Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Clouded Judgement"

The definition of cloud computing is a bit hard to clearly define, as it's already so intertwined in our daily computing experience. For the purpose of this discourse let's say it's your computer application running on somebody else's server, accessed via the internet.  To a certain extent I believe this concept has considerable merit, for instance "Google Documents" would come in handy if you were traveling while writing a book,  editing magazine articles or a blog, you could access the documents from any internet capable device, virtually anywhere in the world on anyone's equipment, very convenient.

"Pandora One" on the iPad Nano
If you use Picasa  or Photobucket, both a nice way to share photos with friends and family, you're cloud computing. I personally use Picasa for the images on this humble little blog. And of course lets not forget the awesome "YouTube" experience or my current fondness for the amazing iPod Touch and many of it's cloud dependent apps. Imagine being able to access your own "virtual desktop" on any computer, while traveling, or at a friend or relatives house. There are already vendors supplying cloud based virtual desktop applications such as "Cloudo" (still in beta), or "icloud", offering a free online computer with desktop, applications and storage (3 GB. free). I've subscribed to both and while they're each still a bit buggy and slow, they do convey a decent idea of the concept. This certainly presents some interesting possibilities for a business user or student, or as a supplement to an existing system. As it's necessary to have some type of device to access "the cloud", and being limited to the public library or a smart phone isn't going to cut it, I definitely don't want to give up my laptop just yet.
Of course if anything unfortunate happened to the laptop,... with the cloud, I'd still be in business.

                                  The icloud "Virtual Desktop"

However.......while the storage of user data on remote servers is not new, the current emphasis on and expansion of cloud computing warrants a more careful look at its actual and potential privacy and confidentiality consequences. Who else has access to my files, documents, photos, you know, the ones I don't share publicly? What type of "end user license agreement" (EULA) did I enter into with my cloud service provider? What rights do they have with regards to my personal documents, files, photos? If I want to drop their service do they keep copies of my stuff on their system? Have you seen the recently disputed Facebook EULA?

 It reads in part:

"By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time".

What the?..... Does that mean what I think it means?

That's right folks, "they" want to own everything "you" post on their servers. If you're a songwriter or a professional photographer you might want to think twice about posting your stuff on Facebook or any other social networking site for that matter. The way I read it they could even sell your personal photos for commercial advertising purposes under these terms (by incorporating into "other works"). Cool, I could unknowingly appear in a "Preparation H" magazine ad or something... (I think I even know which photo they would use)....

If you think that you're the Facebook customer, you've got it, well, ... a little backwards... You are the commodity they are selling. Your personal information, web habits, interests or whatever information they can glean from your postings. (no it's not just the little ads that they want you to look at). Have you paid them anything? Someone certainly has. You don't think they're supplying all that "free" computer infrastructure because the world, or at least your 527 "close personal friends" needs to know if  "Your Royal Majesty" had a bad hair day, or that your every little personal utterance is of national significance, do you?  Once again,  "There's no such thing as Free"

Now I don't know about you, but I really don't want every personal document, email, photo, every idea or invention I'm working on, every song I'm writing or whatever, my every freakin keystroke, sitting on someone else's system. I'm sure the cloud service provider and all of their employees are honest and possess bulletproof integrity right?  None of them would ever sell or use any of my personal information for their own personal gain or profit would they?


You've probably heard about the latest Wikileaks debacle?
 I believe I'm only personally referenced a couple of times in the Wiki-leaked information, dealing with my interactions with "Secretary of State" Clinton...
( Hi Hillary, hit me up on my cell later baby, the usual time...)

Even if you aren't hiding some dark personal secret or haven't yet secured the patent rights to the atomic fusion reactor you're building in the basement, do you want to be tied to an underpowered computer that relies on a web connection and the providers version of software applications for most if not all of your computing needs? I'm not even a fan of online back up services, with the price and variety of memory types currently available, why in the heck would anyone want to back up to an offsite storage facility, ( possibly for a large business ) entrusting access to all of your personal files to whoever works at said facility. If your worried about your house burning down and destroying your info, why not back up to a trusted family members system and vice versa. Or keep a set of discs in a fireproof safe...

