Rereading: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 6, 2017

The-Soul-of-a-New-Machine-by-Tracy-KidderI first read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder just after it came out in 1981, before it won the Pulitzer and National Book awards in 1982. I read it again at the end of 2016. Thirty-five years later it is still a stunning book, even though the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, the title character, died long ago, a few remember. As I read The Soul of a New Machine a second time, I kept thinking, “What happened to these great people who worked so hard?” I decided I’d provide a review with research/annotations/links. If you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine I highly recommend you do. Most books about science and technology date very quickly, but this one hasn’t. Why? Because it’s about people, not a machine. The story reads like a novel.

I’ve spent days struggling to write this essay. The book is about engineers who push themselves to produce a new computer, working 80+ hour weeks, not for money, fame, or rewards. They are driven to invent by their desire to master knowledge and skills. I’ve always wished I had that kind of passion. A few days ago I read “How to Become a ‘Superager’” in the New York Times, that reports that older people who push themselves mentally stay cognitively healthy longer. It’s more than doing crosswords though. I believe what they were talking about is like how the folks worked in this book drove themselves to master a problem. You just keep going, keep working, keep trying, keep pushing, until the problem is solved. Because I’m retired, I know I can quit and kick back at any time, when I tire of a task. But I want to finish this essay, and I’ve had to constantly push myself. I wanted to reread this book, carefully summarize it, and find out everything I could about what happen to the people in the story since it’s publication.

mv8000I’m going to hyperlink the hell out of this review for two reasons. First, if you just read The Soul of a New Machine and have the same questions I did, this should be a handy resource. Second, if you haven’t read the book, seeing why I’m so fascinated with a 36-year-old book about a forgotten minicomputer should make you want to read it. The Soul of the New Machine is a perfect example of what is now called creative nonfiction, but that term didn’t exist back when it was first written. It essentially means using techniques borrowed from novelists to write compelling nonfiction. This writing technique is old, but I first noticed it in the 1960s. Truman Capote used it in his 1965 book, In Cold Blood, which he called a nonfiction novel. Tom Wolfe used it for The Electric Kool-Acid Test in 1968 and called it New Journalism. So by 1978, Kidder had plenty of models to choose from.

What’s particularly impressive about The Soul of a New Machine is Kidder didn’t know anything about computers. His editor at The Atlantic told him to write about computers. He didn’t want to. Then Kidder went sailing with Tom West, the god of the new computer, and became part of the story. That’s another common aspect of creative nonfiction – the author becomes a character in the story, letting us readers know how the story came to be.

Here’s a Zen koan. Who would you want to be – the storyteller or the subject? Back in 1978 would it have been more rewarding to be Tom West or Tracy Kidder? Or Carl Alsing, Chuck Holland or Ed Rasala. A Hardy Boy or Microkid? But I’m getting ahead of myself, because you probably don’t know who those people are. My point is Tracy Kidder had to learn about computers, but he also had to learn about why computers were so fascinating to this small group of people, and why they wanted to build a new one. Kidder had to go beyond that, he had to learn what how each of these engineers got on the path that led them to become creators of a computer. His effort was no less than the engineers building the Eagle.

When I reread a book I love, I want to know everything I can about it, especially about how it was written, and if the book is about real people, what happened to them after the book came out. This review will be full of links to the articles that answer some of those questions. I wish I could write like Tracy Kidder and write the 2017 update to the story. But just writing these 2,000+ words showed me how much work that involves. Writing 100,000 words is beyond my comprehension.

Plot

In February of 1978, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced the VAX, a groundbreaking line of 32-bit minicomputers. The story opens at Data General, DEC’s competitor, and their need to quickly produce a 32-bit supermini to compete with the VAX. Data General had a popular 16-bit minicomputer called the Eclipse, but decided to design a whole new 32-bit computer, code named Fountainhead, that would be superior to the VAX. As a backup, manager Tom West proposed a second project, to upgrade the Eclipse to 32-bit, which they code named the Eagle. The Soul of a New Machine is about the tremendous management and technical effort to redesign a 16-bit machine to work flawlessly as a 32-bit machine without a mode-bit. So owners of the 16-bit Eclipses could buy the new machine and run all their old software without any conversion. This rush effort took place in 1978 and 1979. In many ways it prefigures Steve Jobs’ effort to produce the Macintosh a few years later. Because they are stories about the men and women working long hours, sacrificing their personal lives, to give birth to a machine.

