Saturday, August 12, 2017

Are Windows Updates to blame for the Microsoft Surface losing Consumer Reports' "recommended" status?


Does Microsoft have only itself to blame for the recent condemnation by Consumer Reports regarding its Surface line of products? Here’s why I think Windows Updates is the real culprit...

On August 10, Consumer Reports (CR) announced it is “removing its 'recommended' designation from four Microsoft laptops and cannot recommend any other Microsoft laptops or tablets because of poor predicted reliability in comparison with most other brands” (https://www.consumerreports.org/laptop-computers/microsoft-surface-laptops-and-tablets-not-recommended-by-consumer-reports/).

The article goes on to cite the specific Surface models involved, CR's justification for removing the “recommended” designation, and, notably, Microsoft’s objection to the report's findings. Toward the end of the article, CR provides several specific examples of the performance issues upon which they based their decision--information that is culled from reliability surveys of “millions” of “folks” who “supply us with information on hundreds of thousands of individual products”:

“A number of survey respondents said they experienced problems with their devices during startup. A few commented that their machines froze or shut down unexpectedly, and several others told CR that the touch screens weren’t responsive enough.”

The following anecdotal information is based on my thirty-plus years of experience as a computer hobbyist, and fifteen years as an IT/IS Manager for an enterprise environment. I started using Microsoft DOS based computers in 1989, and subsequently Windows 3.1 shortly thereafter. Back in those days, there was no such thing as “Windows Updates”. Until recently, Windows Updates were something that could be turned off. As of Windows 10, the user no longer has control over the Operating System (OS) update process. Although this is the way it must be due to the nature of the Internet and the lack of expert administrative knowledge on the part of the vast majority of computer users, the inability to control the OS update process creates a significant usability problem because virtually every round of software updates introduces reliability issues. Software update induced issues have always been inevitable; and now, thanks to updates being mandatory (at least on Windows 10), this is an ongoing, recurring source of device instability.

Although unexpected shutdowns and OS freeze ups are sometimes attributable to hardware issues (e.g., a failing storage device can result in this type of behavior), in my experience I have found that most of the time these types of issues are due to excessive CPU and/or memory usage. Ironically, as I was sitting down to write this blog entry, my wireless network adapter connection abruptly dropped, and the processor started running continuously at 50% usage (this is not normal). The computer is a Dell XPS 12 that has 8GB of memory and an Intel Core i7-3537U CPU. It originally shipped in early 2013 with Windows 8, and was subsequently upgraded to Windows 10. Although the 3537U is not the latest generation i7 CPU, it has plenty of horsepower for running the Chrome web browser with a bunch of tabs open. But here it was, running sluggishly and acting slightly unresponsive due to the excessive CPU and memory usage.

The culprit that was sucking all that CPU and memory into a black hole? "Windows Modules Installer Task".

Granted, this sort of problem doesn’t happen with every monthly deployment of Windows Updates, but I would estimate erratic system behavior occurs, on average, at least four to six times per year--and I can almost always trace it to the delivery of Windows Updates (I do this sort of work on server systems as well). Of course, occasional freezing and unresponsiveness are not the only issues I have with my personal computer system. I can’t use sleep mode because it’s highly unreliable (I’ll lose data if I dare to try). The XPS 12 is a 2-in-1 with a flip screen, but I rarely use tablet mode because despite numerous updates that seem to be Microsoft trying to make it work better, it still sucks. Most annoyingly, it will flip into portrait mode when I don’t want it to, and then it won’t go back into landscape mode no matter how much I turn or twist it. (I then have to go into Display Settings to fix this problem.) And the virtual keyboard? Good luck typing a complex password with non-alphanumeric characters (granted, this is actually a usability issue). Hence I mostly use my Windows 10 based 2-in-1 device as a laptop. I rely on an actual tablet (see next paragraph) for tablet style computing, which makes me wonder how useful a Microsoft Surface (since I don’t own one myself) really is for tablet profile usage.

