Not The Droid I’m Looking For

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My Chromebook had an OS upgrade last night, and when it rebooted it tooks pains to tell me that I can now install Android apps on it. In fact, it went ahead and installed a couple for me. Great! I thought, I can run my favourite Android apps. Then I thought again. This morning I thought about it some more. Then I flipped the switch to disable it.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Android. I have an Android phone and an Android tablet, and they’re terrific.

But the thing is this: all the apps I really need on the Chromebook are already there. And the only Android apps that I could possibly want would only duplicate Chrome apps I already have. For example I don’t need the Google+ Android app because I already have the Chrome app for that. The same goes for the Google productivity apps (Docs, Sheets. etc.), Netflix, Twitter, and so on.

And then there’s the screen-size question. Many Android apps are designed to run on small, portrait-layout screens as found on phones and tablets; I read that many just don’t scale well to a full-size (well, laptop-size, at least) landscape-layout screen.

So I switched it off. I really don’t need another Android platform, at least not right now. If it turns out that there’s an app I really need on the Chromebook, and there’s only an Android version of that app, I’ll take another look. But right now I just don’t have a use for it.

Got Me A Chromebook

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I have to take a step back from the political things for a bit. The worries of having a mentally defective criminal in the White House get to prey on your mind after a bit. Not healthy to dwell too much on it. So, in a break from that nightmare . . .

I’d been wondering for a while whether it would be a good idea to get a Chromebook. After all, probably ninety percent of the things I do on my laptop are done with the browser; that includes using Google Docs, Hangouts, and the other Google tools, as well as Twitter, checking email, blogging, reading the news, and so on. Very few things rely on installed software, and probably the most important thing I have for that is MS Word — and even then, I only really need that for editing, since it’s what my publisher uses. I can write new stuff in Google Docs and save it in Word format anyway, so that’s not a problem.

A few days ago I saw that my local Wal-Mart had Acer 15″ Chromebooks for $179 ($20 off the regular price) and I decided to treat myself.

I love it already. It’s thinner and lighter than my laptop. It boots in seconds (ready to use in ten seconds or less — unlike Windows, ChromeOS is built on a Linux kernel and so isn’t bogged down with a metric buttload of background crap I don’t need); the battery lasts something like twelve hours, even when I’m binge-watching Netflix; I can sign into all my Google accounts (I have four, for various purposes) and switch between them instantly. All my installed Chrome apps and extensions are there, and they all work great (faster than on my Windows laptop, in fact, but then the laptop is showing its age these days). And thanks to Chrome Remote Desktop, I can, if I want, control my laptop from the Chromebook — so if I need to edit using MS Word I can do that. (Well, at least in theory — I set it up, and it works, but I didn’t try firing Word up yet.)

Downsides? Well, all your stuff is in the cloud, so you need an internet connection. Having said that, it keeps local copies of Google Docs, Sheets, and so on — so you can still work on them if you don’t have wi-fi, and it’ll sync up when it can connect. Is not having a big hard drive a downside? The machine has a 16Gb flash memory that it uses instead — that’s part of the reason the battery lasts as long as it does — but so far I haven’t really used any of it, and I don’t know that I’d need more. So one possible downside is that I could eventually use all that up, and I don’t think there’s a way to add more memory. I’ll see how that goes.

All in all, I’m very pleased with it. I can do just about anything I’d use the laptop for, but thanks to the (slightly) smaller size, lighter weight, and significantly longer battery life, it’s a hell of a lot more convenient. In fact, I’m writing this on the Chromebook, in the bedroom — which is waaay more comfortable than dragging the laptop through.

Time for (late) breakfast. Until next time . . .

More Human Than Human

THIS whole Tay thing got me thinking.

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What if things had gone a bit further before Microsoft pulled the plug? I mean, what if Tay had had a little more time to go from being an offensive racist shitbot, to actually managing to break the law? What I mean is: What if “she” had said something that, had it been spouted forth from a living, mouth-breathing human, would have been deemed hate-speech? What if she’d actually been manipulated into making slanderous attacks against an individual?

