Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nag nag nag

I know, I haven't updated my blog in weeks now... moving house has got in the way. All moved in now but Wanadoo are tossers and won't connect broadband up for a few more weeks. Will post some new updates shortly, even if I have to compose them offline and post them from work :)

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Last Question

I recently stumbled across this short story written by Isaac Asimov. I remember reading it a few years back and... I won't spoil it for you. Put 15 minutes to one side and give it a read. The man was a true genius.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Essential software

Unless you've had a pretty nasty computer crash and lost a lot of irreplaceable data then you don't really appreciate the value of backups. I had this happen to me a few years ago... I stupidly let a neighbour-from-hell near my computer and he fried one of my hard-drives (literally - the circuit-board on my drive partially melted as a result of him switching the 110/240volt setting on my power supply).

The hardware is replaceable; I hand over some money to a shop and they will hand back a new computer. But that's not the problem. The data on my hard-drive was NOT replaceable and none of it was backed up. I lost hundreds of digital photos which had never been printed out or written to a CD: photos of cats now dead, of birthday parties, candid shots of friends and families. There were documents on there, emails, you name it... all gone forever.

Since then I've been especially careful to backup my data at semi regular intervals. Nowadays, storage is cheap - what people lack is just the inclination to do it.

I mentioned in another post that my desktop computer decided to go to silicon heaven recently, so I have replaced it with a laptop. The only problem was, my hard-drives were designed to be used inside a desktop computer case, not plugged in to a laptop, so it left me the problem of how do I get the data that's on the drives onto my laptop?

Help was at hand, thanks to a rather splendid IDE-to-USB adaptor courtesy of Rachel. Insert the connector into the back of your hard-drive, then connect the power cable, and finally plug the USB cable from the drive into your computer's USB port and switch on. Windows detects the hard-drive, assigns it a new drive letter and you're away! Transferring files to and from the drive is as fast and simple, no different than if the drive was inside your computer.

Now I have all my data back, but I have very few programs on my computer for it to be useful.

I like my computer to be fast and responsive at all times (Rachel's got an unfeasibly powerful and expensive machine which ran like treacle when I first got my hands on it, due to all the junk she had loading at startup. Since my intervention it now loads up in about 1/3 the time it took before). I like software which is small and fast, yet still very powerful, so I generally spend hours scouring the web for the perfect app.

Also, I'm resisting the temptation to pirate any software. If you look hard enough, there is enough quality free software out there to do 98% of what the average person needs to get done. There's really no point installing Adobe Photoshop (or worse - buying it for £600) when you don't need to. I've seen people load it up (the latest version takes ages to load even on a fast computer), rotate an image, save and close it again. It's crazy.

For the same task, I use Irfanview. Not only does the program load up almost instantly (I hate waiting for software to load), but it's actually easier to rotate or flick through umpteen photos in the same directory than it is in Photoshop.

Two of the most useful features in Irfanview are it allows you to:
  • losslessly rotate images (meaning they don't lose any quality when you rotate them)

  • "Batch process" images. Select a bunch of files and have the program go through every single one, open them up, rotate, resize and resave them with a different name. Imagine how long it would take to do this by hand...*shudder*
Irfanview is good but it doesn't allow you to draw or paint on top of the images, or add text or arrows etc. This is often why people turn to Photoshop... but again that's like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Another really good piece of freeware is Photofiltre (ignore the French spelling, the software is in English).

Again, this loads up very quickly, and allows you to do probably 95% of what Photoshop can do - image resizing, rotating, adjusting brightness, contrast, cloning parts of the image, adding blur, sharpening, making photos look older with Sepia-style effects, and so on. It lacks layer support and most of the advanced features of Photoshop and PaintShop Pro, but for the price (free!) it's worth a look.

