Archive for the ‘Computers will break your heart’ Category

Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the USSA

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Well, after almost a decade, the European adventure has come to a close. Who would have thought that High School French was actually useful, or that college German was more than an intellectual affectation?

After boxing up 9 years of intense experience, packing too much Ikea that was no longer so flat to pack, and multiple treasures from the Chertsey auction house, Elizabeth and I flew back to the States. For a couple months, we split our time between my parents in Cleveland, and our house and hopefully future home. I spent most of that time in Ohio, while Elizabeth supervised nest reno in NoVa. It snowed. Everywhere. A lot. Welcome home.
Heading past our back yard on Hunter Mill

By the first week of February, enough renovation had taken place in the house, which since 2001 has been rented out to children, dogs, and people who plant invasive berry canes in the vegetable garden, that we felt confident that if we moved back in we could sleep and shower. Well, at least shower in one of the baths. And who could have thought that it would take 6 months to install granite counter tops?

It actually took the moving company two separate trips. The first one saw countless boxes of things that we’d stored in 2000 when we left for Europe. Cassette players, VHS tapes, strangely out of style curtains, incandescent light bulbs (are those still legal?), and something that has increasingly become a preoccupation, boxes of negatives, slides and prints, all screaming out “Digitize me! Digitize me! Put me on the web! Make me a slide show! Print me!”

The second truckload, containing our European furniture and effects, arrived several days later. No, it does NOT all fit into one house. It included my PC. After 9 weeks apart, I was easily able to restore to service after buying a pair of new hard drives, fully reinstalling Windows from scratch, restoring all my files, and buying replacements for half the software. If it had been more than 5 years old, I would have started from scratch.

Neatly complementing the boxes of pictures from the first load, my Coolscan is sitting beside me at this moment, chewing its way through some incredible high school memories that actually will bring joy to the class of ’78. At least the scanner is dual voltage, unlike the printer I brought back from England. New vacuum cleaner, a BestBuy TV that can pick up whatever junk Verizon is spewing at us, a new printer, a pair of used cars….well, you get the picture.

Repatriation is often more difficult than expatriation–especially for families that had such positive experiences overseas. It isn’t the same place you left, and while so much is familiar and comfortable, other things are just strangely wrong. You don’t get all the jokes on SNL, and you can’t remember which states are red and which are blue (simple trick: red=left everywhere else in the world, so the US must use the opposite system). The food is good, and there’s lots of it, but where are you supposed to walk to when you live in a ‘burb?

I think everybody understand that it takes a long time to step across a pond, but for the record, we didn’t send ANY Christmas cards last year, so don’t feel bad if you didn’t get one.

Windows version what?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

What’s the matter with the OS I’m using?

“Can’t you tell that your Window’s too wide?”

Maybe I should buy some old Sidekick?

“Welcome back to the age of hive.

Where have you been hiden’ out lately, Sam?

You can’t throw trash till you spend a lot of RAM.”

Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout the new GUI,

Funny, but it’s still NT to me.

Reinstall: A pain in the Microsoft Windows

Friday, January 9th, 2009

I took an extra long vacation this winter, from Dec 22 until Jan 4.  I needed that many days so I’d have some undisturbed time to reinstall XP on my home computer. This is just one of the normal rituals necessary when using the world’s most popular operating system. Historically, I’ve done it every year or two, once the computer gets painfully slow and unreliable.

I managed to go almost 3 years without having to do it.  My machine  just got slower, and slower, and less reliable. I couldn’t hear sound on YouTube (big loss, there), the slot wouldn’t read CF cards from my DSLR, a couple peripherals wouldn’t work in some USB ports, strange install scripts would kick off for no apparent reason.  It’s a weirdness that gives Microsoft products their own special random charm.

A reinstall is when you hope you know where you’ve put everything on your PC, you open up the box, you hose out the 2 inches of dust that the 4 fans collected, you put in new drives that will hold another 6 months of RAW files, you reinstall Windows, and then you do your best to restore all your data (neatly ruining useful meta data).  Once you are sure it is running correctly, and is faster and more reliable than it has ever been, you  spend a solid two days carefully reinstalling all your software, just to slow it all back down again and introduce random errors and internal conflicts.

Then you spend a couple weeks reinstalling the stuff that you didn’t know you didn’t have.

