Defining the Need for Desktop Systems

I’ve been working on Build Your Own PC on a Budget for a while now and I’m nearing the end. A number of people have asked me precisely what market my book is for, especially now that smartphones and tablets are becoming the instruments of choice for consumer computing. In fact, someone recently sent me a ComputerWorld article entitled, Is your business ready for ‘stick’ PCs?. It’s important to understand that I really haven’t been living in a cave somewhere chanting a desktop PC mantra. The fact is that Build Your Own PC on a Budget is designed with the enthusiast in mind. This is the same person who would build a hot rod from scratch, even though they could probably get a nicer, more reliable, more fuel efficient car right off the lot.

The fact is that there are times when you want the flexibility that a desktop system can provide. If you want a system whose sole purpose is to check e-mail, do a little word processing, and possibly update your Facebook page, then you really don’t want a desktop system for the most part. The exception might be if you need a really large screen to see what you’re doing and many people simply plug their computers into the TV now in order to get the larger screen they need. For many people, a notebook, tablet, or smartphone really is all they need. When these stick PCs become popular, you can bet that a large number of people will use them for all their computing needs without any problem at all.

My book is designed around the needs of someone who needs a lot more than a simple computer. Of course, the gamer is the first person that comes to mind. When you read magazines like PC Gamer, you quickly find out that power says it all. These folks are constantly tweaking their systems to get out a little more power. Overclocking is something that these people talk about as casually as what they had for dinner last night.

However, I recently finished a book on data science and must admit that a tablet would never do the job. My desktop has power to spare and even it slowed down on some calculations (as in, I had time to get a cup of coffee while waiting for the processing to complete). A laptop would have a really hard time keeping up with even the minimal needs of the data scientist. In fact, many professional scientists and engineers really do need a super reliable, high power system. They can’t afford down time and they really don’t want to wait days for the results of a calculation. So, this is the second group for my book. They really aren’t looking for a stick PC.

The third group is experimenters. People who are interested in playing just to see what’s possible will love my book because I have all kinds of ideas in it for doing something interesting. Experimenters are those people who somehow manage to have these flashes of insight that result in major innovations. Many of the luxuries you enjoy now were the result of a mistake made by an experimenter. The mistake was turned into a profitable product only after someone looked at it from another angle.

A custom PC is also beneficial for specialized needs such as industrial automation or even for alarm systems. Special use PCs often require more ports than are available on something like a notebook, tablet, or smartphone. Just imagine trying to put enough cameras into the single USB port supplied with many smaller systems. So, I see a number of people who create special use systems buying this book as well.

Is the day of the desktop system as a commodity coming to an end? Yes, I definitely see consumers moving toward laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart watches, and even sticks in the future. If you don’t need the power a desktop can provide, there really isn’t a good reason to pay the price. Let me know your thoughts on the future of the desktop system at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A New Type of Canner

There are many different ways to perform some tasks. Until recently, I thought that the only two ways to effectively hot water bath can were in the oven and on the stove top. I haven’t used the oven method for quite a number of years, partly because there is a chance that the jars won’t seal properly afterward and the opportunity for pathogens to enter the jars unwanted. The method I currently use is on top of the stove using a suitably large pot or a canner. In fact, it was this technique that caused me to write, Choosing an Appropriate Stove. It’s probably the method I’ll continue to use, but there are other options.

The proliferation of stoves with tops that aren’t suitable for heavy pots has companies like Ball scrambling, especially since there is a resurgence in interest about canning foods. You can’t really can safely on a glass top stove; although, some people do it successfully for the most part. The alternative is to have a separate device that’s designed to can away from the stove. After checking out a number of these devices, the only one that looks really interesting is the Ball FreshTech Electric Water Bath Canner. I’ve found a number of reviews about this particular device online, but the most comprehensive so far is a Washington Post article, Finally, an appliance that can help newbies and pros alike get canning.

The device does seem really convenient and would be great for someone with a bad back because the drain spout makes it easy to empty hot water from the canner without physically lifting it from the stove. I know the canner can get quite heavy, having lifted a number of them myself. Of course, the assertion that you normally lift canner, jars and all, is incorrect. You use a jar lifter to remove the jars from the canner first, then empty the hot water from the canner. Over the years I’ve seen people employ all sorts of weird methods to remove the jars and even try to lift the canner, jars and all. Believe me, using the jar lifter is much easier and safer.