Speaking of which, to be fair to Microsoft, they have more than just their own Surface devices to accommodate with Windows 10. It’s not like at Apple where they can snicker about Microsoft’s updates woes because Apple controls all the hardware that their OS ships on, making it infinitely easier to avoid update related hardware issues. Of course, on the Surface a lack of hardware control isn’t a usable excuse by Microsoft (but see below for more info on this point). Furthermore, problematic updates affect all the big players in the computer electronics market, regardless of whether or not they control the hardware. For comparison, I recently upgraded my Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 to Android 7, which subsequently caused the U-verse app to stop functioning properly, and in fairness to Google and Samsung, the U-verse app already had significant reliability issues prior to the Android 7 update.

What it all boils down to is that essentially updates are a necessary evil, and the bad is always delivered with the good.

Specifically, in regard to Microsoft Surface devices that have been demoted from Consumer Reports “recommended” status, CR states in their article that: “The new studies of laptop and tablet reliability leverage data on 90,741 tablets and laptops that subscribers bought new between 2014 and the beginning of 2017.” Granted, I’m not privy to the hardware specifications on all those devices, but being in charge of computer acquisitions for an enterprise environment, I can guarantee that the vast majority of home and small business class laptop/notebook type devices purchased from 2014 to 2017 have 4GB of memory and a Core i3 or i5 processor--at best. If I’m seeing significant Windows Update initiated performance issues on a computer with 8GB memory and an i7 CPU, there is no question that performance is going to be a major problem on a large percentage those 90,000 devices. And I’m not even going to go into the known issue with some early Surface models having insufficient hardware specifications and being left on the market too long by Microsoft. Combine all of these factors with a lack of user knowledge regarding what to expect and/or be aware of in regard to “known” performance and reliability issues, and you have a perfect recipe for negative user feedback being provided to Consumer Reports.

In this regard, Microsoft has only itself to blame for the CR survey results that criticized Surface devices. Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony, Apple and many other computer hardware manufacturers have been building devices for a lot longer than Microsoft, and are far more proficient at knowing where to draw the line on the fine balance between price, performance and reliability. Apparently Microsoft still has some learning to do. While they can publicly “dismiss” the Consumer Reports findings, hopefully, behind the scenes, Microsoft has learned a valuable lesson from this misstep.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Trying to live with Google Sites as my website hosting service

I guess it was a little over a year ago that I dropped the last pay-for-it web hosting service I was using. Partly it was because I was tired of paying for it--but that had a lot to do with the fact that I hadn't been updating my various Web sites for years, and continuing to pay for the hosting of a lot of out of date content was pointless.

So now that I'm reestablishing my online personas, I'm trying to live within the limitations of Google Sites' graphically based web design application. I started writing HTML code back in the mid-1990s, and so trying to limit myself to a graphical editor is--simply put--excruciatingly frustrating.

I'll qualify this by saying that I'm very much a huge proponent of Google. We use Google Apps for email and our website at the public library where I'm the IT/IS Manager, and I use Google Apps extensively for my own personal use as well.

Google Sites does allow one to manually insert HTML code (on the edit page toolbar there is an <HTML> button at the far right). Given that functionality, I imagined being able to essentially copy & paste existing HTML code into Sites. However, some preliminary testing with a rudimentary table reveals that the Sites graphical editor is quick to render code to its own liking. It's understandable that Google must process the code; otherwise, users with malicious intent could insert all kind of nefarious things. However, if we are talking a basic table with minimal tags, it's kind of frustrating to see it arbitrarily mangled.

My HTML code was always extremely simplistic, plain HTML. I never advanced to using fancy Java scripts or anything else of much complexity. Despite this, I'm guessing my attempts to copy & paste some existing website content is probably going to get severely mashed by the Sites HTML code processor.

Ironically, what I can design relatively quickly using HTML actually takes longer to do using Sites graphical tools. Image file management in Sites has literally been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Again, I understand that this is necessary to make it usable for people who have no conception of relative vs. absolute paths and how image files and web page documents reside on the server in relation to one another. However, what I don't understand is what appears to be a complete lack of more advanced management tools for those who can make use of them?
I read in a Google support forum thread where users were complaining about being unable to delete image files. It was from a few years ago, and at the time I suppose this really was a legitimate issue--for which the explanation was allegedly that image files could NOT be deleted because of the shared (i.e. collaborative) nature of Google Apps. Huh? It is possible to delete images (More Actions > Manage Sites > Attachments -- obvious, right?). What is puzzling to me is that as far as I can tell, all images are dumped in either the "root" or "home" directory (depending on how the image is inserted or uploaded), and the user has no control whatsoever over this.

