In Praise of Dual Monitors

This is an update of a post that originally appeared on February 5, 2014.

In reading many of my old blog posts, I’m finding that many of the things I said way back when apply equally well today. I’ve received email from budding developers who use their smartphone to code. Just how they perform this trick is beyond me because I squint at the screen performing the simplest of tasks and often find that my fingers are two sizes too big. I have tried coding on a tablet, a laptop, and (oddly enough) my television. While they do work, they’re not particularly efficient, so I’ll stick with my dual-monitor desktop system for coding.

Yes, I know that some developers use more than just two monitors, but I find that two monitors work just fine. The first monitor is my work monitor—the monitor I use for actually typing code. The second monitor is my view monitor. When I run the application, the output appears on the second monitor so that I can see the result of changes I’ve made. Using two monitors lets me easily correlate the change in code to the changes in application design. Otherwise, I’d be wasting time switching between the application output and my IDE.

I also use two monitors when writing my books. The work monitor contains my word processor, while my view monitor contains the application I’m writing about. This is possibly one time when a third monitor could be helpful—one to hold the word processor, one to hold the IDE, and one to view the application output. However, in this case, a third monitor could actually slow things down because the time spent viewing the output of an example is small when compared to creating a production application.

The concept of separating work from the source of information used to perform the work isn’t new. People have used the idea for thousands of years, in fact. For example, when people employed typewriters to output printed text, the typist employed a special stand to hold the manuscript being typed. The idea of having a view of your work and then another surface to actually work on is used quite often throughout history because it’s a convenient way to perform tasks quickly. By employing dual monitors, I commonly get between a 15 percent to 33 percent increase in output, simply because I can see my work and its associated view at the same time.

Working with dual monitors not only saves time, but can also reduce errors. By typing as I view the output of applications, I can more reliably relate the text of labels and other information the application provides. The same holds true when viewing information sources found in other locations. Seeing the information as I type it is always less likely to produce errors.

Don’t get the idea that I support using dual monitors in every situation. Many consumer-oriented computer uses are served just fine with a single monitor. For example, there isn’t a good reason to use two monitors when viewing e-mail in many cases—at least, not at the consumer level (you could make a case for using dual monitors when working with e-mails and a calendar to manage tasks, for example). Dual monitors commonly see use in the business environment because people aren’t necessarily creating their own information source—the information comes from a variety of sources that the user must view in order to use reliably.

Do you see yourself using dual monitors? If you use such a setup now, how do you employ it? Let me know at [email protected].

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 [email protected].


Thinking About the Continuing Loss of Privacy

It’s easy to wonder whether there will ever come a time when humans will no longer have any privacy of any sort. In part, the problem is one of our own making. We open ourselves up to all sorts of intrusions for the sake of using technology we really don’t need. I’ve discussed this issue in the past with posts such as Exercising Personal Privacy. As people become more addicted to technology, the thinking process is affected. The technology becomes a sort of narcotic that people feel they can’t do without. Of course, it’s quite possible to do without the technology, but the will to do so is lacking.

A couple of articles that I read recently have served to highlight the consequences of unbridled technology overuse. The first, Getting Hacked Is in Your Future, describes the trend in hacking modern technology. Of course, avoiding getting hacked is simple—just stop using the technology. For example, people have gotten along just fine without remote car starts to heat their cars. Actually, it’s simply a bad idea because the practice wastes a considerable amount of gas. The point of the article is that hackers aren’t ever going to stop. You can count on this group continuing to test technology, finding the holes, and then exploiting the holes to do something horrid.

Wearable technology is also becoming more of a problem. The ComputerWorld article, Data from wearable devices could soon land you in jail, describes how police will eventually use the devices you use to monitor yourself against you. The problem isn’t the wearable technology, but the fact that many people will use it indiscriminately. Even though logic would tell you that wearing the device just during exercise is fine, people will become addicted to wearing them all the time. It won’t be long and you’ll see people monitoring every bodily function 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The use of cameras to view static locations on a street will soon seem tame in light of the intrusions of new technologies.