Windows is especially challenging because you can’t just pick up stuff and move it. Unlike Apple’s OS, Linux, Xenix, Unix, and other efficient, reliable, and easily-administered computer operating systems, Microsoft consistently avoided design facilitating intuitive decisions about system operation. With a normal OS,  if you want to move somebody’s files, you just pick them up and move them. If you want to move an application, you pick it up and move it. If you want to delete temporary files, you delete them.  Windows just throws all that stuff together–in three entirely different places, one of which is not visible to mortals. You can’t just move it–you need to do a planned migration.

How did this happen, you might ask?  Well, it is actually very simple: (more…)

DAM PCs: Configuring Adobe Lightroom for Dad

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

I spent 2 days of my vacation configuring Adobe Lightroom on my dad’s laptop. We are members of a unique generation, having been forced the hard way to learn how to coddle and configure computers, our parents are totally dependent upon us to ensure that they can send jokes and urban legend links to their retired friends. Our kids use Macs, and don’t need to know how they work, and don’t care.

Configuring Lightroom on my own PC in Feb 07, and actively using it ever since gave me some painful but useful lessons in Digital Asset Management (DAM), that were reinforced thru my experiences helping Dad actually make use of his year old license. He didn’t feel sufficiently motivated to do more than dabble with it, relying on Bridge CS3, although he actually has over 10,000 digital images. Believe me, if you have over 10K photos, you need some sort of DAM software. And you need to be comfortable with the way computers work in order to plan your asset management strategy (and fix it when you get it wrong).

Starting from a Mess

Over the years, Dad had been collecting external hard drives like baseball cards.When I arrived, he had 3 of them connected to his laptop–1 for ‘up to 2006’, 1 for ‘mostly 2007’ and 1 for ‘mostly 2008’. Some directories were duplicated, but nothing was actually backed up. When I finally finished, he had a coherent storage process, and a consistent backup process.

Consolidating and Simplifying

We bought an additional external drive (yes, a 4th one), so we’d have one for a backup. We retired 2 of the drives, making sure that the H: drive had copies of all the pictures, and the backup drive, in conjunction with the two smaller retired drives, between them had a copy of all the pictures, too. I took the biggest drive, and consolidated all the pictures on it, creating directories:

H:\2006
H:\2007
H:\2007
H:\SubjectX
H:\SubjectY
H:\SubjectZ

The last 3 names are just meant to represent several subject specific directories that I created for themes Dad repeats consistently. A series of event directories ended up in each of the years, which is the same system I use. I’ve found its reasonably easy to locate specific events and subjects, even if I have 50 or so a year. People who shoot hundreds of pages a day, and have bunches of subjects, usually setup Lightroom to automatically download files into the hierarchy Year\Month\Date. It really doesn’t matter how you organize files on your hard drive, because Lightroom mostly hides those implementation details from you. Just be consistent so you can access them outside of Lightroom if you need them.

Importing Into Lightroom’s Catalog

At this point, I made a tactical error. Instead of importing everything on H:\ into Lightroom, I imported each of the directories on H:\. This meant that it was impossible to create any directory at the top level, at least using the Navigator in Lightroom (yes, I can think of several ways to do it, but why burden Dad with that?). So I rearranged the catalog such that it started at the top of the drive. Now Dad can periodically right click on H:\ in the Navigator, choose ‘Synchronize,’ and be sure that no matter what he might of have done in Bridge, it’ll get picked up and incorporated.

The New Photo Download Process

To download pictures, Dad connects both the backup and the H: drive to his laptop. I configured Adobe Lightroom so that it automatically starts the Import process whenever a Flash card is inserted. Dad chooses the directory he wants the files imported into, and leaves the rest of the configuration alone. Its set to copy the files onto his H: drive, and copy a backup onto the other external drive. When he’s done, he disconnects the backup drive. He’s under strict instructions to not do any editing of files on that drive.

He leaves the keyword field blank. Or at least that’s what I told him to do. I find that its far too easy to inadvertently leave keywords from a previous import, putting spurious meta data into your pictures. Keyword in Grid View after you’ve got them all imported. That’s one of the tricks to Lightroom, making sure that you’ve put enough meta data into your pictures so that you can find them. I’ve got a bunch of presets for setting location, and a couple for setting the creator field. I can locate everything I’ve done for the past 5 years by country, state/county, and (usually) city. I keyword them heavily. Personally, I like to give them unique names that at least summarize the place or event, but I try not to rely on file names as a way to locate files. Its just too clumsy.

