Sunday, October 31, 2004

e-Column #104

Electronic data still not as reliable as hard copy

Wow, this one got cut up something fierce. I guess I'd better start writing shorter columns. Although the posted version is linked above, I'm reprinting the original below:

The often-repeated saying is that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Roughly 15 years ago, I was given a nifty present: an electronic calculator that also stored contact information like names and phone numbers.

Naturally, after entering all the information into the tiny device (though large by today's standards), I threw away the various pieces of paper that held the original names and numbers.

It was easy and fun to call up contact information for friends and family by using the simple buttons and view it on the tiny LCD screen.

But one day that screen didn't display anything. The battery had died.

I figured it was a minor setback, seeing as how the device had a removable panel where the pill-shaped battery could be swapped out. But upon the purchase of a new battery and its subsequent installation, I was surprised to discover that all of the information stored inside was gone.

Those discarded scraps of paper seemed quite valuable all of a sudden. And I vowed to never again to solely trust an electronic device with important information.

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are today's equivalent to that rudimentary device. PocketPCs and PalmPilots can carry phone numbers, e-mail addresses, calendar appointments, to-do lists, notes and much more, depending on the capabilities of the specific hardware.

But some things haven't changed. Although some PDAs can function as cell phones, music, photo and video players, and surf the Web wirelessly, users need to keep an eye on their battery life.

Many models will lose all their data if the battery runs out or comes loose (a not uncommon occurrence for those who accidentally drop things).

The caveat is that synchronizing the PDA to a computer means your data will be backed up, preventing you from rummaging around for old scraps of paper.

And modern computers certainly don't lose their data when they are unplugged or even when their internal battery is removed. That information is stored safely on the internal hard drive ... right?

Last month, I was planning to attend an out-of-state wedding. As a member of the wedding party, I had received various e-mails with dates, times, locations, phone numbers, links to registries, and other important information. I had also made plane and rental car reservations online and had the confirmation numbers stored on our home computer.

One week before I was scheduled to leave, the unexpected happened. An ant crawled into the computer and died. Its legacy was that my computer would no longer boot up.

Yes, it was a true computer bug.

Although the machine itself was still under warranty and repairs would cost nothing, it meant it would be out for at least a week (which actually turned into two).

Luckily, I had made a complete backup of the computer's hard drive only a few days prior. But without an actual computer to access that backup drive, the information was inaccessible.

Computer users are often advised to keep a backup of important data on their computers. But also advisable is the concept of keeping a hard copy.

Certainly, few can print out every important document they have stored electronically. But consider how you'd fare if you couldn't access the information on your home or work computer for two weeks.

In the end, both the airline and the car rental business were willing to accommodate my situation. Although their records are kept electronically, they always print a copy for you, and I dread the day when boarding passes are electronic.

Working at a museum, I'm well aware that paper does not last forever. But unlike electronic data, you won't open a three-year-old book and suddenly find that the words have mysteriously vanished.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to print out this column.
Eddie Hargreaves was the Webmaster of He can be reached at

Monday, October 18, 2004

e-Column #103

Sites benefit, suffer from the Slashdot effect: "If you used Google during this year’s summer Olympics, you probably noticed the standard logo was replaced by stylized versions depicting Olympic sports."

Not only did the last sentence of this column get cut (understandable), so did the last word of the headline (huh?). Once you've read the posted column, select the invisible text below to read the original final sentence (don't worry, it's not that exciting):

Perhaps someday Slashdot will feel its own effect from another site and start thinking about it a little more.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Choked with fear

Megan and I went to Paramount's Great America last weekend. Since it was the first weekend in October, the attendance was a lot lower than the normal summer rush. That made it better, since the lines were shorter. It also meant that some prices had been lowered, including that for the Xtreme Skyflyer. Here's the description:

Xtreme SkyflyerExperience the breathtaking thrill of hang gliding and skydiving. You'll be hoisted 153 feet above ground, and dive at speeds up to 60 miles per hour while free-falling 17 stories toward the Earth skimming just six feet above the ground.

