Category Archives: Computers & Internet

Adios, Amiga

As it was foreseen, so it has come to pass. I’ve done my best to avoid it, not wanting to see with my eyes what my heart knew to be true.
The day that I hauled my Amiga 1200 out of storage, turned it on (how familiar and satisfying the soft click of the power switch!)… and nothing. The hard disk spins up with its comfortable whir, humming along like the quiet banter of an old friend, and everything seems to be going OK… but no more. It’s not booting up. It’s not booting up.
My Amiga is dead.
To paraphrase a certain starfighter pilot, that little machine and I have been through quite a lot together. How many unreadably dull college term papers did it patiently store away for me? How many turgid, mediocre short stories found a home within its metal-and-plastic brain? How many times did it faithfully fire up Shadow of the Beast and Wing Commander at my command?
The Amiga–I believe I even gave it a name once, but never really called it anything other than “the Amiga”–was a great machine, and I have a lot of fun memories of it:

  • There was the aforementioned Shadow of the Beast and its sequels. And Awesome. And everything else Psygnosis ever published. I used to hook up the big family speakers to the Amiga, fire up Awesome, and just enjoy the music.
  • There was the time during college when Brian and Arie played so many frantic games of MegaBall on the Amiga that they actually broke the mouse. By that time, the Amiga was officially “dead,” and acquiring replacement mice was no mean feat.
  • There was the heated ongoing argument between myself and my friend Jason about whether the damaged building graphics looked cooler in the Amiga or IBM PC version of Crescent Hawk’s Inception.
  • There were the text-adventure games I wrote, or at least tried to write, using the wonderful Aegis Visionary programming language. For many years after my defection to Windows-based machines, I dreamed of the day I’d go back and port them over to Inform… but alas, that dream is now dead.
  • There was the sanity-blasting, but somehow fun, challenge of getting the Amiga to connect to the internet through my 14.4 modem, back when teh intarweb was something you really only used if you were trying to hack into the Pentagon or something. I remember something about AmiTCP, something about PPP, and all too much about Alynx, the Amiga port of Lynx.
  • I remember the zeal of loyal Amigans willing to die before they saw their precious machine whored out to the Intel-chipset-using masses. As an eventual defector to the world of Windows and Linux, I lived for years in fear that Amigan predictions of inevitable victory over Micro$oft would come true, because I knew traitors like myself would be first up against the wall when that particular revolution came.
  • I remember playing Bard’s Tale a lot. A lot. And Angband. I remember frantically racing to beat Alien Breed 3d before my college roommates Jay and Arie did. (Jay ended up winning first, but that’s only because the Final Boss Monster got stuck behind a pillar and couldn’t move. Cheater.)
  • I remember that my dot-matrix printer (donated by our family’s venerable Mac Classic) in college was so horribly loud–I mean really, really loud–and took so long to print things that I had to schedule print jobs days in advance, because printing out a typical term paper made it impossible for anyone within 50 feet of the printer to focus on anything at all for the two hours it took the print job to complete. I remember attempting, with the assistance of roommate Brian, to strap a stack of pillows to the printer in a desperate, and doomed, effort to somehow muffle the hellish screaching of the printer. (I later upgraded to Inkjet technology, but by that time Brian was no longer my roommate.)

I remember a lot more. But that’s enough for now. The tears just aren’t coming; I think it hasn’t sunk in yet. There are Amiga emulators out there with which I might get my fix, but that just wouldn’t feel right. There’s a community of diehards whose Amigas will have to be pried from cold, dead fingers sometime down the road. And there’s even an effort to bring the Amiga OS to the open-source world, although that particular project violates Andy’s Rule of Basic Decency #42: Don’t Use Seductive Furries In Your Logo.
So the spirit lives on. But my Amiga is dead, and my heart is broken.

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Allow me to plug a really cool program that I’ve been using for several years: Abiword. It’s a very slick, very fast, free open-source word processor.
If you’re looking for something smaller or faster than Word or OpenOffice, I recommend it. I’ve been using it as my primary word processor for a long time and have no real complaints; I only switch over to Word or OO if I need to do something particularly elaborate. For everyday document writing, Abiword does everything I need it to do.
There are a lot of open-source programs out there that make my computing life easier, actually; I should plug more of ’em. Ah well, I’ll start with Abiword. Go give it a look!

