Sunday, February 25, 2007

Proverb Update

Here's a new spin on an old proverb, "Any photograph worth taking, is worth taking well."

The corollary is don't take pictures with a cell phone. I don't care how many mega pixels it has, there are fingerprints, dust and goo all over the "lens" making any shot look like the fog has rolled or nighttime has fallen.

And what is that thing they call the lens? Real lenses have focal lengths, speeds, sharpnesses, distortions, etc. A cell phone lens is not much more than a pinhole. Look at this:

It looks like a typical cell-phone photo, but it's not. It was taken with a pinhole camera! Search on for "pinhole," and you will see what I mean.

So why are cell phone manufacturers putting cameras on phones, and why are people buying them? Why are cameras more popular features than voice control and WiFi? How did cameras get to be in cell phones before music players? Manufacturers will say they are responding to consumer demand, and the marketplace is in control.

My advice would be to skip the camera phone, but that is easier said than done. So, instead, my advice is don't take pictures with it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


I love information technology, so it is hard for me to understand sometimes when others don't get it (IT?). I suppose it's like me and cars. So long as my car works, I don't know and I don't care what goes on under the hood. When it doesn't work, I take it to the shop to get fixed. In fact, I take it to the shop periodically for routine maintenance so it doesn't break down on me on the road.

Computers are not like cars, however; they are more akin to a car trip. You get in a car, and you drive to work or to the store. As long as the car is working and you know how to get where you are going, everything works fine. But if you have to go somewhere new, if there is traffic, or if you get lost, that's when a car starts to look and feel like a computer to many people.

Continuing the analogy, what separates people like me from "ordinary folks" is that we have a sense of direction (adventure?) that helps us to get where we want to go. We have been down these roads before, so we know where things are and the best way to get there. People ask us for directions, and we tell them, "Go straight until you see the oak tree, then take the third right. I think it's called Ipconfig. You go a mile or so through some lights, then you take a left. There's a sign that says, "Do not enter." You cannot miss it." But you do.

Tech support personnel have a love-hate relationship with their customers. It is nice when we can rescue people from disaster and receive thanks and appreciation for our work. On the other hand, in many cases, the "problem" is not a hardware or software problem. It is a user problem, and we cannot fix users.

Here's an example of what I am talking about. Recently, we had a customer bring his PC in for a "tune up" because it was running slow. We fire up the machine, and Bang! we are greeted with pop-up windows spawned by Norton AND McAfee which are both wrestling for control of the PC perimeter to establish security. In all likelihood, this user thought that if one security program was good, two would be better, not worse. With all that protection in place, I am sure this customer thought, "What could go wrong?"

It turns out that his machine was loaded with adware/ spyware/ malware. The only way it could have gotten there is if the user turned things off to get through the boot-up process. Or he ignored warnings from his security programs, like the boy who cried wolf, when they issued pop-ups saying, "are you sure you want to do that?"

We fixed the computer problems, but we cannot fix user problems. When his computer slows down again, which it probably will, it is likely that he will blame us for not fixing things. It hurts when you do your best and people don't appreciate it.

Techies like me are more like taxis than auto mechanics. We are taking people where they want to go, not fixing their cars. Except the people want their cars fixed, dammit, and we are taking them for a ride.

Help, I'm trapped in this analogy!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Verizon gets IT!

Recently, we had a new customer referred to us by Verizon, of all places.

The customer reports that he called Verizon because he couldn't get on the Internet. Troubleshooting the problem, Verizon tech support determined that the problem was with the customer's PC. His Internet connection was working.

Here's where the story gets interesting. The customer asked what he should do. The Verizon guy said that the customer needed to get the PC problem diagnosed and repaired. The Verizon guy told the customer, "You should NOT take the PC to a big-box electronics store. Find an independent, experienced tech-support shop instead."

Thanks for giving the man sound advice, Verizon guy. I'm happy to report that we we took good care of your/our customer, resolved his problems and got him back online.

Here's a scenario that we've seen a number of times. Someone takes their PC to the Geek Squad at Best Buy for repair. The Geek Squad says that Windows is hosed and needs to be reinstalled, which will overwrite their data, documents, photos, favorites, music, email and more. If the person cannot afford to lose this information, the Geek Squad tells the person that they have to send the machine out to a firm that specializes in data recovery ($$$).

A lucky number of people that have received this assessment from the Geek Squad have brought their PCs to us for a second opinion. We are often able to boot these PCs from a Knoppix CD, copy the personal files to a network drive, reload Windows and apps, and restore the files. Cost ~$, customers = :)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Episode 4: Optical Drives

The continuing adventures of one man's attempt to migrate his desktop PC from MS Windows to Ubuntu/Linux.

My PC has two optical drives, a CD-RW and a DVD/CD-ROM. I don't expect to use these drives often, but since I've got them, it would be nice to have them work in Ubuntu. And they do, pretty much.
  • Putting a CD-ROM in either drive puts an icon on the desktop that says, "Audio Disk" and launches the Sound Juicer player with the disk ready to play. I can listen to the CD using the default Sound Juicer or I can manually launch Rhythmbox, which I have installed, and play the CD using that.
    • If you know the command line syntax to launch your preferred media player, you can change the default as follows. Go to System/Preferences/Removable Drives and Media/Multimedia and input the appropriate command.
    • Interestingly, neither Totem nor the VLC media player can play the CD-ROM. I must not have the codec where those apps expect it to be.

