Recently in Annoying Tech Category
When it comes to browsing the web, I'm a firm believe in "Anything But Microsoft Internet Explorer (wherever possible)."
For the longest while, this meant using Opera.
Somewhat belatedly, I've moved over to Firefox as my browser-of-first-choice, with Opera at the ready -- not because Firefox is necessarily better (and even though my fingers still know more Opera keyboard commands), but because as someone who writes about this stuff, I try to use (some) mainstream tools.
And Firefox does have all sorts of nifty add-ons, extensions, and other features I've barely scratched the surface of.
Plus, Firefox works with ZoneAlarm ForceField, CheckPoint's "browser/email wrap-around" session protector, which works with MSIE, Firefox, even Netscape Navigator, MSN Explorer, and AOL... but not Opera.
To be fair, Opera may be secure enough to not need the ForceField's additional protection... but ForceField also offers a "no session data (cache, cookies, history and passwords) left behind" mode, which feels useful at times.
Anyway, so I'm using Firefox.
I'm one of these people that accumulates lots of open browser tabs as the day and week go on. Yeah, being a better bookmarker would make more sense. I can easily have twenty, thirty or more tabs, reflecting sites I'm currently using, or URLs I want to get around to checking out.
I've got Firefox Start set to "show windows and tabs from last time."
Inexplicably, this is not always working.
Even more inexplicably, sometimes Firefox will restart several times in a row with just my home page... and then, poof! there's my twenty-plus tabs.
This remember-and-forget-and-remember behavior continues across days, incremental Firefox version updates, with ZoneAlarm ForceField working or not... there is no apparent (to me) rhyme or reason.
I've taken to doing a Bookmark-All-Tabs every so often, to save things. Of course, it seems like Firefox sometimes loses track of my bookmarks when it does a version upgrade, or hides them for a few sessions. Bad browser!
Plus, Firefox's "warn me when closing multiple tabs" isn't working lately if I've only got one Firefox window open... although if I've more than one open, closing one Firefox window will. Just not the last window. Go figure.
I'm not about to abandon Firefox and go back to Opera, much less move to MSIE.
But I wish Firefox would go back to doing what it says it would do, and be consistent about it.
Here's the thing: The usage guidelines (which are, to the company's credit, on the device itself, not just in the printed instructions) say, up to eight sheets at a time, and, don't use more than 25 to 50 times per day.
Now, "eight sheets at a time" is pretty clear, and not too hard to do.
But the per-day advice... I'm not disputing the numbers, but y'know, a little incremental, resettable counter would make tracking this a lot easier. (Or, I suppose, taping a mini-pad of paper on top, and just making counting marks.)
For that matter, roughly how much shred does the basket hold -- another rough way to track, if you empty it out before a long day's shredding? I suppose I could track it, and then put pieces of tape on to mark as another way to ballpark the daily shred count.
I'm just saying, we shouldn't have to think about this to know how we're doing.
I've been using Bluetooth headsets with my cell phone for about a year and a half (see my TechWeb review of three headsets), and recently tried out a few more (for an article that isn't up yet), and here's my overall thoughts on the matter (confirmed, or even pointed out first to me, by my colleague Ernest Lilley, editor of TechRevu.com):
- Probably the most important feature is using a standard charging port on the headset, i.e., mini- or micro-USB, which is what Jabra does, and also Plantronics on some, rather than something proprietary, which is what the Aleph Jawbone still does.
- Second, IMHO, is how well the dang thing stays in your ear, which in turn means, is there an ear loop, and how securely is it secured to the earpiece.
- Button close to the edge, or whoops, didn't mean to hang up on you. The main button on some is easy to mis-hit, like when I'm adjusting the fit to my ear, and whoops, I've hung up on the call.
- How well can you hear me now? The big problem in selecting a Bluetooth headset is that while the callee may sound fine to you, you can't tell how you sound to them, short of having somebody call you using that headset. (Which Ernest Lilley and I have done many rounds of, often playing "Guess which headset.")
Reason: Without the cable, you've got a very small boat anchor (or ear decor). And these cables are easy to lose, misplace, forget to pack, not have on hand, etc., while you can probably get a mini/micro-USB cable at most drug stores. And it's easy to accumulate enough to provision your carry-bag, car, pocket, etc. And a growing number of pocket chargers come with these cables.