A reader recently asked whether I think technology is bad based on some of my recent blog posts. Quite the contrary—I see the careful use of technology as a means of freeing people to become more productive. The problem I have is with the misuse and overuse of technology. Technology should be a tool that helps, not hinders, human development of all sorts. I see technology playing a huge role in helping people with special needs become fully productive citizens whose special need all but disappears (or possibly does disappear to the point where even the technology user doesn’t realize there is a special need any longer).

What is your take on the direction that technology is taking? Do you see technology use continuing to increase, despite the problems that it can pose? Let me know your thoughts on the good uses for technology and the means you use to decide when technology has gone too far at [email protected].


The Pain of Current Hardware Updates

It’s no longer possible for the average person to install hardware on a system with any assurance of success and a few of us old hands are encountering problems as well! That’s my experience with a recent hardware update for my system. Yes, I got the job done, but it required more work than necessary and included several trips to the store. In one case, the store sold me the wrong part (not the part I requested) and I ended up having to go back to exchange it. One of the few significant advantages in owning a desktop system, the ability to update as needed, is being eroded by a serious deficiency in the quality of upgrade components.

When I first started building my own systems many years ago, the devices that went into the box came with beautifully rendered manuals, all the required software, and any required hardware. Of course, you could get cheaper products that didn’t quite include everything, but even in this case, the device included a getting started book and the required software. However, many people opted for the nicer vendor packages to ensure they wouldn’t have to continuously run to the store for yet another part. It was overkill in a way. For example, few people actually bothered to read the manuals end-to-end and simply used the getting started guide to get the hardware installed as quickly as possible. They’d then use the manual as a quick reference when problems occurred.

A few years ago I noted that even high end products no longer shipped with a paper manual. You received the getting started guide in paper form and could then use the manual that accompanied the DVD once you restarted the system. The devices still shipped with all the required hardware and software. Some storage devices had the software installed right on the device itself, but still, you received the required software. Even so, the new packaging technique achieved a nice balance between protecting the planet and still allowing just about anyone to perform a hardware upgrade.

You might have noted that the Monday post was missing. Well, that’s because I was offline wrestling with a hardware update that should have been quite easy. The replacement of my hard drive and display adapter should have taken only a few minutes, but ended up taking an entire day (starting Sunday afternoon) due to the lack of documentation, incomplete (but required) installation hardware, and lacking software. Today my system is running, mostly configured, and the new parts work beautifully, but the price of getting them installed was way too high.

There are a few new lessons that I’ve learned as part of this experience. The most important is to check the box to ensure you have absolutely everything before you get started. Yes, this has always been good advice, but the products of the past generally included everything needed to get the job done. Given the trend I’m seeing now, you’ll likely need screws, possibly a piece of installation hardware, cabling, and other items that are listed as optional in the documentation (even though the device won’t work without them). Check the installation hardware before you leave to the store to make sure they’re actually selling you the right part. For example, make sure the cable you buy is actually rated to handle the load you’re placing on it (a cable rated for 3 Gb/s may not work well for a device that is designed to transfer data at 6 Gb/s).

It pays to put any DVD that comes with the device into the drive on your working system and explore it before you take your system down to upgrade it. Make sure you print out any information you need for installation before you take your system offline. For example, you should print out any jumper information and cabling instructions. Once you have your system offline for the installation, it’s too late to print that information out. If you don’t have a second system to view the documentation at that point, you’ll find that installation is next to impossible.

Some devices no longer come with an installation DVD. In this case, you must go to the vendor site, download the required manual and software, and ensure you’re familiar with it before you take your system offline. Make sure the software and manual are put on removable media because you may need them before the installation process is complete.

Make sure you perform the upgrade in a manner that allows you to revert back to the pre-upgrade state when necessary. Actually, this has always been good advice, but it’s even more important now that the possibility of success is less. You may find that you have to reverse the upgrade to get a working system so that you can determine why the upgrade didn’t work.

Desktop systems have the advantage of allowing updates, but performing the update has become significantly more difficult because vendors no longer take the care in packaging products that they once did. What sorts of problems have you encountered? Let me know at [email protected].