The point of this new device is that you can make your own high acid canned goods and store them away. The food you get is much tastier and lacks the usual chemical soup of preservatives found in store bought foods. More importantly, you can save a considerable amount of money. However, I’m not quite sure whether you’d actually save enough to pay the price for this appliance unless you entered wholeheartedly into canning. Even then, it would take a while to pay the device off in terms of money saved at the store.

I haven’t personally used this device and therefore can’t actually recommend it to you. However, I present it as a viable alternative to those of you who have asked me about canning and then went away disappointed when I mentioned problems using a glass top stove. I’d love to hear from people who have used this device. Please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Chick Update (Part 2)

A lot of people are interested in hearing about the continuing saga of my chicks. Last week’s post, A Chick Update, talked about how the chicks are growing feathers and the ways in which layers differ from meat chickens. Of course, chickens are chickens. Layers and meat chickens alike have a certain life cycle. When you first start them out in the brooder box, you leave the heat lamps on 24 hours a day and make food available all the time. However, at some point you need to start changing things or the chicks will never develop properly.

Eight chicks of different types at three weeks.
Layer Hens After Three Weeks

This past week I started turning the heat lamp off during the day. The chicks started sleeping more as a result. I also started withdrawing food during the evening hours. The chicks now have food available from around 5:00 am to 7:00 pm. If I were to make food available all the time, the chicks could overeat and literally die of heart failure. Laying hens have more restraint than meat chickens, so I started withdrawing the food a little later. When working with meat chickens, I start withdrawing food in the evenings by the third or fourth day. Otherwise, you have to start dealing with a condition known as flip, as in, the chicks flip over on their backs, dead. The point is to control food to keep the chicks healthy and also to start getting them into a more natural pattern of living.

Interestingly enough, the chicks can already fly short distances. At least, they can jump from my hand and make a controlled landing back into the brooder box. I had a chick surprise me by doing it this past week. She’s just fine, but I’m paying a lot closer attention now when I pick them up. The lesson is that you do need to pay close attention when handling the birds to ensure they don’t get hurt.

The chicks are still eating chick starter. All chick starter provides your chicks with a high protein feed that’s easy to digest. Some chick starter provides medication to help the chicks avoid getting sick from diseases such as coccidiosis and I highly recommend getting such food because you can find this particular disease in most areas of the world (and definitely anywhere that has seen use for raising poultry in the past). A few chick starters include ingredients to help improve overall chick health, such as improving skin quality so that the chicks do better once you get them outside. A high quality chick starter is most definitely going to cost more than a lower quality product, but using a high quality product also ensures your chicks grow faster, have a higher probability of living until they’re fully grown, and do better once you start getting them outside. You really do want the perky chicks that a good food can provide.

I’ll keep posting updates as long as I continue to receive e-mail from interested parties. Let me know your chick-related question at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Future of Fast Connectivity

When I was growing up, our home had a party line (at least, when I was younger). Of course, most people have no idea of what a party line is because most people have never experienced one. A party line is a telephone connection that you share with several of your neighbors. That’s right, you don’t have your own personal telephone connection or even a dedicated connection to your home. When you receive a call, a unique ring tells you that the call is for you and not for one of your neighbors. I’m really not kidding—this isn’t April Fools or some type of other fiendish joke foisted by someone who is older on an unsuspecting public.

The new world order of cellphones where every individual not only has an individual phone, but a separate telephone number is a huge advance over the days of my early youth. Of course, some of us still have landlines because cell access is a tad spotty, but eventually the cell providers or some other concern will address the problem. The idea that you can connect through your cellphone to the Internet and create a wireless connection is amazing. It’s not a fast connection in many areas of the country today, but at least it works much of the time.

Some people haven’t really stopped to consider the huge changes that have taken place during this transition. At one time, getting away from it all really did mean being out of touch and people survived just fine. Today it’s hard to get disconnected. Most people are tethered together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no private time and the thing we called privacy is a long forgotten dream. With the loss of privacy has also come a certain loss of freedom. Just how free are you when someone can track your movements and check up on you at any time.

