Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Guys and Cats

Today, I want to address an issue that has caused years of controversy in nations around the world: guys owning cats. Is it OK for a guy to own one or more felines? Does this somehow bring into question his masculinity? Is it even legal?

Obviously, if you're like me and married into cat ownership, then the issue has already been resolved for you, but you might be a single guy who can't decide if you should get a cat. If you've been sitting on the fence (metaphorically, of course, since I can't figure out how you'd do that literally without intense pain and the risk of injury), then I'll give you some food for thought.
  • Cats are not only predators but also possibly the perfect killing machines. Dogs, on the other hand, are primarily scavengers. This isn't meant as a slam against dogs, but if you happen to have a mouse or some other pest in your house, a cat has a pretty good likelihood of taking care of the problem, while a dog is going to make you deal with it.
  • You have to work to earn a cat's loyalty and affection. It's a relationship among equals. Cats can definitely be affectionate, but they don't often throw themselves at you the way that many dogs will. You and your cat are constantly working to earn each other's respect.
  • Did you see "Meet the Parents" and/or "Meet the Fockers"? In those movies, Robert De Niro's character owned a cat. Are you going to tell Robert De Niro he's not a real man? I wouldn't.
  • And possibly the most important reason of all, according to this New York Times article about guys owning cats, chicks dig guys with cats.
And if you need any more reasons to get one of these fluffy chick magnets/killing machines, then check out the video below, made by a couple of engineers who love them some felines.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Register to Vote! NOW!!!

This post will be short and to the point.

Are you registered to vote? If not, and if you want to vote in the November election, then you need to stop whatever you're doing and take care of it right now. Many states require people to register at least 30 days before an election, so the deadline may be sooner than you think.

Registering is extremely easy. Once you get the correct form (see the links below), you just enter your information, attach a stamp, and drop it in a mailbox. A few states even allow completely electronic registration. In any case, the entire process will take no more than five minutes.

You can take care of this process via either of these Web sites:

The first is a list of links to registration forms by U.S. state.

The second, Vote for Change, is run by the Obama campaign. On that site, you can register to vote, find your polling place, find out how to vote absentee, and, if you're already registered, check your status. On the last item, I recently changed my registration, and the change hasn't been reflected there, so they may be a little behind.

Once you take care of your registration, make sure your friends and family are also getting it done. Forward this post to them, send them an e-mail, or just pick up the phone and call them. Or, if you'll be seeing them soon, go ahead and print out the forms they'll need.

Many millions of people have expressed a strong interest in this election, and you may be one of them. That's great, but talk is cheap, and, in the end, without action, it means nothing. So, get your butt in gear and make sure you're ready to vote in November, then, on Election Day, make voting your absolute top priority.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Perfecting the Fine Art of Procrastination

Oh happy day! Someone has finally developed a flow chart showing us all how to procrastinate with the best of them. Not like you need much help, since you're reading this blog, but, just in case you want something to print out and hang on your wall, click this link or the chart and download the image file in all its glory.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

RIP, Don LaFontaine and Jerry Reed

For those who may not have heard, the entertainment world lost two greats today: Don LaFontaine and Jerry Reed.

You may not know Don LaFontaine's name, but you certainly know his voice. LaFontaine has done voiceovers for over 5,000 movie trailers, as well as numerous television productions, in the last five decades. The man is a legend.

CNN has a story about his death, and MSNBC is running an Associated Press story.

MSNBC is also reporting the death of country music legend Jerry Reed. Along with being a singer-songwriter, Reed also acted, most notably appearing in the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies.

I think the most fitting tribute to Don LaFontaine's and Jerry Reed's work is to post some examples of what they were good at.

First, a "Good Morning America" interview with LaFontaine:

And his excellent "5 Guys in a Limo" skit:

And here is a video of Jerry Reed performing "Wabash Cannonball":

And one of him performing "Amos Moses":

Two greats who will certainly be missed.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Completely Pointless Videos: "The Wizard of Oz"--The Florida Adventures

I know, I know, you're wondering if I'm ever going to post anything besides these videos from now on. Yes, but since I have to do some laundry, another video will have to do for now. This one, a skit from Mad TV, chronicles Dorothy's move to the Sunshine State and her penchant for attracting some really bad weather.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Completely Pointless Videos: John Madden, Dungeon Master

Welcome to another installment of "Completely Pointless Videos". In today's episode, imagine John Madden as a D&D dungeon master.

And now I'll shut up and let you watch the video.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Completely Pointless Videos: Easy on the Steering Wheel, Buddy!

