A Windows Security Alert, Courtesy of Samsung

I’ve gotten used to a whole lot of silly vendor tricks over the years. Just about every vendor I’ve worked with has done something completely idiotic, just to cause the other guy woe. The user always ends up hurt. Readers of Administering Windows Server 2008 Server Core, Microsoft Windows Command Line Administration Instant Reference, and Windows 8 for Dummies Quick Reference need to be aware that according to a ComputerWorld article, Samsung has turned off Windows Update. The worrisome part of all this is that there is apparently an executable to turn the support off, but not another executable to turn support back on. Sites, such as engadget, are recommending you perform a clean install of Windows on your computer to get rid of the problem.

The whole issue seems to revolve around Samsung being worried that Microsoft’s updates will interfere with Samsung’s updates of its software. The result could be that the system won’t work. Phrases, such as “could be” and “might not”, always bother me. Samsung must not have tested the problem fully or they would have had a more positive and straightforward comment to make when asked about the problem. The point is that the user loses. Advice such as telling users they must reinstall Windows from scratch to get rid of the problem sounds just dandy until you figure out that most users can’t perform this task, so they’ll be out extra money getting someone else to do the job or we’ll all face the issues that happen when updates don’t occur. It’s not as if the Internet really requires yet more zombies (computers under hacker control)—we have no lack of them now.

A similar problem occurred not long ago when Lenovo thought it would be a good idea to pre-install the Superfish adware on the computers it put out. Most computer vendors add bloatware to their systems, which really does make it a good idea to perform a clean install when you buy a new system, but purposely adding adware seems a bit deranged to me. Lenovo later apologized and fixed the problem, but the point is that they made the mistake in the first place.

Some of my readers have asked why so many of my books include installation instructions or at least pointers to the installation instructions. The answer is that vendors keep doing things that make me shake my head and wonder just what they were thinking about. When you buy a new system from someone, perform a clean install of the operating system to get rid of the bloatware or have someone else do it for you. If you choose to keep the pre-installed operating system in place, make sure you research any oddities of the installation (such as turning off Windows Update). Otherwise, you might end up with a situation where Windows Update simply doesn’t do the job because someone told it not to. Let me know your thoughts on pre-installed software, bloatware, and vendors who seem completely clueless at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Story Update!

According to a ComputerWorld article, Samsung will end the practice of disabling Windows Update. Of course, one has to wonder why they did it in the first place. If you have one of the systems that disabled Windows Update, a patch will restore the system to perform the required updates.

 

Introducing the Baby Bunnies!

A number of people have asked me about how the rabbits are doing. It seems the chickens have been monopolizing the blog (and they have). About 30 days ago, Spartacus, my buck, made his rounds to the various cages with nest boxes. However, there wasn’t too much to report until Wednesday. Moonbeam, one of the does, had started pulling out her hair to make a nest. She had also gotten quite pudgy. On Wednesday she started having her babies. Now, she’s back to being a much thinner rabbit. (Because she’s feeding babies, I’ll give her nearly twice the normal amount of food and I’ll ensure her water dish is completely full.)

Moonbeam is a Rex and California Giant hybrid who just had a litter of eight kits.
Moonbeam and Her Special Treat

A friend had given me some strawberries and a few of them were getting a bit on the mushy side. So, all three of the new or expecting does received a special surprise with their food this morning. Moonbeam never eats her meal before I close the cage, so she’s just eying me right now.

Moonbeam is the best mom out of all the rabbits. She goes out of her way to keep her babies (kits) happy. To start out, she completely fills the nest box with her hair. Imagine having to pull out the amount of hair shown here.

Moonbeam uses her own hair to keep her babies warm after they're born.
Moonbeam Completely Fills the Nest Box with Hair

I’m always careful opening the top of the nest box. It’s important not to upset the mom. She could possibly choose to abandon her babies, so I open the lid carefully and then wait to see if she pokes her head in to watch me. Moonbeam trusts me, so she calmly sat outside the nest box and ate breakfast. She still watched me, but she wasn’t anxious about it. This view of the hair gives you an idea of just how much she pulled out (I shot her good side for the photograph).