I lost one loopless headset a month or two ago, while doing chores in town. I sort of felt it pop out, but I wasn't paying attention, and by the time I realized it had fallen out, and retraced my steps five or six yards back from my car to the copy/ship store, I couldn't find it. No big deal, I've still got several headsets, but it's annoying.
On the Jabra I use a lot (partly because it has a mini-USB charging port, per above), the ear loop sometimes pops off. The Aleph Jawbone's is very securely connected, but (per above) I'm not using the Jawbone as much as I otherwise might.
Lastly, a general observation: Be quieter. Pretty much every headset I've tried can pick up my talking at a conversational or even sub-conversational level, so quiet that you wouldn't hear me more than two feet away. I even conducted at least one test call from the stacks of my library, in a semi-whisper, and was heard well enough. You don't have to yell. The same goes for when you're not on a headset. So don't. If you have to talk loud when other people are around, go elsewhere or make your call later.
At the end of Jacques Futrelle's classic (and not just because it was written in 1905) mystery story, "The Problem of Cell 13," (read it online!) asked how he would have solved the problem if the plan he executed hadn't worked, Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen (a.k.a. "The Thinking Machine" *) replied, "There were two other ways."
(* Which always makes me think of the line from the a classic parody, which I can't identify offhand although I think it was Robert L. Fish, '"Was it Wednesday?" asked the Thinking Machine, thinking he was a washing machine.')
That's often how I feel about tackling computer problems...although, far too often, there turns out to be no (good) way, or, sometimes, the problem resolves itself (mysteriously stops being a problem).
Case in point: The "afternoon of network heck" on Wednesday, July 10, when, abruptly, my Internet connection went wonky.
Suddenly, the browsers (FireFox, with Opera as backup, MSIE only when absolutely necessary) on my near-new XP Pro desktop weren't accessing the web. I had a Putty SSH session open, and it kept working, so it wasn't the connection proper...but foolishly, I closed Putty, and couldn't regain the connection.
And, apparently, it wasn't just me having the problem, as I discovered a little later.
I remembered that a little earlier, Zone Alarm had "detected it was on a new network"... given that my desktop has a wired connection to my router, that's a little odd. I tried checking Zone Alarm for odd signs, but didn't see anything amiss. (I may not have looked at the right stuff, however.)
Events like this are often, of course, the result of some change, but at the time, I couldn't think of anything that might have been.
So I began to try things, starting with the easy and obvious:
- A quick check of the TV confirmed that cable service per se was still on.
- Ditto blinky-lights on the cablemodem, so I hadn't inadvertantly tapped the STANDBY button (which disconnects things).
- Transient glitch? Rebooting the computer, and then the cablemodem and router, didn't help.
- Loose network connection somewhere? I removed and re-inserted everything in the path.
- Bad router jack? The box has fallen a few times. I tried the other router ports.
- Bad Ethernet cable to the computer? I tried another CAT5 Ethernet cable between router and desktop.
- Try another computer. The press-loaner Vista notebook could access the Internet, via my 802.11 WiFI. This was partial clue I didn't pay enough attention to.
Then it was time for some serious Plan B's. Since at this point there seemed to be WiFI Internet access, I went rooting around for a WiFI adapter for the desktop, but:
- And old Travel Access Point's "simple three-step instructions" sheet showed, in Step 3, cranking open a browser window to configure something... but didn't actually give the IP address. (And the manual, which I was able to grab via the notebook, wasn't much more help.)
- I found a USB WiFI Adapter -- but not the CD with the driver. And the vendor web site showed drivers for two models -- neither of which was the model I found. By the time I'd reached tech support and got the URL for the driver, I no longer had enough net access to get to it. (And, as it turned out, this wouldn't have helped.)
- In case the problem was my desktop's NIC card, I started to try a USB Ethernet adapter -- but although I had the driver CD, I remembered this was pre-XP enough that I was nervous. (I had another USB/Ethernet right in front of me, but didn't see it.
Now it was time to call Comcast, my broadband provider, in case they knew something I didn't. However, the wait-time was too long, so I decided to talk Grep (our dog) out for a walk. While out walking, I called one of my colleagues, Ernest Lilley, who said "If you're using Zone Alarm, crank its firewall setting down a notch or two."
