Sunday, August 22, 2010

New Computer

Early in June my computer was destroyed by a lightning strike. We're up on a hill and the place seems a lightning attractor. Generally the electric grid is well grounded as is our household electric system, but the grounding of the telephone system seems less so. Following instructions my DSL modem was connected directly to the computer rather than through my surge protection. This is not the first computer I've lost by errant electricity over the telephone lines. In fact, the computer lost was a 10-year old Dell Desktop running XP that a friend gave to me to replace the computer previous to it lost in just the same way, which had replaced another lost in a lightening strike. I will add that all of these computers were used longer than what many people consider the useful life of a computer, something around three years.

A dear niece got married here at Thistlemoor in late June, so I was panicked by not having a computer to coordinate with all the out of town guests. A friend lent me a Dell Mini NetBook computer which was a great help. Also knowing that young people would bring their computers and that the World Cup games would be going on I finally got a wireless router for the house. This has the added advantage that my new computer isn't plugged in directly to the phone lines which I hope will prevent lightning from destroying another computer.

The Dell Mini uses an Ubuntu operating system. I had often thought that I should be running Linux, but I was afraid of it because I'm not very technologically adept. But using the Mini was easy. I really liked that it booted in seconds, quite a contrast to my ponderous XP machine. Writing on the Mini was a bit hard. I finally did adapt to the small keyboard, but I found that I too often accidentally closed windows and couldn't figure out what I was doing. It's very frustrating to loose writing, so I just didn't blog.

I think NetBooks are very cool computers. My friend is going to allow me to buy the NetBook from him. I'm happy about that because it makes it easy to share the Internet with my father. I have found Readability a great tool. Just clicking on a bookmarklet turns a Web page into a more readable page. It's great for the small screen of the Mini and it's great for my father who is not accustomed to the Internet because it removes the clutter from the page. I'm looking forward to having both a DeskTop computer and a NetBook.

Thinking about getting a new computer, something that immediately came to mind is computers are for rich people. I needed something inexpensive. I was impressed by how good the Mini was with its Atom processor, so I looked at Atom desktops which are often called "NetTops." I bought a Meerkat Ion NetTop from System76. I wish now that I had added at least more memory when I ordered it, but money was tight.

Decision making is odd. I saw the Meerkat Ion early on in my search of possible alternatives and thought it very good. I later discovered a computer by Zotac which is very similar to the Meerkat Ion for essentially half the price. I decided against buying that because I had to install an operating system on it and I feel tech-challenged. Part of the selling points of the System76 computers is their customer support. I'll discover if System76 customer support is actually worth anything more than frustration because it appears the machine System76 shipped to me is not configured correctly.

The invaluable Dave Winer posted recently Throwing out software that works. Among the topics in that piece is how Apple's IPad is setting back the development of NetBook computers and the role that corporate filters play in preventing users from getting the products they really want. I wanted my new computer to have Linux installed and I was surprised to discover how hard it is to buy a computer without Microsoft software installed here in the USA. I found this especially odd considering how excellent Ubuntu on the Dell Mini is. I understand that neither Microsoft nor Apple is happy about Linux, but I think that the difficulty of buying a computer without Windows7 installed really has more to do with suppressing NetBooks than Linux.

One option of a place to buy a computer available to me is Best Buy. I had a very unpleasant run in with a salesman there a few years back when buying a computer monitor that cost less than $100. The argument was over my reluctance to pay over $40 for an extended warranty for it. The clerk just wouldn't let the subject go, and all in the rude tone common among those who fancy themselves as geeks. It's one thing to say how great you are, but quite another to imply or say outright that the other is not so great. Online I've read many horror stories about the dealing with Best Buy which have added to my prejudice against the store. I was really pissed off in reading Microsoft trains "Linux assassins". There are many interests who benefit from keeping inexpensive computers rare. I can't quite put my finger on why I'm so irritated by the anti-Linux learning module Microsoft crafted for Best Buy sales associates, but it's a safe bet I won't set foot in a Best Buy store ever again.

The Meerkat Ion is manufactured by AOpen a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer. The unit itself appears to be made in mainland China. It wouldn't surprise me one bit that System76 purchases AOpen computers through at least one middle man between it and AOpen. Anyhow computers in their line up are made by various manufacturers, so the value System76 adds is not in design and manufacturing but in the customer relationship end of things.