Right there is a question: could an AI tweetbot actually do something illegal? It’s not human, after all, so is it subject to human laws?

Ok, ok. It’s not that important, I hear you say. Just a bit of fun, or one of those wrinkles that’s bound to come up when you’re screwing around at the bleeding edge of technology.

But, I happen to think it is important, and it’ll get to be more important as time goes on. See, one of the things I picked up while reading about this whole business is that some companies are already using AI bots hooked up to social media, for marketing purposes. Whatever that means. I guess they watch Twitter for mentions of their brand or products or maybe their competitors’ brands and products, and then jump into the conversation with a sales pitch. And I imagine that the AIs involved are probably a bit limited as to what they’ll talk about, since their artificial worlds revolve around their specific brands and products.

But as time goes on, the AIs will get better at pretending to be human. I see a day coming—sooner than most of us would think, I’m betting—when there’ll be AIs engaging with real people on social media, and we won’t be able to tell that they’re robots. (Here’s a question: how many people, possibly seeing some of Tay’s tweets but not knowing what Tay is, thought Tay was flesh and blood?) So, what happens then, when one of these bots gets a bit out of whack on a Friday afternoon, and gets fooled into making verbal attacks against some minority group? And what happens if that leads to some brain-deficient group taking the AI’s crap and turning it into a call to action? What happens if someone gets hurt because of it?

Here’s another question: What happens if someone takes an off-the-shelf AI and deliberately sets it up with an agenda, to create a racist/homophobic/misogynist/anti-minority douchebot? (And yes, I really think off-the-shelf AIs are coming, just like the generic game engines that some assholes have used to create offensive games pushing neo-Fascist messages. Remember those?)

It’s a bit like someone letting their dog off the leash in a crowd; the dog gets confused, and bites someone. The owner gets the blame, gets fined, and maybe the dog is destroyed.

And that last example is like someone deliberately letting a zombie loose in a crowd, with the intention of turning some of that crowd into more zombies.

OH MY GOD I JUST LINKED AI TWEETBOTS TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE.

I think that’s enough for a Sunday morning.

Happy Easter.

Have a nice day.

Until next time, gentle reader . . .

Tech Problems, Health Problems, and Writing

First came the technology problems…

THOSE began when the fan on my laptop—which was already making groaning noises from time to time—decided to start groaning constantly. Now, I don’t have a problem taking computers to bits. It’s part of my job, really. But taking a laptop apart is not the same as dismantling a desktop system, and not something I’d do lightly. In this case, though, I didn’t have a lot of choice. Anyway, the thing’s way past warranty. So I made sure everything important was backed up (thank you, Google Drive) then grabbed tools and bit the bullet.

One thing I learned: there is a federal law requiring that at least half of the mass of all laptops must be accounted for by screws. I swear, I’ve never seen so many screws come out of a single device. Keeping them all organised so you know where to put them back is a job in itself.

There’s another law that says getting to the fan—one of the few moving parts in any laptop, and therefore one of the most likely to require cleaning and eventual replacement—must entail dismantling the entire laptop. Sure enough, to get to the fan on my laptop, you have to remove the bottom cover, then the case, and take out the hard disk drive and the DVD drive on the way. Then you turn it over and take the keyboard off. Then you unscrew the plate under that, and carefully remove three tiny, self-destructing connectors (seriously—the one that holds the ribbon cable from the keyboard sprang apart and it was pure luck I found the important bit of it where it landed on the corner of my desk). Then you can lift that plate away. Et voila, you can get to the fan. Easy. (In case you think I’m kidding, you can see the video I used for reference here.)

Using a pair of tweezers and a can of compressed air spray I removed a huge wad of fluff and hair from the fan (Questions: How did that much muck get past the filter? I think the truth is, the filter’s there to stop that crap escaping). Then I put it all back together again, crossed my fingers and switched it on. And found that the fan was now making a much cleaner sounding groaning noise. So I guess that’s an improvement, right?

