Sunday Nibble #58: Obituary

It is with great sadness that I must announce the passing of Gateway DW4320, who had long been my faithful servant. After a series of minor strokes, DW suffered a major event last Monday evening and, despite valiant efforts to keep them alive, they passed on Tuesday afternoon.

DW did have a long and eventful life, during which time they offered great assistance to their writer patron, as well as facilitated communications between the writer and friends around the world. DW’s research skills were immeasurable, and were instrumental in the creation and dissemination of many of the writer’s works, even right up to the very end.

DW is survived by an external hard drive, laser printer, monitor, and a wireless keyboard, mouse, modem and router. In lieu of flash drives, we ask that you make donations to the Alan Turing Foundation in their memory.

Well… it feels like that when an old and trusted machine suddenly dies of old age. And, yeah, I should have upgraded a while ago, since this box was still running Windows 7. But it was working fine, I had a bunch of legacy software on it, as well as a bunch of online passwords.

Fortunately, all of my writing was on the external drive. I had to Frankenstein data out of the old hard drive using what’s called a USB/SATA/IDE interface. Basically, this involves pulling the drive from the old computer and hooking it up to a connector that in turn provides motive power to the drive. Hardware and software inside the connector make the hard drive look just like any normal external drive at the other end of the USB, and the new computer recognizes it.

So I did manage to save all of my important documents and files, but it’s going to be a bit more complicated to get some of the software back. Fortunately, subscribing to Microsoft Office was a necessity anyway, so Excel and Word are still around.

Side note: Subscribing to Microsoft software? Yeah, fuck you, Bill Gates, or whatever twatmonkey bean counter at Microsoft came up with that shit. This was actually one of the reasons I held out from updating the computer in the first place.

But back to the point… I do still have the discs to a lot of the old software I’d been using, I just haven’t figured out yet whether Windows 10 will like them. Kind of annoying, because the version of Photoshop I’ve been using forever is something like 6.0.

Yeah, I know. Ancient, but I like that for one simple reason. It keeps my skills sharp, because I have to do manually a lot of the things that Adobe has automated over the years. Nowadays, if you want to erase a person from a photo, fill in a gap in a background seamlessly, color-match two images from different sources, or create a cut-our or mask for a figure, those are pretty much all one-click operations in modern versions of Photoshop.

Would it be cool to be able to do things that way? I don’t know. Maybe. What I do know is that by having to do these things in multiple steps, it keeps more than my skill sharp. For example, when it comes to something like dropping a person from one photo into an historical scene taken with completely different lighting, color temperature, film stock, etc., taking the steps to match the coloration and the lighting and the perspective just helps keep my eye trained on the subtleties of that.

A funny side effect: It makes it a lot easier to spot when something has been Photoshopped.

But the two biggest things I haven’t recovered yet are actually the most important. One is that I couldn’t just open and export my Chrome bookmarks from the old computer, because that install thinks it’s still on the C: drive even though the USB ported version was now something like the F: drive. Consequently, when I ran Chrome using the .exe file on the old drive, the startup info it loaded was from the bookmarks and such on the new computer.

Meaning that… I had no access to my saved passwords. Now, I did manage to pull a really sneaky bit by just copying the old bookmark file from the appropriate place on the old drive to the new one and voila! All of my old bookmarks were there.

So I tried the same with the login file for saved passwords and… nothing. And not just nothing updated. I mean, suddenly nothing saved yet again. This will definitely involve me having to put the drive back into the old computer, trying to restart, and then probably manually looking up and copying the essential logins that I do need.

The other unrecovered things is the version of Quicken that I had used for years, which is just gone now. The original came on a 3.5” floppy disc, which I don’t even have anymore – I think it was called Quicken 2000.

Hey, if anybody happens to have an electronic image of that disc that can be uploaded and installed, let me know in the comments!

I may have managed to re-install it from that disc on several subsequent computers – I’d started using it around 1994, and that was after I bought it from the $5 discount bin at some computer store. in other words, it was already old 27 years ago.

But it worked, it was stable, and when you’ve dumped that many years of financial records into something, inertia is strong.