It's like reading how food tastes. Although technically accurate, it can't convey the experience. Having inherited some fear of heights, hanging face-down from 153 feet up is scary for me. And then plummeting toward the ground is pretty freakin' terrifying. But I can now say that I've done it and, unlike the woman that took her turn before us, didn't scream or weep. Heck, I was even able to pull the rip-cord ("Smithers!").

I didn't purchase the video to show you all, since it came on an VCD and I was told it was Windows 98-compatible. Yeah, that's not selling me on it.

The difference between .com and .org

I suspected I wrote my column on the Internet's relation to politics a little too early, but I think it was confirmed when Vice President Dick Cheney said folks should visit It is the first time I've heard a non-candidate Web site mentioned in a nationally-televised debate.

Unfortunately for Cheney, is not the address of the "independent Web site sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania." That Web site is Making this even worse for him is that liberal billionaire George Soros bought and linked it to his own Web site.

Hmm, maybe I should make sure doesn't get bought by, um, its adversaries.


When our Strawberry iMac died, it wasn't too big a deal to us because I could just pull the hard drive out, pop it into a FireWire case and connect it to my iBook. Granted, that machine also served as our Web server, but I didn't think too many of you were checking out our Sims scrapbooks, anyway.

Unfortunately, within a week, my iBook became unusable, leaving us with no Internet access at home. Worse, we were flying to Portland in a week and all our flight/car rental/contact info was inaccessible.

I immediately dropped it off at the local Apple Authorized Service Provider, who said they'd probably have it back in four business days. Of course, that didn't happen (it's me!) and it wasn't available again until about a week after their estimated date. Apparently they shipped it off to Apple to fix (I could've done that) but failed to provide me with the note that Apple provided with the repaired machine explaining what they did.

Since it had actually died at work (we were reviewing a controversial DVD), the Museum had offered to foot the bills for the repairs. But it was still under warranty, so I didn't pay a dime. Also, I had backed up all the data just four days prior so we were up and running again without too much trouble. And our trip to Portland was a success.

Oh, what happened to the iBook to cause its problem? We don't have official confirmation, but we're pretty certain that it was caused by ants. Seriously, a few days prior, we found ants crawling out of and around it. So far there's no Apple TechNote detailing what to do if an ant dies on your motherboard...

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

iMac G5

After 5-1/3 years of service, our Strawberry G3 iMac finally gave up the ghost. Although we had upgraded a number of its components over the years (512MB RAM, 40GB HD, 16X CD-RW) the death of the monitor pretty much spelled the end of our beloved, but aging, all-in-one.

Since Apple had just announced the release of G5 iMacs, it seemed only fitting one of those would become its replacement. We were able to pick one up at the Arden Fair Apple Store in Sacramento and, after a couple of weeks, I'm happy to report we're both pleased with it. I may write a review for macCompanion, but here's a few things I found notable about it.

  • The computer seems Kubrickian; like a white version of the monolith from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
  • The power button's location on the back of the machine seemed odd to me. But it turns out we never use it. Instead, we just let it sleep when it's not in use.
  • I thought the vertical CD drive might result in slow burning and ripping speeds. But we've been able to rip CDs at rates as high as 17x (the G3 topped out at 3x).
  • The built-in speakers sounded much more impressive than I expected.
  • The screen is incredibly:
    • Bright. We have the brightness level set to nearly its lowest point and the image is still striking.
    • Large. We have a 17" model, and it seems gigantic. The native resolution of 1440x900 allows for a large working space, but is impossible to find appropriately-sized desktop pictures (wallpaper) for.
  • The 1.8GHz G5 chip is incredibly fast (at least for now). I noted with some amazement that SETI@Home units that took 18.5 hours to finish on our old machine get completed in 3.5.
  • Comes standard with a one-button mouse. As Scotty would say, "How quaint."

Monday, October 04, 2004

e-Column #102

Planning to get married? Get some online tips
Weddings are steeped in tradition, with faux pas noted constantly in the columns of Dear Abby and Ann Landers. But although doing things electronically used to be considered inappropriate, the Internet has become a significant tool in planning a wedding.