A Few "Cloud Computing" Tips for the Private Citizen :

  • Read the Terms of Service before placing any information in the cloud. If you don’t understand the Terms of Service, consider using a different cloud provider. 
  • Don’t put anything in the cloud you would not want the government or a private litigant to see.
  • Pay close attention if the cloud provider reserves rights to use, disclose, or make public your information.
  • Read the privacy policy before placing your information in the cloud. If you don’t understand the policy, consider using a different provider.
  • When you remove your data from the cloud provider, does the cloud provider still retain rights to your information? If so, consider whether that makes a difference to you.
  • Will the cloud provider give advance notice of any change of terms in the terms of service or privacy policy?

 Although, I do kind of like the idea of having as much personal data as possible compiled and readily available for my "Big Brother" to access in case they feel the need to implement a "Police State" for my own personal well being. After all, what if I've unknowingly been doing or thinking about something they consider dangerous or subversive? This could allow them to step in and protect me, from myself. These are the fine folks who safeguard my Social Security and have dedicated their time and energy to insuring  the integrity of our national borders from threats both foreign and domestic. Hey, I heard they even built some kind of fence to protect us. Muchas gracias idiotas...

                                            "FlySafe Technology"
                      ( brought to you by The American Cancer Society )

Why these dedicated public servants care enough about me to have devised and implemented a way to protect me, by bombarding me with backscatter X-rays,  and are even willing to carefully examine my "package" for explosives before allowing me to board an airplane, insuring that I'll land safely in Vegas with fully functioning reproductive organs.
(and under the complete illusion of security too). I trust them implicitly.... Anyway, privacy is highly overrated...

 Please don't be alarmed by the moisture currently condensing @ the bottom of your computer monitor, it's just the Sarcasm dripping off of the above paragraphs and shouldn't damage your equipment in any way...( but, if you wouldn't mind signing the Peabody EULA @ the bottom of the page relinquishing me of any responsibility,...  just in case, I'd appreciate it...Oh, and don't forget to enter your S.S. number and Mastercard information for our records, thanks...)

        "The Peabody Perspective" / Certified U.S. Cyber Command Secure

Friday, November 26, 2010

Virtual Minimalism...

Desktop Detritus...The joys of removing it...

  As an electronic technician with experience interacting with a wide array of communications equipment and a mind numbing variety of consumer electronics, I began to understand and appreciate the importance of a well designed "user interface". The most superbly engineered and robustly constructed  device could be looked upon as a piece of junk if the operator can't easily comprehend how to use the darn thing.

Even on old analog equipment, a well laid out series of buttons and knobs dramatically affected performance and usability. Putting a dedicated camera button on the keyboard of a cell phone for quick access can be extremely helpful in certain "need it now" situations. ( ever miss a great photo op while wading through layered menus to activate the camera? )

 You've most likely had an experience with a television, dvd player, cell phone or other some device that had a ridiculously confusing or complicated "on screen menu" or poorly laid out remote control. It can make or break the experience.  In my opinion, the simpler the better. Getting ticked off every time you want to make an adjustment or activate a certain feature probably isn't what you bought the P.O.S. for in the first place.

 The computer desktop is the principal interface between the user and all of the programs and functions the system is capable of, and you actually have control over how it's laid out. (to some extent anyway).

  For myself, this means finding a balance between optimum functionality and maintaining a neat minimalist appearance. The ability to have quick, easy access to the most used programs, websites and functions without the desktop looking like a confusing  jumble of 100's of seldom used icons splattered about. I know more than a few folks who have a desktop containing the icons of every single program installed on the system since "day 1", including all the trialware, bloatware, and every single added program since then.

             This type of obfuscation of the desktop borders on the criminal...

 You can do a couple of things here. Use the desktop clean up feature and delete all the unused or seldom used icons and  put the rest in categorized folders on the desktop.( aligning the folders in such a way as not to obscure the artistic intent of the underlying wallpaper, for crying out loud.) Keep in mind that deleting a desktop icon will not delete the program itself, it's still accessible via the Windows programs list.

