Computer names… what’s next?

For some years now we’ve named our home computers after characters in Tintin.

First we had Tintin and Snowy, both desktops.

Snowy was replaced with Haddock.

The two of them were joined for a little while by Nestor, which was called that because it was a server.

Tintin and friends greet Armstrong

Haddock broke down (probably a motherboard failure, I suspect), and has been replaced by a secondhand 2008-model Mac Pro, which given it’s much brainier, we called Calculus. (If you ever manage to get a secondhand Mac Pro, I recommend them. They make excellent desktop PCs, even if you run Windows, which the 2008 and later models do easily via BootCamp. This beast may be old, but the build quality is fantastic, it’s still fast and rock solid.)

I also got a laptop, which given it moves around and visits various parts of the world (well, okay, various parts of the state), I called Alcazar.

Now Tintin is set to be replaced, by another Mac Pro. The question is, what should we call it?

One idea is that, given the two Mac Pros will be near-identical, we rename the existing one and call them Thomson and Thompson, but let’s face it, that’d be too confusing.

Perhaps it’s time to start re-using names.


Oh, and while I’ve got you, can any Mac people recommend a TV tuner (preferably dual tuner) that will work with the Mac Pro in both OSX and Windows/Media Center?


The Java problem

I’d normally post something like this over on, but it’s worth mentioning here.

Java has suffered from a series of serious vulnerabilities, the most recent found just a couple of weeks ago.

This article makes a good case for removing it completely from your computer: Is Java the root of all evil and can you really live without it in the browser?

I need to verify I don’t need it for anything on my home PCs, so I decided I’d merely update it, to ensure it’s patched for this latest problem.

Should be no problem, right? If it doesn’t pop up by itself, go to Control Panel / Java / Update / Update Now. It asks for Admin access to update itself. Not as seamless as Chrome etc, but okay, let’s go with it.

Java update

An update — ready to install. Excellent. Click on through.

Java update

You’re kidding, aren’t you?

OK then. New plan. I’ll just remove it. I can always re-install it (looks like I’d have to anyway, to get the patch) when and if I need it.

To check if Java is installed on your computer and for your web browser, use the Java test page. If it’s installed but you don’t think you need it, consider removing it.

(Article link above via mgm.)

Geek Retrospectives

Personal geek history

My desk at work, circa 1994A piece of personal geek history: yesterday I had heard that a system I worked on when just out of uni in 1993 just finally got decommissioned.

Myself and my mate Brian got out of uni at the end of ’92, and looked for IT jobs. In early 1993 I landed a contract at a Big Company and Brian came on board too, and we wrote the first version of system “X”, using Visual Basic 2 (the application running on Windows 3.1), and a database backend using Netware SQL (virtually unheard-of now).

(It wasn’t really called “X”. It was a slightly-awkward backronym made up by the guy who thought of the whole idea in the shower, and who had managed to get us inexperienced graduates in to make it happen.)

The software was primarily used in a centre in Burwood, by several hundred users, many of whom had never used Windows and a mouse before. Being a small team, we were able to be very responsive to user feedback, and as well as being more productive, hopefully our user base enjoyed using the software, despite our garish screen designs.

It was an awesome sight walking around the centre watching hundreds of people using the screens I’d designed.

I do recall one funny moment one day when the power went out momentarily. Hundreds of PCs all rebooted at once, accompanied by a collective “ooooooh” from everyone in the place.

A less-funny moment was the day when one of the LAN administrators accidentally wiped the shared drive with all our source code… and then we discovered the most recent backup was several weeks old. This incident inspired Losing My Connection (sung to the tune of “Losing My Religion”.)

Later in 1993, or possibly the next year, the team was expanded and system got a re-write, which we unimaginatively called “X2”.

The re-write used Visual Basic 3 (still on Windows 3.1) with an Oracle database backend. We had some fun naming the Oracle server after computers from Red Dwarf — the main server was Holly, the dev server was Kryten, and the test/staging server was Hudzen.

I left the project towards the end of 1994. Brian left a little while afterwards. His experiences inspired an awfully funny superhero sproof called “ContractOr”, which exaggerated the different worlds of contractors and permanent staff for comic value. Alas most of it has been lost in the mists of time.

A permanent believes that…
Contractors are dangerous, mercenary, rogue coders who don’t take orders, make up their own rules and cause havoc for the fun of it. In addition they’ll happily switch to another job, regardless of the consequences, if they get a better offer. Oh, and obviously, they are vastly overpaid.

A contractor believes that…
A permanent employee is a lazy, unimaginative, shiftless, paperwork-following WIMP. They are only concerned with covering their arse and care nothing for improving work practices – only for making sure they don’t get blamed when things fail to happen YET AGAIN.