Setting

Most of the events in the story take place during 1978-1979, at Data General’s headquarters in Westborough, Massachusetts, off Route 495, in building 14A/B. I wish I could find photos of the actual offices and labs, especially where the Hardy Boys and Microkids worked. I’d like to see what their debugging tools looked like, and the prototypes named “Coke” and “Gollum.” This one photo from the early 1980s is the best I could do.

Kidder interviewed his subjects secretly at Data General, and outside of work, going to their homes, parties, outings and even sailing with Tom West. I wish I could find photos of those events and locations, but so far I haven’t. It’s weird to think such an heroic project took place in a dull basement of a nondescript building.

Characters

eagleteamThe first report from Wired Magazine shows the photograph on the right and lists who they were and where they are now. Unfortunately, the photo does not include Tom West, the Ulysses of the story. West was the manager who gathered a team of about two dozen men and one woman to build the Eagle, essentially in secret. Data General gave the real Fountainhead project publically to the engineers who had moved to North Carolina. There were two teams – The Hardy Boys who worked on hardware, and the Microkids who wrote the software. West had two lieutenants, Carl Alsing, who supervised the Microkids, and Ed Rasala who bossed the Hardy Boys.

Tom West – was the top level manager, and essentially the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine. The best post-book profile of West I found was “O, Engineers!” from Wired Magazine, for the 20th anniversary of the book. This essay is well worth reading because West talks about how the book affected his memory of events. He didn’t always appreciate the fame the book brought. Plus it’s a good summary of the story and an update about how people came to judge the book. I also found The Computer Museum Report from Spring, 1983 which reprints a dialog between Kidder and West. West died at 71, in 2011. Here is his obituary at the New York Times, and one at the Boston Globe.

Steven J. Wallach – was the Eagle’s architect. A 2008 New York Times piece that chronicles Wallach’s whole career. He continued to design computers and start companies after he left Data General.

Carl Alsing – was probably the second most important character in the book. Tom West was often a mystery to the Hardy Boys and Microkids. Alsing was his John the Baptist. This 1974 DataGeneral newsletter has some photos of younger Alsing and West.

I found this YouTube video for the Science Friday Book Club that interviews Asling, Holland and Shanahan in 2015. It briefly shows the ball maze Chuck Holland created and mentioned in the book. When I read that part I really wanted to see it.

Carl Asling, Chuck Holland, Betty Shanahan 2015

 

Goodreads Computer History BooksJust look at Goodreads “Popular Computer History Books” – The Soul of a New Machine comes in at #2. I’ve read many of these books over the years, and I find them incredibly inspiring. I worked with computers most of my working life, but I was always a low-level programmer, web designer, or computer tech support guy. I guess reading computer history books for me is about envy. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine is like reading family history, but about my cousins who succeeded in the big time. I’ve always loved science fiction and computers. I’m not the only one, became that combo is common. The Soul of a New Machine is also #2 on “50 All-Time Classic Books About Computers and Computing.” I have to assume there are many readers out there like me.

Yet, as I reread this book I constantly asked myself why I was reading about technology that went to the scrapheap decades ago, was never famous other than being in this book, and about computer engineers that few people remember today? Yet, reading The Soul of a New Machine was just as much fun in 2016 as it was in 1981. The Soul of a New Machine is about how hard work leads to creativity. It’s about being different. The men and women in this story have keen intellects, were often loners, and all had unique hobbies peculiar to engineers. It’s a story about people who can focus on one goal with such concentration that they almost forget everything else in life. Tracy Kidder tells an amazing story about amazing people in amazing detail. Yet, in 2017, why would anyone want to read about the design and engineering team that built a long forgotten minicomputer, or a company that went out of business, and was never legendary or insanely great? I doubt younger people even know the terms mainframe, minicomputers and microcomputers. Or care about a time when a business struggled to bring out a 32-bit computer to market when 16-bit was the standard.