If you like the old school "icon" style desktop but would like to get things organized, you might try Stardock's "Fences" program..

                               "Desktop with Fences and Objectdock"

 My personal solution is to get rid of them completely. That's right, you heard me... Just right click any unused space on the desktop ( if you can find one ), mouse over "View" and uncheck the "show desktop icons" box... Aaahhh, that's better don't you think?

The Dock:                             

 It's no wonder docks have become so popular, they're a very simplistic and straightforward way to interact with the system. An Apple fanboy I'm not, but as an early proponent of the dock style interface on the Mac's OS X,  as well as the amazingly intuitive controls on their other products, I think they're on to something here.

"Objectdock" is a current favorite for Windows and the newly released 2.0 free version has some functional improvements such as an integrated battery meter and the weather docklet now updates reliably and displays the correct days of the week, although the menu system seems a bit more confusing than the previous version. A dock is basically an aesthetically pleasing, customizable and more robust version of the Windows quicklaunch toolbar.

One admirable feature of the dock is the ability to easily select icons that have some personal recognition factor or meaning to the user. There are tons of nice custom icons on the net, or you can make your own. Just select an image, and with a few minutes cropping and resizing ( sometimes longer ) and you've got it. The majority of my personal icons were created this way...


Desktop Backgrounds:

 The foundation on which your custom interface is built. Your own personal artistic statement. From a favorite photo to one of the zillions of beautiful desktop backgrounds available for free on the net, the options are limited only by your imagination.

A couple of Peabody's favorite wallpaper sites :

A). Digital Blasphemy : Ryan Bliss's computer digital art is just incredible. He's been around for many years now and he just keeps getting better. "DB" offers a selection of free wallpapers, with a subscription service to access the rest of his vast collection of brilliant work. ( a must see in my opinion ).

                                              "Digital Blasphemy"

B). InterfaceLift :  A really nice user generated wallpaper site where you can upload your own artwork and photos. A well laid out web page, with desktop themes and custom icons. 


The Clock:
 1. Clocx :  A computer desktop needs a clock, (everyone's with me on this, right?) and this little program provides quite a few preconfigured clocks and has a number of adjustment options including size, opacity and the ability to click through. A nice program if you want a large selection of clocks without a whole lot of effort. 
                                        A few of the many" Clocx"...

 2. Vector Clocks : I just recently came across this program as a solution to having multiple time zones displayed on the desktop simultaneously. While there are a number of programs available that offer this function, I just wasn't happy with any of them. It comes with 10 preconfigured clocks and allows for placing as many clocks as needed with different time zones and the ability to label them as you choose.

                                  The default "Vector Clock" collection

They also offer a program called "Vector Clock Designer" which gives an amazing amount of flexibility ( almost limitless ) in designing your own custom clocks. ( a really nice "free" program here )...

                                     Building the "Peabody Clock"

 Widgets and Gadgets :

 If you think you have a widget problem, then you probably do.

                        Probable "Widgetaholic"... contact W.A. for help...

However, even the most minimalist of desktops should be allowed the occasional widget or two... here are a few that are worth looking @...

"Pandora One" : The absolute "must have" widget in my opinion....period...

"Launch Control" : An amazing little task launcher with lots of customization features that does... well, just about everything..

"ProWeather Gadget" :  A neat compact weather gadget that expands into a slick interface with practically everything you need to know about your local forecast.

"Clear View Gadget" : A cool little gadget with weather, clock, calender, cpu meters and media player. Each individual component can placed anywhere on the screen and independently turned on or off. Created by Richard Mohler, check out his other stuff @ Wincustomize and deviantart.

Dvd/Cd Rom tray open/close : A useful gadget if you have a hard to open cd tray on a laptop...


 One of the nice things about personalization of the desktop interface is that there's really no wrong way to do it, if it works for you, then it's the right way. There are an infinite number of ways to get things the way you want them, it's a totally subjective concept....  ~ Peabody ~


Youth is not a time of life, it is a state of mind, it is not a matter of
rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees, it is a matter of the will,
a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions;
it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity,
of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.
This often exists in a man of sixty more than a lad of twenty.
Nobody grows old merely by a number of years.
We grow old by deserting our ideals.

