Wednesday, October 31, 2012


I'd love it if cell phone companies allowed me to turn off the voicemail service on my line. I don't want voicemail. I don't even want visual voicemail.

Today there are more ways than ever to get ahold of me, and voicemail is on the bottom of my list of preferences.

Plus, I don't recall the last time I got a voicemail with any more value than "Call me back." The most amazing thing to me is that there are people who believe that it's rude to call without leaving a voicemail. In 2012, I feel it's rude to leave a voicemail.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A plea to the Dells and HPs

Dear PC laptop manufacturers, it must suck becoming obsolete. Dell, your two-year stock chart is atrocious. HP, yours isn't much better. (Laptop manufacturers like Toshiba and Fujitsu are sufficiently diversified that I don't care about their stock for this post.)

However, Apple, which makes a laptop or two, is doing mighty swell.

What a conundrum. How could this possibly be explained? I am no CEO, but I can take a crack at it.

These days tablets are the growth market. A huge chunk of computer usage is content consumption. Watching a movie. Reading a book. Playing a game. Listening to some tunes. For these scenarios, tablets are marvelous.
But laptops retain their edge for content producers. Editing photo, video, or audio. Typing a document. Creating a presentation. Developing software. These scenarios require a decent keyboard, a precise mouse, plenty of USB ports, and decent heat dissipation. But there's something else. And it's something that no one but Apple seems to realize.

Michael and Meg, as CEOs of Dell and HP, I want you to listen and to try to understand. The examples I just listed of producing content require a large screen resolution. The larger the better. At work I use two monitors side by side in portrait mode -- and even with that, I am often desperately moving and resizing windows to make more room. The craptops that you peddle, with their standard resolution of 1366x768, are an embarrassment.

Google's 7" tablet, which I threw money at, has a resolution of 1280x800, at one-fourth the physical size of your screen. The new 10" tablet is 2560x1600 pixels, which is significantly larger than your screen, at half the size and weight. I could see myself doing real work on it.

Apple understands that laptops are for producers. A 13" screen on a MacBook Pro is 2560x1600, and a 15" screen goes all the way up to 2880x1800! I can be happy with that.

But say I have plenty of money and want a PC instead of a Mac. No one is prepared to meet the demand! Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, and probably all others max out at 1920x1080. Without any hyperbole, what choice do I have but to buy an Apple?

Whether this is due to a failure to adapt to the market, or due to a fear of investment, it's a sign of a dying industry.

I can only hope that Microsoft's Surface (running Windows 8 Pro) will have a good resolution. If it does, I plan to buy it.

If you're a PC laptop manufacturer: For the love of all that is holy, build a portable computer with a 2012-worthy resolution. Despite your fervent wishes, watching an HD movie in full-screen is not the epitome of my computing experience. Meet the demands of content producers, or die.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book review: "Windows 8 Administration Pocket Consultant" by William Stanek

The best way to think of Stanek's Windows 8 Administration Pocket Consultant (O'Reilly Media) is to ignore the "pocket" part. At 672 pages, it's much closer to the ______ Bible end of the scale.

And true to the Bible end of the scale, this book truly covers a huge landscape in surprising detail. As I was reading through the material, I got the feeling that this is basically an offline version of Microsoft's TechNet, a vast knowledge base (among other resources) for IT professionals. In the several weeks of using Windows 8, I've perused several TechNet articles about this-or-that. I've found a similar level of thoroughness in this book, for topics ranging from generic to highly exotic.

The difference between TechNet and this book: the latter is portable, better organized, features screenshots, and provides step-by-step instructions where possible.

This leads into my only annoyance with this book. Presumably the audience is an IT professional, or at least a power user. I often feel that the author is too thorough for this audience. He leaves absolutely no room for ambiguity. For example, in Chapter 5 there's a 13-step procedure for enforcing a certain behavior for Group Policy scripts. For 11 of those steps, the author makes sure to tell you, "Tap or click OK." As another example, almost anywhere there's a possibility to save a password (such as in a wireless network security dialog), the author adds a SECURITY ALERT informing the reader that this is a poor security practice. No wonder the book is 672 pages long.