Sigh… I guess the fan itself is just plum tuckered out, so now I’ve ordered what I hope is the right replacement fan, and when that gets here I’ll take the laptop apart again to put that in. Here’s hoping I can manage that without destroying the thing. It’s still a damned good laptop and I’d be sorry to see its end.

In the meantime, since I HAVE TO WRITE and I can’t do that with a fan that (1) sounds like a coffee grinder powered by an electric drill and (2) could go tits-up at any moment, causing the CPU to turn into a white-hot blob of useless, I bit the bullet and bought a cheap laptop just to write on. It’s brand new and my old laptop outperforms it. Sad. Also, Windows 8.1 Update sure looks a lot like Windows 7, apart from the Start menu. I haven’t figured out what’s supposed to be different about it. Maybe that’s just me.

[UPDATE: The new fan arrived yesterday (Saturday) and so I took the laptop to bits again. And it turned out the new fan wasn’t the right one, and there was a great wailing and the gnashing of teeth. However, number-two-son came by the house yesterday evening, listened to the tale of woe, and promptly grabbed the laptop and the tools. He then proceeded to fix the old fan by tearing its skin off and ripping its guts out, giving them a quick clean and lube, and putting it all back together again—something I would have been very nervous about trying myself. The laptop is now back up and running, and the fan is like it was the day I bought the laptop three years ago. As for that brand new laptop, it’s going back to the store. Not because I don’t need it any more (I can always use a second laptop), but because it’s so loaded up with OEM junk software that it’s just crippled—HP’s unnecessary extra update software, and the worst possible choice of bloated, inefficient, intrusive antivirus they could have made, and goodness knows what else. I’d be typing along, then suddenly notice the last couple of words I typed hadn’t appeared on the screen and the mouse had stopped working. Then a couple of seconds later it would free up and carry on as if nothing was up. For a machine with a quad-core processor clocked at around 2.5GHz, that’s just wrong. Anyway, the point of this update is everything is back to normal and all is right with the world.]

Second technology problem: our DVD player went TU on us the same day. It was a five-disk changer, which is really, really nice because you’re not having to get up all the time to switch disks. So of course, when I went to the store to see about a replacement, I found that Sony doesn’t make multi-disk units any more. No-one does, apparently. Not only that, but the plugs on the “older” (i.e. more than six weeks old) speakers won’t fit any “modern” DVD player. (Standardization, anyone?) So I had to buy a one-disk player with a whole new set of speakers, even though there’s nothing wrong with the old speakers. Sony, you wacky bunch of fun guys… please look up the words “standards” and “obsolescence”, and maybe “wasteful” when designing your gear.

Then came the health problems…

SINUS infection, fever, sore throat, headache. Whatever it is, it’s knocked me flat on my back pretty much all week. Tuesday, I was going to take the afternoon off sick. It didn’t happen because of an important system deployment happening Tuesday night. That ended up being a twelve-hour day. Wednesday, I decided to take the whole day off sick. That didn’t happen, either, because of problems that came up stemming from the previous night’s deployment. Thursday, at least, I was able to take the afternoon off. Today (Friday) I’ve been feeling somewhat better—the fever appears to be gone, the sore throat is now just hoarse, and I seem to have a little bit more energy. I think I’m on the mend.

…But I’ve been able to write, at least

I’VE been working on Smoke & Mirrors, editing what was written already. And just a little while ago I hit a milestone: I finished editing the last of those written scenes. Starting very soon—probably tomorrow—I begin writing actual new content. Here’s a few stats:

Scenes written and edited: 89

Scenes total: 130

Words written so far: about 60,000

Estimated final word count: about 90,000

I’ll see about providing regular updates with progress, right here, every week if I can manage it.

Until next time, gentle reader . . .