Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Signs God thinks you're spending too much time on the computer

Rather than praying, cowering, beseeching, and all of that....

He resets his DeityBook 'status' to Wrathful, and very soon there's a whole lot of smitin' goin' on!

Consider - I am reaching a crisis point in my China Exit Strategy (ha!), and really needed to get super-busy at the start of this week... chasing up missing payments from various employers, trying to distill some coherent plan from the almost entirely inconsistent advice I've been getting from a string of different 'visa agents' (and certain unhelpfully 'helpful' friends!), trying to book some affordable flights to the UK and the US, getting hold of a big chunk of foreign currency, and finalising a sub-let on my apartment for part of the summer.

So, it was most unfortunate that I suddenly came down with 'flu from hell over the weekend, a wretched sore throat and fever, utterly debilitating. And then my phone got cut off unexpectedly quickly (it's usually OK to let the bill drift until at least the middle of the month, but the phone company is wildly erratic in its disconnection policy), which was a bit inconvenient for chasing up visa agents (some of these guys keep you on hold for 20 or 30 minutes at a time - which destroys battery and credit on a mobile phone). My mobility was further restricted when I managed to dislocate the dodgy cartilage in my right knee yesterday evening, and my usual 'prayer mat technique' for fixing it wasn't working (it had come out on the inside of the knee rather than at the front, and it's rather difficult to achieve full extension of the knee joint sideways - not without doing horrible things to your cruciate ligaments, anyway); I managed to sort it out eventually, but that was 40 or 50 minutes of extreme anxiety I could have done without. Then, when I managed to drag myself down to the Post Office to make amends for my telephonic delinquency this afternoon (the nearest one is two miles away, but it's so much nicer an experience than trying to pay in a bank), I found that their computer network was down. I was forced to go to the bank after all - and regular readers may have some idea of how bad that can be. I managed to get the job done in only about 20 minutes (which is astonishingly quick for a Chinese bank; mind you, there were only two people being served ahead of me...).

But then, when I got back home, finally ready to take on the massed hordes of visa fixers and travel agents and whatever... my computer CRASHED.

What? No, of course I'm not backed-up! Years of relatively trouble-free computer usage have made me complacent, I know. The last time I did a full back-up of any of my computers, I was still having to use floppy disks - and it ended up requiring half a dozen of the things, and taking absolutely hours. I gather it might be possible to get everything on two or three DVDs now - but it's still a bit of a hassle.

Yes, yes, I'm on it. I just don't have any free disks here right now. I am going to have to leave my computer switched on until I can get out to buy some tomorrow.

Oh, no - the CRASH was not a permanent crash. After the third or fourth restart, and much praying and cussing, and just going away and leaving the dratted machine alone for an hour to try to catch it by surprise... it eventually relented, and stopped hiding all my data from me.

But it had been a VERY SCARY experience. For a while, everything that I've ever downloaded or stored on this computer had disappeared - no photos, no music, no documents; not even a desktop folder with my name on it (although my 'Froog' administrator account was still in place, and GoogleChrome was the only non-preinstalled program still displaying on the desktop and in the Programs list [odd, because it is one of the more recent programs I've downloaded; stuff like Skype that I put on way back when I first bought the thing had GONE]).

A lot of this stuff, I do kind of have 'backed up'. A lot of it has been transferred over from former laptops, which are still just about alive. A lot of the work-related stuff I've taken the precaution of BCc-ing to myself on e-mail. But a lot of the most valuable stuff - training materials and research notes and articles that I've compiled over the past two or three years (stuff that is 'valuable' to me in terms of the time and effort and pride that I invested in creating it, rather than its possible financial worth) - well, it was looking as though that was ALL GONE. Not a happy feeling.

HOW do computers do this to us? Like mischievous amateur conjurors terrorising their family and friends in the parlour after dinner, they make you think that your most valued possessions have vanished into thin air and can never be restored. But eventually, after far, far, far too long, the lost items reappear again. "Only kidding!" they cry, with a smug grin.

And you just want to beat their head in with a spade and bury them in the back yard, don't you?

I am hoping that my new most regular commenter, John, who seems to be a bit of an IT whizz, might be able to chip in with some diagnosis or encouragement on this harrowing episode. In fact, I am inclined to blame him slightly. He had recently given me a tip about a crafty way to revert to the 'old look' on Yahoo Mail (changed a few months ago to something that is, to my mind, uglier, harder to navigate, and - at least on my browser, with my connection speeds - much slower and less stable than its no-frills predecessor). He told me that the new template wouldn't work on smaller screen resolutions, so if you put your display settings back down to 800 x 600 pixcels (and didn't that remind me uncomfortably of playing Doom on an ancient secondhand desktop while I was at law school, many, many, many years ago!!), Yahoo relunctantly gives you the option to switch back. Oh joy, oh bliss!

But not for long. After implementing the template selection on all of my various Yahoo accounts, I went back into my Control Panel to return my screen settings to normal. And something wasn't quite right. The desktop wallpaper didn't look as crisp as it had (much better than 800 x 600, but still not that great). And my desktop icons had all been arbitrarily rearranged in the upper half rather than the left side of the screen (and some of them, I think, had disappeared altogether; I do have rather a lot - I find it a lot easier to go straight to a desktop shortcut that to have to go through pop-up menus). 

So, I thought, something is being a bit glitchy here. Maybe I need to Restart to fully restore my old Display settings. 

And that's when God - or the Devil - started messing with me!


Froog said...

Even when my computer came back from its mysterious walkabout, there was still a worrying trace of instability. For a moment, all of my desktop icons were back in their rightful place, but in the matter of a second or so, about half of them suddenly flickered and disappeared.


Froog said...

Another query for you, John, when you next stop by.

I've just discovered I have a "64-bit" version of IE9.

