Monday, July 17, 2017

Week of 07/17/2017




In Defense of Desktops
I’m here to speak up about a tireless old friend who has been a part of my life for over forty years now.  In fact, it has been a part of many of our lives for over a generation now.
I’m talking about the desktop computer.
I remember the day when Apple’s personal computer went by the name of “Lisa”.  When the Macintosh was the original all-in-one system and had no color to it.  When you could buy a “tower” or a “mini-tower” for around $2000, and data was stored on these weird square things called “floppy discs”.  When there were numerous variations of an operating system called “DOS”.  When social media was called “Prodigy” or “CompuServe” or even that new-fangled service called “America OnLine”.
Looking back, we’d see these things and say that they sucked.  But back then, this was seen as “the future”.  I should know, because I lived it.  This was my world.
A few years back, I had bought not one, but two HP desktop mini-towers from the nearby Best Buy store for about $435 each.  Each have 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 2-terabyte hard drive along with an AMD processor and graphics.  They were a great deal at the time and they’re still in service today.
Now, in the past, computer systems would continually grow and expand.  Hard drives would get larger, RAM space would get bigger, processors would get faster, and prices would get lower.  It was the manufacturing version of Moore’s Law.  In theory, what cost me $435 two years ago should cost $335 today, and paying $435 today should get me something with more RAM, a larger hard drive, and better processor and graphics that my current two-year old system.
And yet... I’ve noticed in my recent trip to that same Best Buy store that computer prices for desktops have somewhat stagnated, and what they offer have actually gone downhill. 
I could not find my “great deal” computer on those same shelves today.  Where once there were rows after rows of desktop computers, there were only a handful of “all-purpose” desktops, and none of them could match the RAM or hard drive capacity of my two-year-old system, and yet they cost slightly more.  The shelves that used to showcase a variety of desktop computers are now filled with “all-in-one” desktops, laptops, netbooks, and a few super-expensive “gaming” desktops.  Even the gaming computers, with the obscenely-overpriced processor and the 16GB of RAM and the equally obscenely-overpriced graphics card that pushed the dollar value over the $1000 mark only had a 1-terabyte hard drive. 
It seems that Moore’s Law is no longer applicable at least when it comes to desktops.
What the hell, computer makers?  Desktops used to be the mainstay of personal computers, and now you’re treating them like relics of a bygone era.
Keep in mind, of course, that we’re talking about the non-Apple computers.  The almighty Apple has always lived in its own little world, with their cultist iSheep that will wait in long lines to buy anything with an Apple logo on it that will be more expensive than it needs to be.  No, screw Apple.  We’re talking about HP and Dell and Levono and Asus and Acer and all the other names that used to fight over which mini-tower desktop would prevail in the stores.  These are the ones that seem to be giving up on the general mini-tower desktop system.
I get that the world is moving towards laptops and all things Internet.  Tablets are all the rage, as well as smartphones and smartwatches and smart TVs to do all the work for dumb people.  Microsoft is tripping over themselves with the idea of portability so much so that they’re making stupid mistakes that are worthy of their own article.
I know what “the dream” is for many of these tech companies.  “The dream” is to have a cheaply-made-but-expensive-to-buy system that will have everything accessible through the Internet.  All the files, all the music, all the videos, all the photos, and even all the operating programs would be available through the Internet, so all you would need is a simple device that would access them flawlessly.  It’s a nice dream.  It’s not my dream, of course, but it still is a dream for someone looking to make money.
However, the Internet is not perfect, nor is it available all the time.  Providers can fail.  Some utilities worker can cut a fiberoptic cable half-a-continent away, and you’re offline until they decide to fix it.  You can pay for a service today and tomorrow have it be out of business and all of your stuff is suddenly gone.  Or some greedy corporate exec will decide that your free or relatively inexpensive online service is “no longer fiscally viable” and opt to stick you with obscenely-high subscription packages.  (Pay attention, Photobucket!)  Malware and ransomware attacks have been on the rise lately, so imagine all of your work suddenly locked up in some encrypted nightmare and the host company decides to not pay the ransom, or there is no ransom and the data is digitally destroyed.  Let’s not forget the hackers and all the data they collect and sell from things in “the cloud”.  Remember “The Fappening”?