Despite my dismay over such puzzling limitations and the lack of more advanced controls, I will give Google credit for always improving its products. Maybe someday advanced tools (for example, file management--which is a basic feature of any paid web hosting service) will be available. Until then, I guess I'll just keep trying to live with the limitations.

I will definitely be back with more commentary on Sites as I delve further into it...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

JFManning.com -- More Logo Experimentation...

Further refinement of my JFManning.com logo. I've pretty much decided to stick with the orange color for the text. Before going into this, I definitely wouldn't have anticipated orange being my final choice. Incidentally, InStockTrades.com uses an orange text with a brownish/charcoal/gray background for their website, and that was the default color scheme for the Blogger template I originally selected for this blog. So on the one hand, I guess the orange & charcoal theme has grown on me; and on the other hand, it provides a favorably neutral contrast in general for a website. My logo color scheme looks good on both a white or black background. I also integrated the "Fedora Man" icon that I've been using for quite a while as my primary social networking avatar. Ultimately, I think this theme works well. I've saved final PNG exports of the following logos in varying sizes from large (middle) to small (bottom), in order to have a variety of logos for various publication usages. The large "header" logo in the middle has already been uploaded to JFManning.com.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Google Sites & Domains, and JFManning.com as a work-in-progress...

In my last post (yesterday), I mentioned that jfmanning.com currently redirects to my Twitter profile at https://twitter.com/jfm9561. (BTW, I plan to update my Twitter profile page ASAP...) Since that post I've done a little bit of home page formatting with my work-in-progress Google Sites website (mostly pertaining to my logo), which the actual "Sites" URL is https://sites.google.com/site/jfm9561/. At the moment it's bare bones, but I feel like the logo and introductory statement are substantial enough to where I decided to go ahead and update the Google Domains redirection service to point "jfmanning.com" to my newly established website presence. At this point I'm not trying to garner traffic, so it really doesn't matter how complete (or incomplete) my website actually is.

Speaking of which, if you're interested in this sort of thing, there are two ways to accomplish pointing a domain name to a Google Sites address. If you are using Google Domains as your Registrar and domain name hosting service (and I highly recommend that you do), the easiest and most straightforward method is to use Domains' "Configure Website" service to simply forward (i.e., "redirect") users who enter your website address (e.g., "whatever.com") to your Google Sites website address. Once an Internet DNS root server has passed along the relevant IP address information--which in my situation is for "jfmanning.com"--the actual domain name itself is no longer relevant. Of course, the down side to this method is I currently have a relatively lengthy and not-so-user-friendly Internet URL for my website. So if you are trying to brand your fabulous "Whatever.com" domain name, this approach isn't ideal.

In an important sidebar note to the above stated, if you are not using Google Domains, your hosting service should have a similar configuration option for forwarding/redirecting domain names. If not, you should definitely find a new Registrar and hosting service that provides this standard functionality. There are many Registrar options (and I've personally used a number of them), but I have moved all my domain names to Google Domains. Interestingly, Google considers "Domains" to be a beta product. Having used various other services, and despite being an allegedly "beta" version, Google Domains is, IMHO, far and above the best service for domain name management and administration. I'm very much invested in the Google Apps universe, and Domains integrates seamlessly with Sites, making it a no brainer for a website admin who is also managing domain names. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a day job as an IT/IS Manager, and I utilize Domains and Sites in that "enterprise" capacity as well.

In regard to my own personal endeavors, once I'm further along with setting up my website, I will want to use the "Web address" configuration in Google Sites (in the "Manage Site" section) to permanently associate the DNS for "jfmanning.com" with my Sites website. The reason to do this is so that when visitors are visiting my website, "jfmanning.com" will be displayed in the address bar of their web browser. It should be noted that this method requires going through a domain name ownership verification process whereby Google confirms with the Registrar that you have ownership rights to the domain name you are attempting to set up as your website address. You will also most likely need to do some configuration with your domain name's DNS CNAME record. Google Domains provides clear, step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish all this, so even if you are new to DNS configuration, you should be able to do it yourself without too much trouble.