I don't know if this is real or staged, but it sure is fun to watch. In today's installment of "Completely Pointless Videos", a series I'm sure will be appearing pretty often, we learn that it might not be a great idea to use your car's steering wheel as a drum.

Thanks to Steven for sending me this video.

Possible Obama Assassination Attempt Foiled

Denver's KUSA-TV is reporting that three men were arrested in what some are speculating was an attempt to kill Sen. Barack Obama during the Democratic National Convention. The first man, arrested during a traffic stop, was allegedly transporting two rifles, boxes of ammunition, one rifle scope, a bulletproof vest, walkie-talkies and methamphetamines. The men have possibly been connected to white supremacists through their tattoos and jewelry.

I'm sure there will be more on this soon.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The 411 on Free 411

Does anyone remember when calling directory assistance was free? I'm not old enough to, but I'm guessing someone does. Of course, nothing good lasts forever, and that's especially true of anything involving the phone company. In fact, if you happen to own a cell phone, you know that directory assistance calls are so expensive that you have to have your credit checked before you can make one.

But don't despair folks, for there is hope. If you're still calling 411 for directory assistance, you're either not aware of the free services out there, or you have money to burn. And if you fall into the latter category, I'll be happy to take some of it off your hands. But for those who need the 411 on free 411, here are some services that will ease the pain in your wallet.
  • 1-800-Free411: The first free 411 service, it offers both residential and business listings. 1-800-373-3411
  • 1-800-YellowPages: This service, owned by AT&T, offers both residential and business listings. 1-800-935-5697
  • GOOG-411: Brought to you by the fine folks at Google, GOOG-411 only offers business listings. 1-800-466-4411
  • Live Search 411: This is Microsoft's foray into the free directory assistance market. It offers residential listings, business listings, and several other services, including one to locate the cheapest gasoline in an area. 1-800-225-5411
And then there are the "multi-purpose information services", for lack of a better term. These services offer all sorts of information, from news headlines to sports scores, movie listings, weather forecasts, and traffic reports.
  • TellMe: Anyone can use TellMe, although there is a time limit per call. Still, quite useful. 1-800-555-8355
  • VoiceInfo: Almost the same as TellMe, with the addition of Wakeup Calls and no per-call time limit. For customers of AT&T's wireless service only. *8 from your wireless handset
  • Google SMS. This one is a little different, since you don't call it but instead use text messages to interact with it. You send your search in a text to 466453, and the service texts the results back to you. You might want to view their demo to get the hang of it.
All the services in this post are free, making their money off advertising, and all of them, with the exception of VoiceInfo and Google SMS, can be called from any landline or cell phone. When calling from a cell, remember that airtime will be used, and if you request the service send you a text with the information you searched for, normal text charges for your calling plan will apply.

Hanging Up on Telemarketers

If you hate telemarketers as much as any other sentient life form does, then you're likely looking for ways to get rid of them. For those in the United States, the best way is to add their phone numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry. You can do this in one of two ways:
  1. Visit and sign up.
  2. Call 1-888-382-1222 from the phone you want to place on the list.
This will get you on the national list, which should stop most calls. Numbers placed on the registry remain there unless the subscriber voluntarily removes them or unless the number is disconnected. This is a change from the original law, which had allowed numbers to expire from the list after five years unless the subscriber renewed them.

Some states also maintain lists of their own, and if you are a resident, you can also sign up with them.
There are exceptions, such as charities, politicians (of course), and companies you have done business with. But remember that organizations that do telemarketing have to maintain their own do-not-call lists, and, if one of the groups exempted from national and state lists calls you, you can tell them to place them on their internal list.

Those of you living in other parts of the world can register with your nation's registry. Here are some countries that maintain such lists:
If you know of any other state or national lists, feel free to post a comment with a link, and I'll add them.

Your Printer Is Lying to You

Have you ever had your printer tell you it's out of ink or toner when you suspected it wasn't? Turns out your suspicions were probably correct. Have a look at this Slate article about how printer manufacturers use trickery to get you to replace ink and toner cartridges before the old ones are empty and what you can do about it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Internet Explorer to Be Improved by...Mozilla?

In today's dose of news from the "why, that's mighty neighborly of them" department, Internet Explorer is about to get a helping hand from, believe it or not, Mozilla, the organization that develops Firefox, its biggest competitor. They're working on a plugin that helps Internet Explorer use HTML5 Canvas. Now, I'm not going to sit here and give you a detailed description of what that is, since I'm no Web developer, but, according to the Ars Technica article reporting on this, it is a technology developed by Apple to allow the display of interactive bitmap images.

