Not seeing the water for the trees

waterforthetreesComputers are a little more complex than some things, and often computer people in response to this are a little more hard headed.  Much of the figuring out how to fix a computer problem is done through trial and error by people who probably do not understand the issues.

Sometimes people are so wedded to their hardware and software, that they cannot see the problem is exactly their hardware and software.

I recently did a website for someone and enabled the email that came with the site.  When I do something like a website, I usually check it for compatibility in XP, Vista, Linux, and MacOS X.  Except on Linux I will do multiple browser checks.

All of this means  that I have a variety of flavors of computers around our house.  I also get the rare “privilege” of working on an ancient Dell system running XP.  I have a much newer Dell running XP at home, an HP laptop running Vista, a MacBook running Leopard, a Zonbu running Linux, and a dual G5 Mac running Leopard.

I just loaned out a five year old Dell laptop which had XP and Ubuntu running on it.  This fall I will probably get a new laptop with Windows 7 and add Ubuntu to my older HP.

With all this computer stuff, it is pretty easy to run tests and to know what is working and what is not working.

So after I created this website for the gentleman, he brings out his Dell laptop which takes five or six minutes to boot and can barely launch an application.  It is clearly a sick machine, and I told him so.  It is also using old versions of software.  In my mind, it is one of those systems where the only hope is to reformat the drive and start over.

Clearly he is incapable of doing it, and I certainly do not want to tackle it because I am pretty sure he would expect me to throw it in with what I am charging him to build his website.

During one of the many times we are waiting for his system to do something, I configured the Ubuntu laptop to get his mail.  I also showed him how it will boot in less than one minute.  Though he is impressed, he has no interest in giving up what he already knows.

I get the email working on his system when using an ethernet cable to my network.  I run an Airport wireless network so I was not interested in digging out a Windows wireless key.  His website is working fine, and I think that I am done with him.  He quickly cuts off any conversation of a maintenance agreement for his website, but I know how to handle that when the phone rings.

About a week later, he calls me and says he is having trouble sending messages using his wireless at the local library.  I invite him by our real estate office and again hook him to a network with an ethernet cable and his mail works fine in spite of the clunky software and hardware.

The mail I configured for him is POP and uses an external STMP server which is far better than an ISP STMP server if you travel at all.  I actually have a third party run a monitoring report on my server from the same company.  Most of the time it comes back with 100% uptime and no problems.  Since it is Linux, that is what I expect anyway.

I prefer IMAP email but I would have had to get my client email from a different provider, and he did not want to spend the extra money.  Considering his very small volume of email, it made little sense.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I get an email from his daughter-in-law asking for my help in configuring his email as a forward only account.  She has determined that it is best to leave him on his ISP mail even though he regularly travels to another place where he does not have that ISP.  She has already logged into his email accout and set it to auto forward his emails.

Without getting too deep into the details, her diagnosis of the problem was that he would be better off without the external SMTP which in her mind was preventing him from sending mail.

Since I had tried his mail from two networks with wired ethernet connections and seen zero problems, my first suspicion would have been his wireless card and/or Windows XP and the Outlook Express that he was using.  To be honest his system was in such bad shape that telling what was working and not working would be a great challenge.  However, of all the possibilities, the external SMTP server is probably the least likely.

However, the lady who wanted my help was so wedded to Microsoft and Outlook, that the SMTP server was the only problem that she could see.  She ended up creating a solution that did not even solve the problem because when her father-in-law traveled, he would be faced with having to do ISP webmail to send his mail  unless they operate with a totally unsecured SMTP server which would be scary.

I spent nearly an hour composing my response to her.  I am sure she spent hours on the computer.

At this stage in the computer revolution, it would make far more sense to buy a new computer with reliable wireless connection.  It would cost less than $600.

I am certainly not spending any more free time on the problem.   I even told the lady that I had personally switched to Thunderbird because Outlook was unresponsive so often on Vista.

That might be a clue the problem is a lot closer to home than a remote SMTP server.