My other recommended freeware must-haves are:

Open Office: a decent alternative to Microsoft Office. It has coped with every Word document and Excel spreadsheet I've thrown at it (and even some which made Word crash), and there's also a decent PowerPoint clone in there too. It takes a bit longer to load than MS Office but there's the advantage that it's about £300 cheaper ;-)

uTorrent: A very small but feature-packed Bit Torrent client. I can't believe I wasn't using this sooner. It's a tiny (150k) download and seems to do everything Azureus does apart from hog all my memory. Azureus is excellent but gobbles up huge amounts system resouces, probably because Azureus uses a lot of Java code and uTorrent doesn't. Give this a try and I bet you ditch Azureus within a day.

Firefox: This web browser just keeps on getting better and better. It provides a much safer way to browse the web than using Internet Explorer, and there are more features too. Anyone still using IE as their only browser are either misinformed or very brave!

Opera: Probably the best browser ever created. Some of the features include tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, zoom in/out, fit to page, easily reopen closed pages, integrated search, speech synthesis (the computer will read the web pages to you, voice control (control the browser by speaking commands into your microphone), saved sessions (if the browser crashes it resumes from exactly where you were before), ability to open all pages in a folder at the same time, built-in mail and chat clients, you can view WAP pages, force pages to fit to a certain width if they are not displaying properly, advanced popup blocking, the list goes on. And it's also very secure compared to Internet Explorer.

SyncBack: Taking us nicely back to where we started from, this software is excellent for backing up your data. Tell the program which files or folders you wish to back up (they can be on your local hard-drive, or a network drive), and tell it where you wish to copy them to (local or external hard-drives, CDROM or DVD drives, USB pen drives, network drives, you can even backup to FTP servers).

Why I don't like Ebay

I've been using the internet now for over a decade. My first experiences of it were with Windows 3.1 and a 14.4k modem. Back then you had to install some third-party software to allow you to actually dial up and connect as Windows didn't come with it built in until Windows 95 was released.

It was cool to refer to it as the "information superhighway" and "cyberspace", and you were considered quite a geek if you had an email address and surfed the web regularly.

So, fastforward a moment to 2006. The world and her dog are online, everyone from young kids to the so-called "silver-surfers" (who presumably book their Saga holidays online while surfing from their web-enabled Stanner stairlifts).

I don't fear the internet. I can't remember the last time my computer had a virus, or was infected with advertising or spyware, I never get a popup window unless I request it and I do all my online banking (and an awful lot of shopping) online. I can spot an email scam from a mile off. I even organise my social life online.

So why do people look at me funny when I say I have never used Ebay before?

If I utter these words in a crowded room then invariably there are gasps before the room goes quiet, and I am scrutinised as if I had just been dropped off from a passing Vogon spaceship.

"You mean you've... you've never used Ebay before? Really?" they say, with incredulity.

"Yes," I reply, now becoming scared for my own personal safety. "I don't like it."

Judging by its enourmous popularity and success, this seems like an odd thing to say, especially for someone as geeky as me. Practically everyone I talk to seems to use Ebay from time to time, but every time I've gone on to the site my spidey-senses begin to tingle. There are just some things about it I don't like at all.

For example: I don't like the terminology they use. Someone told me last night she'd won a bottle of champagne from Ebay. I was very impressed and pleased for her... I asked her what had she done to win it?

It turns out that she hadn't "won" the bottle at all, not in the real sense of the word "win", rather she had BOUGHT the bottle. She had bid the most money for it. I think, from memory, the bottle cost her £1. Bargain eh? But delivery was another £6 on top of that, making the totaly price a slightly less than dazzling £7.

Don't get me wrong... £7 for a bottle of champers ain't bad. But I hate the way Ebay use the term "you have won" something when you have really purchased it with your hard-earned cash.

Let's stick with this champagne auction a bit longer. She bought the bottle from some prevously-unknown-to-her person somewhere in the world. She has to trust that this person is honest and will ship exactly what she is expecting and it will be delivered on time and in one piece. She will have to wait a few days for her purchase. Compare this to a trip to the supermarket:

I walk in to the store and see a wide range of champagne on offer. I select the bottle I want; if I can see one and put it in my trolley I know they have it in stock, I know exactly how much I will be paying for it, and there's a firm guarantee that if it was the only one in store that nobody else can swipe it from me and pay an extra 50p for it at the checkout. I know I will be leaving the store with this bottle of champers.

