New Directions

The story is here.

New experiences, new jobs, new long term plans have got back in a bit of blogging mindset. Check out the link to see how I’m taking my computer support strategies to the next level.

Twitter Goes Down! Overloaded!

While uploading a new pic to my personal Twitter profile, Twitter went down! As of this moment it is still out. At first it mentioned that they were overloaded and then the next page looked like the pic below.

We're sorry. Service is temporarily unavailable. Our Engineers are working quickly to resolve this issue.

Test Browser Compatibility With Adobe BrowserLab

I was updating a customer’s website to use HTML5 video instead of flash with Flowplayer and was wondering how well an older browser would display the new markup. I opened up Adobe BrowserLab and pointed it at my client’s testimonials page. When the screenshot of IE7 on Windows came up without any video thumbnails, I was disappointed. Then I became suspicious that the screenshot was not accurate and tried the IE9 on Windows screenshot. Turns out that when you compare the real screenshot of IE9 on Windows to Adobe BrowserLab’s screenshot, BrowserLab isn’t properly rendering the videos.

Real IE9 on Windows

BrowserLab IE9 on Windows (with 20 second wait)

BrowserLab is a great tool for previewing what your website will look like in a different browser on a different platform but it isn’t a replacement for actual testing.

Update Your WordPress Blog Frequently

Most people probably don’t need to be told this as a blog is usually updated pretty regularly. However, it happens sometimes that you may have several blogs or you just created a WordPress site and figured that once it was up and running that you didn’t need to do anything with it anymore. This is not a good idea. You should log into your blog at least every week to get the latest updates to WordPress, plugins, and themes. If you don’t, you risk leaving your blog unprotected from the latest security exploits and it is only a matter of time before your blog is hacked and some changes are made that you don’t want made. Hackers will often insert code into your site that will present users with pop-ups or redirect them to sites they don’t want to be on. Sometimes they even infect the user’s computer and do the same things there. When Google and other search engines try to update their index and crawl your site then will see the infections and start telling people not to visit your site. This lowers your traffic and hurts your PageRank and your site’s reputation. Your position in searches will go way down as it is no longer a very friendly site to visit.

There are a couple things you can do to prevent this from happening while you are away. You can install the WordFence plugin and have your site scanned on a regular basis. You can install many different plugins to backup your blog so that it is easier to fix if you are hacked. I’ve heard good things about BackupBuddy (paid) but I personally use the free WordPress Backup to Dropbox plugin. I’m just cheap. I know how to restore and modify databases and re-upload my files. If you aren’t a very adventurous computer user you may have more peace of mind with BackupBuddy as it makes the whole backup and restore process very simple.

To close, you should check in with your WordPress site frequently just because the web is not static. Things change and you need to change with them. This is really true for just about any site in general. As an added bonus, if you maintain your blog or site on a regular basis you will be rewarded with higher search rankings and higher traffic. Search engines love sites that are constantly staying fresh and relevant.

Gmail Breaks Mere Hours After Releasing New Compose Feature

Earlier today Gmail released a new compose feature that uses a popup by default for composing new emails. Just a few minutes ago, Gmail stopped loading and started returning an Error 502. As of this moment Gmail is back up.

Why is My Computer Loud?

My computer is not loud. But I get this question a lot. Your computer is usually loud because the case is full of dust. Over time, dust collects inside the computer case and clogs up the air flow through the computer. This insulates the components and makes it very difficult for the fans to keep the computer within its operating temperature. The computer then runs the fans at high speed to try to bring the temperature back down. If the computer cannot bring the temperature down, it may then slow down the CPU so that there is less heat being produced. The user sees this as their computer getting slower. If left in this condition for too long, the user runs the risk of damaging their computer or experiencing power failures. When the temperature gets too high the machine will either destabilize and start crashing or will shut itself off very abruptly to avoid damage.