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being's heart the lure
of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what's next, and the joy
of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a
wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer,
courage and power from men and from the infinite, so long are you young.

When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with the snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty,
but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism,
there is hope you may die young at eighty.

~Samuel Ullman~

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Free as a Bird...

A few of Peabody's favorite free programs...

It's amazing just how much good freeware there is floating around in cyberspace these days. As a matter of fact it's entirely possible to set up a complete computer system, from operating system, word processing, antivirus, multimedia, web browsers and just about any application you could want with free software.
Most of the companies providing decent free versions of software usually offer better more fully featured versions for a price, the old bait and switch tactic. However, there's still a plethora of excellent stuff to be had for just a mouse click or two.

I certainly don't mind shelling out a few bucks for "critical" top tier software, such as an operating system. I'm still firmly in the Windows camp on this one, ever since the venerable XP came into being, that is. I've been able to do most everything I want to do on a PC with minimal problems. ( my first 2 personal computers sported the "wonderful" Windows 95 and ME operating systems, so I'm somewhat familiar with the iconic "BSoD" ).

 This is by no means an " anti-Apple" rant, as Mac OS X is an absolute work of art from the user interface perspective. Anyone whose had the pleasure of using an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad would probably agree that the beautifully minimalist hardware design and the very intuitive and fluid interface are arguably the standard by which all others are "currently" measured, this statement probably applies to Apple's superb reputation for customer service as well. ( with only 10% of the market share, and customers paying close to a 50% cost premium compared MS, it had better be freakin superb )

But, if you like to tinker around and tweak things a bit, without the "Orwellian" control of the OS's megalomaniacal "Big Giant Head", than Windows is probably your best bet. Besides the chance to actually manipulate ( screw up ) the operating system, there are innumerable applications and free programs to do just about anything on a PC. With this concept in mind,  ( screwing up your system for free ) here are a few of Peabody's current favorite "freebies"...

Freeware list:
(the stuff Peabody uses regularly on Win7 and Xp, with "Thumbs Up" results) 

1. "Firefox" : Mozilla's open source browser is still a personal favorite, and the internet workhorse @ the Peabody Laboratories. Safer, faster and more functional than IE ( which I moved away from years ago ). It offers a multitude of customization features and add on applications that have yet to be eclipsed by the impressive "Google Chrome" ( the current "close 2nd" choice)...

2. "Avast Free Antivirus" : The current favorite for several reasons, the first that it's highly rated by the "experts", and second that it has fairly simple to use interface and doesn't constantly pester you to upgrade to the pay version, as the also highly rated Avira does. ( good luck uninstalling Avira, as it never seems to go away) A close 2nd is "Microsoft Security Essentials" which is very good and requires minimal user interaction.

3. "Zonealarm" : Great personal firewall program with inbound/outbound protection. ( Zonealarm does require a "training period" in which the user must interact to allow programs access, and don't forget to disable the Windows firewall,as you only want one active firewall program running @ a time )

4. "Malwarebytes" : A very effective  antimalware tool with a simple straightforward interface, and will scan multiple and networked drives. ( note: no real time protection in the free version )

5. "Aulogics Disk Defrag" : Amazingly fast and effective for such a low price... ( a mouse click ) ...

6. LastPass : If you're like me, you probably get frustrated occasionally when trying to remember passwords. This is an effective solution which allows you access from multiple locations using a master password, can be set to automatically fill login forms and is encrypted and secure. 

7. "VLC Media Player" : An open source program that plays virtually any video format and has an amazingly customizable interface with a full featured audio equalizer. ( there are tons of nice skins for VLC, but be careful as some may cause poor functionality )

8."GIMP" : An incredibly powerful and very polished image manipulation and photo editor program, comparable to Photoshop. ( without the hefty price tag ). It is somewhat daunting to use if you're not experienced. For the rest of us who just want to do some light photo touch up, Paint.net or Lightbox are probably a better fit.