Because Dad still anticipates making heavy use of Bridge, I setup Lightroom so that it always makes XMP sidecar files for his NIKON RAW files. This way, Bridge and Lightroom can share the same ACR settings, along with keywords, color labels, etc. (Using DNG would arguably be cleaner, but that’s another discussion.)

When I left, Dad was sorting thru his pictures, tagging them and occasionally moving them–all within Lightroom. He can easily sort them by time (no, I didn’t show him how to edit the capture time of scanned photos), and is well on his way towards finding his favorites based on rating, and subject. Once you’ve done the planning, config, and initial import, your most of the way there. As long as you discipline yourself to put in the meta data, you, and your descendents, will always be able to find the right photo.

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Not Quicken enough: does KeyBank have human employees?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

After all my struggles getting USAA and Chase configured with my instantiation of Quicken, you might wonder why I bothered to add my KeyBank checking account, given that it’s a small one we only have the because its a requirement for having a safety deposit box. But, I’d sent away for a PIN last Fall, and as long as I was on a roll, I figured I might as well try it out.

The enrollment only took about 5 minutes. How cool is that? The shocker was learning that since receiving the PIN, I had been dinged $3.95 every MONTH for an online banking fee (the price goes up if you press the download button more than 15 times a month). How greedy is that? I know that banks are making more money from fees than from banking, so to speak, but I’m still surprised that Key is charging almost $50 a year for something that allows them to fire more tellers and saves them the expense of mailing me paper statements.

I phoned them up, and canceled the Quicken support. They said I could use web-based banking at no additional charge, so I started the online enrollment process.

Elizabeth came into the room just as I was confronted with the inevitable request to read and agree to the legal verbiage. We were both pleasantly surprised that it was only a small screen in length, and was written in real English. Elizabeth said there would surely be a clause in which they impose arbitration on us in case of disputes, but it wasn’t there.

Elizabeth was right after all.

Once I accepted the first agreement, I was immediately confronted with the following request followed by 4 links and 2 buttons:

By selecting the Accept button below, I:

1. certify that I can view the Account Disclosures and Agreements set forth above and am able to save and print them for future review,

2. acknowledge reading and receiving all Account Disclosures and Agreements,

3. agree to and intend to be bound by the following terms and conditions contained in the Disclosures and Agreements provided above.

At this point, I turned cynical again. The 4 links, apparently the ‘all Account Disclosures and Agreements’ were entitled:

I did try to read them. Guess what? They not only contained the arbitration clause, they included the following:

Pages

90

Words

47,877

Characters

253,614

Paragraphs

923

Lines

3,754

What reasonable expectation would any human being have that another human being would at this point sit down and read 90 pages of legalese just in order to use vanilla banking services? What normal human would carefully sift through 47,877 words of gibberish? It took a quarter million characters for Key to dump their risks onto my lap. I’ve had lawyers tell me that I should read these things, but consider that moderately wired Yanks and Brits get one of these a week from a financial intuition, a software vendor, or some other well-lawyered firm that wants to reduce their risk at your expense.

If you don’t agree to sucking up whatever these bullies are inflicting on their so-called customers, what is your choice? Should you open up an account at another bank and then start the online enrollment prices to see if it is intended for human use? Whenever a bank does make a mistake, sending you a letter to inform you that they’ve lost your personal information and you might be at increased risk of identity theft, they consider their responsibility over. We sent you 5 pages on our privacy policy in an envelope that was filled full of advertising for a loan that you didn’t need.

The truth is, I lied. I pressed the button saying that I can and did read these, but I probably cannot and certainly did not. This is the state that lawyers have put us in today–forcing us to lie in order to participate in our economy. And they wonder why we make jokes about them. Are they laughing all the way to my bank?

What human being actually participated in the creation of a Kafkaesque system like this? I’m eager to hear someone defend it. If you did, then put your comments below, so we can all read why this is so beneficial for ordinary people.

Does everyone spend 2 hrs getting Quicken downloads to work?