Fortunately, I was able to save the data files and all of the annual backups going to the beginning of (program) time. But this time around, I wasn’t able to just port the program over. I must have somehow done this to get it onto the previous computer, which had no floppy drive.

This time around, though? I couldn’t even get it to start by running it like any other program on an external drive would normally run.

The good news is that I have the latest Windows version of Quicken waiting in the wings. The bad news? The format of my data files is so old that I can’t just open them directly. It’s going to involve a series of installs of (now free online) intermediary versions of Quicken to perform successive updates on the data file as part of the install process, until I get one that will port over.

Oh, joy. Of course, I can only do this if I can shove the old hard drive back into DW and, essentially, pull a JC and Lazarus trick. This might be doable, though, because I think part of what might have caused DW’s death in the first place was that I actually had way too many documents and files on the desktop, instead of just shortcuts and folders.

Yeah, I guess that a folder with a shit-ton of images in it isn’t the best thing to keep on the desktop because it actually lives in hidden space that only the physical host computer can normally see – a little detail that made me shit my pants the first time I connected the new computer to the old drive.

But, on start-up, the OS apparently queries through all of these files, meaning that boot-ups used to take forever and, eventually, the process was just too taxing on the rest of DW’s hardware.

These are things I should have known better, given my decades of computer experience. However, I did clean the hell out of that desktop once I’d migrated all the files and documents, and also jettisoned a lot of crap elsewhere on the drive.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a good defrag or chkdsk going on that drive because my new computer told me, “Hey, no problems, no need to,” obviously thinking of it as always having been a part of its young and invulnerable self.

Oh. Kids. When will they learn?

Anyway… perhaps accounts of DW’s death may be premature. If I do bring them back, will I get rid of the new computer? Oh, hell no. It’s already shown me that, Microsoft BS aside, it’s much faster and more stable. Plus the most surprising part is how really cheap computers have gotten.

This one was under $500 – but was also the one with the most bells and whistles and power among its brand line. I’d tell you exactly when I bought DW and how much they cost but, well, until I rescue that Quicken data, good luck with it!

At the most, I’ll wind up with a second computer that I can still run the old crap on and, if that doesn’t work out, then at least I’ll have another working external hard drive, meaning that I will suddenly have access to three terabytes of storage.

That’s quite a lot, actually. At the time I bought my 1Tb external drive, the word was that 10Tb would hold the entire text collection of the Library of Congress. I’m sure that this figure has gone up in the interim, although if we’re talking just text, not that much.

But I guess if I wanted, I could still have 30% of the Library of Congress just sitting on my desk.

UPDATE: I was eventually able to restore the Quicken files and install the program, and I checked to see when I bought the previous computer. It was on January 6, 2011, at the now defunct Fry’s Electronics in Burbank, CA, for $1,004, including sales tax and a firewire card. Over 10 years of service for a PC isn’t bad at all, really.

Don’t make it rocket science when it’s not

So many tools

It never ceases to boggle my mind when people don’t jump on the chance to learn and fully take advantage of the amazing modern tools we’ve been handed and which are ubiquitous. If you work in any kind of office environment at all, whether it’s some stodgy traditional business or a bleeding-edge industry like tech or gaming, at the very least you’re dealing with either Microsoft’s Word, Excel, Outlook, etc., or the Apple equivalents.

If you’re using the Open Office or Chrome/Cloud versions, then this piece probably isn’t directed at you because you definitely get it. But, otherwise… really, people? These are literally the things that you use every day, and yet I constantly see very few people ever progressing beyond the merest basic ability to use any of the programs.

That is: Open document, type shit with defaults, save or send as-is.

If I open a spreadsheet you’ve worked on in an older version of Excel and see three tabs at the bottom named Sheets 1, 2, and 3, I will know that you’re an amateur. Likewise if the font is set to that hideous Calibri. Same thing in Word minus the tabs, but same crappy font, ragged aligned left, with auto-spacing before paragraphs or lines.

Word to the wise, people. The first thing you should do in Word is go in and set your default formatting so that the autospace before lines or paragraphs is 0, and line spacing is single.

Why is paper still a thing?