9. "Revo Uninstaller" : A program that effectively uninstalls most programs completely ( will take out Avira ), and removes those pesky remnants. Revo has a few very useful features like the Autorun manager, that lets you tweak your start up programs, a "junk files killer" along with a host of cache clearing functions.

10. "Open Office" : For the average user this covers the basics of office document creation as well as spreadsheets. A reasonable open source alternative to the excellent but expensive MS Office. If all you need is a basic word processor than  "Jarte" is awesome with nifty features such as templates and the "Encyclopedia" button which looks up the highlighted word in Wikipedia Dictionary and Thesaurus.  

11. A quick note, as you're most certainly aware, there's no such thing as "free". Most good software vendors want something in return for their efforts on your behalf. ( a reasonable expectation in my opinion ). Either by omitting certain features and tempting you with their more capable "pay version"  or by adding something to the freebie that generates a profit for them, in the form of a search engine add on or maybe a  browser toolbar.
Take it slow when accepting "end user license agreements" as most legitimate vendors will allow you to opt out of these additional features @ some point during the installation process. So don't forget to "uncheck" the little box that enables you to install these options if you don't want them. Having a half dozen search toolbars attached to your web browser isn't going to "enhance" the experience much.

It's always a good idea to take a moment and create a restore point before installing any new software. This can save you a lot of time and grief should you run into any problems or compatibility issues. Win7 will automatically create a restore point before it installs any software, but only when it uses the windows installer, so it's not a sure thing.

To manually create a restore point in Windows 7....

Go to Start menu and right click "Computer", click "Properties".

Click on "System Protection".

In Protection Settings make sure protection is "On".

Click "Create" and the restore point box will appear. 

Choose a name for the restore point, ( the name of the software you're installing would be appropriate )
 and click "Create".

The time it takes to create depends on the processor speed and the amount of data on the drive.

There you have it, a new restore point. Windows will time/date stamp it, along with your chosen name.

For Windows XP users....

Go to Start Menu, point to all programs > accessories > system tools > system restore and click.

Select create a restore point and click next.

Name your restore point and click create.

A restore point has been created.

A System Restore has saved me from major headaches ( reinstalling the OS ) on more than a few occsasions, but this is still no guarantee, so back up your hard drive on a regular basis. With the relatively low prices on external hard drives nowadays it makes sense to use one for a backup device in case of failure of the "onboard" hard drive. One of the easiest to use is the "Clickfree Portable Drive".  It's also possible to use an old laptop hard drive as a backup by simply putting it in an inexpensive enclosure. ( also an effective save in case of a catastrophic laptop event... oops... ). And of course let's not forget one of my favorite multipurpose memory devices, the USB flash drive.

The internet is a powerful tool and I would expect most to folks to research a product or service before purchasing. The same can be said for software, and certainly anything offered as "Free" should be scrutinized thoroughly ( as the proverbial "gift horse", could be of the "Trojan" variety ).
 Always download from reputable locations that provide reliable information on the origin and quality of the software. I highly recommend "CNET"s download.com", with it's in depth reviews and user feed back, which is invaluable in determining whether a program is safe, compatible with your system and provides the functions that you require.    

That said, the fine folks that produce good, legitimate freeware are certainly worthy of being considered for the pay versions of their software, it's likely to be very good also. As always, if any of your systems are damaged or destroyed, Peabody will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self destruct in 5 seconds....... Phfffffftttt.....( nice touch with the sound effects @ the end, huh? )

 I loved  Mission Impossible as a kid and always admired Barney, the cool electronics guy on the series. It was while installing a hidden camera @ 3:00 am., hanging on the outside of a service elevator on the 10th floor of a major hospital in Baltimore ( they were having a bit of a theft problem ) when it hit me.... "Holy crap"... "I'm friggin Barney man"! At which point Ward, the Otis Elevator service man, who was on top of the car, looked down at me and said,... What?... What the hell are you talkin about?...  Hurry up, my old lady's starting to get suspicious of all these "middle of the night" service calls...

One interesting "take down" came from a camera hidden in some ductwork, a couple of rather high level employees making off with, of all things, 25 lb. bags of frozen shrimp and Christmas turkeys... ( I mean a lot of em )...Happy Holidays fellas...