Monday, July 21st, 2008

I like having comprehensive records, so I use Quicken, but I dread the inevitable changes in financial system accounts that will mean phoning a ‘support’ number and begging them for help getting their statement downloaded.

I started using a modem connection to Columbus in 1994 for bill paying and credit card statements. For my Sovran, I mean my NationsBank, I mean my BankofAmerica account, along with my investments, I kept a big stack of paper statements on my desk, which I manually typed into Quicken once or twice a year, or before I did my income tax, whichever happened first. As retirement accounts multiplied, as financial service firms bought each other, as securities spun out subsidiaries, split, renamed, went out of business, etc, at an ever-increasing rate, it became more and more complex to manually type in all that stuff. I knew that someday it would all be electronic, and life would be easy.

A couple years ago, financial service firms started falling all over each other to support Quicken. Living in Europe, with accounts in the USA, paperless online accounts were especially appealing, so I paid my bi-annual tax to Quicken, twice, updating to a version that almost all of my financial service firms promised to support. After a couple weeks of diligent work, virtually my entire portfolio of mutual funds, savings accounts, and credit cards could be automatically downloaded into Quicken.

I was downloading from USAA the hard way, logging into their web site and manually downloading files that would launch the actual Quicken download. I had to do one for the cash accounts, and another for Elizabeth’s IRA. Every time I did it, Quicken patiently suggested that I setup one step download. Wanting to avoid the hassle of setting up a login and PIN that was different from the web site login, I avoided this for 18 months. USAA is a wonderful company–everyone should marry a military brat and get access to their services–but Quicken is Quicken. Even if you know that you are going to be speaking to polite and intelligent people whose native language is almost English (best way to learn a language is in bed, which is why I understand Texan), it is still going to be painful. If Intuit hadn’t yet again forced me to change my Quicken credit card account yet again, I would have limped along with USAA indefinitely.

So Quicken takes their logo away from Travelers, I mean Citi, and gives it to Chase Manhattan, I mean Chemical Bank, I mean JP Morgan Chase, which sends snail mail to the address that I explicitly was NOT using because I had electronic statements. Note from the photo that they take credit for holding my account for all 14 years. 6 weeks later, when I figure this out, I crank up Quicken, and it immediately offers to download an update, which I accept. After getting the update, I initiate a one-step download, resulting in a message from my new Quicken card provider explaining that I need to follow certain steps before I update Quicken. It includes a pointer to a Chase web site that doesn’t exist. Using Google, I find the document from Chase explaining how to convert my credit card account in Quicken. After getting a fatal error half way thru that process, I phone up the Chase phone number provided as part of the Quicken update, which actually rings thru to Citi, who give me Chase’s number.

I can hardly understand the non-native English speaker who asks me if I’ve done everything that I was supposed to do. When I say yes, she transfers me. 10 minutes later, the system hangs up on me. I phone back in, this time they lead me through by the hand. Eventually, I get Quicken connected, although there are no transactions to download, because I just got the card last week.

I try one last time to get our USAA accts to update the new way. It barfed, and after fussing with it for 30 mins, I figured I might as call USAA. When I explain that I’m not Elizabeth, they very politely told me that I needed to get my own login (to see the exact same info). I get that. It still doesn’t work, and I phone back. After we try a couple things, the support person suggests that I try to update a different USAA account, and suddenly, all the funny corrupted messages are gone, and the connection goes through. Even better, it updates savings, checking, and the CDs within Quicken.

So, now I’ve got one-step update to all our US accounts, except Elizabeth’s USAA IRA, which for obscure reasons I still need to download the old fashioned way (Quicken scolds me with “You are already downloading all the accounts for this account number” which isn’t the case at all–I’m downloading all the accounts for MY account number, not Elizabeth’s).

And of course, none of this works with my UK accounts. I’ve got 2 pensions from my first employer here (still using the same name, but I worked for HQ), one of which just moved to a new provider, but my second employer (just acquired for second time) didn’t help with retirement at all. My current employer (just buys other companies) mostly has only 1 pension, but they switched providers and for reasons that I’ve never figured out, I actually have 2 accounts with them–or is it 3. I still enter that stuff manually.

How did we ever get along without PCs? Could I have possibly accomplished all this in less than 110 minutes the old fashioned way?

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