Fix It Permanently

I was recently asked to “fix something permanently”. The most polite response I could muster at the time was “I got a sliver again yesterday”. A bit snarky, I guess. Another response that came to mind was “there are permanent fixes, but you’re not going to like any of them”. Too snarky? I thought so.

Technology is complicated. Technology is ever-changing. The only way to avoid the issues altogether is to avoid technology altogether.

I can’t begin to describe the complexity of a single personal computer. There are literally billions of components and millions of lines of code. Subsystem upon subsystem upon subsystem. Knock a bit out somewhere (called a Single Event Upset, ref: The World is Hostile to Computers), and the whole thing can come tumbling down. I’m amazed that computers work at all.

So we do our best, selecting the most stable hardware and software, maintaining that hardware and software, and preparing for issues by having backups and backup plans.

The thing that I was asked to “fix permanently” was a Windows backup over a network to a network drive. (Note: Complexity can be measured in bits, where 1 bit equals 2 combinations, 2 bits equals 4 combinations, etc.) That situation involved a third-party backup software (22M bytes = 200M bits), running on Windows 10 (3500M bytes = 33B bits), running on an Intel processor (roughly 2B transistors = 2B bits), over a network (wired and wireless) with a dozen other devices, and connecting to a NAS (another 200M bits running on a 2B bit operating system, running on 1B transistors). With the combination of all those bits (because they all have to work together), the number of combinations is more than the number of potential slivers on Earth (5×10^45, or 5 followed by 45 zeros vs the number of potentials slivers on earth = 3×10^12 trees x the number of slivers in a tree = 3×10^12 = 9×10^24, or 9 followed by 24 zeros). The network backup worked for 3 years before a problem appeared.

[In the preceding paragraph, M = million and B = billion.)

Of course I could fix my sliver problem permanently, but I don’t like any of my options. I can live with getting slivers.

The Linux Alternative

With Windows 11 coming out this fall, some people will take the opportunity to consider making the switch to Linux. This article explores Linux and the other alternatives.

Windows has served us well for 36 years. It has been, and still is, the most globally-accepted platform for everything from creating documents, spreadsheets, and websites, to accounting and gaming. There are other platforms–like Mac OS, iOS, Android, and Chrome OS–but none has nearly as much market share as Windows (currently at 87.56%).

Windows has been great for the sheer size of its “catalog”: the list of Windows-compatible software. It has also been great for its “backwards compatibility”: the fact you can still run some 30-year old software on the latest Windows. But there are some things that are pushing users away from Windows. Update glitches still trip us up too frequently. Infections happen, although less frequently. Keeping your computer running efficiently (without bogging down) can be difficult. Changes to the user interface, especially with new versions of Windows, can confuse users.

Mac OS is an alternative that started at about the same time as Windows, although it has never reached 10% market share. Some say it is easier to use, while others find it highly restrictive.

The “mobile” operating systems–like iOS, Android, and Chrome OS–are becoming more prevalent and functional. Some of these operating systems can be run on, and take the place of, “desktop” operating systems.

The “odd one out” is Linux. It is the basis for all the platforms (with the exception of Windows and MacOS prior to OSX) so it, too, has been around for a long time. Linux is open-source, so can be downloaded and installed for free. There are many popular “distros” available, including Mint, Ubuntu, Pop!_OS, and Manjaro.

The advantages of running Linux are that it is free, runs on a wide range of hardware, and supports many of the functions we all want and need: browsing, streaming, emailing, creating documents and spreadsheets, and even gaming* (*see “Linux Gaming” by Teky’s own, Craig Shields). Linux is very stable, very secure, very easy to install, and has a familiar look. Unless your goal is gaming, it can run well on older hardware, making use of what would otherwise be discarded Windows/Mac hardware.

So, rather than upgrading to Windows 11 on your current laptop or desktop, consider loading it with Linux.