An even better solution would be to buy a Mac even an old one.  I have a ten year old desktop at home that works fine.  My wife is even using a Mac laptop that is s six years old.  Her home iMac is hooked by wireless card to our network.  The iMac would be close to six years old.

I have a hard time relating to a solution which configured POP email so that you had to manually go and remove the mail from the server while it was forwarding it to a computer which could have received the email and be set to automatically remove it from the server.

I think that I need to go sit by the water and let my head rest.

The paradox of the smart phone

Evening Sun
Evening Sun

I am one of the few Realtors® in my circle of friends who does not have a smart phone.

Having spent over twenty years in the world of technology, I probably know more about computers and technology than all of them put together.

Yet I choose not to have a smart phone.  Recently our management sent out a list of people who had leads which had been emailed to them and which still had not been handled over the last few months..

I was not on the list.  Nor was the person I regard as the least technological in my group of friends.  Yet many of the people on the list who had five or six leads still waiting for a response were people with smart phones.

Smart phones are supposed to keep you connected all the time and to make it easier to have instant responses.

I am not sure that I buy it.  I have had managers who lived by their smart phones and who were among the hardest managers to contact.  I have had managers who were barely computer literate and could be easily reached at any time.

How quickly you respond and how easy you are to reach have more to do with you character and your work habits than your technology.

I sometime think that people carrying smart phones use it as a prop to make them feel connected and possibly to appear to be responsive.

I recently got a Google Voice account.  Will it make it easier for people to reach me?  I think the answer is perhaps.  I am pretty easy to reach now.  I almost always have my cell phone with me except when I am in church.  About 98% of the time I will answer it, even if I  just tell you that I will call you back when I have time.

Would I be easier to reach with a smart phone?  I doubt it.  The odds of a critical email in the rare 3-6 hour period when I am away from the computer are probably very low.  I am rarely in an area without cell phone service.

Until I see more utility from smart phones, I doubt that I will worry about getting one.

I have seen very few times one would be useful, and even then the cost for the service far outweighs any benefits that I can imagine.

I am as connected as I plan to be.  If you have trouble reaching me, you are not trying very hard.

Of course I might be stuck in traffic on the Emerald Isle Bridge.

Sheets by the crossroads

Swansboro Riverwalk
Swansboro Riverwalk

In a world increasingly wired, I am sometimes amazed at the effectiveness of low tech communications.  Webvillages of Blacksburg, Va has developed a great free electronic village for the Crystal Coast of NC.  Yet the intersection of highways 24 and %8 always seems to be a fertile spot for hand lettered signs or even sheets with a message.

When we tried a marketing event for some lots in a subdivision, we advertised in a number of newspapers including USA Today.  We had something of a web presence but we also put out signs the day of the event.  The signs turned out to be as effective as anything.  Several people called on the print advertising, but none showed up for the event.

Humans can be very spontaneous creatures.  We will look on the Internet and plan trips, but we are less likely to look on the Internet for a restaurant for tonight’s meal.

We are much more likely to ask someone that we meet on a boardwalk than take the time to search out restaurants on the computer.

Tonight we were driving across the bridge to Emerald Isle.  Just after the bridge was a hand lettered sign advertising a “fifties-style drive-in restaurant” at a local church, Chapel by the Sea.  We attended a similar event put on by Emerald Isle last summer so we head down Emerald Drive until we saw someone carrying a sign about burgers and hot dogs.

They had a good crowd.  I suspect that they could have gotten some additional people with Internet advertising, but I doubt it would have brought a massively larger number of people.

The critical thing to remember is that no one method will get to everyone, but one method might be more useful than another.  It just depends on what you are trying to do.

I recently took part in an online discussion which was part of the Toronto Globe and Mail’s series The Download Decade.  It was only advertised online and ended up as successful as I could handle in responding to questions.

Earlier in the week, I spent time on a YouTube video of a house that I will be listing.  It is also in the real estate section of the Crystal Coast Electronic Village.  It has been very successful in both places.  Still I cannot wait to get it listed and finally put a sign in front of the property.