All of that technical history doesn’t really matter. What matters are the people. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine makes me ask the question at the top of the essay. Most kids today daydream of growing up to be a star – whether in sports, movies, music, television. They want to be rich, famous, or some kind of superhero. If I was a kid reading this book, I’d want to grow up to be like Tracy Kidder, Tom West, Carl Asling, or any of the people in that group photo above, or the people profiled in the books at Goodreads. Most kids won’t become Beyoncé. I didn’t become Bill Gates. When I reread The Soul of a New Machine I experience a beautiful sense of regret. I lived through some of the most exciting times in technological history. I was in the stands watching, and that was great, it wasn’t the same as being on the field, but it was still very cool.

JWH

Dreaming of a Perfect Computer

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 26, 2016

On some days I hate computers!!! When I feel that way I daydream about my perfect machine. Right now that would be a Surface Studio, Microsoft’s contender to give Apple’s best iMac a good thumping. Yet, if I owned a Surface Studio and it was giving me the same problems my current machine is pestering me with, I’d hate it too. Microsoft is innovating like crazy, but it’s not going in the direction I want.

What’s annoying me at the moment is my Outlook for Office 2016 quit communicating with my Office.com and Office365 accounts. I have to use the web version of Outlook365, but I was able to configure Thunderbird to handle my Office.com mail. Because Outlook, Thunderbird, and Postbox will not configure with Office365, I’m wondering if my university’s setup with Microsoft changed. I’ve contacted the Helpdesk and they say no. I follow the configuration Office365 gives to use IMAP, but it doesn’t work. I’m wondering if the powers that be behind the scenes are pushing universal web access. I essentially pay $69 a year for Outlook. I do use Word, but not that often. I hardly every use the other programs. I love Outlook. Living without it is damn annoying.

When your favorite program breaks – do you blame it or the computer?

I’ve been a computer guy since 1971 when I took my first FORTRAN class, programming on a IBM 1620. I’ve always loved computers – but on some days I hate them. Today is one of those days. So was yesterday. Okay, maybe it’s been a bad week. I hate computing without Outlook. I think things went south when Microsoft’s updated my copy of Windows Pro Insider Preview. I can’t find out if Build 14986.rs_prerelease.161202-1928 is the culprit, or something else. Sure, I’m working with what’s essentially a continuous beta, but 98% of the time I notice no problems. I’ve had some bad releases before. Things will suck until a new version is pushed out. I can’t blame Microsoft because I chose this option. I wouldn’t do it again though, not on a machine I use daily.

microsoft-surface-studio

I should just buy the commercial edition, but I’m afraid I’ll spend $99-119 and still have problems. Microsoft continuously updates production Windows 10 too. And I’m not sure the problem is Windows. I subscribe to Office365, and it updates in the background too. And it might not even be an update. I have no way of knowing.

For decades I worked as a programmer and computer tech. I was the guy staff called at my college when they needed help. Now that I’m retired, I’ve gone three years without keeping up with current problems. I’m the guy to call when I have problems, but I wish I had someone else. I feel sorry for people who have computer problems, don’t know shit about them, and with no one to call. They must really hate computers much more often than I do.

Microsoft and Apple are in an eternal battle to sell us tech that wows us, but I haven’t been wowed in years. Computers have been more than good enough for a very long time. I never even bother to learn the new features of the new version of an operating systems. The innovation I want is different.

I want a computer that doesn’t update. I want a computer that always runs as fast as when I first bought it. I want Windows and Office to run off ROM (read-only memory) chips and not constantly change files on a disk drive, so viruses/malware can’t alter their code. I know this would mean giving up adding new features, but Windows has been around a long time – do we still need new features? I remember back in the 1950s and 1960s when TVs lasted decades without updates. Sure, you might replace a vacuum tube now and then, but their operation was simply and reliable. You turned on your TV. That was it. It worked. It didn’t need a manual. It didn’t need no stinking updates. It didn’t even need a virus checker.

