Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is 7 Lucky for Microsoft? Changes You'll See in Windows 7

Windows 7 becomes widely available today, and it's big. How big? On Amazon UK, more people have pre-ordered Windows 7 than pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I haven't had the chance to actually try Windows 7, but I've been editing a lot of articles about the new OS at work. After reading a bunch of Windows 7 how-to's, I'm kind of excited about the new Windows. At least as excited as someone can get about an OS upgrade. Here are some of the changes you can expect to find:

New Win7 Features to be Happy About

Aero Shake. Grab a window and shake the mouse, and all the other windows minimize. Shake it again, and they all pop back up. It sounds like a great way to unclutter your desktop, and also to quickly hide what you were really doing when your boss walked into the office.

Aero Snap. Drag a window all the way to the left or right, and it automatically resizes to cover half the desktop. You can place any two application windows side by side now!

Slide Show Wallpaper. Can't decide which picture of your kids to plaster on your desktop? Select them all, and the desktop wallpaper will flip through them like a slideshow.

Expanded calculator. It seems kind of backward that it has taken so long to make the built-in calculator as powerful as some TI handheld, but there it is. The calculator noew does unit conversions, date calculations, statistics, and number system conversions (e.g., decimal to hexadecimal), as well as, well, adding, subtracting, and the like. These improvements will make someone, somewhere happy.

Adjustable user account settings. One might describe Windows Vista's security as, well, paranoid. Any time anyone does something that remotely looks like it will affect the system, an annoying UAC security window appears. Sometimes twice. Windows 7 lets you customize how, er, paranoid the Windows lookouts are.

The Sidebar is gone. All those gadgets that you added to the right side of the Windows Vista desktop — from weather alerts and stock price tickers to xkcd cartoons and virtual strippers — have now been cut free from their anchors. Place your gadgets wherever you want to on your desktop and they'll stay there. ('So what?!' say Mac owners. 'We've been doing that forever!')

The return of the Disk Defragmenter. Microsoft really wants you to automate this maintenance process, but I guess enough people complained about its disappearance in Windows Vista that Microsoft brought it back in Windows 7. To some, it's an important maintenance tool; to me, it's just a neat-o visualization tool.

Stability and speed. By all accounts, Windows 7 fixes most or all of the major problems apparent in Vista, making it more secure and less prone to falling to the BSOD. Plus, the new search feature is expected to work with Google-like speed to find documents on your hard drive.

Win7 Changes I'm Not So Sure About

The Scenic Ribbon. Microsoft expanded on the Ribbon interface that was introduced on Office 2007 and took it into a number of other programs, rebranding it as the "Scenic Ribbon." Most notably, you'll find the Ribbon in MS Paint and Wordpad, but Microsoft has released the API for the Scenic Ribbon and is encouraging developers to incorporate the Ribbon into their programs.

The Device Stage. Vista switched around the Control Panel, and now Windows 7 is redoing how you interact with hardware. In the long run, this may prove to be a good change, but there'll be a learning curve here that'll slow you down in the beginning.

Fewer parental controls. Microsoft cut down on the parental controls in Windows 7, but they ramped up the parental controls in Internet Explorer 8. (Of course, I use Firefox . . . )

Win7 Changes to Grumble About

Where's Windows Defender? I haven't been able yet to verify this claim, but I have read that Windows Defender, though it's still built into the system, is more difficult to find. It isn't where it used to be. Although I don't interact directly with Windows Defender very often, it is quite good at telling me what programs are launching automatically when I log in.

Fewer built-in freebies. If you upgrade to Windows 7, you might be surprised to find that you no longer have the Movie Maker, e-mail, an Instant Messenger, and a few other things. Some of the mainstays of Windows have been removed from the installation disc (probably because of a lawsuit or the threat of one). You can, however, download the Windows Live Essentials pack. It just makes installation that much longer and more tedious.

No Ink Ball! That fun (ish) new game that appeared in Windows Vista has been axed. (It has, however, been replaced by online, multiplayer versions of backgammon, checkers, and spades.

Then there's the new desktop, which acts a lot more like a Mac desktop. (Is anyone surprised?) It'll be a change, but, like using the Ribbon, it'll just take time to get used to it. The toolbar offers more useful features than it has in the past. Buttons now have jump lists that pop up showing related documents that you pin there, or recently used or frequently used documents (you can tell Windows which you want to see). These really do sound like navigational improvements rather than bells and whistles . . . time will tell.

If Windows 7 is all it appears to be, the days of those last XP holders-on are numbered. That, of course, depends on Microsoft keeping its promises and avoiding stupid choices, both of which have been problems in the past.

One last bit of info that I want to share. It came up in my forays through windows 7 info, but it's something you can use now, in XP and Vista.
I don't know why it never occurred to me that this might be the case, but there are cheats built into the windows games, specifically, in Minesweeper, Free Cell, and Solitaire. Follow those links and get the lowdown. (Anyone know any cheats for Hearts?)

(Full disclosure, those are links to the Web site that I get paid to help maintain.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Global Climate Change — Whom Do You Trust for Information?