Moonbeam made herself nearly bald in an attempt to provide enough hair for her kits.
Moonbeam Provides a Lot of Hair to Keep the Kits Warm

I never touch the hair or the kits. A number of texts that I’ve read say it’s permissible, but I’ve had does reject their babies because of the human scent on them, so I choose not to take the risk. I carefully moved the hair aside to count eight pudgy babies. The babies are born blind and hairless. They’re actually quite small at this point. It’s important to remove the hair just long enough to count (and take a picture in this case). Otherwise, the babies could get a chill.

This picture shows three of the kits, complete with the head of one of them.
Three of the Kits

You can only see three of the kits in this picture. There is so much hair that I can only move a small part of it at a time. I definitely don’t want to force poor Moonbeam to pull out any more. Notice that you can clearly see the head (with ears) of one of the kits. This one will likely be completely white. The other two kits have blotches that indicate they have black spots like their dad.

Moonbeam actually required 32 days to have her babies. The average time is about 30 days. That’s part of the reason that these kits are a bit bigger than normal. The kits will probably stay in the nest box for the first 30 days or so of their lives. It just depends on how fast they grow. During that time, Moonbeam will feed them each day. Let me know your thoughts about raising rabbits at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Getting Your Favorite Application on the Web

The world where users sit in front of a desktop system all day managing data is going away. Users won’t settle for just sitting in front of a computer any longer—they want to compute using their smartphone, tablet, and any other device that comes to mind. A time is coming when a user who has an idea in the middle of the night will talk to the alarm clock, which will make the required changes while the user goes back to sleep. For today, however, users appear content to make their changes using the interesting array of technologies that are already available. Who knows, perhaps someone out there is actually using their Apple Watch to make changes to a report they need to give in a few hours.

The point of writing HTML5 Programming with JavaScript for Dummies, CSS3 for Dummies, and Security for Web Developers is to make these technologies available desktop developers who have become a bit nervous about the future of their favorite language. It’s unlikely that any developer has failed to observe the movement from the desktop to everywhere else. Fortunately, many languages you use today will compile to JavaScript. All you really need is the right tool to make the move. In fact, a recent ComputerWorld article discusses six of these tools in enough detail for you to at least gain an appreciation of what they can do for you. Therefore, it’s possible for you to move some of your favorite applications to the new reality of computing. The applications may run a bit more slowly, but they should work well.

Of course, some developers are in denial. They point out the reams of code already in existence and how organizations around the world will refuse the give them up. The organization may very well refuse to give the desktop application code up, but the user has already done so. Applications require willing users. In the absence of willing users, no mandate will force anyone to use a broken application. Users will find a way around the mandate and it’s likely that no amount of coercion will force users to comply with the dreams of developers who have stuck by the desktop system.

We’re talking average users here. Any user who uses applications for mundane tasks that long ago became the essence of modern business. Developers will still find people who actually do need the power of desktop applications. it’s entirely possible that both engineers and scientists will continue to use desktop applications far into the future, but these applications are at the periphery. The days of the desktop are gone—it’s time to get used to the idea that your next application will probably be web-based and that you’ll use a language appropriate for that venue to create it. In the meantime, you do have options for moving your existing code. Let me know your thoughts about applications that run anywhere on any device at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Contemplating the Issue of Bias in Data Science

When Luca and I wrote Python for Data Science for Dummies we tried to address a range of topics that aren’t well covered in other places. Imagine my surprise when I saw a perfect article to illustrate one of these topics in ComputerWorld this week, Maybe robots, A.I. and algorithms aren’t as smart as we think. With the use of AI and data science growing exponentially, you might think that computers can think. They can’t. Computers can emulate or simulate the thinking process, but they don’t actually think. A computer is a machine designed to perform math quite quickly. If we want thinking computers, then we need a different kind of a machine. It’s the reason I wrote the Computers with Common Sense? post not too long ago. The sort of computer that could potentially think is a neural network and I discuss them in the Considering the Future of Processing Power post. (Even Intel’s latest 18 core processor, which is designed for machine learning and analytics isn’t a neural network—it simply performs the tasks that processors do now more quickly.)