I have an Intel NUC with a SSD drive and 16GB of memory. It boots up fast. But the OS is part of the file system, and can be corrupted. What if operation systems were etched into ROM chips? After almost 40 years of personal computer development, can’t they make one that doesn’t need constant updates? Wouldn’t it be great to have computers with a ROM socket with a replaceable chip that contained Windows and Office? A new version Windows and Office could be bought every few years with a new chip. Or wouldn’t it be great to buy an All-In-One computer that would run perfectly for ten years without any maintenance, updates, patches, down time, infection, malware, or repairs? That’s the kind of tech innovation I want.

Aren’t we smart enough to engineer a computer that never breaks or gets infected? They no longer need moving parts. My dream computer would come with 12 empty ROM sockets for the software I used the most, and that I wanted to be absolutely dependable. It would have at least a quad processor, with CPU 0 dedicated to the operating system. It would use a SSD drive for data that mirrors with two cloud services like Dropbox and OneDrive. And I want that data encrypted with multiple biometric verifications. Any software installed via downloading would be put in a sandbox part of the system with extremely tight controls. Each program would get it’s own folder, and not be allowed to interact with other programming folders. That way if some company wants to distribute crapware, they’d have to live with it.

Is a computer that always works too much to expect? Is a computer that’s always dependable and never slows down with age an unbelievable fantasy? Why do we have malware, viruses and identity theft? Wouldn’t it be great to have a computer and software that lasted years so we had time to learn to use it properly before the new and improved version is forced on us?

Aren’t there people who want to become billionaires willing to invent a dependable computer? Do we need to phase out TCP/IP and come up with a new protocol, and start the internet over?

If cars or HVAC systems had the reliability of computers, wouldn’t we start a revolution. Oh wait, newer cars and HVAC systems do have computers. My super-efficient HVAC has had its circuit board replaced three times. I love my old Toyota Tundra. It’s seventeen years old, but it’s simplicity and reliability is a virtue.

Okay, that’s enough daydreaming for one day.

JWH

Technofrustration

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I know technofrustration isn’t a real word but it should be. In the last twenty-four hours I’ve had two aggravating experiences with technology. First, my Windows Media Center stopped retrieving data for it’s television guide, and second, my new version of Windows 10 stopped working with the new version of iTunes when it comes to downloading Audible.com books. Both issues I believe are due to orphaned technology. Microsoft doesn’t want to support Windows Media Center anymore, and Audible probably doesn’t want to support desktops anymore. Before smartphones, Audible users would download audiobooks to their desktop and then copy them to iPod/MP3 players. I’ve been using an ancient iPod Nano for my audiobook listening because it’s much lighter than my iPhone for carrying around in my shirt pocket.

computer-frustration-mutual-cartoon

Microsoft wants to be out of the media center business, and I guess Audible wants to shift it’s audiobook delivery system to mobile devices. In other words, I want to keep doing things the old way, and I’m being frustrated in my efforts. I’m sure it’s very expensive for corporations to support legacy systems for the old farts who don’t want to keep up with the times. I wonder how many old techno foot draggers there are out there like me?

I only recently switched back to using an iPod Nano. It’s much easier to download an audiobook on my iPhone, but it’s a delight to just carry around a Nano. I was even shopping on eBay to find a 7th generation iPod Nano to buy to replace my ancient 2nd generation device. However, this morning downloading books to my old Nano stopped working, and after several software reinstalls I still can’t get it working. It might not be practical to go back to the old Nano technology. Many pundits figured Apple would never release an 8th generation Nano, but they did, so I figure I’m not the only audiobook listener who wants to travel light.

Part of my frustration is due to working with a prerelease version of Windows 10. When I talked with Audible’s tech support they didn’t seem to have scripts that covered Windows 10. What’s really hurting is not being able to record TV shows with Windows Media Center. Supposedly Microsoft contracted a different company to supply the guide data and some users aren’t getting the updates to the system.

I have to decide if it’s time to give up on my Windows Media Center PC and my old iPods. To avoid frustration I’m being herded towards using my Roku box and iPhone instead. I happen to have those devices—but what about all the people who don’t? Another way to avoid technofrustration is to give up on technology. I could just read books instead of watching TV or listening to audiobooks.

I wonder if the Amish are a tribe of people who suffered too much technofrustration in the 19th century?

