News & Info

October, 2020


Confronting Misinformation on Social Media Platforms


In a flurry of (understandable and welcome) do-gooderism, social networking sites are finally attempting to limit the spread of misinformation on their platforms. During the final run-up to the election, we’ve seen Facebook, for example, banning content that denies or minimizes the effects of the Holocaust. (This in spite of The Zuck earlier stating that, while he found such content offensive, he did not feel that FB should be in a position of censoring its platform. Now, as antisemitism is on the rise in the US, Zuckerberg -- who is Jewish, after all -- now feels that he cannot continue to overlook the role such content has played in the growth of antisemitism, and indeed, the increasing violence associated with that misinformation.)

Note the "Q" on the tactical vest of the officer
at left. Image by White House photographer and
thus in the public domain.

Facebook has also resolved to remove all content associated with Qanon, the dishearteningly popular, loosely organized group of extremist blowhards who insist that “leftist” groups have organized against President Trump (well, that part is true, anyway -- to the extent that leftists are capable of organizing) and have formed a cabal of baby-eating (I’m not making this up) liberals who can only be stopped by the aforementioned President Trump. (Twitter has also joined in on the fun, though
not very effectively.)

Ugh.


There are so many problems with this, not the least of which is that we have created a society in which these sorts of theories have flourished in the first place. But a more immediate issue is that such belated attempts are likely to be ineffective. All Qanon has to do is “rebrand,” camouflaging its content, so that it blends in with more common conservative perspectives relating to abortion, child sex trafficking, and other issues. (And indeed, that’s exactly what the group is doing.) Limiting such misinformation thus becomes a game of whack-a-mole, but one with potentially deadly consequences.


This does not bode well for the upcoming (or any other) election.


October, 2020

Is It Time to Switch from a Standard Hard Drive to an SSD?

Thinking about adding an external drive and wondering whether to go with a traditional hard drive or switch to a solid-state drive? We can help you decide.

BY ROD SCHER

 

Image courtesy of Seagate Corporation

 

What's the difference?

Let's start by defining our terms. A standard hard drive (often abbreviated HDD) is essentially a platter that spins within an enclosure. An arm that looks and acts very much like a stylus on a record player hovers over that platter as it spins, touching the platter when it's time to read or write data. This is a fairly efficient way of saving and retrieving data, and such drives have been the mainstay of consumer data storage for many years.

However, no matter how efficient and effective, this type of mechanism is prone to glitches, mainly because the platter and arm are moving parts (the platter spins at 7,200 rpm or more) that must remain perfectly aligned to do their jobs; drop the drive—or just bump it too hard—and you may throw the entire assembly out of whack. (This is especially true given that the mechanism itself is fairly heavy; that added mass increases the likelihood of damage from an inadvertent drop or bump.) In addition, moving parts wear out, get hot, and make noise. You can see that a platter-driven traditional hard drive, though an effective piece of machinery, can fall prey to mechanical problems.

A solid-state drive, on the other hand, has no moving parts: there's nothing to wear out, nothing to become misaligned. You can bump an SSD or even knock it off of a table, and it's unlikely that you will damage the device. Consisting of flash memory mounted in a plastic or metal case, it's nowhere near as fragile as its platter-driven brethren.

How about the cost?

SSDs have always been more expensive than traditional drives. In fact, an SSD may cost you roughly three times that of a traditional drive of similar size. But let's take a look at how those costs break down.

In the mid to late 1980s if you could have purchased 1 GB of storage (which you could not), it would have cost you in the neighborhood of $28,000, given the cost of the 5MB to 20MB drives that were available at the time. That's a pretty pricey neighborhood. Today, a gigabyte of storage in a standard hard drive will run you about five cents or so: that's how much the storage cost landscape has changed over the past 30 years or so.

These days, while you can pick up a 1TB external HDD, such as the Seagate Portable, for $50 or less, a 1TB external SSD, such as Samsung's T5, will run you about $150; that's about fifteen cents per gigabyte. Not as cheap, but not bad, either. The reality is that traditional HDD prices are now so low that the cost difference between the two types becomes irrelevant in most cases; even at three times the price of a traditional hard drive, SSDs are now so affordable, especially given their other advantages, that it's hard to argue for the purchase of a traditional drive.

Advantages of SSDs

So, what are those other advantages? There are several.

First, SSDs tend to be much faster than traditional drives, mainly because rather than seeking and reading data from a spinning platter, seek time and throughput are much improved because an SSD pulls data from (and writes data to) what amounts to a memory chip. Seek time (a measure of the latency of random access to a given piece of information) for a traditional HDD can range from 10ms to 12ms or so. (An HDD's seek time will vary based on the physical location of the data on the spinning platter.) Seek time on an SSD, however, is generally less than 0.1ms because access is not dependent on the physical location of the data.

That minimal seek time, coupled with new NVMe SSD drive interfaces and upgrades in flash memory, connectivity, and form factor, have improved the SSD's already impressive read/write speeds to the point that many of today's external SSDs, when connected via the latest USB interface, can easily deliver read/write speeds in or near the 1000MB/s range. (Internal SSDs, of course, can be even faster and less expensive, given that they require no case or USB interface.)

 

Image courtesy of Western Digital

There's another important advantage to an SSD: Since they lack moving parts and a heavy platter, SSDs tend to be much smaller and lighter than standard drives; most will fit easily in a shirt pocket. Many, including Yottamaster's slick (but pricey) little HCES3 SSD and SanDisk's 1TB Extreme Portable, are small enough and light enough to incorporate a loop that can be used to attach the drive to a keychain or carabiner.