I recommend users get the inside of their computer cleaned every year or so. If you are in a particularly dusty environment you may want to do it sooner than that. Just listen to your computer. It if sounds like it is straining, then it is. Also, if your computer is getting clogged with dust in less than a year then you may want to consider an air filter for your work space as this isn’t good for you either.

To clean out your computer case you will need only one of the following tools:

  • a soft bristle brush
  • a can of air (preferred)
  • an air compressor (must allow the computer to dry after using)

If you have a warranty that would be voided by opening your computer case then do not open your computer case unless you wish to void your warranty. Contact your warranty provider to find out how to go about cleaning out your computer. At the very least you can clean the dust that is accessible from the outside of the case.

DO NOT USE A VACUUM! unless you know what you are doing.

The strong magnetic field produced by a typical vacuum can damage the data on a common magnetic hard drive. If you wish to use a vacuum then make sure the motor is as far from the computer as possible and use the longest hose attachment you have. I do not know of any reason why an SSD would have problems with a magnetic field but using any device that produces a strong magnetic field (ie. motor) near a computing device of any kind will be done at your own risk.

Windows 7 Taskbar Icons Too Small

I don’t know about everyone else but I find it really annoying that Microsoft tries so hard to imitate Apple that they even picked up on the idea of reducing all of the running windows down to icons on the taskbar by default. Even worse, when you open multiple windows in the same application, you can barely even see that there are multiple windows open. So not only can you not read the name of the application or title of an open document but you also cannot distinguish between the open windows by their titles without waiting to hover over the icon in the taskbar. I recommend that people take advantage of a tweak that Microsoft did provide.

  1. Right-click on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen
  2. Select “Properties.” Image of the taskbar and the right-click menu
  3. Change the “Taskbar buttons:” option from “Always combine, hide labels” to “Combine when taskbar is full.”
  4. Click “OK.”Taskbar properties window

I know it seems small and like a pointless gripe but I know it means a lot to me and if I hadn’t known how to do it myself, I would have appreciated the tip.

Volume leveling on YouTube and Hulu

Is it just me or is everyone else sick of turning the volume up on a video so that you can hear the dialogue only to have a commercial or the next video in a playlist blast your kids and neighbors with the latest new car feature while you fumble for the volume level control? YouTube goes to all the trouble of converting your video into a dozen different sizes to fit your screen but leaves the audio untouched.

So you don’t want to scare away your users by modifying their precious home made videos? Fine, then volume level the ads that you run to match the volume of the current clip. You could even offer it as a paid option to your advertisers because if they don’t know how to do it properly then they would have to pay someone to do it. Right now there is no point in advertisers trying to hit a particular volume level because there isn’t a target to hit. Users are submitting their videos with widely ranging average volumes and high highs and low lows.

Give uploaders and advertisers the opt-out of volume leveling but apply it by default. Publish what the target volume or volume range should be. Give users a heads up if the next video is going to be significantly louder in the next 5 seconds. Pulse the volume controls or something. Maybe only do it when the client’s time is after 8pm. Something has to be done. How has the industry not figured this out yet. How have advertisers and users not demanded this yet? Their commercials are jarring people out of an enjoyable experience and I know that is not what they mean to be paying for. It is so doable and yet such an unexplored practice.

Reduce Your Total Cost Of Ownership (TCO)

Scenario: Non-profit company with 15 users including 2 technicians looking to reduce the total cost of ownership of their computer systems.

The main goal is to free up the technicians’ time to allow them to spend more time innovating new systems and software instead of troubleshooting the old ones. Part of the total cost of ownership in this case is the opportunity cost of  the lost software and product development time not just in dollars but also in moving the company strategically where it needs to go to survive. Total cost of ownership is a concept that has been the downfall of many through the ages. A great warlord was known to give elephants as gifts to his enemies. They would accept out of pride but would be brought to ruin by the cost of maintaining such a massive ego…err…creature. Instead of supporting their army or people, they would pour their wealth into maintaining this symbol of power and wealth until it was all gone.