However, what I can tell you--or at least speculate on--is why they're doing this. The most likely reason is because it's been the case for a long time that IE is not standards-compliant. Microsoft is getting there, but their browser isn't quite there yet. This wouldn't be an issue if IE didn't have such a big market share, but it does, and that means Web developers have to take its quirks into account, which either means they have to put in more work to make their sites work with the less-standards-compliant IE and the more-standards-compliant Firefox, Opera, and Safari, or, in a worst-case scenario, they choose to write pages that work in IE and leave other browsers out in the cold. The latter approach doesn't happen as much now as it used to, probably because other browsers are gaining market share, but it still does happen. So, if Microsoft won't fix their browser quickly enough, Mozilla steps in and does it for them, meaning developers can write standards-compliant HTML and have it work everywhere. Not only does that help the developers, but it also helps those using browsers other than IE, since they have less chance of encountering a site that won't work correctly for them.

As for the second reason, it's pure PR. Mozilla gets to rub Microsoft's nose in it a little for making IE better than Microsoft could make it themselves.

I prefer to think it's 75% of the first reason and 25% of the second.

While i think this is a nice development, I have to wonder how much real-world impact it will have. After all, the people most likely to install this plugin are the most technically advanced, and those are also the most likely people to use Firefox. No offense to those who prefer to use IE, but a recent study found that, of browser users, Firefox users were the most likely to use an up-to-date version, with 83.3% of them doing so, while IE users were the least likely, with only 47.6% of them using a current version. If most IE users aren't even using the latest version of their browser, how likely is it that they'll install this plugin? Of course, two factors could possibly surmount this challenge. First, a company like Adobe could include this plugin as an optional download with its software in the same way that the Google or Yahoo toolbars are so heavily promoted now. Second, organizations could install this plugin on all their employees' computers, increasing adoption levels. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see how this works out.

And does anyone feel like starting a pool to guess when we'll see some malware writer release a trojan that masquerades as this plugin. Mark my words, it'll happen. I'll give it a week after the news hits a mainstream media outlet, even if it's before the real plugin is out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Identity Theft in Seven Easy Steps

I just ran across an interesting and somewhat disturbing article entitled "How I Stole Someone's Identity". In it, the author describes how, with permission from an acquaintance, he stole her identity in seven fairly easy steps. His point is that more of our personal information is publicly available than we may realize and that security at some Web sites is pretty easy to circumvent.

Read this, then think long and hard about how you secure your most valuable information. You may be surprised at how easy it is for someone to find out enough about you to take control of your identity.


Last night, I stumbled upon VBS.TV, and I wanted to share my find with you. It is an online television channel offering up an interesting mix of original programming.

I discovered them because of a documentary they recently produced called "Toxic Linfen". You have to watch this show. Linfen, a city of four million people in China, is regarded as the world's most polluted city, and this show, divided into five parts, shows you just how polluted it is. Believe me, it's frightening. The place looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Computers and You: Part 1: Demystifying the Box

"Computers and You". Sounds kinda like a PBS series that would have aired on any random Saturday afternoon back in the '80s, right before the weekly installments of "Doctor Who", "Blake's 7", and "Red Dwarf", doesn't it? (Actually, there was such a show, called "The Computer Chronicles", but we won't go there, at least not today.) Anyway, this is not that show, mainly because I have no budget for video production, and I've already tried my hand at being on television talking about this stuff on a show that hopefully no one will ever remember. No, this is, instead, a series that I plan to use to tackle some of the issues that new computer users face every day.

This first installment will be devoted to getting you up to speed on that complex little machine that makes your Internet addiction possible. First, I'd like to give you an introduction to the hardware that makes up your computer. In the next installment, I'll tell you about the software that makes it do what it does.

First, what I'm about to tell you mainly refers to desktop computers. Laptops are similar but a bit different, so I'll try to point out those differences as we go along. Mac users, I'm afraid, will get little attention here, since Macs aren't my thing...yet. Remember, this is not meant to be a highly-technical explanation, merely an introduction to your computer's hardware so you won't be baffled by the terms you often see.

What's in the box?

The best place to begin, I think, is with that whirring metal and plastic box that is taking up your desk's or floor's real estate. First, let's get a term out of the way. Over the years, many times I've heard people struggle to give that thing a name when they're trying to describe it. They'd call it the CPU, processor, hard drive, and even the modem. Relax, folks, it isn't that hard. That box is the computer. Sometimes, if the case stands upright, as most do these days, you'll also hear it called the tower. Either term is fine, unless it doesn't stand upright or is a laptop.