However, the situation is worse than you might think, which is the reason for mentioning the ComputerWorld article. A problem occurs when the computer scientists and data scientists working together to create algorithms that make it appear that computers can think forget that they really can’t do any such thing. Luca and I discuss the effects of bias in Chapter 18 of our book. The chapter might have seemed academic at one time—something of interest, but potentially not all that useful. Today that chapter has taken on added significance. Read the ComputerWorld article and you find that Flickr recently released a new image recognition technology. The effects of not considering the role of bias in interpreting data and in the use of algorithms has has horrible results. The Guardian goes into even more details, describing how the program has tagged black people as apes and animals. Obviously, no one wanted that particular result, but forgetting that computers can’t think has caused precisely that unwanted result.

AI is an older technology that isn’t well understood because we don’t really understand our own thinking processes. It isn’t possible to create a complete and useful model of something until you understand what it is that you’re modeling and we don’t truly understand intelligence. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that AI has taken so long to complete even the smallest baby steps. Data science is a newer technology that seeks to help people see patterns in huge data sets—to understand the data better and to create knowledge where none existed before. Neither technology is truly designed for stand-alone purposes yet. While I find Siri an interesting experiment, it’s just that, an experiment.

The Flickr application tries to take the human out of the loop and you see the result. Technology is designed to help mankind achieve more by easing the mundane tasks performed to accomplish specific goals. When you take the person out of the loop, what you have is a computer that is only playing around at thinking from a mathematical perspective—nothing more. It’s my hope that the Flickr incident will finally cause people to start thinking about computers, algorithms, and data as the tools that they truly are—tools designed to help people excel in new ways. Let me know your thoughts about AI and data science at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Chick Update (Part 10)

Sometimes chick behaviors can be a little more than interesting. Of course, you saw a few of those behaviors in the previous post, A Chick Update (Part 9).

This week was special in many ways. One of the Buff Orpington chicks has taken it into her head that she needs to sit on eggs. However, the egg she wants to sit on is the super jumbo sized eggs laid by the Buff Orpington hen. The super jumbo eggs are so large they actually peg my egg scale. My customers love them, but I have yet to figure out what this chick is thinking about because she’s truly not large enough to sit on anything quite that large—at least not comfortably. I had a good chuckle the first time I saw her doing it and must admit that the laughs haven’t ended. Well, if it helps her become a better hen, then more power to her. None of the other chicks has shown the slightest inclination to lay on any of the eggs laid by the hens.

The chicks can be even messier than the hens and the hens won’t lay eggs in a nest box fouled beyond a certain level. With that in mind, I’ve been replacing the hay in the nest boxes every week or week and a half.  I’ve also been scraping accumulate fecal matter off the horizontal surfaces each day. This past week  I decided that the coop needed a lot more than a touch-up. Unfortunately, that meant locking the hens out in the run while I did the cleaning. Chaos ensued while the hens staked out various territories and decided it might be fun to chase the chicks around for a while.

Even the best fun wears out after a while though and the hens soon decided that they absolutely must get into the coop at this particular moment. At first the pecking at the run door was light and somewhat sporadic. It soon grew much louder and more spirited. Eventually, the hens decided that the hen pecking at the door at that particular moment (only one can fit in front of the door) wasn’t doing a very good job. So they took turns knocking each other off the ramp, with a new hen pecking frantically at the door. All this happened in about 45 minutes mind you, so I really wasn’t taking very long to clean the coop, but you could never have convinced the hens of it.

When the coop was finally cleaned, the hens came strutting in—fuming. They gave me a piece of their mind. A few jumped in the nest boxes and began to pick at the new hay. Violet chose to provide me with the full onslaught of her upset by screaming at me (in chicken no less). Rose decided to peck my boots. Let’s say that the hens were definitely not impressed with my cleaning job—it fell well below par.

