Monday, November 28, 2016

Free Software (and Where To Find Them)

I'm actually surprised I've never addressed this in my blog.  Today I'm going to show you the world of free software.  If it's one thing you learn running IT without a budget it's that sometimes you gotta work extra hard with the tools that are available even though the money grubbers in Accounting won't drop a little spare change for nicer (and usually easier to use) software.  Let's get started on the list.

1.  Don't have Microsoft Office?  Try OpenOffice!

Microsoft Office is a lot cheaper these days than it used to be, but the full suite can still cost you up to $200.  Microsoft Office is the gold standard when it comes to office productivity but you'll probably never need all the bells and whistles that come with it.  Enter OpenOffice.  It does pretty much everything that MS Office does and costs you nothing.

OpenOffice isn't the only free alternative.  If you're feeling inclined, check out LibreOffice.  Also free; also does everything that MS Office does.

Oh, I should mention that both suites have downloads available for MacOS and Linux as well.

2.  Computer didn't come with DVD software?  Get VLC Media Player!

This one is a biggie because Microsoft killed native DVD playing in their Media Player in Windows 10.  Who needs it?!  VLC plays everything, runs on all platforms and is completely free!

3.  Need Photoshop? Try GIMP!

No, not that guy in black leather from Pulp Fiction.  GIMP is a free Image Manipulator.  It takes some getting used to.  It's not as simple to use as Photoshop but it can be just as powerful, especially with all the open source scripts and plugins available.

If you want something a bit lighter, try Paint.NET.  Unfortunately unlike GIMP, it's only available for Windows.

4.  No Adobe Acrobat?  Give pdf995 a shot!

Full disclaimer: There's really no more powerful PDF suite than Acrobat.  Seriously, Adobe INVENTED the portable document format.  You can get pretty close with Pdf995.  It's actually a suite of 3 separate programs but the bulk of the work is done in PdfEdit995. The one drawback: no in-file text editing.  That's a money feature.

5.  Not feeling Internet Explorer or the new Edge Browser?  You've got options!

There's a ton of them available and a quick search for "free web browser" will present them but I'm going to focus on just two here. Each browser boasts its own set of pluses as opposed to the native browser.

Mozilla Firefox is up first.  It's barebones with lots of plugin capability.  Second would be Google Chrome.  It's lightweight and features tight integration with online Google apps.  Try 'em both and see which one you like.

6.  Don't want to shell out for McAffee or Norton?  You've got options there too!

Yep, there are a bunch of choices here too.  More than I'd care to go over all at once.  You can get a pretty good list of them here.

7.  Have you seen how much QuickBooks costs?  Try PostBooks.

I'm wading in some uncharted territory here.  Accounting is not in my wheelhouse at all.  I do, however, know that QuickBooks does NOT come cheap.  Try this free alternative for your books.

8.  No WinZip or WinRAR?  Use 7zip!

It's not surprising that the you don't really need to have compression programs installed, but it's nice to have options.  Plus you never know when you're going to run across that one program that uses a compression algorithm you've never seen before (there was a time I didn't know what the .rar extension meant).

9. Project to small to warrant buying a full fledged audio editor?  Check out Audacity!

Whether it's editing out blips in mp3 files or recording audio directly from the sound card, Audacity gets it done.  I've used this for a variety of audio projects and it sure beats paying $500+ for major sound editors.  Ever wondered what the reverse audio in certain songs say?  There's even a preset to reverse audio.

Hope you enjoyed my list.  What free and open source programs do you prefer?  I'm sure I missed a ton on my list.  Tell me what you think in the comments.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Fall 2016: The Wishlist

Fall TV is ready to get started soon so I just wanted to go over a few things I'm hoping to happen this season.

...before I do though I realize I haven't written anything in a while.  Sorry guys, lotta stuff in the way these days.  Unfortunately since I'm not as connected to the IT game as I used to be I find very little material to actually write about.  I'm working on that though. Let's get started.

Oh, one more thing:  There are A LOT of new shows coming this season and not all of them are even premiering in the fall.  For a full list follow this link.

1.  The Tick

Yep, there is totally a Tick reboot out there.  Only the pilot is available though and by the looks of it it's gonna get picked up since it's vastly outscoring the other two pilots.

Of course this means I'll become an Amazon Prime subscriber.  Yes in addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Now I'll be adding yet another streaming service to my roster.  But hey, at least Amazon Prime has additional benefits.

2. Luke Cage

Speaking of streaming services, I can't even tell you how excited I am for Marvel's Luke Cage.  We got a taste of the character in Marvel Jessica Jones but while he's integral to her character he wasn't really to resolve her storyline.

