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January 04, 2007

2006 In Review

It is that time of the year when Bleeding Edge looks back on another 12 months of technology … which this year happens to be a particularly dangerous manoeuvre, what with the speed at which we’re heading in the opposite direction.

In 2006, after a sedate couple of years that followed the megahertz wars – a period when Intel and AMD tried to outdo each other every few months with incrementally faster releases - the computing world sniffed the air, caught a distinct whiff of cash, and suddenly pressed the accelerator.

Even those of us in the grip of Toad of Toad Hall Syndrome - we’re mad for speed, God help us - had to wonder quite where this new trend would lead. Rather than dabbling with megahertz, the CPU manufacturers started adding entire CPU cores.

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February 09, 2006

Beautifully small solutions

We hope this isn’t going to put anyone out, but would it be too much trouble if those big IT companies stopped providing us with solutions? Just for, say, the next five years or so, could all those product managers and their engineers and programmers go away and mind their own business, and allow us to solve our problems by ourselves?

The reason we ask this is that we’re tired of what you might call big solutions. Left to our own devices, the average person chooses small solutions, rather than big ones. Solutions Inc., however, favours the larger variety, simply because they generate bigger profits. And big solutions, unfortunately – subject to the laws of unintended consequences – tend to magnify the size of any problems.

Take, for instance, the simple matter of communications and collaboration. When Solutions Inc. – and specifically Lotus – got their hands on that idea, it led to a whole new class of software called “Groupware”, led by a program called Lotus Notes.

Using software agents and self-replicating databases, it was supposed to “close the gap between the overwhelming volume of information and users’ ability to filter and manage it”.

What we eventually learned about groupware and collaborative software, after the expenditure of more than $US1 billion dollars, was that it led to a dramatic blow-out in IT budgets, for little increase in collaborative productivity. The only tool that did boost collaborative output, it emerged, was the one we’d all started out with at the beginning of the networked society: e-mail.

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February 04, 2006

Keeping tabs on stuff

Here at the Bleeding Edge Centre for the Capture and Containment of Stuff, (BECCCS) we have been noticing of late a certain desperation abroad in the community over the mass break-out of information.

Having escaped from detention and evaded captivity, these umm, informations, are not serving the purposes for which they were intended: ie, informing people.

[We should establish, at this point, what “information” actually is, and as ever, we turn to the definition offered by Gregory Bateson in a book called Steps to an Ecology of Mind (recently re-released, with a new introduction. Bateson described information as “the difference that makes a difference”.

It clearly doesn’t make a difference if you’re unaware of its existence, or can’t put your hands on it when you need it.

And because increasing amounts of this particular variety of stuff is free-ranging on the Internet, it defies the capacity of the average human – unaided - to track it down.

Fortunately, there are some wonderful tools around these days, and we here at the BECCCS have been having a lot of fun with them.

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January 19, 2006

Learning to love your PC

For some of us, it seems, this year of technology begins much as 2005 ended – not with a sense of being empowered by the great advances in computers and communications, but with a profound feeling of helplessness and resentment.

For these people, computers are an imposition … a trial, if not an outright threat. Their daily experience is an unbroken sequence of small defeats, with occasional catastrophes. They’re overwhelmed by their Inboxes, fearful of the constant threat of viruses, dreading paralysed by ignorance and timidity.

The endless cycle of updates and enhancements of hardware and software and faster communications – the “speeds and feeds” that most of us see as progress – for them only exacerbates their sense of being caught in a rip, and rapidly being swept into ever deepening waters.

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December 15, 2005

The year in technology

We'd be interested in hearing your summary of the year in technology. Here's ours:

It's the end of another year in technology and Bleeding Edge has just repacked the last box of gadgetry and sent it back to the last vendor. Now it's time to head for the beach, pausing only for our annual reflection on the mad world of technology.

What has been most memorable this year, in one respect at least, is that it wasn't all that mad.

