Wednesday 15 February 2012

How To Talk Geek

Let's make some sweeping generalisations shall we. There are two sorts of people in the world, the geeks and the users. Both speak different languages and rarely fully understand each other. Here is a rough guide to making yourself understandable.

"My computer isn't working" tells me nothing. Is there no power? Is it crashing? Is it not doing what you expect it to? Be specific. I don't want to know it's got an error message saying something about 'invalid something'. I want to know it's got an error message that says 'Invalid parameter in field 2.' If you can't be specific, I can't help you.

Read everything. I can't tell you the amount of times something bad has happened because a user hasn't read a prompt and just pressed Yes. If you have done that, I will mock you.

Don't ask stupid questions. "It says 'press OK to continue'. What should I do?" is a stupid question.

Before you even talk to me, restart your machine. There's a 79.82% chance that I'm going to ask you to do that anyway.

Oh, and don't ask "What was it?" unless you actually want to hear the answer.

As an epilogue from the users to the geeks...

My number one rule for you is 'Keep It Simple'. I didn't spend my childhood tapping away on a keyboard in my bedroom. I spent it topping up my Vitamin D in a field like normal children. "You need to restart the spooling service" doesn't help me. I'm still lost. I don't want to spend my time listening to how clever you are, I want you to solve my problem.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Stupid Computers

It's an almost constant refrain heard by anyone in the IT industry.
"My computer's not working."
...or a variation on a theme. It stems from some common misconceptions about computers.
  1. It will do anything
  2. It will do it instantly
  3. It will do it flawlessly
It is my sad duty to report that none of the above are true. They are even perpetuated by the computer industry itself, setting a bar it cannot possibly reach.
  1. The least of the three problems. Computers can do a lot. But they have one critical limitation - they can only do what they are told to do, whether that be by a programmer or a user. Also, they are not psychic. If you pressed 'A' and meant to press 'B', it doesn't know that. It will do 'A'.
  2. Computers are only as strong as their weakest link. Speed is made up of a combination of factors that we have talked about on this blog before,  including, but not limited to, its processor, memory, hard drive and software. Any one of these could slow a system to a complete crawl. Now, I'm going to stick my neck out here and proclaim this as one of the single biggest user-caused problems with computers. I click a button. I give it four seconds. I see no sign of anything happening. I click the button again. At this point I have effectively doubled the work load on the computer and guaranteed the entire process will crawl over the finish line. As long as you're confident you pushed the button, give the computer a chance to do its job. If the software you are using was written after your computer was built, the chances are that it was designed to operate on higher specs than you have at your disposal. Ironically, the computer industry moves at a lightning fast rate.
  3. The physics of a computer are phenomenal. Processors deal with transistors that are nanometres apart. However, they're biggest strength is their biggest weakness. It is almost inevitable that there will be an occasional misfire. It is one of the greatest feats of recent times that the IT industry managed to get computers into most homes in the world when they are highly sophisticated pieces of machinery that are often operating on a knife-edge.
Accept the limitations of a computer, work within them, and you'll get along just fine.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Whats the password?

I don't know about you but I get aggravated by the amount of times I have to think up a new password.  I seem to have several options on the go, and end up using them in the wrong order, on the wrong website or simply completely going blank.

What doesn't help is the bank web sites that will ask me for the 4th, 6th and 8th character of my password, which makes things harder to work out.  However, this seems to be an increasing issue with most of the computer users I talk to, so maybe it's a good idea to look into why passwords are so important.

Before we get into what makes a good password, maybe we should have a look at the top 20 passwords most commonly used.  If your password is below, then CHANGE IT!

1. password
2. 123456
3. 12345678
4. qwerty
5. abc123
6. monkey
7. 1234567
8. letmein
9. trustno1
10. dragon
11. baseball
12. 111111
13. iloveyou
14. master
15. sunshine
16. ashley
17. bailey
18. passw0rd
19. shadow
20. 123123

So what makes a good password? Quite often web sites require a password of 6 or more characters, and the more secure sites will suggest ones with numbers, upper and lower case characters. Why the fuss?

So lets imagine a web site wants a 6 character password, just lower case.  26 letters of the alphabet, 6 times. So that's 26 x 26 x 26 x 26 x 26 x 26.  For those that want to know, that's a combination of 308,915,776. Pretty secure. Surely?  But how many of us would make up a random combination of letters?

In reality, there's only just over 15,000 6 letter words in the English language.  Suddenly that becomes a little more scary.  So now, what if we decided to increase that to an 8 character password? Same letters? 208,827,064,576 combinations of random letters. But, what if you had 8 characters, using upper and lower case, and the numbers 0 - 9 ? Suddenly your 208 Billion Number combination races up to 218,340,105,584,896.

It might look a little confusing and needless for most instances, but the more combinations a password can take the less chances you have of having your account hacked.

Another tip, is to not use the same password across several sites. For if one password gets found, they won't get access to other sites with the same password.

Passwords are important. 6Hg4Rf9e might look a little complicated, but it won't be listed in the top "passwords not to use" list for a long while!

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Ahead In The Cloud

‘The Cloud’ is one of those tech-expressions that started out as largely a business exercise before hitting the mainstream. Now, you can’t move for clouds. So here’s a testing question – could you effectively run a computer without a hard drive and store everything remotely?

Let’s start easy. Photos are already often stored in the cloud, whether that be Facebook, Flickr or some other site. Increasingly, it's the same for videos. They don’t have to be shared with the world necessarily, but there they are, not on your hard drive.

Documents could easily take a similar route. Google Docs is probably the most famous online storage and editor, although Microsoft themselves provide a similar, though chargeable service. Tick.

Music could easily be a massive space hog on a hard drive. But services like Spotify circumvent that and have the advantage of making the vast majority of songs available without having to download them first. Three for three.

Games. Oo, tricky. Probably the biggest space-taker in this list and, until recently, non-negotiable. They had to be stored on your hard drive and that was the beginning and end of it. But OnLive is challenging that convention. Rather than buy a physical copy of a game, take it home, install it and then play, a process that could easily take a couple of hours, OnLive lets your start playing in about two minutes. The game is streamed to you, a bit like video sites, and your key presses are sent back. As long as your broadband service is up to it, and most are nowadays, it’s a seamless process.

As you can see, a lot is storable ‘out there’. There still remain some valid concerns however. Your data is out of your control. A major security breach, however unlikely, could see your personal data out for the world to see. A drop in internet, whether due to geographical location or local circumstances, cuts you off from, potentially, everything*. And some programs simply don’t have an offline option, so are destined for the hard drive. Nonetheless, there is a believable future in the cloud.

*I would contend that this is not a massive issue, as the same would apply if the electricity gets cut off, but we still use computers. I've lost power more often than I've lost internet in the past year.