Computers in the environment

1) Data entry and display
    Expected low maintenance lifespan: 8 years (thin client), 5 years (desktop), 3 years (laptop)
2) Design and processing
    Expected low maintenance lifespan: 5 years (desktop)
3) Servers
    Expected low maintenance lifespan: 5-8 years
     Computing power doubles every 18 months. Three years between upgrades means that work requiring significant computational resources will be 4x more efficient. As no computer always uses its resources to a maximal potential, this means that it takes a significant factor (~4x) of increased performance to actually impact work efficiency. If your computer was only 10% more powerful, would your productivity really go up 10%? Probably not. You would only save 10% of your time on the tasks where you are waiting for the computer to finish something before moving on. This is not a majority of the time in most usage scenarios. Therefore you would not expect to see a significant increase in productivity until there was a huge improvement in to computing that changed your computing expectations and gave you room to change your work patterns. An example could be video editing. If your final render of a 5 minute movie was 8 hours, would a 10% CPU boost change your work pattern? Not likely. You would still edit until midnight and leave it to render until breakfast. You would still only get 1-2 videos done per day. But if you had a 300% boost, you could render several videos per day. If you upgrade too often then the amount of time involved in making that transition increases your total cost of ownership without adding a whole lot of value.

LCDs

    Average life expectancy is 5-7 years with optimal quality and care. Build quality is important here. LCDs usually fail because of power supply or problems other than the backlight. Monitors should be set to turn off after 1 hour without use. Frequent power cycles will reduce the backlight life significantly. Buying cheap doesn’t improve your overall cost of ownership if you are constantly supporting and replacing monitors.

Brands

    After doing some research (PCWorld, CNet, Lenovo.com) I’m leaning towards buying as much as possible from Lenovo (was IBM).  If price must be considered first then I would recommend Dell. For our company, we ended up going with Dell over Lenovo because of the flexibility and pricing of their server configurations.
    Buying from a single brand for everything should help reduce the number and types of problems that you face. I have found that supporting custom built and stock computers from a variety of manufacturers means that I have to have a wide variety of parts on hand and have to spend a lot of time tracking down really weird bugs and incompatibilities. In real life, two products from different brands that both claim to conform to the same specification and are both well rated and reviewed sometimes simply will not play well together. If you can find a brand that works for most situations, stick with that brand even if it means paying a bit more up front sometimes. You will find it easier to find the source of a problem when all of your devices start having the same issue at once or when just one of 10 is doing something weird. There will also be a large community of users just like yourself who are also or have already had the same problem and will help you solve it. If you must build custom computers, build at least 3 and make them all exactly the same.

HDDs

    There are no clear winners in the reliability of hard drives. Western Digital Caviar Black (5yr warranty) has been recommended often. Also, slower disks that are enterprise class, in raid 1 or 10 configurations should improve reliability. As SSDs go, in sufficient quality (Intel, Toshiba, and Samsung) they are more reliable than traditional HDDs. New HDDs should be stress tested using Bart’s Stuff Test or Hitachi Drive Fitness Test. Any drive that passes either test should be reliable for 4-5 years. It is unknown how long the current SSDs will last in the long run but Intel is now offering 5yr warranties on it’s most reliable drives.
    The ideal configuration for performance and reliability:
        Intel X-25 SSD Raid 1
    The ideal configuration for storage and reliability:
        Western Digital Caviar Black HDD Raid 1
    The ideal configuration for storage, performance and reliability:
        Western Digital Caviar Black HDD Raid 10

Retirement

Mission critical PCs after 3 yrs: Non business critical or low usage users
First problem after 5 yrs: Ebay, donation
Nonfunctional: Recycle
    The idea here is to spend as little time maintaining things as possible. It costs more to drop everything and fix a mission critical device. For this reason, we retire a device to a non-mission critical function long before it should start developing quirks. When it does start to get flaky, you can schedule the resolution much more conveniently because it doesn’t have to be perfect right away. However, as a device ages it will begin to consume more and more maintenance time.
    After five years, there is zero patience for problems. Replace it and start over again. Drop the device on eBay, part it out, sell it to a computer shop, or recycle it depending on the condition. Cut your losses and run. You may fix it this time but something else is about to go wrong with it too. After 5 years, the tech industry doesn’t want you to own it and will not be supporting it as well. Answers will be harder to find. Your new techs won’t be as familiar with such an old system. It is all sad but true.