At this point, the chicks began to look inside the run door, but they seemed most determined not to come in. They seemed confused, “Is this the right place?” After a few seconds one of the chicks screamed and ran back down the ramp, followed by the others. They refused to go into the coop until it was time to put them up for the night.

Chickens are suspicious of everything. It’s a natural behavior that keeps them alive in the wild because everyone loves a good chicken dinner. However, in the coop, the behavior often leaves me belly laughing. If you get chickens for no other purpose than to get a good laugh, you really could do worse. Let me know your thoughts about all things chicken at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Use of the title Attribute

I try to keep up with accessibility issues so that the content I provide is always as friendly as possible. With this in mind, I’ve used the title attribute for links and wherever else it might be needed for many years now. At one time, the title attribute was actually mandated to make pages accessible by organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The attribute also makes an appearance in a number of my books, such as Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements with full documentation as to the benefits of using it.

However, today I find myself having to take a new direction and actually tell people not to use the title attribute because it could potentially make pages less accessible. Part of the reason that the title attribute isn’t used anymore is that some people became confused about it and started using it for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) uses and that was never the point. A lack of browser support and all sorts of other issues added to the demise of the title attribute as a useful link feature. The point is that there is a reason for the title attribute, but no one was using it and people with special accessibility needs found ways around it. At one point, the screen readers I used actually did make use of the title attribute, but newer screen readers don’t. In fact, the new approach is to ensure that links contain enough text to ensure someone with a screen reader knows what they mean. It’s a situation where a specific programming technique didn’t get the job done so another technique is now in use—one that seems more natural and that people are actually using.

So, what cued me into the fact that the title attribute is no longer particularly useful? Well, I use WordPress to create blog posts and noted recently that they had removed the title attribute from the dialog box for creating links. For a while I was adding the title attribute in by hand because I really did feel I was making the page more accessible. However, after talking with a friend about the issue and experimenting with the latest screen readers myself, I find that the title attribute is one of those “also ran” features that simply doesn’t see use often enough to make it worthwhile using. The new strategy is to ensure you provide enough text as part of your link to ensure the link is clear all by itself (even if you need to hide part of that text from view). If you have a copy of one of my books that espouses the use of the title attribute, make sure you change your practice to match what the rest of the world is doing today. Let me know if you have any questions about the use of the title attribute at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

What Net Neutrality Means to You

I’ve written about Net Neutrality before in the Understanding the Effects of Net Neutrality on Web Programmers post. The post described how Net Neutrality affects developers in particular and made a passing reference to its effect on other users as well. The issues haven’t really changed. Enforcing Net Neutrality could mean free and equal access to the Internet by everyone who needs to use it, but nothing I’ve seen so far really defines what the government means by free or equal. I have concerns that some high priority needs, such as medical or real time communications, will suffer under Net Neutrality. However, the longer I think about the issue, the more I come to realize that some form of Net Neutrality is essential to the health of the Internet as we know it now. In addition, most medical posts I’ve read favor Net Neutrality as being essentially good for patient access to healthcare needs.

A number of things have happened since that post. The most notable is that Net Neutrality has become an issue of Democrats versus Republicans, rather than an honest effort to provide the sort of service that everyone wants. As I predicted, the whole matter ended up in the courts where an appeals court has decided to allow the FCC to implement the Net Neutrality rules. To counteract the court decision, House Republicans have added riders to a must pass bill to fund the government that affects the FCC’s ability to enforce Net Neutrality rules. Apparently, the cable companies have called in the favors they provided politicians in the form of campaign contributions. The Republicans are taking this action despite evidence that most people support Net Neutrality regardless of political identity.

The whole Net Neutrality issue has taken a new direction—one that is becoming all too familiar to Americans. One side, the Democrats in this case, choose to champion an issue and the other side, the Republicans in this case, decide against it. Our legislators seem determined to waste time and energy fighting with each other, rather than accomplish anything resembling real work. In the middle of it all are companies offering money—paying legislators to do their bidding. In this case, the people are on the losing side of the equation. Everything I’ve read tells me that this is a situation where the government really doesn’t care what the people want—it’s all about the money.