Now, let's delve into what's inside this thing.
  • CPU: Also called the Central Processing Unit, the microprocessor, the processor, or, informally, the chip, this is the brains of your system. All the calculations the computer must do to get work done happen here. The primary CPU manufacturers are Intel and AMD, and each company has multiple product lines aimed at everyone from casual users to those running resource-hungry applications. Processors used to be rated by their speed in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz), and you can still find such ratings if you look hard enough, but they mean little these days. Now, CPU's are often differentiated by the size of their caches and how many cores they have.
  • RAM: Random Access Memory, often simply called memory, is what your computer uses to store the information the CPU is using in its calculations. RAM is classified by the type of package it comes in (SIMM, DIMM, and SODIMM, to name a few), how much memory is in each package, and how quickly the RAM can store the data sent to it by the CPU and retrieve the data the CPU needs. The package type and speed of the RAM you buy is determined by your CPU and motherboard model (more on motherboards in a sec). About the only thing you have control over is how much RAM you install in your computer. The manufacturer has already installed a certain amount before selling the computer to you, but you can (and sometimes must) add more later. The maximum amount you can add is determined by the maximum capacity of your motherboard. As of mid-2008, you should have, at the absolute bare minimum, 512 MB (megabytes) of RAM, with a more comfortable lower limit of 1 GB (gigabyte). Many computers these days are shipping with 2, 3, or even 4 GB of RAM.
  • Graphics Card: This is the hardware that allows your computer to put all those pretty images on your monitor. It's also often referred to as a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) or simply a video card, and, in truth, on many computers, it isn't even a card anymore but instead a chip soldered directly onto the motherboard. Like a CPU, graphics cards are also rated by speed, and they need their own memory to function, although it comes preinstalled on the card and is not usually upgradeable. One thing that you should note is that, on some cheaper computers, where graphics are handled by a chip soldered onto the motherboard, manufacturers cut corners by allowing that chip to use some of the computer's main memory for graphics processing. The downside is that this steals often-valuable RAM away from being used by the CPU. It can also make shopping for a computer a little more confusing, since you need to subtract the amount of RAM the graphics card uses from total system memory. So, if you see a system advertised with 512 MB RAM, but then you see that the video card uses something like "up to 64 MB shared memory", then you only really have 448 MB RAM available to the CPU. If you have such a system, there are two ways to remedy this situation: add more RAM or install a standalone video card with dedicated memory. The last solution is best, provided your computer has an available slot for a graphics card, but this is getting a little too technical for this article.
  • Sound Card: The sound card, also called the audio card, has, like the graphics card, often been reduced to a chip soldered onto the motherboard. It's the device that creates the sounds that you hear from your computer's speakers. Like a built-in graphics chip, a built-in audio chip can be replaced with a more advanced unit by adding a dedicated sound card, but this is usually done by gamers, audiophiles, and audio professionals. Most people don't bother, and with the quality of on-board audio chips having improved over the years, most folks don't have to mess with it.
  • Modem: A modem is the device that lets you connect your computer to a phone line and experience slow-as-Christmas Internet surfing. Once, most modems were external devices that connected to your computer using a cable, but then someone decided that they could build them cheaply and either include them as internal cards or simply solder them right onto the motherboard. I guess this is a good idea to reduce desktop clutter, but, with fewer and fewer people using dial-up Internet access, I have to wonder how long it'll be before cost-conscious manufacturers will strip it out and relegate it once again to the status of external device.
  • Network Interface Card: Also called a NIC, Ethernet card, or network card, this is the device that lets you connect your computer to a Local Area Network or broadband Internet modem. NIC's used to be something you bought and installed into your computer, but, like the modem, they've been added to almost every computer sold these days.
  • Wireless Local Area Network Card: Most people call them WLAN cards or simply wireless cards. Yes, they're available as cards that you can install in a computer, but most of them are chips soldered onto motherboards. Just about every laptop sold these days has one preinstalled, and I've even seen a desktop or two that had them. As you might guess, a wireless card lets you connect to a wireless network.
  • Hard Disk: Often also called a hard drive, this is your computer's main storage system. When you install software or save documents or other files, this is most likely where they are stored. A hard disk is a small enclosure that contains several rapidly-spinning metal platters, which are read from and written to by a group of heads, which write to and read from microscopic magnetic areas on the platters. Hard drives are mainly rated by storage capacity, which is measured in gigabytes (GB) or, in the case of the largest ones, in terabytes (TB). You'll also sometimes see them rated by speed in RPM, such as 5400 RPM, 7800 RPM, and 10,000 RPM. The faster the platters spin, the faster data can be written and read, and the faster the computer will perform. Many laptops have slower hard drives, mainly because faster ones consume more power and shorten battery life.
  • Optical Drive: Your computer almost certainly has one or possibly two of these. They come in several variants, including CD-ROM drives, CD-D/W drives, DVD-ROM drives, and DVD-R/W drives, to name the most common varieties. Drives ending in -ROM can only read, while drives ending in -R/W can bth read and write. Creating CD's and DVD's isn't quite as simple as that, but knowing what kind of drive(s) you have can tell you what you can do with them. By the way, a drive that can read or write DVD's can also handle CD's, so if you have a DVD-R/W, you can also use it to create CD's. And, in case you didn't know, drives that can write to CD's and DVD's are often simply called CD burners or DVD burners.
  • Card Reader: This one is fairly new, but it's showing up on more and more computers, both desktops and laptops. It's a little device that can read one or more memory card formats, such as SD Cards, CompactFlash, Memory Stick, etc. This makes it easy to transfer pictures from a digital camera or add audio or video files to a personal media player.
  • PCMCIA: Also called a PC Card, most likely because no one can remember PCMCIA, this type of card slot is common on laptops, which used to contain two of them but now often seem to have only one. They're supposed to be able to accept many kinds of devices, such as modems, network cards, tiny external hard drives, etc., but, with modems and network cards being built into most laptops, and with most external hard drives using USB to connect, they mainly seem to be used for specialized wireless networking cards, such as those that connect to cellular networks.
  • Floppy Drive: Ah, the floppy drive. For years, we carried countless files around on floppy disks. There were two major sizes: 3.5" and 5.25", with the 3.5" version storing either 720 KB or 1.44 MB, and the 5.25" variety storing 360 KB or 1.2 MB, depending on the disk used. Nowadays, few computers come equipped with floppy drives, since recordable CD's and DVD's are very cheap, can hold much more data, and are more durable. If you still need a floppy drive, you can buy an external model that connects to your computer via a USB port.
  • Power Supply: The power supply, sometimes called the PSU, is a power transformer that takes your household electrical current and converts it to the voltages used by your computer's internal components. It also contains a fan that helps keep the computer cool. If you switch on your computer, hear a loud pop, and smell an acrid odor, it likely means your power supply blew. This isn't usually as bad as it sounds, since it's designed to blow out if it is fed a voltage it can't handle. In most (but, unfortunately not all) cases, no other components have been damaged, and replacing a blown power supply is relatively inexpensive (at least as far as parts are concerned). But remember that fan I mentioned? If you notice that it isn't operating as it should, such as not turning very fast or at all, or it sounds as if its bearings are wearing out, then you need to shut your computer down immediately and get a new power supply installed before using it again. If your fan dies, there's nothing there to cool the inside of your computer, and the built-up heat will fry its innards in very short order.
  • Motherboard: Last but not least is the motherboard. If the CPU is the computer's brain, the motherboard is its spinal cord. Every component inside a computer connects to the motherboard. The CPU and RAM fit into sockets and slots on it, expansion cards fit into slots, storage devices plug into connectors, and the power supply feeds power to it via a cable. All the computer's data passes through the motherboard at some point.
That covers most of the common devices inside a computer. Now let's see what connectors are on the outside.