[Quick note: When I began this blog post, it was going to be about finding honest, complete information about global climate change. It spun off into an epistemological tangent. My apologies if you don't think this truly falls under the "global climate change" topic for Blog Action Day 09 that prompted this post. What can I say? Sometimes you control the pen, sometimes the pen controls you.]

As both individuals and governments scramble to find ways to slow or reverse the progress of global climate change, one barrier consistently gets in the way: The information barrier.

This may sound like an odd statement, what with this ginormous, ubiquitous Internet thingy out there feeding us terabytes of new information every hour. There's plenty of information — or data, or just words, depending on how you look at it — about climate change out there on the Interwebs. A quick Google search for "climate change" yields 46.5 million web hits in under a second. So it isn't the lack of information that's the problem, it's too much information. With so many words and images and tables and charts and graphs to choose from, how do we separate the noise from the music? The opinions from the facts? The jejune meanderings of schmoes like me from the hard data from the people working the front lines of discovery?

And when we do find a morsel of seemingly good data, how much can we trust it?

Government debate — salted with both expert opinions and million-dollar science budgets as well as corporate lobbyists and pork barrel politics — is one thing, but when it comes to really understanding what the global climate change conversation is really about, and what it all means, it really boils down to the individual. What do I, a lowly, lonely nonscientist, really know about climate change?

I don't have the gear or the background to test, research, and gather my own raw data about what is happening in the world. And even if I get my hands on raw data, I likely won't understand how to read and interpret it. No, I must rely on someone else, or several someone elses, to discovery, decipher, and deliver the relevant scientific research. But how do I know that such technological jargon is being interpreted accurately?

I don't.

And that's the point that I've been getting to: My understanding (hoi polloi's understanding) of global climate change boils down to a matter of trust.

Whom can you or I trust to give us accurate and complete information about what's really going on in the atmosphere? Very rarely do we get unfiltered information directly from researchers. We get science news from, well, new reports, and bloggers, and science magazines, and movies. Many times, these reports are based only on a reading of a research abstract. More common, though, is a report written after reading a couple of other articles or reports which were in turn written after reading a research abstract.

Science journalism in particular has taken a pretty
shoulders recently. Reading about shoddy and suspicious journalism in particular cases can make one wary of journalistic practices as a whole. Even if people aren't consciously withholding the truth, it's too easy to just let some fact-checking slide. But if I can't trust the news media, where do I go for good information?

There's always Al Gore!

I trust that Al Gore's efforts truly are an attempt to create positive change. Unfortunately, that trust also leads me to more doubt. "Creating a positive change" isn't the same as "presenting the whole truth." Al Gore (and Michael Moore, and Ralph Nader, et al.) have their own agendas based on what they believe and the information that they trust. And when you have such an angle, it's difficult, if not impossible, to be totally unbiased. It's too easy to ignore or undervalue data and opinions that don't jibe with what you already believe and what you're trying to say.

(Who'd've thought that science and religion would have so much in common?)

But if we can't trust someone to accurately describe the facts, surely we can trust what we see with our own eyes! There are plenty of videos and images floating around out there showing glaciers crashing down and icebergs melting and starving penguins, but do we really know that we're seeing the effects of climate change? Do we know that an image is truly representative of a larger trend and not just an isolated event?

So if we can't totally trust science journalists to get it right, and we can't trust Al Gore and his ilk to give us the whole story, and we can't connect disparate images to global data, who can we trust? Where can we get the information we need to draw real conclusions?

Some may argue that the simple volume of apparent evidence is enough to point us toward the truth, that so many people saying the same things couldn't be wrong. But how much of the buzz about climate change is just the same handful of stories recycled and rewritten and reposted online . . . the game of Telephone on a grand scale?

And besides, the idea that general agreement can dictate truth is a cop-out. Think flat Earth. Think slavery.

So I guess the issue of trust is really just a stepping stone. Ultimately, deciding whom and what to believe is a matter of faith. (Again, science meets religion.) You have to believe something, but you can never know everything about anything. Ultimately, you have to have faith in the sources you've chosen and go forward as if that information is infallible — at least until some better, more trustworthy information comes along.

And that's the epistemological conundrum behind every decision we make: we're always basing our decisions on incomplete and unprovable information.


Not to elevate my intellectual status, but I imagine this is the type of conundrum that Descartes slogged through before arriving at his famous Cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am — the ultimate undeniable truth. I doubt even Descartes could start with that one foundational belief and work his way all the way up to global climate change.

I certainly can't.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Keeping Schools Safe by Avoiding Common Sense

Six-year-old Zachary Christie has been suspended from school and faces 45 days in a reform school. What Stephen King novel–worthy acts did he perpetrate on his teacher and classmates? Is he a budding pyromaniac? Is his vocabulary limited to four-letter sailor-esque slurs? Did he disfigure the class hamster?

Of course, it's none of this. Little Zachary got excited about joining the Cub Scouts and wanted to share that excitement with his friends, and he made the mistake of bringing his new "camping utensil" to school. This camping utensil serves as a spoon, fork, and knife. That's right . . . Zachary Christie has been suspended from the first grade for bringing a knife to school.