Linux Gaming

Gaming for Linux has come a long way in the last 10 years, thanks to the continuing efforts of the open source community. No longer just the realm of hardcore Linux tinkerers, with little, or even no work, most games will be able to run on a Linux PC, as long as it meets the hardware requirements.

Lutris (www.lutris.net) was first released in 2013, and is continually being updated by the community. It is an open-source game manager that uses a Windows compatibility layer called Wine in order to run Windows based games under Linux. While most games will run OK under Wine, using Lutris will allow each Wine session for each game, to be customized for that game. No matter who you purchased the game from, download or physical copy, Lutris will allow you to install and play, providing someone in the community has made a compatible installer. If one is not available, you can try the default configuration, and should still get decent performance.

In 2018, Valve, the creators of the Steam gaming platform, took the code for Wine, and modified it to become new software called Proton. Proton (www.protondb.com) became the Windows interface layer for games running on Linux via the Steam games manager. It offers a much smoother experience than default Wine, or Lutris, however it will only support games that have been purchased through Steam*. As of now, approximately 76% of their top 1000 games are supported through Proton.

In late 2021, Valve will be releasing the SteamDeck, a PC-based handheld games console to compete with the likes of the Nintendo Switch. Running on a custom AMD processor, with SteamOS (Valve’s customised Linux for gaming) their plan, is that anything available on the Steam platform, will be playable on the Deck. Should this prove to be half as popular as the Switch, then we can expect to see more and more games developers supporting Linux.

So far, neither GOG, Ubisoft, Epic, or Blizzard offer their game managers for Linux, so using them through Lutris is an unfortunate workaround until they do.

*Note: For those who are familiar with manually modding games, getting non-Steam games working through Steam/Proton rather than Wine/Lutris is about the same level of complexity. Doable, but not for those who are afraid to tinker.

Windows 11

I have to admit that I’m one of those people who was unwittingly spreading the rumour that “Windows 10 is the last operating system”. Apparently that was not an official statement from Microsoft because their official statement in Jul2021 was that Windows 11 will be released later this year.

Pricing for Windows 11 is not yet available, but, just like the upgrade from Windows 7 and 8, the upgrade to 11 will be free for those with existing licenses.

If you are looking forward to getting this on your computer, don’t get your hopes up; the most contentious aspect of Windows 11 is its lofty set of requirements. As it stands, in order to upgrade to it, your computer must at least have 2 cores at 1 GHz, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB free storage, TPM (Trusted Point Module) 2.0, and your CPU must be in the list of supported models (7th Gen Intel, Xeon, some Atom/Celeron, Ryzen 2nd Gen). Basically, your computer must have been made since Aug2017. (Ref. https://www.windowscentral.com/official-windows-11-requirements-have-arrived-here-are-compatible-qualcomm-amd-and-intel-cpus). We’re hoping these requirements will be loosened before its release in Oct2021.

The best news is that, if an app runs in Windows 10, it will also run in Windows 11.

Here are the biggest changes in this most recent Windows iteration:

  • Icons and windows get a refreshed look; widgets have made a comeback
  • Start button only works from bottom bar; and by default it is in the center
  • Removed some of the useless stuff: tiles, tablet mode, Internet Explorer
  • Added some new useless stuff: Teams, snap layouts, virtual desktops
  • And (I’m not sure why, but) you will be able to run Android apps

(I’m simply being thrifty with my words when I call features “useless”. They’re not useless features, they’re just features that will be used by a very small percentage of Windows users.)

As always, there are no “must have” features in the next Windows release. The biggest reason to switch to it will be the impending retirement of Windows 10 in Oct2025.

10 Web Search Tips

The Internet is full of both good and bad information. Good web search practices can help you to find the best information. Before sharing these 10 web search tips, I’d like to review a few terms. A web browser is a program or app on your device that displays web pages from websites; examples are Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari. A search engine is a website or service you use to search for a particular website, web page, or search string on a web page; examples are Google, Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo. And a search string is a word, or group of words, for which you are searching.

Most web search tips (not just these ones) apply to all web browsers and all search engines.