Unfortunately, like it or not, the trend will just continue. I read an article entitled, Ultrafast Internet opens up new possibilities: experts, not too long ago that paints a picture of the future that some will find exciting. However, I have to wonder just how exciting it will actually be once it arrives. The mere act of walking around your home will possibly take on new meaning because virtual people could simply pop in at any time. Just think about it. You won’t be able to simply ignore the cell call you don’t want to receive anymore—the person will simply appear in your house unbidden. Of course, there won’t be anything illegal about the act because no one has bothered to create laws regarding it.

Lest you think that this is some future technology that you’ll never see, companies such as Google are making it happen as I write this post. Even though the connectivity isn’t yet what most would consider high speed, there are vendors who will sell you Internet connectivity literally everywhere—connectivity that brings this whole virtual reality one step closer. The fact of the matter is that it won’t be long and there will be no getting away from it all and there will be no privacy of any sort for anyone. We’ll be monitored, checked, validated, categorized, and controlled 24 hours a day unless laws are put in place now to keep this rampant technology in check.

The question, of course, is whether people really are ready for virtual holidays where everyone attends the family dinner from their own home (a technology called telepresence). Yes, you can see the other people, but will you truly be able to interact with them? What are your thoughts about the whole issue of connectivity so fast that our real world will be subsumed by a virtual world? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering Threats to Your Hardware

Most of the security write-ups you see online deal with software. It’s true that you’re far more likely to encounter some sort of software-based security threat than any of the hardware threats to date. However, ignoring hardware threats can be problematic. Unlike the vast majority of software threats that you can clean up, hardware threats often damage a system so that it becomes unusable. You literally have to buy a new system because repair isn’t feasible (at least, for a reasonable price).

The threats are becoming more ingenious too. Consider the USB flash drive threat called USB Killer. In this case, inserting the wrong thumb drive into your system can cause the system to completely malfunction. The attack is ingenious in that your system continues to work as normal until that final moment when it’s too late to do anything about the threat. Your system is fried by high voltage sent to it by the thumb drive. Of course, avoiding the problem means using only thumb drives that you can verify are clean. You really can’t even trust the thumb drive provided by friends because they could have obtained the thumb drive from a contaminated source. The result of such an attack is lost data, lost time, and lost hardware—potentially making the attack far more expensive than a software attack on your system.

Some of the hardware-based threats are more insidious. For example, the Rowhammer vulnerability makes it possible for someone to escalate their privileges by accessing the DRAM on your system in a specific way. The technical details aren’t quite as important as the fact that it can be done in this case because even with repairs, memory will continue to be vulnerable to attack in various ways. The problem is that memory has become so small that protections that used to work well no longer work at all. In addition, hardware vendors often use the least expensive memory available to keep prices low, rather than use higher end (and more expensive) memory.

It’s almost certain that you’ll start to see more hardware threats on the horizon because of the way in which people work with electronics today. All these new revelations remind me of the floppy disk viruses of days past. People would pass viruses back and forth by trading floppies with each other. Some of these viruses would infect the boot sector of the system hard drive, making it nearly impossible to remove. As people start using thumb drives and other removable media to exchange data in various ways, you can expect to see a resurgence of this sort of attack.

The potential for hardware-based attacks continues to increase as the computing environment becomes more and more commoditized and people’s use of devices continues to change. It’s the reason I wrote Does Your Hardware Spy On You? and the reason I’m alerting you to the potential for hardware-based attacks in this post. You need to be careful how you interact with others when exchanging bits of seemingly innocent hardware. Let me know your thoughts about hardware-based attacks at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Chick Update

I hadn’t quite expected the reception my article on the new chicks received, but I’m always glad to receive e-mail about them. The Spring Chicks post caused a bit of excitement because people have some misconceptions about chickens. The first is that all chicks are yellow. Actually, chicks come in a wide variety of colors. In many cases, the chick color is similar to the adult colors. For example, my Americaunas are multicolored brown and so are the chicks. These particular chicks are quite pretty. In fact, I feel they’re the nicest looking in the bunch. However, please don’t mention it to the chicks because they’ll get quite uppity.

Another misconception is that chicks generally grow at the same rate. Layers grow considerably slower than meat chickens. I’m sometimes amazed at just how fast the meat chicken chicks grow. As a consequence, these chicks will remain in the brooder box longer than meat chicken chicks would. The last batch I raised needed almost two additional weeks.

