCR tapes that were obsolete when we replaced our dead VCR machine with a DVD player), and the residual Zip drive will probably be the next to go, even though the Zip drive interface and data writing speed are far superior to CD-ROMs, which are on all of the computers in the house. The Zip drive has been superseded by a USB drive which has comparable performance and doesn't require us to purchase a separate Zip drive for every computer in the house.

This weekend, after weeks of frustration with the speed of the internet connection on one of the desktops, we upgraded the wireless network from the "b" version which transmits at 11 megabytes per second, to the "g" version which transmits at 54; established a password in an effort to control any speed loss due to poaching (after spending considerable time trying to figure out what passwords were allowed in a hexidecimal key); installed a free anti-spyware program recommended by Microsoft (which didn't appear to find any spyware); did a virus scan using updated virus definitions (which didn't find any viruses); emptied all offline content and temporary internet files; uninstalled a number of promotional programs that we've never used that came with the computer; and emptied the recycling bin. We have also recently changed DSL providers from Earthlink (which charged too much and failed even after receiving a couple of complaint calls to honor the deal we were signed up for originally) to Qwest, and this was the weekend we officially installed the software that stated that it was activating our new account and called Earthlink to shut down the old one. Which of those steps helped, I have no idea. Maybe, the frequent restarts of the problem computer as various programs and hardware were installed was the key. But, by the end of the weekend the recalcitrant computer was working and the lightbulb in the room with the computer which had burned out as I was working on it had been replaced as well.

The world of digital photography has proven less promising in the past week or so. On the good side, we have figured out how to print from both of our cameras, despite their differing memory card formats, directly to the photoprinter, and can also upload photos from the cameras to two of the computers in the house. On the down side, printing from photos on a computers to the photoprinter is more problematic. The photoprinter, the web cam, and each of the cameras come with their own set of photo managing software, in addition to the software built into Windows XP to start with, and getting them all to cooperate has proven to be more of a chore than expected. So, that's next weekend's project.

Still, at the moment, the home system has fewer glitches than the work in progress which is the office system which everyone who works there collectively shepherds, so I can't complain.

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