Tip #1. If you know the address (URL) of the website or webpage, don’t search for it, type it directly into the address bar of your browser; it can save a step. E.g. mars.nasa.gov.

Tip #2. You typically don’t have to prefix a website address with http://, https://, or www.

Tip #3. You can type a search string into the address bar of your browser, or bring up the search engine page in your browser and type it in there. You can adjust your default search engine in your browser settings.

Tip #4. You can be very specific in your search by grouping words (using hyphens or double quotes) or excluding words (prefixing with a hyphen). E.g. mars-rover “perseverance rover” -dogs.

Tip #5. You can search within a website for a search string by using the “site:” prefix. E.g. site:mars.nasa.gov “Ingenuity”.

Tip #6. With Google Search, you can narrow your search results by type, by clicking on one of the listed types: I.e. Images, Videos, Maps, News, Shopping, Books, Flights, Finance.

Tip #7. With Google Search, you can narrow or sort your search results by date, by clicking on Tools and filtering/sorting with the available drop-downs.

Tip #8. You can search by image by going to images.google.com, clicking on the camera icon, and pointing to or uploading an image. E.g. find shoes like the ones in the picture.

Tip #9. Google Chrome is the most popular browser (about 65% market share) and Google Search is the most popular search engine (about 86% market share), but not everyone likes/uses Google because they record your searches. If this is a concern for you, DuckDuckGo doesn’t record your searches.

Tip #10. If you find yourself browsing to, or searching for, a particular website frequently, set it as a favourite/bookmark to save a step and to avoid clicking on an unwanted search result.

A Real $95 Computer

This is a follow-up to my Jul2020 article about a $14 computer, the Raspberry Pi Zero W. That article, in a nutshell, said that computer was only good for tinkerers or very simple projects; it would not make a good general-purpose computer because of its lack of speed.

This article is about the Raspberry Pi 400, a $95 computer that would—in certain cases—make a good general-purpose computer.

The 400 is a computer built into a QWERTY keyboard (like in the old days of the Vic 20 or the Commodore 64). It is many times more powerful than the Zero W, and has a great selection of features: a 78-key “compact” keyboard with 4GB RAM, fast wireless-AC, and ports for gigabit Ethernet, USB 2, USB 3 (two of them), USB 3C (for power input), two microHDMI (for audio/video output), and a microSD card reader (for bootup, programs, and storage).

I had to get one to see for myself how it performed. It took an hour or so to get it updated and ready for use. With that done, I dug into some standard tasks that someone might want to do with it. Here are my findings:

  • It boots in 30 seconds, and you can be viewing a website 15 seconds later
  • It comes pre-loaded with standard apps like a browser, an email tool, and an office suite (LibreOffice)
  • You also get standard multimedia viewers for music, pictures, and videos
  • It comes with a few games, and you can load more
  • You can play many of the available online games
  • Installing a printer doesn’t take much effort
  • You can play local, or stream remote, high-def videos very well
  • The kit includes a 16GB SD card with half of it free for local storage, but you can have more storage by using a larger SD card, connected USB drives, network drives, or cloud services

The only thing that disappointed me was the difficulty in getting Zoom to work. It worked eventually—it even worked well—it just took a fair bit of effort to get there since Zoom has not yet been written for the processor in the Raspberry Pi.

As with the Zero W, the 400 still needs a few bits to make it functional. The good news is that they sell a kit that comes with everything you need, except an HDMI monitor. The kit—including the keyboard/computer itself—sells for $135 (buyapi.ca) … an amazing bargain.

I would say this kit is ideal for someone on a strict budget who wants a desktop PC to do the basics. It is still can do the projects that tinkerers want to do, but it truly stands up as a general-purpose PC, especially for the very young and the very old. It is dependable and easy to use, as long as your needs are simple.