JWH

Less Is More–The Intel NUC 5i5RYK

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, June 7, 2015

I love technological marvels. I’ve been lusting after the new iMac, the one with the 5K 27” screen, but since I didn’t have that kind of money my new tech toy is the tiny Intel NUC 5i5RYK – a powerful desktop computer smaller than a book. Whenever I buy a new computer I have great expectations before my purchase, and all kinds of imaginative ideas how I would redesign the computer afterwards. Because I’m reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I was inspired to get the NUC to significantly reduce computer clutter.

The evolution of computers in my lifetime has been towards smallness. How little can a fully functioning desktop computer get, and still offer all the usability and configurability that a traditional desktop offered? Many users have already given up on desktops, switching to laptops, tablets and smartphones, but those mobile devices have limitations that force their users to buy extra gadgets to return them to desktop functionality – like keyboards for tablets. Or they invent kludgy apps, like programs that use the camera to scan images. People write novels and edit movies on laptops, but it’s doubtful we’ll see that kind of work done on a smartphone or tablet. And even heavy-duty laptop users often add an external monitor, mouse and printer.

This experience has made me wonder what the perfect desktop computer setup would be for me. Contemplating tidying up my life reveals the essence of my tech needs.

  • Fast computer (I hate waiting)
  • 27” monitor with highest resolution possible (I love to see the digital world as sharply as possible)
  • scanner (paper input)
  • printer (paper output)
  • speakers (digital music output)
  • keyboard mouse (for me the best interface for communicating with computers)

I figure the Apple 5K iMac with its 27” screen is about ideal for reducing the size of a computer and leaving it big enough for productive work. However, it costs a fair penny. Since I’m a do-it-yourselfer and cheap, I bought an Intel NUC 5i5RYK. The NUC (Next Unit of Computing) is tiny. My NUC was $384, plus $98 for 16GB of memory, and $117 for a Samsung 250GB M2 SSD, and $20 for an Amazon Basics wireless keyboard and mouse.

NUC with wall wart

The machine the NUC is replacing is a desktop I built myself with an Intel i5 2500K CPU, 8GB of memory, a 2TB drive, housed in a spacious Antec ATX case with 600w power supply. The NUC seems about 1/30th to 1/40th the size, yet has roughly the same capabilities. Intel even claims the NUC can drive a 4K monitor – something I want to buy in my future. I threw Windows 10 Technical Preview on it and installed all my favorite software. My desk is closer to the Zen simplicity of my fantasy, and my home office is silent enough for meditation.  Since I ran my old desktop 24×7, I didn’t know how much ambient noise it made.

Both machines are fast enough for me. The old chip, a 4-core i5, ran at 3.3 Ghz, and the new 2-core i5 runs at a much slower clock speed, but is a 5th generation Broadwell chip that is much more efficient. I assume my old machine has a lot more muscle for processor intensive work, but I don’t do those kinds of jobs, nor do I play games. I’ve also learned moving to a SSD drive is blazing fast compared to the mechanical drive. I don’t ever want to go back. The boot up time is so fast I don’t mind shutting the NUC down when I’m not using it. Not only is this computer small, but it only uses 6-30 watts of electricity, as oppose to 80-200 watts of the old machine.

My fantasy before buying the NUC was to have a very clean desk. I pictured this simple box sitting on the desk, out of sight, or even attached to the back of my 27” monitor. The NUC does come with a plate to do that. However, I didn’t foresee how many wires I’d have to plug into the thing, which has turned it into a desktop octopus. It has two USB ports on the front and back, including one powered port in the front.

It terms of clutter configurability, I wished all it’s ports were on one side. What I need is two USB hubs. One to snake around to the front of the monitor for easy access for removable devices, and second hub for permanent connects I can hide in the back.