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Talk to me!

Earlier this evening, I gave Google Talk a try–I used it to chat long-distance with my parents in California. As far as sound quality and overall experience go, Google Talk seems very solid, and quite similar to Skype.
Both are easy to install and simple to use. Google Talk is nicely bundled with an IM client and has convenient ties to my Gmail account. Skype seems to have more in the way of advanced features. I don’t see a terribly compelling reason to switch from Skype at the moment, but I’m going to play with both of them for a while to see if one edges out the other in the ongoing competition for my favor.
If you see me around online, be sure to say hi!

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Tempting… but not today.

I just received a Nigeria-scam email that makes this startling revelation:

Before his death, he has a huge sum of (US$25.5) which no other person knew about, he intended to invest in Southern part of Africa… If you are willing to assist me in this transaction, your compensation will be (20% )…

I hate to break it to you, dude, but $25.50 won’t really get you very far here in America. And you’re offering me a 20% cut, which is what, about $5?
Sorry, but I’m going to have to pass on this opportunity. My condolences on your loss, though.

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DSL update

Thanks very much to those of you who offered suggestions and ideas regarding the big cable/DSL/VOIP/etc research. After much number-crunching and hand-wringing, Michele and I are going out on a limb and springing for DSL (through Speakeasy) and VOIP, with cellphones as emergency backup.
It’s uncharted territory for us–will we find a new paradise of telephonic freedom, or will we come crawling back to Comcast and SBC in shame and defeat, begging like prodigal sons for scraps from their monopolistic table? You, my friends, will be the first to know.

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Back from the Dead

Earlier this week, I read with great excitement Ars Technica’s review of the upcoming Amiga OS 4.0. It looks like OS 4.0 may, at long last, have a remote chance of actually becoming something other than vaporware.
This is exciting to me because I spent quite a few of my computing years using an Amiga. When the family C64 died, my wonderful parents upgraded to an Amiga 500, which was replaced some years later by an Amiga 1200 which I used all throughout my college years. I loved both of those machines, and there was a sad end-of-an-era feel to my eventual acquisition of a Windows machine after college.
The Amiga officially “died” (and entered a decade-long limbo during which about 4 million different companies tried [sometimes not very hard] and failed to resurrect it) just a year or two after I got the 1200, but that didn’t really affect my use of the machine. The Amiga user community was quite something to behold–you would be amazed at the performance and versatility people were getting out of a 14-Mhz 68020 board in an era of 120-Mhz Wintel boxes. There is something uniquely satisfying about sticking stubbornly to an underdog–or even more, with a “dead”–computer. Programs and tasks that everybody else takes for granted require an inordinate amount of hacking and tweaking, but you sure do feel good when you finally get your Amiga to do something cool (like connect to the Web). And you learn a few things about computers along the way–the Amiga introduced me to the coolness of the Unix-style shell, among other things.
Even after adopting a Windows machine as my main computer, I continued to follow Amiga news (and flamewars) on Usenet and web forums. I finally stopped doing so about two or three years ago, when the vital spark in the community seemed (to me) to finally be flickering out (and often replaced by asinine flamewars about whether or not using a “dead” machine was a worthwhile endeavor). I sometimes think that Linux picked up and carried on the soul of the Amiga underdog attitude, although Linux is now sufficiently mainstream that it’s lost much of its cool rebellious flair.
Which is all to say: I am thrilled to see Amiga OS 4.0 near completion. The creation of such a beast is so incredibly impractical that I just have to stand in awe of the people behind it. It’s a labor of love if ever there was one. And so, while I refuse to entirely believe it until I actually see it, I’m a happy former Amigan today. I didn’t quite have the guts to stick it out this long, and caved to Wintel long ago. To the Amigans of the world: Well done.
P.S. As pleased as I am to see OS 4.0 nearing release, this is one computing revolution I’m going to miss–OS 4.0, to my knowledge, can’t be installed on non-Amiga-specific hardware, and I can’t afford to pay $1300+ to indulge in some Amiga nostalgia. This particular decision on the developers’ part makes me want to beat my head against a wall, even though I’ve heard the reason for the choice (stop into an Amiga newsgroup sometime and start a flamewar about it!).