On the other hand, I marvel at the wide variety of topics that William Stanek managed to cover in only 672 pages. I found information on how to create a master image of Windows 8. I found a detailed, 19-step breakdown of the Windows 8 startup process, along with a troubleshooting guide to it. I found a good intro to Group Policy and Offline Files, in large part covering Moskowitz' authoritative Group Policy book. I found plentiful information on BitLocker. And so much more.

All in all, while I won't be carrying this book in any pocket, I appreciate it greatly. Its 16 chapters allow the reader to become truly familiar with Windows 8 administration.

(Thanks to O'Reilly Media for providing me with a free copy for review.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chickpeas, Indian-style

I discovered Penzey's Spices by finding one of their catalogs on some family friends' coffee table. I immediately ordered my own. Besides bearing a multitude of spices, the catalogs also include recipes. These recipes are particularly valuable to me because they, naturally, take advantage of spices.

The latest catalog has a recipe for Chickpea Curry (Chole). Of course, I had to make it.

The appealing result:

It turned out very tasty, but very mild. In any case, it's a delicious side, appropriate with any main course. This Chickpea Curry is guest-worthy, yet simple and vegan!

If you're a fan of cooking with spices, I recommend subscribing to Penzey's Spices catalog by mail. You can also download the latest catalog from their web site.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A great smoothie

Tonight I made a great smoothie! It's even vegan. Here's the ingredient list:
  • 5 parts frozen strawberries
  • 3 parts baby bellpeppers, leaving the seeds in.
  • 3 parts rice milk, or as desired for consistency
  • 2 parts raw carrot
  • 1 part celery
  • 1 part pitted dates (I don't think this made a difference, but I have a package of them and wanted to put them to good use.)
(All parts are measured by volume and are very approximate. All ingredients are from Costco.)

The bellpeppers are key to this smoothie! They imparted an amazing fragrance and flavor! Costco sells these in 3-lb bags, and I use them everywhere with great results.

Please share with me any vegetarian or vegan recipe that you enjoy. I am always on the lookout.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Navigating around Windows 8 with a keyboard

Windows 8 is out in five days, both in stores and as an online upgrade to your PC. To save you some time when you're in Windows 8 and want to navigate around using the trusty ol' keyboard, I wrote up this handy summary. Even Windows tablets will permit the use of a keyboard, so this is widely applicable.

First let's talk about what you'll see. There are three important screens. The first screen that appears once you log in is the Start Screen. The Start Screen has your live tiles, and it lists your installed programs—both Metro-style apps and desktop applications.

From the Start Screen, you can launch full-screen Metro-style Apps. This is the new style of app. You can run either one app full-screen, or two apps side-by-side. When you start a Metro-style app from the Start Screen, the app starts directly without you ever seeing the normal desktop.

Alternately, from the Start Screen you can also view the Desktop and any desktop applications you've launched atop it. Desktop applications include any program that runs on Windows 7. When you start a regular application from the Start Screen, the desktop appears and the application launches there.

Now the stage is set. How do we navigate around? For getting around in Windows, the most important key on your keyboard is the Win key, between Ctrl and Alt. In lieu of the Windows logo in any Unicode font, I'll just use "[Win]" to refer to that key.

If you want to start a new program, then from any screen...
  • [Win]: Show Start Screen.
  • [Win]+D: Show Desktop and any desktop applications running atop it. If you already have a desktop application open on your screen, this hides all open windows and displays the desktop. (Similar to the Show Desktop button in the Quick Launch bar of Windows XP and earlier.)
  • [Win]+R: Show Run window. (This also displays the Desktop.)
  • [Win]+W: Search and list apps, settings, and files.
While you're on the Start Menu or in any Metro-style app...
  •  [Win]+Z: Show App Bar. This is a bar along the bottom of the screen that displays a list of app-specific actions. This is specific to Metro-style apps and the Start Menu.
If you want to change app or PC settings, then from any screen...
  • [Win]+I: Show Settings specific to the application, as well as general to the operating system. Here access the Control Panel, Personalization, and PC Info (System Properties from previous versions of Windows).
  • [Win]+K: Show Devices.
  • [Win]+X: The God menu -- the main menu for a power user. If you get tired of the modern synergistic Metro 2.0 paradigm, this is your blanket and cup of cocoa.
From the Start Screen:
  • Esc: Return to the previous screen. This may be a Metro-style app, or it may be your desktop with any number of desktop applications.
Here are some less-useful shortcuts. Don't bother memorizing these. From any screen:
  • [Win]+Tab: Switch between applications. This is very much like the Alt+Tab that you're used to, except it has a different appearance and treats everything atop of the Desktop as one item. If you have three Windows applications running atop your Desktop, [Win]+Tab will either switch to the whole set or switch to another full-screen Metro-style app.
  • [Win]+C: Show Charms Menu and the clock. For a keyboard user, the Charms Menu just introduces a middleman between you and Start Screen ([Win]), search ([Win]+R), settings ([Win]+I), devices ([Win]+K), and Share ([Win]+S). I think it's intended for touch operation, where you would open the Charms Menu by swiping the right edge of the screen.
Now you're set!