Approaches to Passwords

Yes, passwords are a pain, but we’re stuck with them until we all get some great biometric solution. When that day comes—when we all can log into anything anywhere with our face, retina, voice, fingerprint, or whatever—passwords will still be important as an alternative access to our accounts. Even if some program is remembering your passwords for you … know them and/or record them. (This includes email passwords!) Treat your passwords like the keys to your car: keep them safe, don’t lose them, and don’t expect to get anywhere without them.

With that in mind, here is a brief password refresher.

  • Avoid recycling passwords … if one site gets breached, all your logins would be compromised
  • Don’t use simple passwords like “Password123” or “Bailey1!”
    • Longer/random passwords are better, but human memory is fallible, so record your passwords in a book or an encrypted password app
    • Most passwords are breached by online hackers; the chance they have access to your password book is low, so write them down
    • Any good password app (local or online) will keep your passwords in an encrypted form, so is very unlikely to be breached
  • If you don’t have quick and easy access to a password book or an app, or even if you do, consider using a password method like the Dana-Marie Password Method

Google the Dana-Marie Password Method for the details, but basically it is a memorable pattern you use for all your passwords. Her method is best explained with examples; the two she uses are acaTon1963? and ccaTic1963? which break down as follows:

  • first letter = a for amazon (example 1) or c for cbcmusic (example 2)
  • next 3 letters = your master password key (caT in these examples)
  • next 2 letters = on for amazon or ic for cbcmusic (last 2 letters of site)
  • next 4 digits = your chosen number (1963 in these examples)
  • final character = your special character (? in these examples)

Of course, adjust this method for your own use: choose your own master password key/number/character, number of letters/numbers/characters, and even pattern.

All of this is to avoid being hacked and to avoid needing to reset your password. It is still very important to register a current email address and/or phone number with each account so you can reset your password if necessary.

How to Avoid Underpowered Computers

You may have experienced the frustration of using an under-powered computer … where, even after a good cleaning, your computer just isn’t keeping up. It is a frustration most people would like to avoid.

The best way to avoid this kind of frustration is to buy a new computer before your old one gets too slow, and to buy one that will serve you well for a long time (i.e. until it is 5-10 years old). This article will help you decide when to replace, what to look for, and what you can do to speed up your computer.

The perceived speed of your computer depends on many things, but the big ones are: processor (CPU), memory (RAM), hard drive (HDD/SSD), and graphics processor (GPU).

You have limited (or no) choices in replacing a computer’s CPU, so it is important to get a computer with a good one. You can’t accurately judge a CPU by its make, model, or GHz … the best way to judge it is to look it up on cpubenchmark.net. That site will give you a relative benchmark score (which they call CPU Mark) so you can compare it with others. These days, you are looking for a CPU Mark that is well over 1000, even if your needs are basic.

RAM isn’t typically an issue, as long as you have at least 8GB (non-gamers) or 16GB (gamers). It’s also good if you have a computer that allows you to upgrade the RAM, if you decide to later.

Hard-drive speed can make a big difference in computer speed. Hard drives come in five general categories (in increasing order of performance): 5400 RPM, 7200 RPM, SSHD, SSD, and M.2. If you can, avoid any computer with a 5400 RPM main hard drive … it’s inconceivable that new computers (including Macs) still come with them. Even a 7200 RPM main hard drive feels slow these days. An SSHD (hybrid drive) is a compromise between a spinning disk and a solid state one, but a true SSD (solid state drive) will likely be your best choice for a primary drive. M.2 drives are even faster SSDs, so opt for one (if you can) for your primary drive.

Definitely avoid PCs and Macs with solid state hard drives with a 64GB or smaller main drive as they will quickly fill up and frustrate you.

GPU doesn’t make a big difference for most people, but it is a big deal for gamers and others doing heavy-duty graphics. Use www.videocardbenchmark.net to compare benchmark scores (which they call G3D Mark).

If your current computer feels slow even after a thorough cleaning, it’s either time to upgrade it or replace it. If you’d rather upgrade it, check your Task Manager (Windows) or Activity Manager (MacOS) to determine if it is your CPU, RAM, HDD, or GPU that is the bottleneck. If it is your RAM or HDD, you can probably upgrade. If it is your GPU, you may be able to upgrade. If it is your CPU, you likely cannot upgrade.