Finally, consider that an SSD is inherently much more robust than a traditional hard drive because it lacks moving parts. If a manufacturer wishes to further "ruggedize" an SSD, it's much easier for the company to create a unit that meets MIL-SPEC standards for dust- and water-proofing, as well as shock-proofing, than it would be with a traditional HDD. (There are certainly platter-driven drives that meet some MIL-SPEC standards, but they're not usually as rugged as a typical SSD, and they tend to be quite heavy and bulky.)


Image courtesy of Yottamaster


Is it time? Almost certainly.

If you're in the market for storage, whether an external add-on or an internal upgrade, it's probably time to make the switch. Absent dire financial constraints, there's almost no reason to choose a standard platter-driven hard drive over an SSD: the advantages of the SSD are simply too great, and the cost differential too low.


September, 2020

Chromebooks Come Into Their Own

In 2011, Google (working with Acer and Samsung) announced with great fanfare the release of its first Chromebook: an inexpensive laptop-format computer running Chrome OS. Google touted the machine's speed (an 8-second bootup was common), affordability (the initial releases ran from $350 to about $500, if you wanted 3G connectivity), its security, and the fact that its Internet-based operation allowed you access to your data anywhere, at any time -- assuming that you had an Internet connection. The device was positioned as something other than (read: something less than) a mainstream laptop -- it was essentially a platform that allowed interaction with the Chrome OS, which at the time meant, basically, whatever you could do through Google's Chrome browser.
The high-end Google Pixelbook Go is among the most expensive
Chromebooks, starting at $649, but it also has an excellent build
quality and is both light and powerful. Image courtesy of Google, LLC.


Most technology nerds yawned. The Chromebook seemed like "almost a computer," and reminded us of the ill-fated "Netbooks" that were being sold around that time: tiny, underpowered, and largely useless.

It wasn't useless, of course; schools in particular showed great interest, but it certainly wasn't (we thought) a machine on which one could do any "serious" work. In spite of the Chromebook's speed and affordability, sales were flat at first, and reaction to the new machine was muted.

The ASUS Chromebook Flip C4343 is a 2-in-1 laptop with
a 14" HD display. It runs about $600. Image courtesy of ASUS.

But in the intervening years, several things have happened that have boosted Chromebooks' stock.

First, while the early machines were derided because they required an internet connection in order to do anything, it turns out that, by 2020, guess what? Most of us are in fact on the Internet most of the time when we're using a computer! In addition, improvements to the machines' capabilities have improved their offline useability.

Second, viruses and other forms of malware have become a serious problem for Windows (and even Mac) users. Meanwhile, there has never been a confirmed report of a virus successfully attacking a Chromebook. Chromebooks are essentially immune to most malware.


The Acer Chromebook 314 runs a very reasonable
$285 on Amazon and has excellent ratings. Image
courtesy of Acer.


Third, Chromebooks boot up almost immediately. While a Windows user might wait minutes for his or her system to come online, a Chromebook is up and ready to work almost as quickly as you can open it up or press the Power button. It’s the closest thing to an instantaneous bootup that you'll ever see.

Fourth, consider accessibility to data: If your Chromebook is lost, stolen, or eaten by your dog, just sign in on a replacement Chromebook and all of your data, settings, and bookmarks will be right there. This is one of the reasons that Chromebooks are so popular in schools: Not only are they inexpensive to begin with, but replacing a student's Chromebook immediately gives the student (and teacher) access to all of his or her data and installed apps. This makes the Chromebook easy for students and teachers to use and administer, and -- coupled with the machines' virtual immunity to malware -- it simplifies the job of school IT departments.

Finally, Windows and Mac (but especially Windows) users have to put up with lengthy (and often unexpected) system updates; these occasionally occur at inopportune times. And failing to update can result in buggy or unsecure systems. (Then again, updating can also sometimes result in the introduction of new bugs, especially on Windows machines.) Chromebooks are updated in the background and on a regular schedule. Your machine is simply always up to date without you having to do a thing and without the user being inconvenienced.

OK, So It's Not Perfect

Of course, this does not mean that a Chromebook is the perfect computer for all users. While some of the earlier issues have been addressed by advances in software and hardware (for example, many Chromebooks can now run Android apps and can do so in separate windows, mitigating somewhat the complaint that one could only run apps in a browser), the fact is that the Chromebook is still most effective and most useful when online; a lack of connectivity can disrupt the user's workflow. (Although most modern Chromebooks allow local storage, synching up data once a connection is established.) Also, not all Android apps will run -- or run correctly -- on all Chromebooks.

Here's a screenshot showing the author's Chromebook running three applications
(Spotify, the VLC media viewer, and the Android version of Microsoft's
OneNote) simultaneously in separate windows.


And speaking of apps, if the user requires specific applications that are unavailable on a Chromebook (the desktop versions of Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop come to mind), then a Chromebook is not for you. (This is also true if you need to run specialty or home-brewed software for work or school that will run only on a Windows or Mac machine.) And while the Chromebook's gaming and graphics capabilities have improved, this is still not the machine you want if you're heavily into gaming or videography and video editing.

This Dell 3120 XDGJH Chromebook with an 11.6" display
runs about $170 or $200, for the non-touch and touchscreen
versions, respectively. Image courtesy of Dell, Inc.


The bottom line, though, is that Chromebooks are useful and affordable systems that will do the job for most people. In fact, many folks who require a Mac or Windows machine for work, school, or gaming nonetheless also purchase a Chromebook: it's light and inexpensive, and will handle most computing tasks when heavy-duty computing (or graphics-rendering) power is not necessary; just toss it in a backpack and take it with you to the coffee shop, classroom, or kitchen table.









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