Friday, October 19, 2012


The flags are at half-mast again today. I listen to NPR daily, follow a multitude of blogs, and just visited No major tragedies as far as the eye can see. Maybe the nation is mourning because Texas State Fair's "Big Tex" was destroyed by a blaze. Or are we mourning because it's such a boring day?

Now I wonder if there's a national clearinghouse for flag owners to call in every morning and see whether to lower that flag that day. There must be, as they're always in sync. Or are the flagpoles motorized these days and synchronized by radio waves? Maybe WWVB, the NIST time signal radio station out in Ft. Collins that synchronizes everyone's atomic clocks, embeds a "flag is at half-mast today" bit into its transmissions.

I want to own a giant flag just so I never lower it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book review: "Windows 8: Out of the Box" by Mike Halsey; O'Reilly Media

My background
My first version of Windows was 3.1 at my middle school. I remember launching Accelerated Reader from Program Manager. I remember mainstream programs that would launch as a full-screen DOS windows. I also remember playing video games by shutting down Windows into MS-DOS mode, and launching the game from there. (It allowed the game to run faster, you understand.)

I didn't have a mentor to explain how to use a computer. I was the first in my family to use a computer, and I had no friends to consult. My first guide was Windows for Dummies by Andy Rathbone. That's right—we didn't need to specify the version number back then. At the time there weren't many versions to choose from. This book taught me to go from DOS to Windows and back, explained Program Manager, discussed what wallpapers are, and even listed some fun shareware like a pair of eyes following your cursor. I couldn't have asked for a better guide.

It may well be that Mike Halsey's Windows 8: Out of the Box will serve the same role to some 11-year-old. I asked my inner 11-year-old to see how it stacks up for a Windows newbie.

Exploring Windows 8

There is a new style of program in Windows 8... called an App.
In the first chapter, the book does a good job of both explaining the differences from previous versions of Windows and of not assuming any previous knowledge of Windows. We learn how to start Windows, navigate around, start apps, and shut down. The author takes the time to name each new component, such as the Charms menu, as well as to discuss how to navigate in the way convenient to you, whether you prefer the mouse, the keyboard, or touch.

Chapters 2, 3, 5, 6, and 10 go into functionality that casual users will want. The author starts with email and the Internet, proceeds to file sharing, and discusses how to watch and listen to videos and music, viewing and editing photos and videos, and setting up protection against malware and age-inappropriate content. These sections give a nice tour of the Metro-style Apps that come with Windows 8, as well as new control panel functionality.

Chapters 4 and 9 go into the specifics of App, desktop application, and how to find, use, and organize both.

A missing piece
The one area that I feel should've been discussed but wasn't is how to shop for Windows 8 hardware devices. With brand-new desktop PCs and tablets running a mix of Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows 8 RT, millions of consumers will soon need to decide what device to buy, and the decision is more difficult than ever. Even if you're set on a Windows device, you now have to consider these factors: what form-factor you want, where you plan to use it (such as home vs. work), what applications you want to run, whether you want touch functionality on a desktop PC, what screen resolution you need (since today's Windows tablets have a lower resolution than desktop monitors), and so on.

I strongly recommend researching this before committing to any brand-new Windows device.

Timeless advice
Criminals will try and trick you into installing malware/viruses; do not click/touch things casually.
Writing a book for a newbie carries with it some responsibility. After a while the newbie knows enough to be dangerous and puts down his books. A book like this is the best place to educate casual users about pitfalls of computing and the Internet. Mike Halsey does this admirably.