Let’s also not forget that we have the United States Department of Justice firmly believing that anything... *any-thing*... that is out on “the cloud” is theirs for the taking, no warrant needed.  So all of those documents that you put “on the cloud”, all of the videos and photos and songs that are out on virtual servers, they’re all fair game for prosecutors to grab without any due process or constitutional safeguards.
To quote the very President who is in the White House because of the Internet... “it’s a mess.”
This is where the netbook fails.  The netbook is not a laptop.  It may look like one, but it’s nothing like a laptop.  A netbook has just enough storage space for the operating program so you can access the Internet.   It’s an Internet-only device and it is only as good as your connection to the Internet.  If your connection fails, or if you’re in a dead zone with no WiFi, then the netbook becomes an expensive paperweight.  This is something that Microsoft fails to recognize with their Surface tablets. Nice looking systems.  Expensive as hell.  But if you don’t have a connection, then they are an expensive form of useless.
And that’s the truly dangerous part of this subject... computer makers and retailers are blurring the line between a netbook and an actual laptop computer.  If all you’re looking at is the price, and that seems to be all the retailers want you to see, then you could be buying a netbook instead of a laptop and not know it.
Oh, but that’s okay, right?  If it has a USB connection, you could always plug in an external hard drive if you need the extra storage space.  And you can add an external Blu-Ray player if you can’t do the digital download.  And you can put in a mouse if you don’t like the touchpad.  And you may need a USB hub to accommodate all of those USB devices.  But then it’s not portable now, is it?
Or... you can buy an actual laptop computer, which you could operate without the Internet and has most of those things.  Or you can buy a desktop which has all of those things built-in.
But what about those all-in-one systems?  Those look nice, don’t they?  Not as many cables to worry about.  No space to set aside for a minitower and speakers.  Just a monitor and mouse and a keyboard.  Yes, they look nice.  Everything you need is right there in front of you, all compacted in one device just like the original Macintosh systems... but minus the plastic iFruit colors.  This is perfect for businesses or libraries or a classroom where space would be a premium.
There’s just one problem: if something in there fails, then the whole thing fails.  If the monitor goes bad, or the hard drive is bad, or if the RAM goes bad, or if the integrated graphics card fails, then the whole thing is now an expensive form of useless.
At least with a minitower desktop, that kind of problem would be an easier fix.  If the monitor goes bad, then you buy a new one.  If the hard drive goes bad, then you can replace it with a new one.  If the graphics card fails, then you can have a new one installed.  You can even upgrade your components without having to buy a whole new system.
And *there* is the catch, my friends.  If the laptop goes bad, or a netbook goes bad, or an all-in-one system goes bad, then you have to buy a whole new device; not just one component.  You can’t just “fix” it.  Anyone who is in tech support will tell you that it will cost you more to fix one of these things than to get a whole new device.  And none of them are cheap.
So it’s reasonable to presume that the gradual winnowing out of your all-purpose minitower desktop has nothing to do with trying to copy the iCult of Apple and everything to do with getting the maximum amount of money from the masses that can’t afford to be part of the iCult of Apple.  It’s a dream more of greed than of technological progress.
Let’s get brutally honest here… computer makers are selling people short if they think they can nudge out the desktop computer.  We still need them!  And we need them to be just as competitive as your latest notebook or netbook or all-in-one system.
Every family that has a home network system through their Internet provider needs at least one desktop to serve as a base station.  If the WiFi goes down, you still need something that is physically connected to the router to see where the problem is.  Is it the router?  Is it the modem?  You won’t know if all you have are a home full of netbooks and tablets and not one device with an ethernet jack to it.