Since I couldn't do that until I got back, I tried calling Comcast, my broadband provider again, while still out walking. Aha! A few menu choices down, the recording advised me there was a known problem with a new Microsoft update conflicting with Zone Alarm--uninstall the patch and then check the ZoneAlarm site for further advice." (This assumed that the un-install would resolve the immediate problem, of course.)
And, in fact, it did.
That let me get to the ZoneAlarm web site, where they acknowledge the issue and offered a little more advice. They initially put this on their main page:
Sudden loss of internet access - Microsoft Update KB951748 is known to cause loss of internet access for ZoneAlarm users. We recommend that users uninstall KB951748 using "Add or Remove Programs" until the issue is resolved.
I conceded to Ernest that he was right enough in his solution -- although Zone Alarm feels that lowering the firewall security levels is somewhere between ungood and plusungood (to cop a phrase from George Orwell's 1984 reduced-vocabulary lexicon). But, as I pointed out, he hadn't actually identified the cause of the problem.
A few hours later, there were news stories confirming the problem, workarounds and solutions. By the next day, Thursday, July 10, Zone Alarm made updated versions available "which solve the loss of internet access problem," which should make it safe to allow Windows to (re) apply the patch. (I haven't yet done the Zone Alarm update, but I will.)
Let's gloss over the annoying fact that Microsoft's "Add/Remove Software" doesn't have any (obvious) way to sort updates based on when-applied, much less a separate "Update/patch manager" the way some applications seem to. The Add/Remove approach worked, at least for me.
Had it not, there were, as Professsor SFXvD noted, at least two other ways I can think of. One, use Microsoft's System Restore facility to revert to the most recent Restore Point. (Memo to self: Create a new Restore Point at least once a week. I try to do one before any software install, but even so.) This might sacrifice an install and/or config -- I _think_ that doing a Windows "Save State" would give me some way to re-recover. But it sure should undo that nasty update.
Two, since it was a system problem rather than a network problem: Have a bootable Linux CD, with whatever key utilities I might need. I don't know if this would be able to see my Windows NTFS file system (hard drives), worth finding this out when I'm not in a hurry.
Three, crank up my old IBM ThinkPad, which wouldn't have the dread update, since it's normally off, and therefore should work.
Four, dial-up. I've got a modem card in my desktop. I think I've got dial-up access through an account -- another Memo To Self, find a zero-maintenance-cost dial-up provider for backup.
Or do without connectivity for a while, or trot over to the library where there's Internet computers... if they're not already in use by fellow XP/Zone Alarm sufferers.
Or, of course, copy files to a USB stick and go to the library and use one of their computers.
(If I had a Blackberry or whatever, I could always use that for checking/sending email.)
("Get a Mac" or "Go Linux" don't count as solutions; for bad or worse, I'm working in Windows. I'm used to it, it ain't bad most of the time, and it's what most of my readers use.)
The challenge, of course, is which solutions to invest time making ready, and keeping solutions up to date.
Computers. Networks. Pfui.
(Disclaimer: I'm sure I could have made my points here in a tenth the space... but I'm irked.)
One recurring complaint in chats I have with some of my similarly-aged friends is that it's not worth repairing a growing number of our techno-doodads, because for around the same price, we can simply get a new one that's better -- more features, faster, smaller, whatever.
(And, by extension, it's similarly not worth getting the "best" anything... because in one to two years, it'll be obsolete anyway. Case in point: the Olympus D490 'clamshell' digital camera I bought in 2001 for somewhere between $400 to $500. It still works as well as it did then. But its level of "well" is no longer state of the art. Last summer I bought a Canon A570 PowerShot that's about the same size, but has more zoom, more features, way more potential capacity -- and cost around $220.)
But what's bugged me even more over the past few months is that it's turning out to often be easier -- and close to more sensible -- to consider getting a new device than getting a new battery for it. In particular, for cell phones and flash MP3 players.
Losing Their Oomph
The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, commonly used in notebook computers, cell phones, media players and other mobile/portable devices, have a useful lifetime of, with luck, two to three years. (Some, like iPod batteries -- I'm told -- are more in the one-year zone.) Somewhere in this time frame, the battery stops holding as much charge.
The batteries on my cell phone and media player had, within the past several months, slid into the "not enough charge" range, particularly my cell phone when using it with a wireless Bluetooth headset. Even when I'm not talking, the mere fact of having Bluetooth turned on, on the cell phone, drains the phone battery much faster.