I currently have a 27” 1080p monitor without USB ports. I plan to buy a 27” 4K monitor with 4 USB 3.0 ports when the price is right.  That should solve most of those wiring problems.  You can never have too many USB ports, but how many are too little? I never had enough USB ports on my iMac at work before I retired, or my big desktop at home. I’m always swapping out cables. Engineers can design smaller computers, but we still have all the peripherals to deal with. I have these USB devices (but don’t always use them):

  1. Printer/scanner/copier all-in-one.
  2. Web cam
  3. Microphone
  4. Wireless nub for keyboard and mouse
  5. UPS backup
  6. External drives
  7. Apple iPhone/touch/Nano/iPad and other MP3 devices
  8. Kindles and a Nexus 7 
  9. Cameras
  10. Memory card readers
  11. LP turntable
  12. External Soundblaster

All-in-one computers elegantly solve the problem of reducing clutter, but if something goes wrong, they are hard to fix. Modular systems are ungainly, but it’s easy to swap out components. The goal is to get rid of wires and cables. A wireless keyboard and mouse are about perfect in their minimal footprint. All-in-one printer/copier/scanner machines are approaching an ideal minimal design. My Epson WF-3540 has SD card readers and a USB port, and it’s wireless. Sadly, the wireless only works with printing, but I can print from my iPad and iPhone. I wished the scanner would work through the Wi-Fi so I could store the Epson out of sight. I hate seeing it on my desk.

My speakers are now the ugliest thing on my desktop. Each speaker is about seven times the size of the Intel NUC, plus an ugly subwoofer under the desk, and they have a lot of tangled wiring. No all-in-one computer has great sound, but I might find high-fidelity nirvana with a sound bar, or a SONOS system. There’s no reason why the music playing from my computer must come from near my computer. On the other hand, Mackie Studio Monitor Speakers might be the way to go.

Finally, I have my ugly UPS surge protector. Since the new setup is so low powered, I will be able to get a much smaller UPS in the future. Most people don’t use a UPS backup, and I wonder if I could live without one too.

I haven’t decided if I’ll put iTunes on this system, or even use Windows Media Player. I only use iTunes to put Audible.com files on old Nano players. I only used Windows Media Player to rip CDs. I’m very close to giving up CDs and MP3s because of Spotify, and I get all my audio books through my iPhone now.

Most of my data and photo files are in the cloud. I think going from the 2TB HD to a 250GB SSD is possible.

I’m already well satisfied with the NUC. I gave one of my desktops away, and packed the other in the back of a closet. My on-the-go computer is a Toshiba Chromebook 2 with a 1080p IPS screen. It’s also tiny. Once I let go of my old desktop, I’ll be done with CD/DVD/BD drives and mechanical disk drives. Next, I wonder if I can ever give up printing and scanning?

JWH

How to Fight a Virus on Your Computer

By James W. Harris, Thursday, February 26, 2015

WARNING: This is free advice, take at your own risk. I’m trying to be helpful, but without commitment.

Twice in the past month I’ve had to help people clean up a computer virus remotely over the phone, and both times Kaspersky 2015 Antivirus did the trick. At $39 for a 3 user license, it’s not first tool people want to turn to. What you want to do is try all the free tools first, and if they don’t work, consider buying Kaspersky, or another top level antivirus program.

Before I retired, I had to support hundreds of computers and their users. The first tool we tried when someone got a virus was Malwarebytes. If it was a minor infection, Malwarebytes would clean it up. If it was a bad infection, that infection wouldn’t let us install Malwarebytes. That’s a major indicator. You know you have a bad computer virus when you can’t install software, can’t run Microsoft updates, can’t get to the command prompt, or pursue any other course of action that might clean up the virus. Viruses are getting very clever about protecting themselves. [Home users get the free version of Malwarebytes and make sure you uncheck the box that asks you if you want to try the professional version when you run the install. The professional version is great if you want to pay for it, and have it run in background all the time. The free version is great for running occasionally, which takes up fewer resources.]

If you think you have a virus, try running your regular antivirus program doing a full scan. Then, run Disk Cleanup, and go through your Programs and Features control panel  and uninstall anything you know you don’t need. Don’t uninstall what you don’t know. Google the program to find out what it does if you don’t know.  Restart the computer. Try and install Malwarebytes again. If you can’t get to the internet, put Malwarebytes on a flashdrive using another computer. If something keeps Malwarebytes or other scanners from installing, then you probably have a nasty virus that’s going to take more work.

You can try some of the better free antivirus programs, but I’d avoid AVG. It’s become really annoying. Here are two reviews for free anti-virus programs at Gizmo’s Freeware and Tom’s Guide. The trouble with free is these companies have to find alternate ways to make money, and sometimes their methods can be very annoying. That’s why I don’t love AVG anymore.  Avira seems to be kinder in this regard.