The Internet is not that reliable… at least not right now… so you still need someplace to store your photos and songs and videos and documents that you can access readily and are not just stored on some server in Helsinki that was just compromised by a ransomware program, or put under an expensive paywall by some greedy corporate exec who thinks that you’re not a “viable model” to service.  The cloud storage model is a good model for backup in a pinch, but it should not be your first and only backup!
And because photos and videos are getting larger and more detailed, that requires far more storage space.  And that’s why I’m upset that the computer makers have stopped making desktops with hard drives larger than 1 terabyte.  The technology is there today – as of this column’s posting date – to put a 10-terabyte drive into a computer.  My question is, why aren’t computer makers doing it?  Two terabytes should be the bare minimum right now for the cheapest desktop they make, and they shouldn’t even insult people with a 1TB drive for a gaming system!  If I’m paying over a $1000 for a gaming system I better be paying for more than just a bunch of overpriced brand names!  Yes, I’m talking about you, Intel and Nvidia!
The trend of late has been to provide computers with a 1TB drive and then throw in a solid-state drive as a backup to that.  Again, this is more of a greed decision instead of a tech one.  Solid-state drives are essentially large RAM chips, which make them expensive as hell.  They’re great for a backup of your operating system and a few key programs, but it doesn’t replace the need for additional space for everything else you value, like your photos and videos and music.  I would rather pay for a computer with a 4TB hard drive than one with a 1TB drive and a 500GB SSD.  The former is a far better value.
Computer makers should be looking at the automotive industry to see how to handle changes in tastes and trends.  Yes, in the 1990’s, auto makers, along with the federal government, launched a slick campaign to get people to buy those ugly oversized gas-chugging Sport Utility Vehicles.  But they didn’t stop making minivans just because they wanted people to buy the SUVs; nor did they stop improving the minivan just because the urban assault vehicle was the latest-greatest overpriced “gimme” toy on the market.  They continued to improve the minivan and add as many of the newest features as they could.  Because the automakers knew that there still be a need for the minivan, even if the SUV was bringing them the big money.
This is where the computer makers like Dell and HP and Lenovo and Asus and Acer should be thinking.  Yes, the trend is portability and all things Internet.  Make things smaller and accessible online.  The netbook and Microsoft’s Surface and laptops and the all-in-one systems are the SUVs of computers.  But the desktops are still the minivan workhorse, and these should not be neglected in the corporate obsession for profit at all costs.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Week of 07/10/2017



Government Through Fairy Tales
You probably heard about the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, right?  Each of the three pigs built a home made of different materials; one of straw, one of twigs, and one of bricks.  Each of them were visited by the big bad wolf, but while the wolf huff and puffed and blew down the first two houses, he couldn’t damage the one made from bricks.
How about the tale of the little old lady who was so poor that she lived in a shoe along with all of her children?  She starved them because she couldn’t even afford bread, and then beat them until they slept.  No, seriously.  That’s how the original rhyme went.
How about the story of the hard-working small businessman who was so miserly yet so concerned about the well-being of his workers that he put every penny the company made back into the business?  No?  You sure you haven’t heard that one before?  That’s funny because you hear that every time you turn on conservative and neo-conservative talk radio or visit their websites or see their cable propaganda channels.
We would like to believe that our legislatures, of all sizes, craft laws and rules based on sound and rational thought.  That they approach these matters with impartial discovery and scientific investigations and even some quasi-judicial proceedings to get to the truth and then prudently develop the proper legislative solution that fully addresses the matter.
Unfortunately, everything that I just told you now is nothing more than a complete and absolute fairy tale.  Pigs can’t build houses.  Nobody, no matter how old or little, can live in a shoe, much less live in abject poverty with lots of children.  And certainly our legislatures do not craft legislation or regulation or otherwise set rules based on anything rational or reasonable.