PC makers have adopted a far more leisurely pace. They're no longer piling on extra megahertz every few months, and what with the shipping date for Windows Vista and Office 12 several months away, there's no urgent need for more speed.

PCs that are one and even two years old are perfectly capable of running today's operating systems with ease. Fortunately for computer shops, customers suddenly developed an urgent desire for smaller packages. People threw out their CRT displays and took advantage of substantial price cuts in LCD screens. And cheaper notebooks proved irresistible to many.

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October 06, 2005

Merciless progress

It was about five years ago now that your bloodied correspondent picked up a tiny little plastic stick at a PC show in Melbourne and immediately wrote out a cheque for (from memory) $350 or so.

We had no way of knowing that the 32MB Trek USB ThumbDrive which so took our fancy was the first product in a category that would become ubiquitous. We did know, however, that it made a lot more sense than floppy diskettes.

Here's an idea of just how commonplace they are now: a couple of weeks ago we attended the Face the IT media conference in the Hunter Valley.

All the journalists at the event received briefing material on a USB key. Not just any key: a 1GB Sandisk Mini Cruzer. You can buy it online for $137.95, which makes our original purchase - still working today - look pretty extravagant.

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September 30, 2005

Homeland (wireless) defence

It took only a couple of hours in the company of Neal Wise to cause considerable alarm here in the Bleeding Edge Homeland Defence Department. We have tightened up the strap on our tin helmet, and are preparing to launch a barrage balloon.

We first met Neal, of assurance.com.au, when he delivered an address to the Face the IT Media conference in the Hunter Valley on computer security. His thesis is that the increasing availability of Wi-Fi networking and VoIP (internet-based telephony) represents a growing threat beyond the competence of the “Mum and Dad” user to handle.

Then we sat next to him in the Newcastle airport departure lounge, while he scanned for Bluetooth phones and PDAs. There were half a dozen of them within range, all still in “discoverable” mode, which makes them visible to other devices.

The most basic Bluetooth security mechanism is the user's ability to choose if a device is in discoverable or non-discoverable mode, but unfortunately, your phone or other Bluetooth is probably discoverable, because that's the default, and you didn’t know that you should change it.
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September 25, 2005

Making room at the inn

What with living the digital lifestyle that Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs have been so keen for us to adopt, we at Bleeding Edge are constantly on the lookout for appropriate receptacles in which to store the podcasts and pictures, MP3 files and video files that accumulate on our PCs and Macs.

We are speaking here of the external hard drive. We've been collecting the things for several years now, but what with encountering a growing number of No Vacancy signs at the local data hotels, we have been keen to review Seagate's 400GB Pushbutton Backup external one-touch drive.

We like Seagate hard drives, largely because while they may not be the fastest around, they tend to be quiet and reliable, and we were curious to see how they would perform in these one-touch environments - pioneered by Maxtor - that allow fast back-up of hard drives.

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September 15, 2005

No room at the data hotel

What with living the digital lifestyle that Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs have been so keen for us to adopt, we at Bleeding Edge are constantly on the lookout for appropriate receptacles in which to store the podcasts and pictures, MP3 files and video files that accumulate on our PCs and Macs.

We are speaking here of the external hard drive. We've been collecting the things for several years now, but what with encountering a growing number of No Vacancy signs at the local data hotels, we have been keen to review Seagate's 400GB Pushbutton Backup external one-touch drive.

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September 08, 2005

Evicting software tenants

It has been a particularly busy time of late at Bleeding Edge Software Eviction Services, what with a number of readers and friends seeking help to remove unwanted applications or falling victim to programs that resist being ejected.

This is often a tedious business, largely because the software industry seems to be focused on having customers install their software, rather than uninstalling the stuff, and therefore frequently fails to observe any standards for the removal of its products.

In our opinion, any installation should place a link in both the Control Panel's Add or Remove Programs section and in the Start Menu's All Programs. Too often, however, the user is forced to plough through the list of programs under Add or Remove Programs, then through All Programs, and in some cases actually scour their entire hard drive looking in vain for some way of excising a program.