Helping someone over the phone clean up a virus infected computer isn’t easy. Getting them to try a bunch of different free programs in hopes of finding one that works can be tedious, and usually people who ask me for help aren’t real keen on messing with computers in the first place. That’s why I’ve asked them to consider paying for a top level program like Kaspersky. It’s work like a charm twice now this month. That’s all I can say. You could buy it, and get nowhere.

I’m offering this experience because it might be useful, but I don’t want to be responsible for anything that goes wrong. However, in both the cases I’m referring to, these people couldn’t use their computers, and they wanted to avoid hitting the panic keys to reinstall Windows.

Kaspersky requires you to register before using it – they want to track your licenses. We’ve always gotten the cheaper version, the plain 2015 antivirus program. They offer more expensive suites. If you visit a lot of dangerous places on the Internet, you might want the extra protection. In both cases I mentioned, Kaspersky was able to install and run when the infected machines were not letting other programs install.

If you have a killer virus that stops all programs from installing, try and find an antivirus program that can run from a boot disc.  This bypasses Windows. Here’s a list of free ones. Here’s another view of 26 such utilities. These usually boot to Linux and often have hard to use interfaces. You need some Geek skills to use them. Often if you take badly infected machines to a computer shop or Geek Squad, they will want to wipe your disc and start over. Sometimes it takes many hours to clean up an infect computer, and they know it’s quicker to wipe a disk and start over. Otherwise they’d have to charge you $400.

Getting an infection on your computer can be very trying and depressing. The best thing to do is always run good antivirus software, always keep your operating system and programs up-to-date, and even consider running extra preventive measures. It’s not good to have two antivirus scanners running in the background at the same time – it causes a performance hit, and sometimes conflicts. However, I’m considering adding Webroot to my home computer. I used it at work. It’s an Internet base scanner, so it approaches problems from another direction. But that means paying two yearly fees. However, $39.95 a year keeps me thinking about it, rather than buying. If you visit a lot of iffy web sites, consider buying Malwarebytes. It’s not a general purpose antivirus program, but it does clean up the crap you step in while walking the seedy streets of the web.

JWH

Can OneDrive Replace All My Hard Drives?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Now that Microsoft is offering unlimited OneDrive storage to its Office365 users, it’s hard not to consider moving my entire digital life to the cloud. Is that crazy? Can I trust Microsoft with my files? Do I still need back up?  I have four computers with nine hard drives, some internal, some external. I also have two tablets and a smartphone. Can I consolidate all those files into one cloud filing system to share among all my devices? What happens when the net is down?

OneDrive

Security and Privacy

We trust our money to banks backed by the Federal government. Can cloud storage sites become as trustworthy? We don’t have to worry about backing up our money, so it would be great to have an institution for banking our files.  We want similar levels of security for our digital files as we do our money. We want privacy, and we want to believe our files will never be lost or stolen.

Because Microsoft is a corporate giant, and because it wishes to dominate the business and personal computer landscape, I have a feeling it will do everything possible to protect and secure our files – otherwise it would be sued out of existence. Is even that logic comforting enough to make me trust OneDrive with all my digital possessions?

Users of cloud storage have to decide what kind of files they will trust to file banks. Ripped movies and songs are different from personal photographs or banks statements, when it comes to privacy and security. But if hackers can break into your home computer and cloud servers, which are safer? Would Sony have been safer keeping their files on OneDrive? Who knows what’s safe anymore. My mistake, and Sony’s might be having one system, with one root level access. That implies spreading the risk across many cloud drives.

For now I’m going to trust OneDrive with all the files I don’t care if I lose. I will wear a belt and suspenders with files I’m desperate to keep no matter what.

Because I map OneDrive and Dropbox to my computer, I could run SecondCopy to replicate every file I save to OneDrive to Dropbox. Or I could subscribe to a cloud backup service. Finally, if I was super-paranoid, I would save to a local hard drive.

Speed

Accessing and saving files from a hard drive, SSD drive or USB drive is faster than working with the cloud directly. The speed of processing files will be determined by the speed of your internet provider.  Speeds across the net vary sharply. I often get 20Mbps downloads, but only 1.5Mbps uploads. And the upload speed is what determines how long it take to save a file. It can take weeks to upload a terabyte.  But once in the cloud, files are much faster to access.  You wouldn’t want to edit movies in the cloud, but it’s fine for most other tasks.