Brian went on to be one of the first employees of Sausage Software, who released the first major web page designer.

I did ask around about 10 years ago and was surprised that system “X” was still running. It sounded like it had undergone a re-write into Delphi, so I doubt by the end that there was any of our original code left. Perhaps only the name was still remaining from what we worked on. But it was still called “X2”.

Only this week did it apparently get decomissioned.

Given how fast technology moves, I’m still surprised the system lasted 18 years.


Computer brain surgery

A few weeks ago I did brain surgery on my computer. My PC (named “Tintin”) finally got a CPU upgrade — which I needed to move off Windows XP onto Windows 7.

It’s quite incredible how much dust was inside it.
Inside my computer. Note the amazing amount of dust.

Just obtaining the faster CPU wasn’t straightforward, as sometime in the last couple of months, between the time I thought about it and when I went shopping, they stopped making what I needed (a chip to fit an AM2 socket, and which was compatible with my motherboard, eg to avoid expensive, time-consuming and messy mucking about upgrading a lot more of the computer), and they rapidly vanished from the shops.

That’s obsolesence for you.

I ended up buying it on eBay — for the geeks (and my future reference) it was an Athlon 64 X2 4400, which set me back $33 plus $7.50 postage.

By no means the fastest CPU supported, but I was also aiming for something with a similar power consumption, so it wouldn’t be hot/noisy (from the fan/s). Not to mention that when the full range isn’t available anymore, beggars can’t be choosers. But still about twice as fast as the old one — well, a similar speed but in two cores. Fine for standard desktop use; the other computer (“Haddock”) does multimedia and games. And on the bright side, it was cheaper than anything bought new.

As it happens, I’ve never replaced a CPU in a computer before, and was a bit nervous about it. Oh sure, I’ve mucked about with RAM, and video cards, and hard drives, all that kind of stuff. But there’s possibly nothing as delicate as a CPU’s pins, and I didn’t want to screw it up.

I took a look at a couple of books from the library, one on upgrading PCs, and another on building them. (Yes, for once the selection of computer books in a public library wasn’t hopelessly out of date.) The latter had some very handy full-colour photos of the process of inserting a CPU, as well as details of how to apply the thermal paste.

Thermal what? CPUs generate a lot of heat. The heat has to make its way away from the CPU, and to do this, you put thermal paste between the CPU and the heat sink, which is what carries the heat away (often via a fan, and out of the computer case). It’s cheap, but you have to go to a specialised computer store to buy it.

I didn’t have any thermal paste, and was going to go and buy some when I realised while poking around inside the computer there was a fair bit on the existing CPU. Could I just wipe it off there, onto the new one? I thought I’d give it a go and see what happened. After carefully putting the new CPU in, I used a CPU temperature checker to make sure the paste and the fan was working okay.

To my surprise it all seems to have worked, and Tintin is now about twice as fast as before.

I like it when technology works as planned.


The new computer

Every 3-4 years I’ll buy a new computer. Here’s the latest, a reconditioned (with warranty) HP Pavilion a6760a, to be called “Haddock”.

For the record (because often years later I come back and compare what I got for how much) the specs are: Intel Core 2 Duo E7400 (2.8 GHz), 2Gb RAM, 500 Gb hard disk, NVidia GeForce 9300 GE (256 Mb video memory), DVB TV tuner, and a bunch of other stuff. All up $750 from GraysOnline ($609 plus some strange 15% fee called a buyer’s premium, plus delivery, but at least you know all that up-front).

Unfortunately it came with Windows Vista, so I’m taking the opportunity to upgrade it and the older computer (“Tintin”, which got an upgrade last year) I’m keeping for desktop use to Windows 7. The new one will do the games and video stuff, the old one I’ll chop back to basics: email and web and stuff.

Now I just have to work out what to do with “Snowy”. (Perhaps it’s time for it to upgrade the server, “Nestor”.)


Laptop vs USB stick for school

Was chatting a while back to a colleague about his kids in high school. One of them ends up carrying an enormous amount of stuff to and from school, including books and sports equipment, but also a notebook (laptop) computer costing a couple of thousand dollars.

Giving students laptops makes no sense to me. Compared to desktops, they’re damaged more easily, they’re more expensive to buy (or less well specified), they depreciate in value much faster, and they’re Yet Another Thing for kids to have to carry around (which means more weight, and risk of theft).

I’m also wary of their portability, and the need to keep computers at home in a “public” area of the house.

My kids get given USB drives instead, so they can easily transfer their work from home to school and back again.

Admittedly you can’t put a laptop through the wash, as happened with one of our USB drives, though the data was recovered without problems.

I’d have thought in general having desktop computers both at home and school was a better solution than lugging laptops around the place.

Unless perhaps the laptop support contract comes with free chiropractor sessions.