People may have stopped reading newspapers and real estate magazines, but they still pay attention to signs and what they hear on the Internet.,

I suspect it will be several years before we can dispose of the sheets at the intersection.  I am happy to write for those who enjoy it.  My first for pay blog. Crystal Coast Living has become another good waay to to find out about putting down roots in our aea.   It least it is very easy on the paper supply.

Social media, so close but so far

Early Spring Long Leaf Pine
Early Spring Long Leaf Pine

Social media seems to present the opportunity to stay in better touch with so many more people. Yet is the contact  from social media the type that we need to sustain real social interaction?

Back in the seventies when I still wrote letters, it was clearly an effort to compose an interesting letter and go to the trouble to get it in the mail.

Yet it was worthwhile at the time.  Long distance phone calls were expensive, and computers for the home did not exist. It was even more fun getting a letter back from someone.  The letters represented a great deal of thought.

Today you can connect on Facebook, AIM, GoogleTalk, Twitter, and plenty of other places.  Making the contact is easy. The conversations are usually short and often done while multi-tasking.  The contact might mean little more than some random electrons have passed in the night.

Today’s social interaction is so easy to initiate electronically that the actual value of the contact may well be very little.  There is not a lot of effort involved in responding to many people.  You sometimes see this in people who seemed to be compelled to comment on something even if the thought they leave is worthless.  They are typically more interested in volume of comments than in quality.

While I am certain that you can build some strong ties with social media, I just have not seen it happen very often.  Very few people that I have met online has matured and made it past casual friendship.

The contacts that you make online can be very tenuous unless there is a previous relationship behind them.  As someone who uses online advertising a lot, I know well that many of the people who contact you online will never end up doing business with you.  It is far too easy for them to slide into the woodwork.

Someone who walks into your office, shakes your hand, and exchanges contact information with you is far more likely to end up a client.

This does not mean we should all give up on social networking.  We just need to appreciate it for its ability to be instantaneous and easy.

If it is desirable to move an online relationship to something greater, emails and phone calls are a good place to start.  If you really want to surprise someone, send them something in the mail.  Being a Realtor®, I often send people packages of maps and local magazines.  They rarely forget getting the package.

Our need to open our eyes

A rain drop hitting a glass table top
A rain drop hitting a glass table top

There are huge changes happening in how we do things with computers.  Aside from web based email, most people have not grasped the revolution yet.

Technology is one of those areas which requires some effort from most people.  Once that effort has been expended people are reluctant to embrace anything which requires more effort.  That is especially the case if the change being asked of us is of questionable value.

Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows Vista is a good example of that challenge.  Resistance to change does not just happen in the Microsoft world.

Apple recently announced a new version of its iApps.  Walt Mossberg verdict  in his recent article, “iLife Gets Better; Just Don’t Ask It to Find a Face” was ” I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-have upgrade for current Mac owners.”

Many Mac users like me might consider the features not worth the price considering they are already available in online versions of software.

Now there is a thought features available first on the web and then in a version running on your computer.  Why do people not flock to free version of Google Docs instead of buying Microsoft Office?  It is that resistance to change.  However, once you move, it is almost impossible to go back.  I am close to addicted to Google’s web based calendar.

For a few years I have been guessing that the web is going to provide much of our software innovation.  I wrote this article on web software over three years ago. The power and capabilities of web based software have continued to evolve. The move to the web will cetainly accelerate over the next few years.

Recently this was driven home to me when I bought some tent style business cards designed for printing on both sides.  I first started working on the cards in Apple’s Pages program which I use very successfully to do trifold brochures and regular business cards.  It did not take me long to figure out that this was going to be a real spatial challenge.  I thought I would give the Avery Microsoft Word template a whirl.  I downloaded it to my Mac and figured out that it did almost nothing because the Visual Basic would not work.  I went to my Windows laptops and tried there.  It appeared that even on Windows, it was going to be a very irritating process.