Although the above described methods for domain name usage are essentially technical specifications that ultimately make little difference to most end users, if you have a specific domain name, then branding that Internet address is probably of relevance to you, and hence I figure this might be useful information to someone who is in the midst of setting up their own web presence.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Blogger.com or Blogspot.com -- what's the difference?

Currently working on new logos for my websites. "Blog@jfmanning.com" (top) is for my Blogger site here at https://jfmanning.blogspot.com, and "JFManning.com" pertains to my currently in development main site at https://jfmanning.com (a URL that currently redirects to my Twitter page). Publishing this otherwise pointless post also gave me a shameless excuse to link URLs, insert an image (things I used to code manually using HTML) and share as a Tweet. Still not sure if I miss the manual HTML coding or not...



However, while I'm here, I figured it would be worth mentioning that I looked into the difference between "Blogger.com" and "Blogspot.com"--since I was wondering about that. I noticed a long while back that although this is a Goggle Blogger account, it's hosted on Blogspot.com. Notably, if you enter "blogspot.com" into your web browser's address bar, it will redirect to "blogger.com".

The surprisingly logical answer to this phenomena is that Blogger.com is Google's blogging platform (i.e., essentially the application software and publishing platform); whereas Blogspot.com is the Internet hosting address. If you care about Domain names, this actually makes a lot of sense because what it does is allow a Blogger user to utilize a custom domain name (such as "whatever.com") in place of "whatever.blogspot.com". Blogspot.com is essentially where the blog data lives (Google has to provide an Internet address for it). The name of individual Blogger user accounts (and subsequently the Internet address alias, such as "whatever.com") is completely arbitrary.

It's entirely possible that the preceding technical explanation did absolutely nothing to clear this up for many people. Suffice it to say that in a nutshell, Blogspot.com is the Internet hosting service for "Blogger", and Blogger.com is the Website publishing service.

Now you might be wondering, why didn't Google just use the same domain name (i.e., blogger or blogspot) for both purposes? Technically speaking, they could have. However, this is a question for which I do not have an informed answer. My guess is that for whatever reason, Google specifically wanted to brand the "Blogger" moniker, but in regard to "Blogspot", they viewed it simply as a host address. So what this boils down to is "Blogger" gets all the marketing hype and Web publishing prestige, while "Blogspot" is stuck in Blogger's shadow, doing the actual heavy lifting and behind-the-scenes Internet server work. Funny how that works.

Seriously though, there are probably technical, web server application and DNS service considerations that makes divvying things up between two domain names more feasible from an IT/IS operational perspective.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Lucid Dream Mirror Me

7/12/17

I don’t anticipate this will be a typical feature, but after giving it some thought, the lucid dream I had last night seemed relevant, so here it is.

The dream: I’m with a group of old friends at a restaurant/bar type of establishment. I go to use the restroom (it’s a one seater). I’m standing in front of the sink staring at myself in the mirror, but I can see that my reflection’s eyes are closed. I’m fully aware I’m dreaming; however, despite knowing that I’m dreaming, it’s totally freaking me out that my eyes are closed, yet I can still see myself! How can I possibly be seeing myself if my eyes are closed!?!

The relevance?

Initially I was somewhat perplexed by this one. I’ve been interested in dream interpretation and lucid dreaming for a really long time, but beyond the explicit meaning of the dream symbolism, it was not implicitly clear what message my subconscious was trying to get across to me.

Breaking it down into the primary metaphorical elements:

  • My reflection in the mirror -- Self-perception. A metaphysical representation of me.
  • Closed eyes -- Being blinded to something. Not seeing myself clearly. 

Looking into a mirror in a dream is a relatively meaningful act. I personally put it in the same category as water related symbols. Therefore, I knew that my inner Self was trying to convey something of significance along the lines of self-perception.