I have no idea where this came from, or how it differs from the 'standard' version. My initial impression is that it seems to be a little better/faster.

Can you explain? Thanks.

Froog said...

My experience with the vanishing desktop icons reminded me uncomfortably of this story by Arthur C. Clarke.

Froog said...

Ha! I just found another story of the same name - that John and JES might like.

JES said...

That's a pretty funny story (the one at 365tomorrows.com). Thanks for the pointer to it!

John's probably going to provide you with more info, but as I understand the 64-bit thing then, yes, it will generally be faster. (It also means you've got a fairly recent computer; it's the computer itself which is 64-bit-based, and the software is built to take advantage of it. We're about to change over all the PCs at work from 32- to 64-bit systems, which will also require us to replace a lot of software. Funny how that works...)

Froog said...

Thanks, JES. Glad you liked it.

It looks as though there might be quite a lot of interesting stories on that site.

Froog said...

My anxiety about higher bit numbers in software and such (doubtless conditioned by a decade of wretched Internet connections in China) is that if it's a more sophisticated program trying to run on an old school computer (and in conjunction with a crappy Net connection), it will make things worse. But if it's just designed to work better with a more advanced system without being fussily more complex, and my system is of an appropriate level - then I'm there!

It's just that I've got so used to the experience of "This 'upgrade' is just going to slow things down even more."

John said...

Oh my, I go on hiatus for a few days and come back to this crisis! And no I haven't been hiding away in guilt or anything although the timing couldn't be more coincidental I agree! And to think I was going to catch up on the posts I've missed and suggests some answers back in the Titanic article; I suddenly feel very overworked! ;-)
Righto, let's get this sorted out first:
1) The first thing to mention is that the best of us all get sudden panics when using Windows. I've had similar experiences to how you described it Froog over the years and to be frank I don't know enough to explain them. This isn't down to a lack of experience, far from it; it's because I'm not a Microsoft employee or a professional software engineer, just someone who has used computers a lot in his life. In fact I'm not sure knowing a machine inside out and having 7 degrees in the subject would even help. As you said Froog, the problem just mysteriously went away as if it never happened and that's how it usually is for me too. Usually when it happens I immediately switch the power off (at the mains) in abject terror, go away for a bit to pray to the electronic gods and when I come back it's magically fixed itself. At least Windows can do this but I sure wish it wouldn't have such a scary habit at all.
2) Backups- yes, they're the most frustrating thing about computing. For everyone, bottom to top. The trick is to keep the whole thing organised. Actually in your case Froog I would suggest a more immediate approach. I don't know if your computer is about to experience another blip but I recommend you do the most basic thing and buy a memory stick (USB pen drive, whatever you prefer to call them) and copy anything you think is important. Normally I wouldn't suggest using such a medium or such a procedure but seeing as you haven't done so since 1981 and Lord knows what state your machine is in this is paramount to a crisis. Prices are quite reasonable for a fairly large drive (you don't need to backup everything, just your own files) and they're easy to use; just don't buy a Chinese brand for obvious reasons. We'll get onto proper backup technique if you like once we've all caught up a bit. What about myself you may be asking? I'm not too bad but I'm severely overdue although I am mostly organised and ready to go, it's just such a chore...
3) As for your screen resolution- I did warn you about the icons but the reason it doesn't look as good as it used to is simply because you haven't gone back to the same settings you had before. The trick, if you don't know the native resolution of your monitor, is to keep going up gradually until everything is on screen. If you go up one more and you have to scroll around to see everything or simply the screen goes black then you've gone too far. If it goes black don't panic but wait a bit and it'll revert to what it was before. I am assuming you have an LCD screen, if not then more fiddling might be in order (let me know). You might also need to check the colour depth, put that as high as it will go too for best results. Lastly, lament the loss of the placement of your icons and move on, preferably to where you never arrange your icons manually ever again. In Windows they never stay where you want them anyway so just right click on the desktop and "Arrange Icons By..." as you want them.

John said...

4) If you have the 64-bit version of IE sitting there chances are you can use it. For some reason Windows is perfectly happy with you having both 32 and 64-bit applications although from a theoretical view this makes no sense. A lot of computers are 64-bit these days (this computer is old but has the first 64-bit processor ever made actually); most computers have 64-bit operating systems too. If you really want to check you can view your computer's properties (there are a few ways to do this, it's not hard) but I expect that you do. Even though I have a 64-bit CPU in my machine I can't run 64-bit Windows applications because I only have a 32-bit Windows XP licence (told you it was old). I can use 64-bit Linux though and everything is automatically 64-bit there. As for you Froog, try to use 64-bit where it's available but as you can see 32-bit works fine, you just won't be getting the full potential you could be as Jess mentioned quite rightly.
Phew, glad that's over; can we get back to a bit of normality now? Things about China and such although I expect you've already left by the time I get around to reading the rest of your articles; sorry if this information is already irrelevant!

Froog said...

Ah, there you are - we'd been getting worried.

Adjusting the display settings in Vista is deceptively straightforward: there's just a min-max slider. I have in the past, I think, experimented with all points in the range, and found them all to work fine, but I usually go with the 'max' setting.

I knew the icon display would get jumbled when I went down to the 800 x 600 view; what I'm talking about is that they remained semi-jumbled (and lost a fair few into the ether) when I attempted to revert to the previous setting. It wasn't at all clear what what wrong with the display subsequently: it was supposed to be back at the max setting (1440 by 900), but it was looking slightly odd - not a very low resolution, but not quite fully sharp somehow.

Many, many weird things going on with that.

John said...

Oh, perhaps you need to press the auto-adjust button on your screen itself, I forgot to mention that. As for your icons, some may have wandered off but they'll all come back if you organise them as I described.