Ports, connectors, and jacks, oh my!
  • Power Connector: Your computer has got to get its juice some way. Fortunately, computer manufacturers have settled on a standard power connector for desktops, so cords are plentiful and cheap. In fact, most monitors and quite a few printers use the same connector, making your life much easier if you're looking for a power cord. Laptop users aren't so lucky, since there seems to be absolutely no standard for which power cords work with which computers. I firmly believe this is a way for the manufacturers to squeeze more money out of you when your charger goes bad. On a completely unrelated note, someone in the power wheelchair business must have a brother-in-law in the computer business because desktop computers and power wheelchairs (at least the wheelchairs I've seen) use the very same power cords and connectors. I'm not sure how that bit of info might help you, but tuck it away in some dark corner of your brain, and you might use it on "Jeopardy" some day.
  • USB: USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and it's turning into the workhorse of ports. Name a device, and there's a good chance it will connect to your computer via USB. Most printers and scanners now use USB, and just about all webcams do. Even keyboards and mice, which have had their own ports for years, are moving to USB. Many external storage devices, like external hard drives, optical drives, and floppy drives, connect using USB, and it goes without saying that USB flash drives do. The most recent USB standard is USB 2.0, which replaced USB 1.1 several years ago. Naturally, USB 3.0 is on the way as soon as the manufacturers can sort out their differences and settle on a standard. Don't let these standards worry you too much, since USB 1.1 and 2.0 will happily coexist. If you have a choice between a USB 1.1 and 2.0 device, buy the one with 2.0, but don't get too worked up over which you choose. A USB port is rectangular and about the size of a large bug. Your computer can have from two to sometimes as many as six on the back and several on the front. If that isn't enough for you, connect a USB hub to one of them, and you'll get more. You can connect up to 127 USB devices to your computer.
  • Ethernet Port: Technically, it's called an RJ-45 jack, but don't worry about that. It's where you plug your network cable in. It looks like an oversized and slightly mutated phone jack.
  • Phone Jack: Called an RJ-11 jack, this is where you plug in your phone line so you can surf the Internet at a snail's pace. If your computer has two, one is for the cord that connects to your wall jack, and the other can be used if you want to connect an extension telephone. In case you're wondering if this will let you use your phone while you're online, sorry, you're SOL on this one.
  • PS/2 Connector: There are likely two of these on the back of your computer. They're round and sitting side-by-side. These are where you connect your keyboard and mouse. Although they look identical, they aren't, so it does matter what gets plugged into each one. Some laptops will have one of these for folks who want to use an external mouse, but PS/2 connectors are being phased out in favor of USB. And by the way, if you thought PS/2 referred to a short-lived line of computers released by IBM in the mid-'80s, it did, but, if you know that, why are you reading this, you nerd!?
  • VGA/DVI: These are two connectors that do the same thing: get video from your computer to your monitor. The older VGA port is slightly under an inch long, not quite rectangular, and has 15 tiny holes for the video cable's pins to fit into. There are also threaded holes at each end for the cable's thumbscrews to fit into. The DVI connector is slightly smaller, rectangular, and has anywhere from 17 to 29 pins, one of which is flat. VGA connectors are used to output analog video to older analog monitors, while DVI outputs digital video to newer digital flat panel monitors.
  • Audio Jacks: You need these to get sound to your speakers. You'll always find one set on the back of your computer and possibly a second set on the front. Usually, one will connect to your speakers or headphones, one will allow you to plug in a microphone, and one will allow you to connect a line-in device. I guess someone was thinking ahead because these jacks are often color-coded: green=audio out, red=mic in, and blue=line in.
  • FireWire: This interface, officially called IEEE 1394 but called i.LINK by Sony and FireWire by Apple and about everyone else, can be used for high-speed data transfer. What it's mainly used for is to connect digital camcorders to computers and other electronics so video can be transferred. Some more-expensive external hard drives include it along with a USB connector. If your computer has a FireWire connector, great. If it doesn't, and you really need it, you can install an expansion card to add it.
  • Parallel Port: Back in the day, parallel ports were mainly used to connect printers to computers, and your computer might still have one hanging around. They look roughly rectangular and have 25 little holes and thumbscrew holes on each end. If you don't have one, don't sweat it, since I doubt you'll need it unless you own an old printer or scanner you're particularly attached to.
  • Serial Port: It looks like a shorter version of a parallel port but with only 9 pins. Serial ports were once used to connect things like mice and modems, but they've fallen into disuse lately. Your computer may or may not have one. If not, don't shed any tears over it.
  • Bluetooth: Technically, this isn't a port, since you don't connect to it with a cable, but some laptops include it. Bluetooth is a short-range (from 10-100 meters, depending on the type) wireless communications technology. Right now, its most common use is to allow computers, cell phones, and Personal Digital Assistants (PDA's) to share data. If this means nothing to you, then you probably don't need it right now.
That's it for ports and connectors. Now I want to briefly discuss what can be plugged into your computer.