Not all chicks are natured alike either. Meat chickens generally are less intelligent and more aggressive than layers are. However, even layers have differences. For example, I’m finding it much easier to pick the Americauna chicks up than the others. The most skittish of the group are the Barred Plymouth Rocks. The Buff Orpingtons seem less likely to peck their brood mates. Individual chicks have small personality differences, even at this stage in life (and those differences will grow with time).

At this point, the chicks are starting to get feathers. The feathers start at the wing tips and move in from there. At some point, features will start appearing somewhat randomly and the birds will get quite ugly until they have a complete set of feathers. When the chicks have a complete set of feathers, I can remove the brooder box sides and let them roam free. After a few days I can start taking them out into the sunshine (with the roof on the cage, of course). All of these activities depend on the weather and the rate at which the chicks grow.

Watching the chicks grow is always a lot of fun. Thanks for the interesting e-mails you’ve sent my way. Let me know if you require any more information about my chick raising experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

No Assembly Required

A problem with many robots today is that they’re bulky. Transporting the robot can be a problem because it takes up a lot of space. Unfortunately, some scenarios require that the robot arrive at its destination fully assembled. For example, there isn’t anyone on Mars to put a robot that lands there together. I’ve been following a number of stories about robots that self-assemble or transform in some way, but the story Engineers Built an Origami Robot That Can Fold and Crawl Without Human Intervention provides a great overview of what’s happening with robotic science today.

The idea that a robot can fold itself up into a form that’s akin to a sheet of paper and then unfold itself into a useful shape is phenomenal. According to The Guardian, the robot could see use on the battlefield or in space. The accompanying video is pretty impressive. The feeling is one of an autonomous machine that can almost think its way through some basic problems. The robot need not actually start out flat though. A recent InfoWorld story tells of a robot that can transform between an I shape and a 3 shape. This robot is being used to explore the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant and the shape changes are necessary for the robot to move freely. An update to the story on ComputerWorld, tells that the robot still has a ways to go before the shape shifting works without problem.

Of course, these machines are thinking in a way. A Wired article helps you understand the thinking that goes into the design of the origami robot. (The details of the transforming robot aren’t available at this time, but it does have a tether to allow outside interaction—something the origami robot doesn’t need.) Luca’s and my upcoming book, Python for Data Science for Dummies, can help you understand the science and programming behind the artificial intelligence in these robots to an even greater degree. The point is that the origami robot demonstrates that software and good engineering are working together to turn an inexpensive 2D technology into a viable robot that could perform a wide variety of tasks. The point of the Wired article is that the technology is both cheap and easy—it doesn’t rely on anything exotic to make it work. Meanwhile, the transforming robot shows that these devices can work in extremely hazardous conditions that humans could never tolerate.

The sexy view of robots in the movies is full fledged human looking devices or monster construction machines of the sort found in I, Robot. The fact of the matter is that we may very well produce robots of that sort (we’re building them at this moment to act as caregivers), but we’ll also produce a great many robots of other types, such as these origami and transforming robots. Think more along the lines of Blade Runner, which contains a wide variety of robot types. Consider how robots might be used in the real world to perform mundane tasks. For example, the Roomba looks nothing like a robot. It sort of looks like a really big hockey puck.

How do you think the introduction of robots into society will go? Will we continue to see a vast assortment of odd looking robots or will they begin to take on more human characteristics? The future looks truly amazing, but I’d like to hear your point of view today. Talk to me about robotics at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Error in HTML5 Programming with JavaScript for Dummies

A reader recently wrote to tell me of an error on Page 118 of HTML5 Programming with JavaScript for Dummies. The problem appears in the source code for the SearchString.HTML example. As written, the code will currently work in most cases, except if you type This as the input value. The problem is this bit of code:

if (Result == 0)
{
   document.getElementById("Result").innerHTML =
   "You must provide an input value!";
}

The value of Result can equal 0 in a number of situations, but the problem is that one of those situations, typing This as the search term, is actually a correct input. In order to fix this problem, you must change the comparison condition to look at the text input, rather than the result of the search. The following code works as anticipated.

if (FindValue == "")
{
   document.getElementById("Result").innerHTML =
   "You must provide an input value!";
}

As always, I want to hear about any problems you experience using my books. Please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com if you encounter any other problems with this example or have questions about the change in comparisons.