Notice at no stage do I con myself into thinking I have "won" the bottle of champagne. Only if I was retarded would I think that I have somehow won the bottle by handing over money for it!

Let's assume the champagne from Ebay arrives safely and not too shaken up. The seller will get their £1 profit (if you can call £1 a profit on something that probably cost them more to buy in the first place). It's possible that they made more than £1 profit by overcharging for the postage.

I know of morally dishonest (yet still within the accepted rules) sellers who advertise their wares for a very low price, say £5, but it's only when you read the small print do you notice that the postage and packing is something silly, like £100.

I have also read about other auctions designed to trap the trusting and unwary where they advertise a Playstation 2 box, and show you lots of pictures of the PS2, even read out the specifications of the PS2 printed on the box. But what you're actually bidding for is an empty box. Re-read the auction carefully and you see that, but it is presented in such a way to trick you. Legally this is acceptable. Morally it stinks.

Going back to our champagne example for a moment, let's assume the seller made no profit from the P&P, they simply made £1 from the bottle itself. Unfortunately for them, they don't actually get to see all of the £1 profit as Ebay themselves want a fee for being the middleman. I'm not knocking this - it's perfectly fair and valid, but from the seller's perspective I can't imagine it's worth their time and shoe leather to package up a bottle, walk to the post office and wait in line to send it off, for less than £1 profit?

Notice earlier I fell into another trap - I said the champagne was from Ebay. Everyone says this. "I got this watch from Ebay!" or "I'll see if I can find a new car on Ebay".

If you buy something "from Ebay" you're really doing nothing of the sort. You are using Ebay to contact someone who is selling an item. It's no different than seeing an ad in your local paper which puts you in touch with someone selling a car. You know you are buying from the car dealer, not from the newspaper. If you're sold a dud, you don't seek recompense from the newspaper.

Personally I wonder at the sanity of people buying cars "from Ebay" (there it is again!)... if you're going to part with several thousand pounds with something as potentially dodgy as a car, don't you want to actually be there yourself to examine it inside and out and test-drive the thing?

By "dodgy" I mean the car might have been in an accident, might have been clocked, might be stolen (hard to check the VIN numbers from your armchair), might not even exist. It might make a clunking noise when you drive it over 30mph.

I'm sure there are bargains to be had from Ebay, but the trouble is, I hear success stories from both sides of the argument and they can't both be true. Not many people would brag about being ripped off now would they?

Some people talk about how cheap things are from Ebay; how little they paid for an item. Few mention how much the postage cost them, of course, and fewer admit that some of the items they are buying are second-hand, so it's not fair to compare them to a highstreet price, complete with the statutory 12 month guarantee.

It's also a bit of a lottery. Bid low and you're likely to be outbid. If you have your heart set on an item, then you have to bid high and hope nobody else bids close to your bid. Personally I'd rather just know how much something was going to cost me and that I'd be guaranteed of buying it for that price. I don't like the uncertainty of auctions.

But what about those people who claim they make a fortune from selling on Ebay? There are books about how to become a professional Ebay trader, give up your career and spend your day working from the comfort of your living room as the cash piles up. Some buyers are mugs, they'll pay well over the odds for stuff, be it concert tickets or junk you don't want any more. Some claim they buy from second-hand shops and sell them on Ebay for huge markups.

I wonder just how much money the average person would make from this, taking into account all the fees you pay. Ebay charges a fee for listing something, a fee when you sell something and they also get you again if you use PayPal 'cos they own that too! Then there's the time factor... let's say you earn £150 a week clear profit from Ebay. How many hours did you spend taking photos of your items, advertising them on the site, then taking the payment, packing the item up and then mailing them out? Can you guarantee you'll earn this every week?

My final objection to the site is this, and it may sound superficial. I don't like the design. It's messy. It's ugly. It's not intuitive for me to use. It looks very amateurish and there are few blocks in place to stop people adding malicious code to their auction pages to trick your browser into doing something you don't want it to.

There's clearly only ever one guaranteed winner with Ebay...

...and that's Ebay themselves.