Software Maintenance

Centralized log monitoring
Centralized backup management
Centralized security monitoring
Avoiding time consuming rebuilds and reconfigurations involves keeping up with the warning signs of failure and having a backup available in case of failure. Automatic backups tend to be a bit unreliable so a tool that would allow a quick assessment of backup statuses across the network would be very useful. Security is always a must-have and is easier to manage from one location.

OS migration to new computers

Windows 7 appears to be very stable. Replacement computers can have the entire OS migrated to new hardware with a minimum of reconfiguration if that is desired. Software solutions that require custom software and uncommon configuration should be well documented and updated whenever changes are required. Installation media and licenses should be archived. Plugins and scripts should also be archived.
Reducing computer system maintenance time per day from X percentage (without shifting it to someone else) puts Y thousands extra (above current expenditures) into the budget per year. Obviously spending even close to that amount would result in no net improvement in a fiscal sense and would likely not translate directly into as much time savings as desired in the short run. It does, however, give some idea of the scale to keep in mind when planning and shopping.
Practices that can be traded for reliability include:
  • extensive comparison shopping
  • overclocking
  • purchasing small with the intent to upgrade when needs increase
  • single purchases
Purchasing in duos, or more will improve troubleshooting effectiveness, baseline performance assessment, accommodating shifting workloads, and rebounding from hardware failures.

Co-worker Training

Always cross train. Each function of the business needs to be understood in a basic way by at least two people. In the event that the employee who normally handles a job is not available, someone else can step in and fumble their way through it.

Norton Internet Security Review

Every computer on the internet needs some sort of active protection. Norton is one of those products that has been around a long time. I’ve been using Norton products for over 10 years and I’ve been using and supporting users of Norton Internet Security since it was released. I’ve not always been a fan of Norton. When I first came across it, I knew little else. I had heard the name a lot and consequently used it by default. Good old marketing doing its work. Within a few years I found myself troubleshooting Norton products quite a bit. They had a tendency to get a bit wonky. They also tended to be a bit difficult to remove. Eventually I discovered the Norton Removal Tool which was released by Norton to make life a little bit easier for the folks like myself who were stuck with supporting it out in the field. After a few clients’ computers had some emergencies as a direct result of a Norton glitch, I embarked on a journey to discover which product I was comfortable using and recommending. I swore off  Norton for several years and tried Avast, Malwarebytes, PC Doctor, Webroot, AVG, McAfee and Kaspersky on various computers but mostly my own.

Within the last couple years a friend of mine has been giving me 1-year licenses for Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 to give to my clients and friends. I started of installing it on a few inconsequential computers at work. After a year with no problems, I started giving them to my clients whenever they needed antivirus protection. I was impressed by how much had changed in the intervening years. Symantec has put a lot of effort into streamlining the user experience and slimming down the application itself. It no longer brings computers to their knees like it used to. I’ve had none of the old problems with instability or installation and re-installation. There is very little configuration necessary to make it work in your environment. There are no applications in our business environment for which I’ve had to spend any abnormal amount of time tweaking the firewall.

It really has been a much better experience this time around. I don’t mind giving copies of Norton Internet Security away anymore. I know they will only serve to strengthen my relationships with my clients. As for the pricing for those of you who don’t have well-connected benefactors, they have fairly standard pricing. It isn’t a rip-off. There is truth to the saying “You get what you pay for” and it is only that much more true when it comes to security. There are companies out there with a bit more competitive pricing but Norton is a great contender once again.

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