Yo! I got the hookup!
  • Keyboard: Um, what can I say? It lets you type. Other than that, I can tell you that keyboards can be connected via a PS/2 connector, USB, or even wirelessly using either a little receiver plugged into your computer's USB port, or, if you really want to get nerdy, Bluetooth.
  • Mouse: Mice are connected in the same ways as keyboards. Originally, mice used a little ball that rolled as you moved the mouse, causing your cursor to move. In the last few years, optical mice, which use a light source to track your movements, have become extremely popular. If you happen to still have a mouse with a mechanical ball, you'll be much happier with an optical mouse. They operate much more smoothly, and they don't collect dirt the way the old ones do. And don't worry, they're cheap. Laptops don't come with mice but usually use a touchpad, and, in some cases, a tiny pointing device that looks like a small eraser tucked between keys in the middle of your keyboard. But never fear; if you'd like to use a mouse instead, feel free to plug one into an open USB port.
  • Monitor: This is where video is displayed. The old CRT (tube) monitors are quickly being replaced by flat-panel LCD models, since they take up less space. Still, some people, especially gamers, prefer CRT's, since they can refresh faster than LCD's. If you want to see this in action, quickly scroll a Web page or document on an LCD monitor. See how it blurs a little as stuff whizzes by? A CRT doesn't do that because it can refresh much faster. And remember the VGA and DVI ports I mentioned a while ago? The analog VGA was used to connect to CRT and older analog flat-panel monitors, while DVI is used to connect to new, digital flat panels.
  • Speakers: These can range from small two-speaker setups that sound like a fast food drive-up speaker to surround-sound setups that can set off seismographs 500 miles away.
  • Printer: The name is pretty self-explanatory. Most current models connect via USB, but some can plug directly into a network using Ethernet cable. Inkjet printers are usually the cheapest and produce excellent color, but the ink can get expensive if you do lots of printing. Laser printers cost more, but they produce the best quality text, often print faster than inkjets, and are cheaper in the long run because their toner is cheaper than inkjet ink. It's true that a new laser toner cartridge can cost more than a set of inkjet refills, but it will last much longer. Most cheaper laser printers print in black and white, but there are also color models. A popular type of printer is the all-in-one device, which can print, scan, copy, and fax, provided you have a phone line connected to it.
  • Scanner: As you can guess, these are used to scan things, usually photographs and documents. Once you scan something, you can save it as an image file, make a copy using your printer, or even perform what's called Optical Character Regognition on it, which is where the computer "reads" the document and saves its content as text. If that sounds too nerdy to you, don't worry about it.
  • External Hard Disk: If You need to store lots of files in a little box that you can easily transport, this is what you need. They usually connect via USB, but some also have FireWire, and a few even have Ethernet ports.
  • Flash Drive: If you need to take your data with you, but you don't have enough to fill an external hard drive, flash drives are for you. They're small (about the size of a pack of gum), connect to a USB port, and are light enough that you can easily forget them in your pocket when you do laundry. And with sizes going up to 16 GB right now, you can lose a whole lot of data when you do.
  • Webcam: These little cameras connect to your computer using USB and are great for videoconferencing, especially since most Instant Messaging software can send and receive video. Don't try this over a dial-up Internet connection, though. You won't like the results.
That's about it. Well, not really, since I didn't even touch on connecting your computer to a network, but I figure I have to stop somewhere, at least for now.