And too often the uninstaller leaves behind orphan files including desktop icons and directories. Sometimes this is because the developer has changed or broken the installer and uninstaller programs like InstallShield and Vise, so that they can't find all the files. Far more commonly, however, the problems are caused at installation time because the user ignores those little warnings that recommend closing other applications before installing the program.

While our experience suggests that most programs are well behaved and don't clash with installations, we wouldn't dream of installing anything without turning off anti-virus software at the very least.

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September 01, 2005

Disappearing bandwidth

You might recall Bleeding Edge raised the matter recently of a reader who believed his wireless network had been hacked. In one hour his entire month's traffic allowance under his BigPond ADSL account evaporated.

After establishing that his security left a good deal to be desired, we concluded that it was entirely possible that someone had sneaked on to his network, or a Trojan - malicious software that installs itself and runs surreptitiously - had been at work.

We received emails from other readers that indicated that this was not an isolated occurrence for BigPond broadband users and that the first half of August seemed to be a busy time for exceeding traffic limits.

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August 16, 2005

A new face... errr... or something

Nope, it's not Charles, the Official Bleeding Edge Toad, here. It's Jeremy Howard, FastMail.FM founder, gadget-obsessed technophile, and now... opinionated Bleeding Edge Toadlet.

I'm always nagging Charles to write about the latest gadget I'm playing with; he's now found the perfect way to keep me quiet, which is to let me write about them myself! You can see which entries are written by me, by simply looking at the "Posted by" right under this here sentence...

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August 12, 2005

Info Select redux

Over in the forum, a new user, Hanuman, has been unwise enough to ask for an opinion on Info Select. Many of you will have learnt long ago not to get us started on the topic, but since we have the opportunity, we thought we'd instruct you, once again, in the reasons this product should be on EVERY PC ...

Deep in the damp recesses of the Bleeding Edge cave, we've been suffering the effects of what we call the paradox of the diligent user. We became aware of this recently when we looked at a copy of Info Select which one of our friends had been using. It didn't look like ours.

As we so often point out to anyone who isn't fast enough to get out of earshot, Info Select is the real reason the computer was invented.
The term "flatfile database" scarcely begins to describe the sheer usefulness of this product. While its primary purpose is to enter and retrieve random pieces of information at truly astonishing speed, it's also an organiser, calendar, a basic word processor, email client and forms creator.

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Beware the crippling laptop

What with The Guardian discovering that laptops can be dangerous, we thought we'd resurrect a piece we did a couple of years ago on avoiding these problems ...

It was a particularly painful example of fear of flying. Travelling business class from London to Singapore, one of our friends worked for 10 hours straight on his notebook, having bought a new cable that allowed him to plug into the aircraft's power supply.

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August 11, 2005

The workhorse PC

We've upped the specifications for our workhorse PC. For less than $1200, you get a great machine.

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July 28, 2005

Don't throw it out. Back it up.

Here at the Bleeding Edge Centre for the Study of Computer-Induced Unwelllness, we are no strangers to the extraordinary responses otherwise sane individuals can sometimes make to apparently trivial setbacks at the hands of their PCs.

Nothing, however, quite approaches the actions of a New York resident called Lew Tucker, who despite having a PhD in Computer Science, decided to throw out a perfectly good desktop PC, because it was full of spyware, adware and viruses, and buy a new one.

Now you might wonder how someone with a PhD in Computer Science could have comprehensively ignored the basic steps – install, update and run anti-virus software and anti-spyware software, and run the Firefox browser rather than Internet Explorer – that would have prevented this contamination. You might also wonder why, if it really was such a mess, he didn’t simply remove the partition, or re-format and reinstall Windows.

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July 14, 2005

From frying pan to Firewire

Where would Bleeding Edge be without the devotion of our friends? We have tried to experience every form of computer-mediated disaster known to man, but the all but infinite variety of components and software has meant that we have been unable to enjoy some of the exquisite tortures that technology can dream up.