In the wake of Columbine and Virginia Tech, Zachary's school has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for bringing weapons into a school. What they haven't done is temper that lack of tolerance with common sense, forethought, and concern for a child's intellectual and emotional education.

Honestly, I thought we were past this. I don't personally think that zero-tolerance positions do any good — especially at this age level — but you can keep your zero-tolerance policies as long as you consider what "zero tolerance" really means.

Take a different example of something that is not tolerated in schools: bikinis. All schools have guidelines about what students can wear to school — from dress codes to school uniforms — and whether it is written down or not, you simply can't come to school wearing nothing but a bikini. It simply isn't tolerated.

So if a girl (or boy, I don't want to be sexist!) comes to school in a bikini, are they suspended and carted off to a reform school for 45 days? No. They are sent home to change clothes. It's that simple: A zero-tolerance policy that doesn't involve horribly marring a child's education and extinguish any love of learning that a child might already have.

(And before you argue that a pocketknife is more dangerous than a bikini, consider the my-child-is-ruined attitude that many had following Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.)

Unfortunately, the rules don't give school officials the leeway to deal with these situations case by case — for fear of seeming discriminatory. Zero-tolerance rules don't account for the differences between a handgun, a Swiss army knife, a Molotov cocktail, or a box cutter. How long will it be before schools start applying the same rules to the contents of a student's backpack that the FSA applies to carry-ons? We're nearly there already.

So zero-tolerance policies aren't the problem; the discipline punishment that follows with them is. Here's the worst that should have happened to poor Zachary: He gets his pocket scimitar taken from him and is sent to the principal's office; his parents are called in for a conference; they have a chat about the zero-tolerance policy. Maybe Zach gets detention.

If Zachary continues to try to bring his death-maker to school, then and only then does the reaction need to escalate.

What? That sounds like a three-strikes rule? Well sure — a three-strikes rule might make sense. What's more, a zero-tolerance rule and a three-strikes rule are not mutually exclusive!

Think about it, zero-tolerance is about rule-breaking, and three-strikes is about the punishment for that rule-breaking. Zero-tolerance for something means that you won't let it exist or happen in your bailiwick. It doesn't (have to) mean that whoever tries bring that something into your bailiwick is a dangerous, psychologically broken individual who should be separated from the general population and punished beyond reason.

I wish I could say I'm surprised when I read stories like this. Saddened, yes. Frustrated, absolutely. But in a country where school boards consider teaching creationism in science class, I can't really expect them to apply common sense when they decide what a student can and can't bring to class. And apparently I can't expect them to realize that fair rules must take into account that first graders, sixth graders, and high school seniors each have different intellectual, emotional, and physical characteristics.

Homeschooling is looking better all the time.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Language of Twitter with Indy IABC

Participated in a "Coffee & Conversation" hosted by the Indy IABC after work today at the local Stir Crazy. (I don't know how their coffee is, but they have great chicken potstickers.) The topic of the day was incorporating Twitter into business. The dozen participants ran the gamut of Twitter experience — from those who hadn't created a Twitter account yet to those who've been tweeting since 2007. I haven't been using Twitter long, so I had something to learn. Here are a few thoughts and ideas that came up concerning how one can make Twitter a more useful tool:

(If you aren't at all interested in social media or social marketing, or if you're a Twitter pro, or if you don't have a cell phone and you have to go to the library whenever you need to use a computer, you've probably already stopped reading. If you haven't stop now.)

These are admittedly random, as group conversations often are, and they certainly aren't comprehensive to any stretch of the imagination.

Retweet tracking

I liked this idea: One gent tracked his retweets by creating a new shortened URL whenever he retweeted someone. By comparing the tracking on his retweet URLs to tracking on the original URL, he discovered that links in retweets often garnered more traffic than the original tweets. From a business perspective, this points to the idea that, with Twitter, your customers can be your best advertisers. People are more likely to look at something if someone who isn't trying to make money off of you sends you a link. Self-promotion can get you only so far.

What you can do with your Twitterfeed

If you have a business Twitterfeed, why not stream it to your home page? It's a simple widget that you can add with minimal customization, and it will further humanize your brand/business, create a more dynamic site, and make your customers part of what's going on.

Easy way to get involved in conversations

Just search for a question mark! You'll end up with a whole bunch of tweeted questions. Just reply and join the conversation!

The difference between replies and mentions

This is probably just a sign of my ignorance and relative inexperience, but new Twitter users might appreciate someone putting this in print: If you just tack an @username in a message, it's a mention, and it appears with a link to that person's Twitter page. Only slightly different is if you use the Reply button. It appears the same as just adding an @username, but under your tweet is an "in reply to" link that will take you to the original tweet that you replied to. This link lets you see what a person was actually replying to.

Building a social marketing campaign

An important part of a social marketing campaign is figuring out how you're going to measure success. Is it the number of links back to your site? Is it the number of followers? The number of retweets? Are you using Twitter for marketing or PR? There's no wrong answer here, just questions that need to be answered in the earlier stages of creating a social marketing campaign.