Of course, there is a group of people who are caught in the middle of all this—application developers. Actually, anyone responsible for ensuring content moves on the Internet is caught in this current decision to do anything but act responsibly on the part of the government. It isn’t possible to create applications that perform well when you don’t know how the communications used to transfer the data will work. Until the government gets its act together, developers and other IT professionals will simply have to take their best guess as to how to make applications perform well and that hurts everyone. Let me know your thoughts about Net Neutrality and the developer at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Chick Update (Part 9)

The chicks are continuing to grow. They’re definitely working their way into coop life. Of course, the hens will continue to intimidate them until they’re full sized, but it all comes down to keeping the pecking order straight. As the new chicks become larger and more capable, some of them will work their way up the social ladder and eventually become leaders in the coop. It’s fascinating to watch them grow and change. They still peep like young chicks, which is one of the reasons I think the hens don’t actually spend a lot of time harassing them. Nature provides cues that younger animals need special care. It’s most definitely that way with hens. I imagine there will be some additional confrontation in the coop when the chicks become full-fledged pullets. In the meantime, the hens do continue to teach their charges the appropriate behavior of chickens.

At a certain point in their development, chicks will start to manifest more hen-like behaviors. This week I noticed that the chicks are now starting to hang out with each other outside. They’ll simply roost together during the daylight hours and watch that silly man working in the heat of the day in the garden. I actually do find them staring at me. I tried to get a good picture of the roosting behavior, but every time I started getting close enough, they’d jump down because they just knew I was going to feed them.

As they grow older, the chicks start chumming around on the roost.
Chicks Viewing the World from a Roosting Spot

Sometimes the chicks will sit out there for hours just watching the world pass by. They murmur at each other and I often wonder what they’re saying. If you listen long enough, you do find that chickens most definitely have a vocabulary.

There was a change in the chick lineup this week and it probably happens in most coops at some point. One of the Barred Plymouth Rock chicks never really got along with the others. It would try to attack the older hens and it didn’t pal around with the other chicks. I could never get it to sit in my hand. Let’s just say that it wasn’t very social. I had planned on spending time with it improving its social skills. Unfortunately, the chick had other ideas. It ran between my legs to get out of the coop this week. Nothing would convince it to come back inside and every attempt to catch it was unsuccessful. This meant that the chick would spend the night outdoors. Someone had a chicken dinner that night—I never saw the chick again. Interestingly enough, I didn’t get any eggs the next day. The chickens seemed to realize that someone was missing.

People fail to understand that chickens, like every other animal, have personalities. Those traits define how the chicken acts within the flock. For example, I’ve had to get rid of some chickens in the past because they started eating eggs (see Feeding for Healthy Chickens for details). You can modify some behaviors, but not others. An antisocial hen will cause constant problems in the flock and that’s what was happening with this Barred Rock. After she left, the coop suddenly quieted down. Because of their personality traits, you need to treat the chickens in the flock differently. Some chickens really do want to be held, others petted, others talked to, and some just want to be left alone. Knowing your hens makes a huge difference in providing appropriate care.

The chicks are also making progress in their management training. At the end of the day I can now put their final bit of food in the coop. Going into the run, I can clap my hands and they run inside to enjoy their meal—at which point, I close the run door. Eventually, they’ll start to come when I cluck at them. It takes time to train the hens, but the older hens do come when I call them. Let me know your thoughts about all things chicken at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Star Trek, One Step Closer

I’ve written a number of posts about 3D printing because it has so much potential for creating a new kind of world where things aren’t such as concern any longer. If all you really need are some raw materials to print out anything you need, the overstocking of stuff really isn’t a concern any longer. You will have only those items you need because spares of anything aren’t a problem. That’s how things were on Star Trek. People seemed less inclined to hoard anything because there simply wasn’t a reason to do so. That’s why a recent ComputerWorld article, How astronauts 3D printed a wrench they needed in space, grabbed my attention.