Fortunately we have been blessed with comrades in arms who expose themselves - albeit unwittingly - to sundry calamities that they bring to our attention, in varying states of desperation.

This allows us to alert you, dear reader, to the existence of hidden shoals that may capsize your particular computing vessel or - should you have already found yourself flailing in the water - fling you a lifebuoy.

Today's storm-weather alert, raised by one of our sacrificial friends, is likely to affect many users thanks to the exploding demand for external hard disk storage. It involves external FireWire hard drives - occasionally also USB 2.0 drives - and comes with a uniquely frustrating error message of its own, "delayed write failed error".

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July 01, 2005

Big Pond ignores smaller fish

When Bleeding Edge’s part-time assistant, Matthew, bought a house on a new estate at Sunbury, he knew that it just wouldn’t feel like home until he had an ADSL broadband connection.

There was one potential hitch: a Telstra technician working in the area told him that the estate had been set up with pair gain equipment, which can’t be set up for ADSL. According to the technician, there were only 50 (ADSL-capable) copper lines for the hundreds of blocks. You can learn more about these issues here.

A couple of months later, he heard telephone services were being upgraded, so on March 21 this year, he sent in his application to iiNet, having studied the broadband ISP plans at broadbandchoice.com.au, and looked at the comments on the Whirlpool user community (whirlpool.net.au). He’d be paying $39 a month for a 1.5Mbps service with a 4GB limit, which was a much better deal than anything offered by Telstra Big Pond.

The response from iiNet was that it would take 10 to 15 days for Telstra to provision the line.


That was the beginning of a tortuous, and at times bewildering journey.

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June 09, 2005

Better Bluetooth

We know pain. Of course we know pain. Anyone who has ever tried to pair Bluetooth devices – those short-range wireless connections that link things like mobile phones to headsets and GPS systems and PDAs and laptops - has a rich experience of suffering.

That’s why, when we decided it was time to be a little more responsible, and get a car kit for the Bleeding Edge vehicle – the Edgemobile – rather than allowing ourselves to get distracted whenever the mobile phone rang while we were driving, we expected to have trouble.

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June 02, 2005

Getting the best out of a PowerBook

We know that you, dear reader, will understand why Bleeding Edge had to buy a 15-inch Mac PowerBook, even if the local Institution of Marriage required a technology transfer - she got the Portege - before applying the "Grudging Approval" stamp.

It wasn't gross extravagance, really. It was the call of duty. How could we justify the very name of this column if we didn't have a device that was capable of running Tiger at a decent clip? We'd cease to be an ubergeek and be relegated, instead, to the category of mere user. Perish the thought. So we had to cast all caution and several thousand dollars to the wind, and invest.

Have you noticed, by any chance, how much work is involved in breaking in a new operating system? In addition to being flat broke, we are physicallly exhausted. Emotionally drained. In need of a holiday.

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May 26, 2005

Customize your PC ... with care

One of the most hazardous activities the computer user can engage in is embraced by an apparently innocent word: “Customisation”. Like other forms of “futzing” – the expenditure of vast amounts of time fiddling with PCs – customisation starts off innocently enough.

With programs like Microsoft Word, for instance, it’s essential to do a little customising, in order to achieve a more productive working environment. Whenever we install Word on a new computer, for instance, we routinely change the default for the Recently used files from four to nine, using the Tools/Options/General menu, and we also change the default locations for saving files. There are some excellent suggestions for other Word customisations in the Word MVP FAQ.

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May 19, 2005

Have your say on copyright

Perhaps the most important piece of advice this column has offered in 15 years of prognosticating about IT, is something you can do in the next few weeks: overcome your quite natural apathy over participating in the so-called democratic process, and have your say on the matter of fair use rights over copyright material.

No other single act is like to have quite such a profound influence over your ability to join the citizens of other nations, including the US, Canada, Britain and Europe, in enjoying the benefits of digital music and video without unreasonable constraints.