In Chapters 10, 11, and 12, the author discusses the tools that Windows provides to help protect you from data loss (through backups), malware, phishing, age-inappropriate content, and weak passwords (through picture passwords). More importantly, Mr. Halsey teaches common-sense ways to compute safely, such as to be wary of attachments and to keep backups. Many books skip these sections because heeding this advice is a chore; it's work. But it's also an investment, and it's so important that it belongs nowhere like it does in a person's first computing book.

One criticism I have is that the author doesn't justify creating a separate account for each person beyond that it separates files and Internet favorites. This sounds more like an organizational convenience than a true security benefit. Similarly, there is no discussion on account privileges, such as administrator vs. regular user. Maybe the author deemed it too advanced for people starting out with Windows. The rule of "separate accounts means separate files" is a big simplification, but in the absence of understanding file permissions, it works.

The author's style
Mr. Halsey does not editorialize. Any long-time Windows user has strong opinions about how Windows should work, and I am sure the author is no exception. But he keeps it to himself. He goes with the flow. Sure, he could point out that many people consider it very limiting that Apps can be displayed only two at a time without overlap. He could argue that it's unfriendly that the only way to get Apps is through the Windows Store. He could make the point that the idea of Apps and applications coexisting will take some getting used to. Windows 8 can easily be turned into a punching bag—and has by many critics. While this would endear him to many readers, it's not what he wants his book to be.

The 11-year-old who learned computing through Windows for Dummies doesn't care how things used to be and how you think they should be. All that's important is how things are and how to take the most advantage of it.

My recommendation
Despite hungrily following blogs and news about, and reviews of, Windows 8, I learned quite a bit from Windows 8: Out of the Box. It was like sitting down with an expert and taking a guided tour, learning smoothly and quickly the terminology, keyboard shortcuts, and new, cool, and useful features.

For the price ($3 for ebook, $10 for paper book, $11 for both), I recommend this book without hesitation to anyone planning to use Windows 8 on your, your friend's, your school's, or your work's computer or tablet. It'll give you enough to become immediately productive without taking your valuable time discussing optional niceties like file permissions.

But do research what version of Windows 8 you want before buying it. You've been warned.

(Thanks to O'Reilly Media for providing me with a copy of the ebook for review.)

My pessimism on Microsoft

I fooled you, didn't I, with my frequent posts about how excited I am about Windows 8? I might give the impression that I stand in line for a new operating system release, have a collection of Windows Phones, one for each day of the week, and firmly believe that Microsoft can do no wrong. Well, the joke's on you. I believe Microsoft is in trouble. Others explain much more eloquently than me, so here are some pointers.

First is Casey Muratori's well-founded plea to Microsoft to open distribution of Windows apps. It's a great read both for business people and for software developers.

Second is Microsoft's pricing of the upcoming Slate tablet running Windows RT. "Microsoft Surface Pricing Goes Toe-to-Toe With Apple iPad". I believe this is a big mistake. This holiday season, would you spend the same amount of money on the latest (third generation) Apple iPad or the first-generation Microsoft Slate?

The iPad offers a gigantic collection of polished, curated, and well-known apps. It offers the integration with your other iOS devices that Mac owners have come to rely on. It offers the sexiness factor. Everybody who's anybody has one.

The Slate, meanwhile, is a first-generation device, undoubtedly with warts, with a miniscule collection of apps, and with few developers rushing to fill the app shelves. It offers integration with... your Windows 8 desktop, which neither you nor your friends have. Windows 8 or Windows RT are not sexy. Yet, anyway.

Of course, this dilemma assumes a $500 tablet is even anywhere on your horizon. There are plenty of cheaper yet quality Android-based tablets, including Google's Nexus 7 for a measly $200. And Apple is planning to release an iPad Mini priced starting at $250. Microsoft is entering the red-hot tablet market with a first-generation device, ecosystem, and demand—at the premium market leader's price point.