3.  Designated Survivor

I'm about to piss off a lot of people here but I've never seen 24.  I heard it was good; great even.  I just never got into it like at all.  I am looking forward to the story for Designated Survivor though.  Keifer Sutherland is place into the role of a low ranking Cabinet member who becomes POTUS when everyone rank above him is killed when the Capitol explodes.  ABC sure does love presidential dramas.

4.  Powerless

I feel the need to kinda explain myself on this one.  I'm not watching for Vanessa Hudgins.  I'm watching for Alan Tudyk and Danny Pudi.  Oh and I'm also watching because this is based on a DC comic book (I know.  They did Constantine dirty.  By all rights they should never haven another DC show ever).  What I'm not certain of though is if this takes place in the DC Cinematic Universe, the Arrowverse or is doing it's own thing kinda like how Supergirl was doing before she got connected to the Arrowverse.  Either way, I'll be watching.

5. CBS stops messing around and finally joins forces with Hulu

Haha!  Didn't see that coming did ya?  My biggest wish is that CBS will abandon their streaming service and hook up with Hulu.  Alas, I don't think that's happening.  Last season the only CBS show I was watching was Supergirl.  Not a problem this season.  CBS does have an ace in the hole though.  They've got a Star Trek series and they're planning to make it available exclusively on their streaming services.  Hmm, another $6 a month?  That pilot better be PHENOMENAL.

It seems like a short list, but I'm a simple guy with simple needs.  Plus I'm looking forward to all my favorite shows that made the cut last season so when you add the 4 more shows it's still a lot of TV.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Windows 10 WTF?!

I'm here to tell you the only thing really great about Windows 10 is Ninja Cat.
Seriously, just look at that majestic bastard!
Having been forced to use it for going on about 4 or 5 months, it pales in comparison to Windows 7.  See, it used to be that every other version of Windows was The One.  Windows 95: Perfect.  Windows 98: Crap.  Windows 2000: Beautiful!  Windows ME: Who phoned in THIS turd?  Windows XP: We just can't quit it.  Like really, we can't.  Windows Vista: THIS is what you follow XP with?  Windows 7: Yes, all the good stuff from Vista with all the crap cut out!  Windows 8:  Tablets?  You think the future of a DESKTOP OS is in TABLETS?!

This is why I had such high hopes for Windows 10.  Historically, Windows 10 was supposed to be AWESOME.  Spoiler alert: It isn't.  In fact, it's so horrendous I can give you 10 reasons why you should just stick with Windows 7.

1.  It's bloated

Believe it or not, Windows 7 and Windows 10 actually have the same system requirements.  Actually using it though you pick up on just how poorly Windows 10 performs by comparison.  The biggest change I had to make in my routine was switching browsers.  For the record, the Edge browser is not poised to take the browser crown.  It barely works properly.  I used to be an avid Mozilla Firefox user.  It worked great on 7 but on 10 it lagged horribly.  I was forced to switch to Chrome.  Some will argue that I should have switched a long time ago but hey old habits die hard and I still prefer Firefox.  Even Chrome starts to suffer once you open more that 3 tabs.

2.  They shuffled their menus again

Every version of Windows presents a new version of Peek-A-Boo with where they put stuff.  It takes a while to figure out where everything is but with Windows 10 they went to new depths to hide stuff.  The one item I used the most is now the hardest thing to get to: Control Panel.  The Options menu item on the new version of the Task Bar doesn't lead to it.  It's not listed anywhere on the Apps menu. In fact, the one method I've tried that gets me there more often than not is...

3.  The Search Bar works when it wants to

The Search Bar is the easiest way to find all the stuff Microsoft has stashed in the back but it only works half of the time.  Also, they designed it to be both a system search and a web search.  But WHY?!?  If I want to search the web I know where the browser is dammit!  Sometimes I attempt to use the Search Bar and it develops a hiccup where it won't search for anything.

4.  The Windows Store is STILL crap

It didn't work properly on Windows 8 and it doesn't work properly on 10.  Besides, apps are for tablets.  On a desktop they're fluff.

5.  Windows 10 often registers phantom movements

One quirk that really irritates me is that Edge will often spontaneously close.  It's not a crash, it closes.  (Keep in mind I have to use Edge because that's the only way I can work with the database I use on a daily basis).  I know it closes because I found a way around it.  I just open two tabs and when Edge gets the kill order I get notified if I want to close all tabs.  This is just one quirk though. Several programs don't play nice with 10 and that includes Office.  Like that one time I had a document irreversibly squash all my images because I tried to put a caption on one.  I had to ditch the version I was working on and go to a backup.  Another time it started rapidly shifting between two programs for no reason.