 

Spring Chicks

I’m still getting up to speed after Rebecca’s loss, so I chose not to raise meat chickens this year. However, my egg customers definitely want more eggs. Over time, my coop has lost a few hens and it never was up to full capacity. I currently have six hens in there and they just can’t keep up with demand. As a result, I’ve purchased eight new laying chickens to add to my coup. You can see them here:

Eight chicks will make the coop fuller.
New Layers for the Coop

The eight new chicks include three Americaunas (multicolored brown in the picture), three Buff Orpingtons (light brown/yellow), and two Barred Plymouth Rocks (black with gray bellies). I’ve had good success with Americaunas in the past. They lay eggs three or four times per week, the eggs are usually large to jumbo, and I’ve only had one get broody on me once. Of all my chickens, the Americaunas are actually the friendliest and seem to demand the most attention.

The Buff Orpingtons are the most consistent winter layer in my coop. I have had them get broody on a regular basis, but they make up for their vacations from laying by laying more eggs when they do. The size range of the eggs from this chicken goes from medium all the way up to a super jumbo that pegs my egg scale. Although they don’t demand attention, the Buff Orpingtons are quite friendly and get along with the other chickens really well.

The Barred Plymouth Rocks are a new addition. I wasn’t happy with the Delaware hens I purchased. They do lay regularly and the eggs are quite pretty (the only speckled eggs I get). In addition, they seem to be the least likely to have problems during the winter months and they lay almost as often as the Buff Orpingtons do. They also tend to waste less food and eat less as well. However, the eggs tend to be a bit smallish and range toward medium. The Delaware hens also tend to get a bit rowdy with the other hens and the worst part is that they tend to be egg eaters. After talking with a number of other people, I decided to give the Barred Plymouth Rock a try.

Because I don’t have meat chickens this time, I had to set the brooder box up a little differently. There are only eight little chicks in a great big box so I set both of the heat lamps at one end of the brooder box. I also placed a metal cover over the other end to help keep the heat in better. The new arrangement is working fine—the chicks are staying quite warm and cozy despite the lack of companions (normally 75 of them).

Brooder Box with Heat Lamps and Cover
Brooder Box with Heat Lamps and Cover

The big thing I’m watching for now is that the chicks continue to remain active and don’t show any signs of being cold. Of course, that means getting up at night as well. At this point, I’m getting up two or three times during the night hours to check on them and I also check on them regularly during the day hours.

Handling your chicks at this point is a good idea. Don’t hold them for long because you don’t want them to get cold or to have other problems that come with a bit too much attention. You do want to pick each chick up every day so they get used to being handled. Make sure you talk with your chicks as well so they get used to the sound of your voice. Tame chickens are most definitely easier to care for and a real delight as companions when you work in the yard. Let me know your thoughts about laying hen chicks at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Does Your Hardware Spy On You?

Every once in a while I encounter an article that talks about government intrusion into private organizations through means that seem more like a James Bond movie plot than reality. The latest such story appeared in ComputerWorld, “To avoid NSA, Cisco delivers gear to strange addresses.” These articles lead me to wonder whether the authors have an overdeveloped persecution complex or government agencies are really spying on the public in such overtly secretive (and potentially illegal) ways. The fact that some companies apparently believe the threat enough to ship their equipment to odd addresses is frightening. Consider the ramifications of the actions—is it even possible to feel safe ordering hardware you haven’t built yourself (or are the individual components bugged too)?

Obviously, government organizations do require some means of tracking bad guys out there. Of course, the term bad guys is pretty loose and subject to great deal of interpretation. In addition, just how much tracking is too much tracking? Would enough tracking prevent another terrorist attack or the loss of income caused by crooked company executives? There are many questions that remain unanswered in my mind (and obviously in the minds of others) over the use of various tracking technologies.

The topic of government spying, it’s legitimate and illegitimate uses, and just who the bad guy is demands a lot more attention than anyone is giving it. So, how do you feel about government tracking of everything and anything it sets its mind to spy on? Do you feel there should be limits? What do you feel about shipping things to odd addresses to avoid notice and circumvent the system (partly because the system is broken)? I’d love to hear your point of view about the use of modified computer equipment as a tool for spying on the private sector at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.