So I started looking around for new batteries.
And this brings me to the annoying, sad, irritating, really-piss-me-off grim reality of today's techno-gadgets, even worse than "you usually can't repair them and even when you can, it's worth it because you can usually get a BETTER whatever for not much more, perhaps even less, than the cost of repairs." Namely, that the same just about holds true for getting a replacement battery.
(Assuming you can even find the right battery, of course.)
For a notebook computer, the economics aren't quite as bad -- today's notebooks cost (mostly) between six hundred to two thousand dollars, so a hundred or two hundred dollars for a new battery, in return for another year of notebook life, isn't a bad trade-off, if your notebook's got enough power and you like it.
But for consumer/portable electronics, I'm discovering, not so easy.
Old cell phones get little respect
For my Nokia cell phone, which I've had, I think, for about two years, I've NEVER been able to find a replacement battery in either the Cingular/AT&T store I got it from, nor at any store. Cingular (the original Cingular, before they were bought by AT&T) didn't even have spares when I first bought the phone.
I've looked without luck since then, in Staples and other stores, as having a charged spare is often convenient when I'm travelling. (I'll write about RECHARGE IN YOUR POCKET another time.)
From Nokia's web site, a new battery for my phone is $49. For that price -- or less -- I could get a whole free new phone from Cingular as many or more features (as long as I renew my contract). There's something wrong about this. I spent five or ten minutes looking over their choices -- I really should be trying out a Blackberry, and/or learning to text message, and all that, but I wasn't ready to be picking a new phone JUST BECAUSE I CAN'T FIND A NEW BATTERY (at a reasonable price).
(Especially since I'd want another set of wall and phone chargers, for my travel kit, driving up the total price if my current ones didn't fit the new phone -- and that would mean that Bobbi and I would no longer have charger-compatible phones.)
You-Do-It Electronics Center, a great independent electronics store a few miles away, had a third-party one for $30, according to their inventory system. But the guy at the register couldn't find it in the wall rack behind him.
Fortunately, Googling turned up a number of choices, including, astonishingly, one for $9.95 INCLUDING SHIPPING. Other choices ranged form twenty to fifty dollars, some of which were for lower-capacity batteries, to boot.
After a day of brooding, I cranked up the browser (Mozilla), and Paypalled the $9.95.
It arrived a few days later -- labelled as from Nokia, although without the holographic sticker that's on my original battery.
For the first month or so, this one has been lasting a day and a half on, with Bluetooth on. This makes me realize my original battery's capacity had degraded to probably half at least six months ago.
I think the new battery's already degrading, but whaddaya want for ten bucks. Maybe it's time to go look for a new phone. Or maybe I need to buy a name-brand battery from a name-brand supplier.
Play It Again and Again, Sam
That left the media player -- a Sandisk Sansa C1, which I'd gotten at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show from Sandisk, as their attend-our-press-conference goody. It's got a great FM tuner in it--important, as I listen to radio more than tunes, and 1GB of internal memory. (And I've added two GB more, into the micro-SD slot.)
New, the C1 originally listed for a little under $100; I've seen them on sale for $49 on J&R.com, probably as a discontinued item.)
Naturally, the battery is a size not carried by Radio Shack, drug stores, etc. (I haven't tried 1-800-Batteries or other battery specialist stores.)
The new battery "kit" from Sandisk is $20.
A new MP3/radio player of comparable storage is like $40-50.
Happily, in informing me that they didn't carry this size battery, the Radio Shack salesperson asked me how long I'd had the player, and hearing "just under a year," informed me that Sandisk was offering replacements, under warrantee, and I should call them.
I did, and after a few minutes, Sandisk support said they'd send me a replacement battery -- advising me that when this one went, I'd have to buy a new one. (Fine by me.)
(Of course, it wasn't quite that simple... three weeks later, with no new battery in sight, I called Sandisk support back up, and they said, whoops. One batteryless month later, when I called, I found they'd gotten my address wrong. A total of slightly over two months later, the new free replacement battery arrived.)
So, that's two moderately-happy battery-story endings -- and also another happy-ending (with middling middle) tech-support tale.
I'm still philosophically peeved. But at least I can be listening to the radio or complaining on the phone while peeved.
And that's why, when I went looking for a new digital camera, my first criterion was "Must use AA batteries."