“But what about the hard-working small businessman who puts everything back into the company?” some of you ask.  “Surely they are real!  We hear about them all of the time!”
Yes, we hear about them.  Then again, we also hear about highway construction jobs full of goldbricking deadbeats, and the mothers with eight kids on food stamps that buy nothing but fillet mignon steaks and champagne with taxpayer money, and the strippers that have sex with all of their patrons, and the homeless guy who will take any amount of change they get to buy booze and drugs.  And if you believe any of those things are true, then I need to introduce you to a Nigerian prince with a suitcase full of money that has the deal of the century for you!
Because the truth of the matter is that the “hard-working small businessman who puts every penny they make back into the company” is just another modern-day myth spread by glorified con artists on behalf of big corporate interests that are far from altruistic. 
How do I know this?  Because let’s get brutally honest here... you can’t put every penny you get back into the company and still claim a profit.
Profit is what you get from your revenue over and above your overhead, or the costs of your business, such as payroll, material, manufacturing, warehousing inventory, etc.  Anything left over after paying all of that is profit.  That money goes to the owners and the investors of the business.  That’s how they make money.
Hiring new people, giving raises and bonuses to current employees, expanding your business, changing locations, upgrading your equipment or inventory or even your computers are all expenses.  They’re part of the overhead.  In other words, that is less money that can be considered profit.  If you’re putting all of that money you made back into the company, then you really have no profit to claim.  And in the current business environment based on the pervasive parasitic predatory philosophy of plunder, where profit is king, not having profit to claim means that you are a failure in the business world.
Plus, are you really going to tell investors such as banks that you’re going to put *their* share of the profits back into the company for overhead?  Banks are not in the business of investing in companies and then getting nothing back from them.
So why are we talking about this modern-day fairy tale?  Because that is all that the GOP is seemingly fixated on!
The GOP on both the federal and state level have an obsessive-compulsive fixation on giving huge stinking tax breaks for business as well as eliminating pretty much every regulation imposed on businesses that don’t involve sexual activity.  (Funny how they want to double-down on only that part.)  It’s the “quo” in the “quid pro quo” of them getting in office.  But in order to justify these gifts to the wealthy, they have to come up with a story to sell it to the masses.  And by “story”, I mean the modern-day fairy tale that have us all believe that businesses are impoverished and hamstringed by overbearing government bureaucrats and tax-and-spend liberals with a Robin Hood fetish.  All we supposedly have to do is to give them huge tax breaks and free reign to operate however they want and, boom, instant job growth and wealth for everyone beyond the dreams of avarice.
Only we’ve been down this road before... several times, in fact... and while the wealthy get the gold mine, the rest of us get the shaft.
But we still keep coming back to it, don’t we?  We keep voting for people who tell this fairy tale.  Hell, that’s part of the reason why we have an orange-skinned narcissist in the White House and a Congress run by sadistic sociopaths.  Because we want to believe that fairy tale to be true; just like we want to believe that highway jobs are full of goldbrick deadbeats, that unwed mothers that breed like cats use food stamps to buy steak and champagne, that strippers do more than strip for money, and that homeless people live on nothing but booze and drugs.
Pretty much every bad government law and bad policy are based on fairy tales.  We went to war in Iraq over weapons that could not be found and international sales of “yellow cake” that did not happen.  Our president imposed a travel ban on certain Islamic-dominated nations for fear of terrorism, but not on the nations that actually sent over terrorists in the past.  Why?  Because said orange-skinned narcissist claimed to have personally seen Muslims rejoicing after 9/11 in a completely different state from where he was in at the time.
It’s too bad that we couldn’t use the fairy tales of old to justify policy.  The story of the three little pigs could champion construction codes.  The old lady with the kids living in a shoe could justify better living conditions for the poor and starving.  But... I guess there’s no profit in those things.  And in today’s profit-obsessed business world, that is the only moral that matters.