At this point, you may be completely overwhelmed, thouroughly confused, or hungry for more, so I'm going to recommend a few books. The first is PCs for Dummies, which covers many of the things I did here but in greater detail.

Order PCs for Dummies from

If you have a laptop and want something specifically written for your type of computer, then consider Laptops for Dummies.

Order Laptops for Dummies from

If you're a senior or want to get a book for a senior, then you might want to consider Computers for Seniors for Dummies. It approaches the subject from the perspective of an older person who may be less comfortable with technology.

Order Computers for Seniors for Dummies from

And if you happen to have a Mac, although I didn't tell you much in this post, I can at least show you a book: Macs for Dummies.

Order Macs for Dummies from

That's all for now. As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them.

In the next installment of Computers and You, we'll talk about software. See ya soon!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Deception at the Olympics

Unless you've been living under a rock or your dog recently ate your TV, then you probably saw the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. I'll admit that I hadn't planned to watch, but Amanda wanted to see it, so I figured I'd have a look. Needless to say, it was very impressive and a little unsettling.

First, let's cover the unsettling part, since I don't really plan to talk about that much. Seeing all those drummers working in perfect unison and knowing how tightly regimented society in the People's Republic of China can be, it made me feel as if the Chinese government was making the point that it can get a very large number of people to do whatever it wants. They lose their individuality and become instruments of the state any time the state demands it of them. I realize this may not be completely true, but the ceremony certainly gave that impression, and I doubt that was merely by chance.

Now back to the impressive part. There were fireworks galore, including some that were arranged to resemble giant footprints walking across the city. Then there were the performers, who were amazing. And let's not forget that huge LCD screen on the stadium floor that allowed the performers to create such beautiful artwork.

Yes, it was impressive, except that it turns out that some of it was faked.

First, there were the fireworks. It turns out that Olympics organizers decided it would be impossible for a helicopter to film the firework footprints as they made their way across Beijing, so they didn't use fireworks at all for that portion of the show. Instead, they created computer-generated fireworks and inserted that footage into the broadcast of the ceremony, only using real fireworks as the footprints approached the stadium. The rest, down to the Beijing smog, was entirely fake.