The article points out another use for 3D printing, which is fine, but there are a lot of articles about 3D printing now so that’s not really the focal point. The focal point for me is that the printing process met a practical need in an environment where the need couldn’t be met in any other way. The kicker is that the astronaut in question really wanted a ratchet to go with the wrench and they were able to send him one! In reality, the printer received the plans for the ratchet and simply printed it out like any other part.

The essence of the article is about printing things in space that the astronauts need to accomplish useful tasks. At one time, not long ago, if an astronaut didn’t take something along, it wasn’t available. However, read the story in more detail and you find out that the setup recycles the old plastic devices. This means that an astronaut can create a wrench when needed, discard it, and use the same plastic to create something else. That’s the principle behind the replicator in Star Trek. Old things were remade into new things. So what we’re seeing is science fiction becoming science fact right before our eyes.

The future holds the promise of allowing people to perform tasks in a creative way without having to worry nearly as much about resources. The use of 3D printing will eventually make it possible to create anything needed anywhere. Just how long it takes us to move to the next step will be interesting. There is still a lot of low hanging fruit to pick on the technology tree, but eventually we’ll need to conquer the harder issues of being able to produce complex items at the atomic level. That step should prove interesting indeed. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering the Effects of Automation

After recently watching Disney’s new movie, Tomorrowland, I started thinking about the world that really could come about tomorrow. Of course, it will have many of the same problems we have today, but I’m sure it will also have a few new problems and hopefully, some of the old problems will see some sort of resolution. My recent forays into advanced math have given me a new perspective of just what it will take to create tomorrow. In writing both Python for Data Science for Dummies and MATLAB for Dummies I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the role that both math and science will play in creating this new world—not that there was any lack of appreciation before I wrote the books, but the vision now is clearer.

The fact of the matter is that people will require more education. Even plumbers and electricians will need to know more in order to deal with new technologies coming on the scene (think about performing tasks such as installing solar panels). It will come to a point where advanced schooling after high school (whether trade or technical) is going to become a necessity. Yes, people can still get jobs today without a college education, but those days are coming to an end with the advances in robotics I keep reading about. For example, a recent New York Times article, As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up, says quite a lot about the future of low paying jobs—they simply won’t exist. Articles such as the one found in MIT Technology Review, Robots That Learn Through Repetition, Not Programming, tell the story of why this is the case. In the future, robots will learn to perform new tasks as needed. The tone of some of these articles is a bit negative because we’re viewing the future through today’s eyes.

What I see in the future are opportunities for people to create, but in a safer environment than in the past. Just as it’s difficult to see the past as it actually was (the way the people viewed things at that time), trying to view the future, even if you have some inkling of what that future might contain, is difficult. For example, imagine having to saddle your horse before you can go anywhere—people today are used to simply climbing into the car and turning the key. However, if you lived in the early 1900s, a car was a really loud, obnoxious device that would spell the ruination of society—horses were far more practical and comfortable (interestingly enough, about 40 percent of those cars were steam powered). There is a difference in viewpoint that is hard to overcome (or even imagine for that matter). A ComputerWorld article, How enterprises can use artificial intelligence, describes how technology in the movies doesn’t quite match reality. In fact, you might find some of the ways in which advanced technologies and automation are used somewhat boring. Fraud detection hardly ranks as a highly exciting way to use technology, but it reflects the practical nature of how technology sees use today.

When I see kids today doing absolutely everything on a smartphone, I come to realize that they already live in a world far different from the one I knew as a child. There is no going back. Children today have different problems than I had simply because the technology is different. If I encountered a problem, I first had to find a phone to call someone for help—children today carry their phone with them (almost as another body part). Then again, children when I grew up didn’t have the problems with obesity that children do today.

A lot of the readers I talk with every day express various feelings about automation and all it entails—some are scared, others elated. The fact is that the future has always been different. Change is a part of the human condition. We’ll live through the changes that automation will create too. Let me know your thoughts on the changes that automation will bring at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.