  • Put a DVD in the DVD-ROM drive and nothing happens... not even a DVD icon on the desktop.
    • According to the configuration in System/Preferences/Removable Drives and Media/Multimedia, video DVDs are supposed to play when inserted using the Totem Movie Player. That doesn't happen.
      • If I manually launch Totem and select the Movie menu, Totem doesn't see the DVD-ROM drive.
    • If I go to Places/Computer, the DVD-ROM Drive icon does not show up. I have to right-click on the CD-ROM Drive icon and select Eject, after which a DVD-ROM icon pops up. (According to the Device Manager, these are IDE devices, and the CD-RW is slave to the DVD-ROM's master.) I can then double-click the DVD-ROM icon and get a list of the files on the DVD.
      • Now I can manually launch Totem, and it sees the DVD-ROM drive. If I select the DVD-ROM drive from the Movie menu, however, the result is an error message: "Failed to mount /dev/hdc."
    • VLC rides to the rescue! If you haven't done so already, you need to add this application to your system. It is described as, "the cross-platform media player and streaming server." It manages to find the DVD drive, mounts the disk and plays the movie, apparantly without relying on Ubuntu's GUI to resolve all the peculiarities of my PC. It also offers to play the disk in both "simple" mode and "menu" mode. Sweet!
    • Sometimes, I cannot get a DVD out of the DVD drive by pushing the button on the DVD drive itself once Ubuntu is charge. I have to go to Places/Computer and right-click on the DVD drive and select Eject. Of course, if the DVD drive doesn't show, I have to eject the CD-ROM drive first...
What conclusions do I draw from Episode 4? It seems that the Ubuntu GUI is a bit buggy, since it cannot figure out how to play DVDs with the configuration of optical drives that I have. Fortunately for all concerned, the VLC media player cuts through Ubuntu's muddle and shows videos.

Episodes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Episode 3: Sound Idiosyncrasies Abound

The continuing adventures of one man's attempt to migrate his desktop PC from MS Windows to Ubuntu/Linux.

On boot with the USB headset plugged in, there is a drum-tap sound that plays through the speakers when the "username" login screen appears. After logging in, the Ubuntu jingle plays through the headset. Strange...

Putting an audio CD in the CD-RW drive sets an "audio CD" icon on the desktop. Double clicking the icon launches a music player, but I hear the music through the speakers. Damn, the boss will know I'm hardly working, not working hard!
  • Checking System/Preferences/Sound reveals that the sound card (SB Live!) is the default sound card. Selecting the USB Headset and rebooting, the CD music plays through the headset. Problem solved.
    • However, rechecking the System/Preferences/Sound reveals that the sound card (SB Live!) is again the default sound card. I don't know why the music is coming from the headset now when it came from the speakers before.
Controlling the volume in the headset for the CD I am playing is problematic.
  • A single click on the "Master" volume control on the Ubuntu panel displays a slider control that does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
    • This behavior of this Master slider control holds true if I am playing the CD using either Rhythmbox or Sound Juicer.
  • In the player window, there is a control that WORKS! It does allow you to increase or decrease the overall volume in the headset.
    • This behavior of the player volume control holds true if I am playing the CD using either Rhythmbox or Sound Juicer.
But how do I control the balance and tone of the music played by Rhythmbox or Sound Juicer in the headset?
  • Trial and error disclosed that a double-click on the Master volume control on the Ubuntu panel launches an "Alsa Mixer" volume control window for the USB headset. Here I can adjust the sound volume. I can also change the balance by "unlocking the channels."
    • BTW, somewhere along the trial-and-error line I added the Alsa Mixer to the system using Add/Remove Applications.
    • I haven't found how to change sound tone yet.
I continue to believe that the issues I am having with sound are related to the sound card driver. Sound Blaster sound cards used by Dell may not be the same as the versions used by other system builders. The card that Dell used in my machine may require a different driver, one that works better than the one that Ubuntu installed for this card!?

Episodes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Episode 2: Sound

The continuing adventures of migrating from MS Windows to Ubuntu Linux. After a few days of using Ubuntu on my office desktop PC, after installing a few apps and browser plugins, I've got some issues with sounds.

With Windows, the opening "jingle" came out of the speakers when the machine booted, and various sounds played when different things happened. With Windows, if I plugged in my USB headset, no sounds went to the speakers. They went to the headset instead. When I unplugged my headset, sounds played on the speakers again. And this worked even if I plugged and unplugged my headset with the computer running. Windows figured it out. But not Ubuntu.

Here's the good news. Ubuntu successfully identified the make and model number of both my sound card and my USB headset. The issues I am having are probably driver related problems. So, you may not have the same experience I am having, if you have different hardware.
  • Without the headset plugged in, I do not hear the opening jingle when the machine boots. But, otherwise the sounds work fine, coming out of the speakers.
    • One thing I discovered through trial and error is that I didn't hear any sounds from the speakers until I had the volume control on the speakers turned up loud AND the Ubuntu sound widget volume turned up also.
  • With the headset, I do hear the opening boot-up jingle and all the sounds through the headset and not the speakers.
    • Except, there is a sound application called Gtick (a metronome) that I installed that only plays through the speakers and not the headset. In fact, I can run Gtick and hear it ticking over the speakers and run Rhythmbox (music player) and hear it playing music at the same time only in the headset. Weird.
    • Booting the computer without the headset plugged in and then plugging in the headset results in message popping up telling a new audio playback device has been detected. I can click a link in this message and go to Sound Preferences, where I see that the headset is now listed as the "Default sound card." However, all the sounds keep coming out of the speakers. Only if I reboot with the headset plugged in does the headset work.

Sound issues are a bit of a nuisance, since I now have to reboot whenever I want to listen to something over the headset. However, this is not so bad that is going to drive me away from Ubuntu.

Episodes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.