But what? In what way was I not seeing myself clearly? What tangible bit of enlightenment was I missing? To answer this mystery, I imagined myself in the mirror, with my eyes closed, unable to see my “real” dream Self looking into the mirror at my own reflection. Notably, this was a lucid dream moment, so I figured that into the equation as well. The fact that the setting of the dream was in a public venue that thrives on socialization further clarified it.

I’ve recently been delving into my long neglected social media profiles. A couple of years ago I ditched my web hosting service. I intended to re-establish them on Google Sites, but never got around to it. Likewise, I had initially delved into Twitter as a self-publishing marketing platform. I built up a following of 900+ users, but then it fell by the wayside. I posted a few blog entries here on Blogger (now deleted), but that was the end of my efforts. However, despite my lack of motivation in regard to online social media outlets, I was nonetheless writing extensively.

After contemplating all this, the meaning of the dream seemed incredibly obvious--which almost always is the case once you get to the core of the message from the subconscious.

Apparently my inner Self thinks it’s relevant to remind me of the real point with this renewed effort to establish an online presence. Admittedly, I tend to find my objectivism drawn to the social media hype machine, such as funny cat videos and buzzfeed entertainment news.

The fact is, I’m not doing this for anyone other than myself. Creative writing is a hobby. I’ll put it online, and if anyone else is interested in what i publish, great! If not, well--it doesn’t matter. I have a day job as a IT/IS Manager, so it is what it is. Sorry, but I’m not going to be posting funny cat videos--or anything else that isn’t directly related to my core interests.

Thanks, Inner Self, for reminding me of the real reason I’m doing this. It’s about synchronicity--not the social media hype machine.

Cross-posting Blogger to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media profiles

Maybe setting a goal of blogging every day is overly ambitious?

Yesterday I was looking into methods for cross posting from Blogger to Facebook/Twitter/Etc. I'm so not into the whole social media thing that I rarely login to my Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. I'm employed as an IT/IS Manager, so I do have an interest in LinkedIn from a professional career perspective, but ironically that's not my primary reason for delving into Blogger.

For obvious reasons I signed up on Facebook with the idea of keeping in touch with friends and family--but I rarely login, so that objective hasn't really panned out. My primary interest in Twitter stemmed from a perception that it's a good self-publishing marketing tool. I think it does work well for that--if you already have a market and a large audience of followers. Regardless, initially I kind of enjoyed the follow you/follow me phenomena, and as a result I currently have 925 severely neglected followers. Focusing on other Twitter users with core similar interests (to mine)--such as science, computers, creative writing--is a great approach, but you have to be dedicated to keeping up with it on an ongoing basis, and I tend to lack motivation. And there's a ton of Twitter bots to wade through...

So anyway, from a technical perspective, there is probably at least 100 ways to achieve cross-posting. Among the many methods are third party social media aggregating, setting up RSS feeds, emailing to point A that forwards to points B, C & D. If you have a Blogger account, which is part of Google Apps, then it seems like it would make sense to use Google+ to cross-post to FB/Twitter/etc; however, apparently Google doesn't see it that way. So even if you associate your Blogger account with Google+, it doesn't help accomplish this. And apparently I don't want to do this anyway because then I would have to use my Google+ profile with Blogger, which the whole point of this blog is that it's my "creative writing me" online profile--not my personal e-mail account me. That may seem trivial, but it's kind of relevant to my online presence because I have multiple personalities in that regard.

Ultimately, I concluded that the most straightforward solution is to post something on Blogger, and then use the social media buttons that are appended to the post to forward to FB/Twitter/etc. Obviously this requires posting here first, and then manually clicking the "share" buttons individually. On the plus side, it makes it easy to pick and choose which social media networks I want to share with. As I see it, the only major drawback (aside from the time spent) with this approach is that for some reason Google has omitted LinkedIn from this convenience factor. No idea why. At any rate, my LinkedIn online personality (i.e., "IT/IS Manger" me) is kind of far removed from this one, so maybe that is an irrelevant issue.

Beyond that, I guess if at some point in the future I get really actively serious about this sort of thing, it appears that a social media aggregation tool is probably the most efficient and effective means by which to accomplish cross-posting.