6.  It essentially tricks you into an upgrade

The nag screens, the notices, and that damn Task Bar icon that won't go away no matter how many times I say no.  My personal laptop is still running Windows 7 and I aim to keep it that way but Windows 10 is very aggressive.  If anyone finds a way to make that thing go away for good clue me in.

7.  DVD playback is gone

Once natively supported you're going to have to install a third party program to play DVDs now.  I recommend VLC for DVDs.

8. Privacy

The first time I installed Windows 10, the first thing I noticed was my pc cam was on.  I started looking for the cam settings and fiddling with them but it never turned off.  No option I messed with turned it off so I just unplugged it.  Granted it was an old Logitech cam but it was enough to make me nervous about what else is magically turned on by default. Heck, they even changed their update distribution to include peer-to-peer and it's turned on in Windows 10 by default.

9.  It comes with a rollback countdown

Microsoft really really REALLY wants you to try Windows 10 so if you were tricked into upgrading you still have an out.  You have 30 days to roll it back to whatever you upgraded from.  It is possible to do it after the 30 day limit but the process is more difficult.

10.  The free upgrade doesn't stay free

Okay, I admit this point is kinda nit picky considering than I'm bashing Windows 10 but you have to face the fact that this is the future of the Windows OS.  At this point you either get on board or cling to your dearly held previous version.  The problem with holding on to old operating systems is that a) support for software and hardware on older operating systems wanes and eventually ends and b) the older an operating system is the less secure it gets...especially if you're connected to the Internet.

The point is that at some point you'll have no choice but to upgrade.  Unfortunately, Microsoft is only giving  you a year to make your decision and the free update offer goes bye-bye in July.  Windows 10 does indeed suck, but at least it didn't cost you anything.

Personally, I'm sticking with Windows 7 as long as I can.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Problem With Technology in Government

I'm off to a great start in the new year.  Already two posts about technology and government.  This one strikes close to home though.  I started this blog after being re-positioned at my workplace (by now you can guess it's for a government agency).  It was mostly so I could feel connected to technology in a fun way since technology wasn't necessarily part of my daily routine anymore.  I learned a lot in my 5 years as head of a mostly solo operation.  Sure I got help eventually but I'll cover that in the rest of my post.

Here's what you need to REALLY know about technology in government.  Imagine a town where everyone rides horses.  Then you come along with a bicycle and everyone looks at you like you're insane.  Then you show them what your bicycle can do.  They marvel at it, say it's awesome and think more people should use them.  When they say "more people" though, they're not talking about themselves.  They'd actually only be into accepting the bicycle if you were to give them a ride rickshaw-style.  Technology is just like that in a government agency:  First you're crazy for bringing it, then you have to show people why you're not, then you have to convince them to actually use it.  Want an example?  One of the first things I had to convince my superiors of was the need for everyone in the department to have an email address.  Not only that but to make sure it was managed in-house and but also everyone would use the same domain (so instead of or, it would be  I had to fight tooth and nail for this at the time.  You know what one of the reasons was I go so much push back on it?  Well...

1.  Government hates accountability

One of the great things about information technology is the ability to keep track of most anything.  That includes what people say and what people do.  To this day one of my favorite tricks is forwarding things that people have emailed to me as proof that they said something.  Same thing goes with databases.  As long as a database is secure it keeps track of who last messed with something.

This is a great thing.  Managers HATE it.  You find that most people who have been placed in leadership roles through government have no idea what it really means to lead.  Sorry, but being in charge IS NOT the same as leading.  So it's a common mindset of management to have people "do as I say, not as I do".  Problem is, do as I say can change with a whim.  Technology don't play that.  Technology demands that you put what you want people to do in writing and stick to it.  Government likes the idea of accountability.  It likes to tell people they're all about accountability.  But in reality that goes right out the window when it comes to personal accountability.

2.  Managers don't know what they want from IT...and are unapologetic about it.

Watch this short sketch.  Trust me, it's worth it.

Believe it or not, I've sat in meetings just like this and they've all ended exactly as it does in the sketch.

For a long time I thought that I was the crazy person for not getting "it".  Then I finally figured out that these meetings were solely for the purpose of everyone in attendance to claim that they offered "input".  From what I hear this happens in the private sector as well, the difference is that in government people will knowingly waste your time and don't care.  Wasting IT's time in the private sector can cost the company money.  This stems from a larger problem though...