Then I noticed that Avery has an online suite of software.  I typed in my product code “8820” and started designing my promotion cards.  At the end, the program generated a PDF.  I printed some trial cards, then decided I wanted some changes and generated another PDF and did a final print.  I was amazed with the quality results and the speed with which I was able to design the cards.

The experience reminded me of designing tee-shirts online last summer at CustomInk.com.  It was so easy that anyone could do it.  The tee-shirts I got from my efforts were great.

When I look at what I can do on the web these days, I am amazed.   Often I insert code on my websites that has been generated by other websites.  A simple example would be the weather badge from Weather Underground on one of my webpages at CoastalNC.org.   Another would be the the Plaxo or Google reader feeds on my Blogger website.

When I look at the capabilities of Google Docs, Flickr, Picasa Web Albums, Photoshop Express and sites such as WordPress, SquareSpace, and Typepad, I am amazed at how the power of creation has shifted to the web.

The site which a friend has developed as an electronic village for the Crystal Coast is something we could only dream of a few years ago. It puts web creation tools in the hands of people who only have a browser.  The fact that I can create posts with pictures on our company’s real estate website through only the use of a browser is astonishing.

It is time we opened our eyes to the power of the web.  If web based applications continue to develop at their current pace, I suspect we won’t need very many applications loaded on our computers in a few years.

That will be just fine with me.

The trailing edge instead of the bleeding edge

Gulls on the wing
Gulls on the wing

For years I led a team from Apple that sold computers to the federal government.  I left Apple in 2004.  The few years before that were very challenging when dealing with the government and computers.

Many of the IT people we had to deal with had gone from being talented IT professionals to political appointees who knew little about their jobs.

Some organizations like the Navy decided that private contractors knew more about computers than the Navy did.  They outsourced their computer decision making.  I can still remember some Navy folks saying that they ended up with the green metal desk version of computers.

We had lots of experience with NASA where extensive use of contractors for supplying computers resulted in scientists usually getting far from the best computers.  The only Macs that they often got were ones which were being discounted because new models were about to be introduced.

I am hoping that the change in government also means a change in technology policy.  I read today about some of President Obama’s staff feeling like they had dropped into a computer time warp.

From experience I know that computer security is a challenge, but I also know some of the security that is implemented is false security.  Many security threats come from within, and I have always believed that the excuse of security is a poor reason for implementing bad technology choices.

If we are to succeed with the many challenges that we face, technology has got to be part of the solution not part of the problem.

I remain convinced that intelligently implemented new technologies can have a huge impact on the efficiency of our government.

I am looking forward to seeing if the new government makes some progress in this area.

The new censorship

Fall sky from the soybean field
Fall sky from the soybean field

I recently read an article, Blacklisted in Cyberspace, in the Washington Post.

The article reaffirmed my thoughts that we are now having to self censor communications in order for them to make it to their intended recipients.

Having worked at an email company, Webmail.us now MailTrust, I understand the problem of spam.  I also am familiar with the scoring systems which determine what mail gets marked as spam.

Unfortunately some of that scoring makes it easy for your email to never reach the person to whom you sent it.  That is frustrating for all parties.  One of the great advantages of email is that it is easy to include links and photos.

It is an advantage only when it works.  I have been trying to connect to a friend who went to the same high school as I did.  I mailed him a normal letter a couple of years ago and that did not work.  I managed to get his email address and send him a note, but I got no response.

Another friend tried to help us connect, and I managed to get a message that he would like to hear what I have been doing with my life for the last forty years.  I sent a note back with several links and a couple of pictures.

I was pretty irritated when he did not write back so recently when Harvard defeated Yale in “The Game” I sent him a link to the article.  I went to Harvard, he went to Yale.  I got a flaming email back saying that he had been trying to communicate with me for two years, and the first he hears from me is a football email.

Well I sent him a copy of the email that I had sent over two years ago.  I got back an apology, and a response that he had no idea what had happened to my other emails.

I am pretty sure that what ever spam detection software he was using at the time  added up the links and photos in my email message and decided it was spam.  He probably never checked his junk mail box or had it set to automatically empty.  That was the end of my original email.