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May 12, 2005

Bringing Shrek home

There’s a certain irony to the story of how a German shepherd pup got himself a blog and became perhaps Australia’s most technology literate pet, since the whole saga began because someone lacked what most of us these days would regard as basic piece of technology: a mobile phone.

The day Shrek went missing he’d been taken for a walk in Caulfield Park by a friend of the owner. When he let him off the leash, the dog bounded off for some distant games. A mobile phone call would have brought the owner down to the park, but by the time he managed to alert him, Shrek was gone.

The owner took the familiar steps available to everyone in the analogue world. He called on the council, the RSPCA and the lost dogs’ home. When that produced nothing, Shrek’s owner didn’t wait for the phone to ring.
He owns a 15-inch Macintosh PowerBook Aluminium, and he happened to have a copy of Apple’s Pages software, which is a remarkable desktop publishing program. He used it to create a flyer with a colour picture of Shrek, that he’d taken with his Pentax Optio S digital camera.

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April 28, 2005

The war between you, your PVR, and TV

Ever since the introduction of digital television, Bleeding Edge has been forced to revise our thinking about what exactly constitutes a computer, and for that matter, what defines a television set and a video recorder.

A few months ago, for instance, we wrote about Development One’s Home Media Centre, which is a Linux-based PC. What makes it a good deal more versatile than the average PC is the fact that it runs an open source package called MythTV.

There’s an increasing number of systems like this. They include Microsoft’s Windows Media Centre, a vastly cheaper alternative called ShowShifter, and an open source version of that called Media Portal. You can have the same sort of capabilities with a Mac, using devices like the Elgato EyeTV digital TV recorder.

Typically these computers are equipped with a digital video card, which allow them to receive free to air and pay TV transmissions, and record them to the hard drive. That turns them into a television set and a video recorder.

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April 21, 2005

Mac Mini revisited

We've had the first post in the Apple section of the forum - that says a lot, doesn't it? - and it's from somebody who's thinking of buying a Mac Mini, and would like to know what the rest of us think.

Bleeding Edge pointed out what we thought back in January, and as we're slowly putting up articles on the site, we might as well revisit the topic.

The announcement of the Mac Mini led us to suggest to our hapless readers that they should all adopt entirely different New Year's resolutions to the ones they'd come up with themselves. The operative word, we suggested, was "Switch" - but not necessarily in the way Apple recommended in its celebrated "Switcher" ad campaign.

A few months later, with Apple reporting a dramatic increase in its sales, it seems that the following might have been precisely the view that a lot of Windows users took:

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How to buy/build a workhorse PC

Every three months or so, we here at Bleeding Edge expose ourselves to the dangers of eye strain and cerebral overload, as we work our way through specifications and price lists, searching for the components for our workhorse PC.

It’s always a tricky thing, trying to balance hype against practical merit while applying some sort of cost-benefit analysis. We also try to pick up some intelligence on reliability of the various components, and identify price moves that might bring previously higher-end products into the realm of the real world.

It’s been particularly challenging over the past six to nine months, as we’ve been matching Intel CPUs against those of AMD. While AMD has eclipsed Intel in many key performance areas, we’ve been troubled in the past by factors like heat management, which have tipped the scale in favour of Intel. This month, we’ve chosen AMD.

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April 18, 2005

Cutting your printing costs

Bleeding Edge has been waiting years for the computer to kill off the paper industry. We prepared for the event with considerable enthusiasm. We threw out the fax machine, got e-mail, got on the Web, invested in an e-book reader, a scanner and a CD-R burner [which we've since swapped for a DVD burner], and took out a bank loan to buy a copy of Adobe Acrobat.

We were determined to be prepared for the new millennium. When the last shreds of writing paper were turning yellow in some museum exhibit, and printers were as relevant as pocket watches, we were going to be expertly distributing and storing all those forms and documents electronically.

We were so confident that the paperless office was just around the corner, that we even considered short-selling shares in paper companies. But then we would have had to accept paper scrip. Where would we store the stuff, given that the filing cabinets were on their way to their ultimate destiny, as land fill?

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