Business consultant Umair Haque talks about thin value, that is profit which leaves "others worse off, or, at best, no one better off." Thin value is possible by marginal profits from the marginal losses of others. What Haque advises that businesses instead of being concerned with thin value that they turn their attention to the creation of meaningful value, so-called thick value, that is, sustainable and meaningful value. In looking at System76 it's clear the company is trying to do well by creating thick value for customers. Linux and open source software in general is a good example of thick value and System76 sells computers only with Linux installed. Providing customer service through among other means at Ubuntu Forums. The company is also active on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

With so much of their business out in public view most of what I've seen about System76's customer support is positive. But I also note customers complaints that they don't always respond to email. The system shipped to me has problems related to System76 Drivers not being properly installed, so I wrote them an email rather than address the issue at Ubuntu Forums. I regret that the computer wasn't sent to me in working order, but am quite interested to see how System76 responds.

The last computer I bought--the one before the cast-off Dell a friend gave to me--was purchased at CompUSA. A month or so after purchasing it the computer developed a hardware problem. I took it into the store only to get a harangue that it was a virus and not a hardware problem. I was pretty sure it wasn't a virus because in setting the computer up fresh out of the box it was infected with a worm which took me on a long slog to remove it and then to learn how to secure my computer. After keeping the computer for a week they called me to pick it up. The hardware problem had not been fixed. I took it back again and with much grumbling they took it back. It didn't work any better the next time I brought it home, so on the third time they sent the computer back to the manufacturer to be fixed. I was without a computer for about a month. That's bad enough, but how I was treated was the most discouraging part. Indeed all the incentives for business is thin value. I was happy that the repairs were made under warranty and without additional cost, but the trips to and fro were not cost free to me.

System76 doing better than CompUSA is a pretty low bar, but here's hoping they make that leap. Of course I would like the response to be much better than that. Clearly I've got a vested interest here, but I've got an interest in a detached sort of way too. The question is whether System76 walks the walk of creating thick value for their customers or merely talks the talk.

I discovered that I miss blogging. I can't imagine that anyone missed my blogging, it's just something that adds to my life. Still I hope that with a new computer, and especially that it runs Linux that I'll become more computer literate. This blog and a few others I have need some attention to make the more accessible if anyone stumbles upon them. It's nice to be back and posting.

Photo credit: System76


The 27th Comrade said...

Man, JP. This post is actually far deeper that I ever suspected you could work it.
Perhaps it is the subject matter that excites me. Now, I will attempt to avoid soiling it any further. I will just note that if my opinion is worth anything, I do not think you are tech challenged at all. You have more comfort around these things that people I have seen run Linux machines.

Meanwhile … would a lightning conductor not work? (Them things, apparently, were invented by one of your ex-presidents. Interesting.)

John Powers said...

The house and the barn have lightning rods attached to braided copper wire grounded. Lightning and the electric lines is more complicated and I surely don't know much of that. The The line is grounded at the pole near the house and the house system is grounded to a grounding rod as well as to the copper plumbing which has an underground length to the well. I think the electric system is well grounded.

The telephone wires at the road are actually fiber optic, and it wasn't until you wrote that I wondered about how electricity is conducted through those wires. I don't know, but in any case from the road to the house is copper wire. I'm not sure how it got energized. It is on the same pole as the electric lines, but some distance underneath. The telephone system is grounded to a grounding rod.

I think lightening might have struck the electric lines as the big fuses on the pole had to be reset with the strike that took out my computer.

Shorter version is I don't think a lightening conductor is going to help me much. Protecting the telephone lines from surges is a bit more complicated than the electric system. I really think that using my computer with a wireless router is a good thing. I may loose a router every few years, but that's a lot less trouble than loosing a computer.

John Powers said...

Good grief I wish I could learn to proofread!

The 27th Comrade said...

I am no good at electricity planning, so … you must be right! After all, you are on the scene.
On how electricity is transmitted through fibre-optic … it isn’t. Only signal are, and those as light (which is an energy). So fibre-optic cables can be entirely free of electricity (well, maybe not of static electricity). The interpretation of the light flashes (“pulses“) is, however, usually powered by electricity. Such as your router.

You will be surprised how many people think you are too far gone into geekhood, just by reading this post. So that you are worrying about geekhood is interesting. My stock advice these days—and this as a FreeBSD man, myself—is this: get you a Mac.