This will be a hard problem to fix in cases where people do not already have established communication channels.  I would be very happy if everyone used a digital id certificate.

However, I understand why they do not.  My Vista machine recently decided it could no longer send messages from my account which has a Verisign Class 1 certificate.

It is no problem on my Macs, but it appears to be a big problem on Windows.

I am not happy with having to limit what I send to people that I know.  But that type of censorship is the only thing that I know to do  in order to keep my email on track.

If you need something to melt away your frustration with this, try my December YouTube video of the North Carolina coast.

Awash in misinformation

Power pole and evening sky
Power pole and evening sky

It takes little effort to find information these days.  Google is easy to use, and it almost always returns some results.  Unfortunately some of the time the information is wrong or not what you wanted.

Companies are spending fortunes trying to figure this out.

Most of the ideas revolve around an omnipresent search engine that gathers data that is already out there and serves it up in some useful way.

I would call that a top down solution.  It is trying to solve the problem with technology, programming, and as little local input as possible.

Recently I was writing a post, Not a nice gift from Canada, on my blog that I use to stay in touch with my Canadian roots.  I wanted the exact address of one our local fish markets.

A Google Search returned this “Insider Pages URL.”

Unfortunately the map was completely inaccurate.

A more accurate map is found at this link.

That came from a local Google map effort of my own.

There is an old rule about data that still holds true.  Garbage in, garbage out.  The challenge in providing good information is getting good quality data.

While large metropolitan areas might well have enough density and quality data to make some search engines very successful in providing information, I am not certain that it works as well in smaller or less well wired areas.

Actually a friend who had a key role in running the original Blacksburg Electronic Village and I are trying to do something of a bottoms up electronic village with local information entered and verified by locals.

It is a big challenge to make it work, but I think we have a very good chance.  The pieces are just being put together, but the Crystal Coast Electronic Village will have a consolidated area calendar for events, a business directory with maps at some point, blogs with pictures, and real estate listings already with maps.

Quite often the best solutions are those that involve people closest to the answers.  We will see if we can make it work.

Getting beyond an email’s title

Beaufort Boats

When I worked for Apple Computer, I would get hundreds of emails a day.  It was a challenge to get through them.  Of the course of twenty years I am sure a few fell through the cracks, but mostly I was able to keep up with them.

I never succumbed to the read the first line and call it quits method of email management.  I did answer many questions from people who had not bothered to the read the whole email in the first place.

Depending on how I felt at a given time, I might copy and paste the originial email with the answers highlighted.  However, I did find that the worst offenders never noticed.

Lately I have seen an even more serious email management disease.  These folks read the title of an email and assume they know what it says.

That is not only highly risky but certainly not very productive.  A couple of responses that I have gotten from people trying this are beyond worthless.

I guess it is function of the desire to get ever more done with little focus on actually be productive.

I would rather do less and make certain that I get right whatever I do.

The shrimp boats don’t go out as much

While we have made lots of advances in being able to grow seafood in ponds, some of us think seafood from the sea still tastes the best.

The trouble is that catching seafood from the sea has gotten very expensive.  With diesel fuel near five dollars per gallon this past summer, some boats had to change the way that they operated.

One boat that I know ended up staying closer to the early summer shrimp grounds, and then having the shrimp trucked back to their market.

When the catches are small it does not make sense to run the boats.  With prices under pressure from imported shrimp and fuel costs through the roof, it has been a challenge for our area shrimpers this year.

If you throw in a little bad weather and fluctuating demand from roadside customers who have stayed home because of high gas prices, you can start to imagine how hard it is to keep shrimping in these times.

it comes as no surprise that a few times this summer, fresh shrimp were unavailable.  I wonder if this will perhaps open a window of opportunity for smaller shrimp boats that don’t have to catch as many to be profitable.  It will be interesting to watch.

All I can say is that “Friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp.”  I would rather have fewer shrimp but better ones, so I will stick to local NC shrimp which make the best appetizer ever.