Then there was Lin Miaoke, the young girl who sang a beautiful solo piece. Except she didn't sing it at all. Instead, she lip-synced it while another girl, Yang Peiyi, located off-camera, sang. It seems that Communist Party officials wanted the perfect girl to perform. They judged Miaoke to be cute enough, but they didn't like the way she sang. On the other hand, they felt that Peiyi had the perfect voice, but she was not attractive enough. Naturally, the solution was to put Miaoke in front of the camera while having Peiyi sing. Was it deceitful? Of course. Was it good PR? I suppose it would have been if the deception hadn't been uncovered.

And, finally, there was this post on Slashdot. The author, after watching the opening ceremony on NBC, wondered if the network changed the order in which countries' athletes marched into the stadium, delaying the Americans' entry until later in the broadcast in order to hold viewers' attention. The author even noted that the athletes were shown on the infield before they were seen entering the stadium.

At this point, you may be wondering why any of this is important in the greater scheme of things. After all, it's only a sporting event, albeit a huge one. I believe there are three very important reasons you should care. First, it shows that, when lots of money and prestige are involved, people will go to great lengths to present the image that they want presented, even if that means engaging in large amounts of deception.

Second, NBC (and presumably other Olympics broadcasters) didn't mention any of this during the ceremony. Granted, they likely didn't know about the singing incident, but they certainly knew the fireworks weren't real, since the article stated that the fake footage was produced and inserted by the broadcasting group covering the ceremony, which I have little doubt NBC was either directly involved with or closely connected to, given that it is one of the world's largest television networks. And NBC announcers clearly pointed out the order in which athletes were arranged to enter the stadium. If that order was changed to hold viewers' attention, then that was blatant deception on the part of the network. If this was a broadcast of a work of fiction, then such manipulation would be acceptable, since fiction is, on its face, not reality. However, this was billed as factual coverage of an event, making such trickery unacceptable. If such manipulation is allowed to take place without consequences for the networks, then what else could the media try? Perhaps they might alter a suspect's image to make him look a bit more sinister. Oh, wait, Time was caught doing that when they darkened O.J. Simpson's face on their front cover after he was arrested.

The third and possibly most important reason this matters is because these deceptions could have easily gone unnoticed. Technology is quickly approaching the point where it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a photograph, video clip, or audio clip is authentic, altered, or completely fabricated. And if a technology can be used in a certain way, you can bet that, sooner or later, it will be used in that way.

In case you're wondering if I have a point, I think I do. When you use the media, be it newspapers, magazines, radio, television, or the Internet, remember that what you see and hear is not reality; it is mediated reality. It is filtered many times between what actually happened and what you are presented with. Most of this filtering is not done to deceive you. Some is done to highlight certain events, some is make the story fit into the time and space allowed, some is done to promote a particular point of view, and some is done in error. Just be aware of this filtering, and take whatever you are presented with a hearty dose of healthy skepticism.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Greetings, Earthlings!

Welcome to Marion's Time Waster, a blog that, with any luck, will soon develop into one of the biggest productivity killers on the planet. I doubt it can dethrone Solitaire, but I can dream, can't I.

You've probably already read the blog description up top, so you know what this thing is about. If you haven't done that yet, go do it now. I'll wait.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get down to some fun administrative things. I'll put them into a Q&A format to help move things along.

Q: How often will you post articles?

A: Honestly, I have no idea. I suspect that there won't be any kind of regular posting schedule. I'll post something when I see it and have the time to do so.

Q: What can I expect to read about here?

A: Anything and everything. I expect I'll be posting a lot of tech-related stuff, both things that I run across online and info that I think you might want to know. You're also likely to see some videos from time to time. Some of them may be informative, but let's be honest, many of them will be utterly pointless. I might even comment on some bit of news I encounter.

Q: Can I post a comment?

A: You bet! That's one of the things that make blogs interesting.

Posts will be unmoderated (for now, at least), but to be able to post, you need either a Google account or an OpenID login. If you have a Gmail or Blogger account, you already have a Google account. If you don't, then you can easily set one up by clicking the link below:

Create a Google account

But wait! You might not even need to do that because you may already have an OpenID account and not even know it. OpenID is a system that lets you have one username and password that works across many Web sites. You just log into an OpenID-participating site like you would the site the username was originally created on.

See a list of major sites whose usernames are OpenIDs.

Q: What are the commenting rules?

A: Simple. Keep comments on-topic, refrain from personal attacks, and, most importantly, do not post spam. Comments that break these rules will be deleted.

Q: Can I link to your blog posts?

A: Of course! After all, that's what blogs are all about. Remember to use the post's permalink instead of just linking to the blog's main page. To find the permalink, simply click on the post's title, and you'll be taken to its permanent page.

Q: Anything else I should know?

A: Not that I can think of, but if you have a question, feel free to post a comment or contact me.