I would love for Microsoft to succeed in their endeavors. I appreciate and respect their technologies and innovation. But given my concerns, I am long-term pessimistic on Microsoft. With today's share price being $29.47, I bought a January put option on MSFT with the $30 strike price. This profits me if after the holiday season Microsoft's stock is below $28.37/share. (My pessimism is more long-term than January, but post-holiday season is a good checkpoint.)

This is not a political post. I don't know the details of Romney's Tax Plan nor do I really care to know those details. What I do care about is the awesomeness of

This site isn't on the fringe; it was paid for by the Democratic National Committee. It's as close to "Paid for by Barack Obama" as one can get.

Sure, you could argue that it's a strawman and that the issue is much more complex than the webpage makes it out to be. Education is important for the democratic process. At the same time, this is a step toward making politics more accessible. It's taking a complex idea and boiling it down to the very basics. Bam, in 3 seconds it conveys an important message. It's the new political comic. I hear brevity is the soul of wit. This is one of the wittiest political commentaries I've seen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Software compatibility with Windows 8

One of my clients, a local private school, runs Windows XP on its PCs. I am planning an upgrade to either Windows 7 or Windows 8, with the latter being more likely.

I've installed the 90-day Windows 8 Enterprise Evaluation in VirtualBox to test compatibility with software that my client, a local private school, uses. I want to share the list with you in case you're considering upgrading and worry about compatibility. The list I tested should cover the majority of users.

Software that appears to work without any issues
Software with minor issues
  •  Inkscape The installer took much longer than normal, but the program itself appears to work fine.
  • 7-Zip 9.20. I cannot create file associations to 7-Zip within the application. Selecting extensions and clicking Apply doesn't seem to create associations. (This is a problem also on Windows 7.) One way to open archives within 7-Zip is to open 7-Zip first, then to browse to the file within 7-Zip's built-in file browser. Also, there is no 7-Zip context menu, despite the option being checked.
Software that's incompatible
  • Fortres Grand' Clean Slate 6.5 build 3319. The installer pops up two error messages: "Error retrieving StorageType" followed by "Error retrieving StorageInfo" and gives up.  I emailed Fortres Grand about it. This is most likely an easy fix that I expect to see in the next minor release.
Discoveries and surprises
  •  Windows 8 does not permit Firefox to set itself as the default browser without the user confirming this choice within the operating system's Defaults window. On one hand it smells of Microsoft making it more difficult to switch away from Internet Explorer as the default browser, reminding me of the antitrust issues in the late '90s. On the other hand, it's nice that applications cannot willy-nilly change defaults without going through the proper channel and user interaction.
  • The new Start menu (with live tiles) prominently displays stuff that's not relevant for me, such as Maps, SkyDrive, Weather, and other apps that came with Windows. Stuff I installed myself is off-screen, requiring me to scroll to the right to view it. The discovery: if you know what you want, just start typing. Just like in the Windows 7 start menu, all programs that match your substring will jump out. No scrolling needed. You can also remove the tiles you don't plan to use by right-clicking them, freeing up space for ones you will.
  • For Java support inside a browser, install Java Runtime Environment 32-bit even if you're running on the 64-bit version of Windows. This is because both Firefox and Internet Explorer run as a 32-bit process, so they don't see the 64-bit Java. Windows 7 offered Internet Explorer in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions (selectable in the Start menu), but I don't see the same selection on Windows 8.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Law analysis of 99 Problems

Thanks to the blog Cheap Talk, I found a great research paper: Jay-Z's 99 Problems, Verse 2: A Close Reading with Fourth Amendment Guidance for Cops and Perps. At just 19 pages, it's a brief yet informative read for everyone concerned with personal rights, privacy, and due process.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wolfram|Alpha now solves free-form questions

John has 3 cookies more than Bill. Bill has half as many cookies as John. How many cookies does John have?
Everyone remembers a time in school when they were solving these problems by the pageful. For me this was less than 20 years ago.

Today, Wolfram|Alpha has support for answering these questions! It's an incredible development. (If you know about Wolfram|Alpha, you know this is merely the icing on the cake.) How many technologies have to be perfected and integrated for Wolfram|Alpha to exist? Off the top of my head, I can think of natural language processing (NLP), computer algebra system (CAS), and chemical, physical, astronomical, and other databases.

To me, Wolfram|Alpha is one of the marvels of our time. Give it a try, and be amazed.