5 Things: Computers

In the interests of blogging more usefully, I’m trying some “5 point posts” in areas where I have some reasonable knowledge. Hope they’re useful!

  1. Computers neither like you nor hate you.

    If I had a dollar for every time I saw someone go through some sort of ritual like pleading with, patting or hitting a computer, I’d be a very rich man. We often talk about computers as if they understand what we’re talking about (a fallacy that can trip up novice programmers, thanks for the reminder, Mark!) and this assumes that there’s some kind of mind in there. I know that you all know that it’s not actually true but we have to stop acting like it’s true as well.

    If you have important documents on your computer – then back them up, somewhere. If you are writing large documents, save them every 5 minutes or so. And check regularly to make sure that they’re actually being saved. The amount of preparation you put into making sure that the computer doing something ‘bad’ won’t actually affect you will directly reduce the amount of stress that you feel when it does go wrong. The computer is neither your friend nor your enemy and it will do what the programs tell it to do – not what you want it to do or what any reasonable person would do. This is pretty much true across every computer and operating systems. The computer can’t tell your vital photos from an old recipe copy you don’t need and it most certainly has no idea that you have a deadline – you’re just more likely to make mistakes because you’re under pressure.

    One of the best things you can ever install to stop your computer “behaving badly” is anti-virus software that you keep updated. Yes, it costs money (sorry) but how much is your time worth? If you can say “Yes, I lost the last 12 months work and it will take me a week to get my computer working again and I don’t care” then you can skip Anti-Virus. Everyone else – please install supported Anti-Virus software (look on line for customer reviews and recommendations, I make none here.) Having your computer hacked isn’t some jolly pirate image that pops up and goes “ho ho ho”. Modern attacks can wait, encrypt your backups and then charge you money to get at your own data – deleting it if you don’t pay. Computers don’t hate you but there are a lot of haters out there. One of the biggest threats is becoming part of a BotNet, a collection of computers that are being used to conduct unauthorised or criminal activities, without the knowledge of their owners. Not that worried? BotNets can be used to host all sorts of things, including child pornography chat servers and files. But don’t be worried! Install good anti-virus software instead and keep it up to date!

    Now, very, very few people are “bad with computers” but a lot of people have had unfortunate first encounters (and that is far more likely to have to do with the computer than with what you are doing) and have retreated to what is, essentially, a position of superstition. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that…

  2. Computers are everywhere.

    And this is why not being comfortable with computers is going to be more of a problem. I have now learned to program (in simplistic form but still) everything from cars to video recorders, including my vacuum cleaner, because all of them have little computers inside them. It will, sadly, get harder and harder to stay away from them. I’m not advocating some Butlerian evolution of the machine but it’s just happening anyway. Do they work exactly as we wish? No, but I’ll get back to that later, because they are close enough most of the time.

    So you probably already have one at home, in some form, which brings me to… 

  3. Computers need to be replaced and upgraded.

    This is a bit of a pain, particularly for those who don’t like (or prefer not to) change or have no cash (or anything else that says “I don’t want to upgrade”). The computing hardware will eventually break down and the more active the life of the computer, the more likely it is for something to go wrong. Laptops tend to die before desktops because of vibration, dust and heat, and tablets and phones are easy to drop. That’s why the point I made about backing up is really important anyway and triply important for anything vaguely mobile.

    Companies regularly declare an end-of-life period for their software and hardware and you have to keep an eye out for this as, after this time, you will no longer get updates for the software and the hardware. An unsupported computer is a crash waiting to happen and a security hole that you could drive a truck through. So not only do you need to keep using something supported, you have to keep patching it (downloading updates from the company and installing them) to keep it safe. In 2008, an unpatched Windows XP box would be hacked in, on average, 4 minutes of connection time. XP itself was released in 2001 and it was officially declared end-of-life on April 8, 2014. That’s over 12 years, compared to the usual product cycle of 10 years. But now, unless something big happens or you happen to be running ATMs, you will not get any more support for Microsoft on this operating system. Which means that, soon enough, your machine will take but minutes to infect and become part of someone else’s network of compromised machines – if it hasn’t happened already.

    Hardware does change and removing old machines can be painful when you have a trusted companion that is still working. However, these sorts of changes (like Apple’s removal of support for the PowerPC chip) are advertised well in advance (it took 7 years for Apple to stop supporting the PowerPC) and there is at least one silver lining on the creep in hardware and system specifications. If you buy 12 months behind the release of new technology, you should still get 5-ish good years out of your machines and avoid paying full price – plus you can buy refurbished models from early adopters with more money than sense. However, be careful and don’t buy something from a discontinued line because it is cheap – it will end-of-life much sooner than the low-end new line hardware.

    Yes, forced obsolescence sucks but we actually don’t have to buy the new shiny every time (not that many of us can afford to) and knowledge of the refresh/end-of-life cycle will help you to make a good decision. Those of you who are supporting older family members, I know it sucks but you’re going to have broach the issue of operating system changeovers before they become part of an distributed denial-of-service attack on some government department or have all of their e-mails encrypted for a $500 decrypt fee.

  4. It doesn’t really matter which computer you use, if it works for you.

    I’ve used pretty much everything in the way of computers and I use what works for me, when I need to. Right now, I’m using a lot of Apple gear because I’m not doing as much gaming and it all does what I need. If I were working more in different areas, I might be doing a lot more in Linux. I’ve worked with Windows before and I’ll probably work with it again. In 10 years time, who knows?

    I have no strong opinions as to what is best and I’m certainly not going to lecture someone on their choice. If they’re obviously unhappy, then we might chat, but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re right or wrong just because you have this system or that. (Unless it’s horribly out of date or not backed up, in which case, please look into updating/upgrading/fixing!)

  5. Computers are here to stay and the computing profession has some work to do

    And that’s the truth of it. We have a long way to go in making computers work better with people, that’s for sure. It would be great if we could be more ambiguous and hand wavy with a machine and get it to do what we want but there’s a lot of things to get working before that happens. However, hand on my heart, it is so much easier to use computers now than it was 10 years ago, let along 20 or 30. I genuinely think that we are going to see better and better ways to work with them as time goes on so, please, hang in there if you’re having trouble. That next upgrade might be just what you were looking for, even if it seems like a pain at the time.