Operating System Versions

The main operating systems, roughly in order of popularity, are Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, Android, and ChromeOS.

Over the last 19 years, Mac OS has moved from 10.1 to 10.15, and in the coming months we should see 11.0. The changes thus far have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary; there have been ups and downs, but the biggest gotchas have been when newer releases refuse to be installed on older hardware.

Currently, there are no special “editions” of MacOS. To determine what version of MacOS you are running, simply click the Apple and choose “About This Mac”.

Over the same time 19 years, Windows has moved from XP to Vista and then from 7 to 8 to 8.1, and now to 10. Since the release of Windows 10 in 2015, it has been nice not to have to learn an all-new version of Windows every 3-5 years. Thankfully, there is no plan for a Windows 11.

Windows 10 is still evolving; once or twice per year, we get a major update identified simply by the year and month (YYMM) of its release. So far we have had 1507, 1607, 1709, 1803, 1809, 1903, 1909, and 2004. You can check which version you are on by running “winver” from the Start Menu, Run dialog, Command Prompt, or PowerShell. If you are running 1903 or older, you should update.

Sidebar: If you would like to get the latest major Windows 10 update, simply go to https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/software-download/windows10, click “Update now”, run the download, and follow the prompts.

Because Microsoft doesn’t like being pinned down to a particular month for a software release date, the latest release that just came out in October is called 20H2, denoting “the second half of 2020”. This will be their naming convention, moving forward.

As of this month, all but Windows 8.1 and the last few versions of 10 have been fully retired. Win10 1909 and 2004 will be retired sometime in 2021, while 8.1 won’t be laid to rest until 10Jan2023.

There have been many “editions” of Windows over the years, but Windows 10 basically comes in five: S, Home, Professional, Enterprise, and Education. Windows 10 S is locked down to only allow installations via the Microsoft Store. Home has everything that most people need. Pro, Enterprise, and Education are virtually identical and have only a few extra features over Home. (For details on editions, I defer to the Wikipedia entry for “Windows 10 Editions”.)

I won’t go into the multitude of “distributions” of Linux, but their version numbers tend to follow the year, so many of them are on version 20 or 21 with cute names like Groovy Gorilla or Hirsute Hippo. ChromeOS is now up to version 88. iOS is up to version 14. Android is up to version 11.

Keeping current is a never-ending game.

Why Rebooting Helps

Most of us know that rebooting, resetting, or power-cycling, any piece of technology has a good chance of fixing whatever technical issue you may be facing … but not everyone knows why.

There are two main reasons why rebooting can help: it can get the device out of a bad “state”, and it can clear up memory issues.

Technological devices are, in the simplest terms, state machines. Just like washing machines that go sequentially through different wash cycles, computers, smartphones, routers and other devices are running processes. As a result of conflicting software, hardware glitches, or outside interferences, devices can get into invalid states: infinite loops, or reading/writing/running in invalid areas of memory. A reboot or reset typically puts the processes back at the start, into a valid state.

Computer programs often dynamically allocate memory as needed. Whenever a process needs memory, it allocates a certain amount for itself. When it is finished with that memory, it is supposed to deallocate or release the same amount of memory. In the case of a glitch or bug, memory may not get released, which results in a “memory leak”. Over time, small leaks can add up and use all available memory. A reboot starts the memory allocation process from zero, and so clears the issue. That’s why so many devices respond well to being rebooted from time to time.

There are computer chips in so many devices now, that rebooting has become second nature to us. Before you spend too much time on a tech problem, or call for help, be sure to reboot!

There are issues, of course, that aren’t fixed by a simple reboot. If there is a faulty line of code, piece of hardware, or power source, a reboot won’t fix the issue, although it may avoid it long enough to find a pattern or otherwise help you troubleshoot the problem. We don’t have the ability to dig in and fix programs, so the best things we can do are reboot, reset, power-cycle, or update.