3.  Government has no idea what IT should be doing

I remember my first year managing IT.  I ran through 3 bosses.  One didn't really care what I did, but the 2 others wanted to have serious conversations about what I do.  The problem was they wanted me to be specific as in account for every moment of every day.  It was fun trying to explain to them to that running IT was a sort of controlled madness akin to waiting in a restaurant.  I described what I do as "aligning technology with business needs" for the short version.  Then I'd have to expand and go into taking help desk requests, network management and maintenance, server backups, evaluating technology purchases, installing government issued software, testing bad connections, networking areas of the office that weren't, yadda yadda yadda.  All this was just one location.  We have offices on all three islands PLUS satellite offices.  I spent years begging for additional personnel for my unit but as quickly as I got them they all went on to bigger better things and ultimately I got shafted when our commissioner resigned and we got a new one.  This brings me to my next point...

4.  Politics

If you want to ruin any concept, just inject politics into it.  We set a very terrible precedent of ejecting people who are doing the job for purely political reasons.  Finding science and technology people is already difficult especially in the Virgin Islands.  Let's face it, there are some positions you absolutely NEED to have qualified people in for things to run effectively.  The way things currently work, Dr. The-Governor's-Brother can keep his job even though most of his patients die.  The mentality of how politics work out in the Information Technology realm though is way more sinister.  People get into positions of power and will fill an IT Specialist vacancy with someone "who's really good at using an iPad" or "knows how to use email".  Sure we have a whole division that handles government personnel but with the power of politics that process can be easily sidestepped.  Next thing you know you end up with an IT Manager that has no education or experience with Information Technology...but hey, he knew the right people and he needed a paycheck.

Now that I finished my list I should add a caveat that I'm mainly referring to local government.  That's all my experience entails.  These days I use my extensive IT experience to manage data.  It's simple,boring and at times repetitive.  Would I like to work in an IT shop again?  I think yes.  Would I like to do it again for government?  I think not.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Will The Real ID Please Stand Up? Please Stand Up. Please Stand Up.

Hey Interwebs!  Happy New Year!  I know it's been a while since I posted in here and hopefully that all changes today.

Today I'm going to veer into something slightly political.  I've been know to do so on things that are tech related and this one kinda fits the bill.

Have you ever heard of the REAL ID Act?  If you didn't click that link here's the short version:
The REAL ID Act of 2005, Pub.L. 109–13, 119 Stat. 302, enacted May 11, 2005, was an Act of Congress that modified U.S. federal law pertaining to security, authentication, and issuance procedures standards for the state driver's licenses and identification (ID) cards, as well as various immigration issues pertaining to terrorism.

So what's that got to do with us?  And by "us" I mean the US Virgin Islands.  Well, we're required to be part of that initiative.  The REAL ID initiative would sync up our driver's license records with a federal database and thus allow us to keep using local driver's licenses to travel between states and territories.  It's now 2016 and it seems like we're starting from scratch again.  This is a problem because now we have just 2 years to get on board.  Originally, this needed to be implemented by January 10th, so yeah,we got an extension.
They'll fix that tool tip eventually.

Where was the ball dropped?  Your guess is as good as mine.  I've only kept an eye on it since I became more entrenched in information technology.  But I can tell you where the latest effort fell off.  It was 2011 and a company named BizVI was contracted to do the work.  The company submitted a 3 year scope of work.  Oh, it should also be noted that the last administration's second term started in 2011.  I think you see where I'm going with this.  Fast forward to 2014; new administration and a former BMV Director (who was very disaffected by the previous administration) pretty much boots BIZVI from the project.

Okay, fine.  Things like this happen in the public sector all the time (unfortunately).  If BMV wasn't happy with the work it's their prerogative to terminate the agreement and find somebody else...except that's not what happened.  They simply reverted to the old system and the story ended there.  Heck, people even raved at how speedy the BMV had become!

Where do we go from here?  Well here's where I'm concerned.  Remember when I said we have 2 years to get on board?  Well the article has this pleasant line in it:
According to BMV  Director Lawrence Olive, there are problems with the software, developed by a company named BIZVI, that need to be rectified before implementation.

Wait! WHAT?!  I thought....I dunno.  Are they still on the project or are they off?  Are they trying to use what BIZVI left behind without BIZVI?  At the moment nobody's saying and that makes me nervous because 2 years is when the campaign for the next administration begins.  If it's one thing I've learned from the public sector it's that an administration change is a great excuse for not getting stuff done.