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Andy vs. Spyware, Round 1

Tonight, I have learned some very valuable lessons:

  • Be kind to your fellow human beings, and try to make the world a better place.
  • Don’t use Internet Explorer.
  • Give generously to those in need.
  • For the love of all that is holy, don’t use Internet Explorer.

Tonight, I had my first real encounter with malware–malicious software installed (generally without your knowledge) by evil websites and viruses and such. Don’t worry, gentle reader–it wasn’t my machine, which I safeguard from such abominations with anal-retentive fanaticism. Tonight I received a Phone Call from someone in my church congregation whose computer had started acting loony. More specifically, it was rebooting itself immediately after booting, which would qualify as a definite problem. So I filled a CD with some popular spyware/malware/virus killers, and went over to check it out.
This was my first encounter with a malware-choked computer, and it exhibited all of the classic symptoms about which you read in computer magazines and frothing Slashdot threads. In addition to the charming “automatic rebooting” feature, we had all the classics. Mysterious search bars on the desktop? Check. Sabotaged security settings, constant browser hijacking, and popups that can’t be closed? Check. Programs that can’t be uninstalled? Check. Constant downloading of mysterious Data from the internet? Check. Check, check, you get the idea.
So I went to work, and through the use of four or five different handy programs, we cleaned out about 400 specific instances of malware. Two hours later, there were still a few pieces of malware that I knew were installed, but which I couldn’t figure out how to delete–so I’ll probably need to have a another go at it once I do some more research.
Looking for information on the web, I soon found that nearly all of the major instances of malware arrived on his machine via vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer (and this despite his up-to-date Windows Updates and the presence of SP2). I was hesitant to recommend that he switch cold-turkey to a different browser about which he had never heard (Firefox, which worked flawlessly on his computer while IE was brought to a crashing, popup-filled halt within seconds of startup). Nevertheless, I did install Firefox and imported all of his IE bookmarks and such, telling him that if he continued to have trouble with IE, to try using Firefox instead. I don’t know if he’ll take my advice, but I hope he does.
So yeah. Let me go on record: I generally like Windows XP, find it to be stable and easy to use, and am much indebted to it for several years of really cool games. I will spare you the use of oh-so-clever phrases like “WinBlows” and “Micro$oft.” But my friend, I beg you. Don’t do it… just don’t. Don’t use Internet Explorer.

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I got your pop-up right here

I interrupt your afternoon work routine for a brief rant about pop-up ads.
I use the exquisite Firefox as my web browser of choice. Among its many virtues is the fact that it blocks pop-up ads by default; you can allow a specific site to display pop-ups, but only by deliberately adding that site to your “Allow Pop-ups from…” list.
So anyway, today I encountered a pop-up ad for the second time in about a week. When this first happened, I was momentarily confused, as I haven’t seen a pop-up in quite a while (what with the pop-up blocking) and had forgotten how annoying they are. Then it occurred to me to wonder how this pop-up was displaying in Firefox when I most certainly had not added it to my pop-up whitelist. Sure enough–checking my settings, somehow the site had been added to my “Allow pop-ups” list.
The first time it happened, I figured it was a weird fluke, or that I must have accidentally hit a button or keyboard combination that disabled the pop-up blocker. But I now think I was being foolishly naive; there are actually people out there intent on evading pop-up blockers.
This fills me with rage for a number of different reasons. For one, the idea that somebody is actually changing the privacy settings of my web browser without my knowledge makes me wonder how the marketer responsible for this will avoid an eternity in Hell. Secondly, think about the advertising strategy behind this. Potential customers indicate that they do not want to receive pop-up ads, and will even go to the effort of installing a new web browser or pop-up blocker to escape them. Advertisers respond by… investing time and money in violating said potential customers’ privacy and bypassing their stated preference.
Talk about contempt for their customers. Does anyone think that being ambushed by a pop-up like this makes somebody more likely to become a customer? To go for a real-world analogy, this is like a salesman wrapping his advertisement around a brick and chucking it through your back window because you put a “no solicitors” sign on your front door.
Sometimes I hate the Internet so very, very much.

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