For many devices, Microsoft keeps a copy of your files locally – a kind of backup, and then copies those files to the cloud in the background. Using those files are just like normal. It’s easy to keep a full local copy of all your files on computers with 1TB drives, but tablets with 16GB or phones with 8GB makes that hard. The is a computer science problem that will require a lot of clever programming to solve.

My guess is network speeds – wired, wireless, cellular – will increase more and more, and eventually our files will reside completely in the cloud.  We’re becoming so netcentric, so interconnected, that we’ll always trust being linked. Eventually, it will be safer to store files in the cloud, than on local drives.  Just imagine if your computer burns up in a house fire, or your phone falls in the lake, if your files are stored in the cloud, it’s only a matter of finding another device to access them.

This implies two things for our future: unlimited bandwidth and faster networks.

I’ve been moving some audio book files as a test, and I’ve finished about 24GB in about forty hours. When I consolidate all my data from all my drives I doubt I’ll have more than 400-500 GB, so it might take me 15-20 days to get my files uploaded to OneDrive. I’m not sure what my Internet provider will think about that. Using OneDrive will effect your internet quotas.

I doubt I’ll access my audiobooks over a cellphone connection, not because of speed, but because of metering.

Convenience and Simplicity

Ultimately, convenience corrupts everyone. I no longer play my CDs or MP3 files, its way easier to play songs off of Spotify. Once I trust Spotify completely, I’ll delete 200 GB of mp3 files off of OneDrive.  People are going to stop collecting and saving digital content like movies, television shows and songs. Why go through the headaches of running your own media server when you can pay Netflix or Spotify to do it for you? Owning creative content is going to disappear – renting is just too convenient.

That means maintaining the content you personally create, the words you type, the pictures you take, the movies you make, are going to be the files you want to protect and save no matter what. It’s now possible to configure your mobile devices to automatically save to OneDrive, and once those files are online they’re available to your other devices.

Once I trust the idea of having all my files in one location, accessible to all my devices, my next goal will be to develop a file organization system.  I’ve been doing that for a few years with Dropbox and I’ve become very good at finding and filing files.

Costs

I get unlimited OneDrive because I subscribe to Office365. I pay $99/year for a 5-license subscription, but I could have gotten a single license for $70.  Dropbox was charging $99/year for 100GB of just space. So Office365 is a bargain. I’m either getting free Office Professional, or unlimited cloud space for free. I will also save on external drives, USB drives, and buying computers and mobile devices with lots of extra storage space.

Now, if you only use Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and can live with less than 15GB of file space, just get a free Outlook.com account, and use the online versions of those programs. Or if you’re Google oriented, they offer Google Docs and free cloud space. However, I wanted Outlook, Access and Publisher.

Pros

  • Simplicity – can throw a lot of hardware away (one of my machines was for backing up).
  • One location to organize – never work about duplicate files over many drives.
  • Accessible from all computers, tablets and mobile devices.
  • File versioning – can undo back to previously saved versions.
  • Recover deleted files.
  • Automatic backup (?).

Cons

  • Trusting everything to Microsoft – what if they screw up or go out of business?
  • Using OneDrive is more complicated than using a hard drive, but it offers more sophisticated features.
  • How OneDrive works is changing – it’s in a state of flux at the moment.
  • File upload time is very slow.
  • File download time is much faster, but not like from hard drive or SSD.
  • First attempt to move to Microsoft OneDrive presented some problems.  Dropbox is more bulletproof now.
  • I might need to backup OneDrive to Dropbox for extra safety.
  • $100 a year for 5 computers, or $70 a year for 1 computer – but I get Office365.
  • Privacy issues.
  • Locks me into Microsoft for the rest of my life.
  • Sync issues with mobile devices.
  • Can I still use Google Docs?
  • No file larger than 10GB
  • And there might be a current limitation of having just 20,000 total files.
  • Not all programs work with placeholder files.

Other People Worrying Over the Same Thing

Table of Contents

Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.

JWH