But this is just an intro to some recent heinous, and it’s this. I’ve managed to stumble into a situation where a lot of coworkers prefer to do things on paper, and it makes me nuts. Simple question: Why? Physical files can only be in one place, usually aren’t in the place where they’re supposed to be, and there isn’t a magic search function that can find them other than somebody maybe remembering that they worked on it recently, and where they put it. There’s also no standardization of fonts, so if someone scribbles a note in that file, there’s no guarantee that someone else will be able to read it six months later.

Not to mention that it’s just wasteful. Especially wasteful when there are so many ways to avoid it and so many resources to make that easier.

Case in point: One of the things I do regularly is enter and reconcile commission statements from various vendors, but I’ve had to do it by printing the things, manually entering the data into a spreadsheet, and then doing a careful audit to fix the inevitable errors, since some of these run to hundreds of entries.

But then I figured out how to pull the data directly from the statement, slap it into Excel, format it, and then use a few formulae to pull the new info into the old spreadsheet. The great advantages are that it uses the original data directly, so there are no entry errors to deal with. Also, the second pass just involves pulling out a copy of the original statement data and the target input by formula data, putting them side-by-side, using a few more formulae to spot errors due to differences in how names were spelled, making a few tweaks, and reconciling the thing a lot faster than before.

Pre-paperless innovation, a big statement could take me a few days (interspersed among all the other office duties) to finally balance it to zero. New method? I made it through four statements in one day, each one entered and balanced in two steps instead of about six.

The thing is, this isn’t really all that difficult, and anybody could learn to do it. One of the big helps in this process were the Excel functions INDEX and MATCH (which I’ll explain in a future post), and it took all of a two minute Google search and then reading the first good link to figure out how they worked in order to figure out how to do what I needed to do. What I needed to do: Compare the client’s first and last names and insurance plan type in one table in order to pull out a specific number from another. And this is literally all you need to do to learn how to make your office tools work for you.

Try it. Google “change the default font in Word,” or “turn off auto-correct in Word,” or “alternatives to VLOOKUP in Excel,” or any one of a number of other topics, and you’ll find the answers. It really isn’t any more complicated than reading a cookbook and making food from a recipe. Really, it’s not.

Using computers made easy

There is too much of an aura of mystery put around computers, but trust me, they are more simple than you think — and I’ve been working with them since… well, since most of my life, because I was just born at the right time. All that they ultimately understand are “Off” and “On.” “Zero” and “One.” Those are the only two states a switch can be in, that is what digital computing is, and it only gets two digits.

Maybe someday I’ll write a bit about how the electrons inside do what they do and turn it into intelligible information for humans, but for now suffice it to say that they pretty much only do a few things — input, store, and retrieve data through various devices; allow you to manipulate that data with various software programs; then allow you to re-store and output that data, again through various devices.

The nice thing about graphical user interfaces (GUIs) like Windows, OS, Android, Linux, etc., is that they tend to standardize across programs written in them, so that every program tends to use the same convention for the basics: Open, Close, Save, Save As, Print. Programs of the same type will also follow the same conventions — Format, Spellcheck, View, Layout, etc., for text editors; Image, Layer, Select, Filter, Effect, etc., for graphic design programs; Inset, Formulas, Calculate, Data, Sort, etc., for spreadsheets.

Finally, almost every program will have a Help function, whether it’s invoked via the F1 key, or by some combination of a control/alt/Apple/shift-click plus H move. Help menus, when well-done are great and, guess what? They were basically the hyperlinked documents we’ve all come to know and love via the internet, except that they’ve been around since long before the internet. Most of the time, they’ll answer the question but, if they don’t, you can always google it, as I mentioned above.

How to create job security

You may be wondering, “Okay, if my job is just doing data entry, or writing emails, or accounting, or… etc., why do I need to know so much about the software when no one else does?”

Simple. As the economy moves more and more toward service, knowledge becomes value. If you’re the one in the office who gets a reputation as the computer expert, you will get noticed, and you will save a higher-up’s cookies more than once. You’ll also earn the attention and gratitude of your co-workers if you become the one they come to when “I did something and something happened and I don’t know how to fix it,” and you know immediately upon looking that they accidentally, say, set Word to Web Layout instead of Print Layout. It’s called creating job security by taking that extra simple step that too many people refuse to. Try it!

Image Source: NASA, Apollo 11.