Posts Tagged

hardware

Weird Keyboards

Elizabeth Technology April 18, 2022

Stenographers

Court stenographers press combinations of keys to produce certain letters, which allows them to type significantly faster than the average person on a QWERTY top row keyboard. Instead of pressing twenty-six individual keys to form letters alongside all the numbers and punctuation, they generally have 22, and press the keys at the same time to form words in the same way a pianist presses keys to form chords instead of individual notes. This allows those stenographers to type quickly enough to keep up with two or three people speaking at the same time.

The problem with these is that they’re non-intuitive and require special training, and they’re fairly expensive for what they are. Other notable ‘chording’ keyboards include things like this CyKey, which was designed for one-handed use and only features eight buttons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CyKey

However, if you still want to use both hands, maybe the CharaChorder does the job! The CEO of the company boasts an impressive 500 WPM with the device, which also works by chording letters but also doesn’t make you move your hands as much. Little joysticks underneath your fingers have letters tied to each cardinal direction.

QWERTY, DVORAK, and COLEMAK

The Qwerty design itself is actually designed to slow typers down – back in the days of the mechanical type writer, if you typed too fast, sometimes letters right next to each other would hit at the same time and get stuck upright, which is annoying to fix and could smudge the paper – and, done enough, damage the machine. The design simply stuck because it was what most people were taught on, and what they’d be comfortable typing on when word processors began to take over the spot mechanical keyboards had.

Faster keyboard layouts exist, like Dvorak- or Colemak layout keyboards, which group the most commonly used letter combinations together to make moving from key-to-key faster.

The real struggle is getting the OS set up to accept them, although any decent alternative keyboard should come with a driver install alongside it.

Orbitouch

Orbitouch is a keyboard designed to allow people without full movement of their hands to type. Essentially, the user puts their hands on the orbs, and then pivots to select letters via the chording system from before, except that you don’t have to hit the key’s chord pieces all at once. CharaChorder does something similar, but having to hit the buttons all at once makes it less user-friendly than the Orbitouch, which is actively designed for typers who can’t do that.

It’s a little slower than the other options, but the Orbitouch isn’t actually designed for speed – it’s designed for people with injuries that prevent them from typing on normal keyboards. Instead of having to consistently raise and lower your hands to the keys, the Orbitouch allows users to keep their hands pressed firmly to the interface, which means tremors, muscle weakness, partial paralysis, and other such factors won’t be such an impediment to typing. It’s not for everyone, and it is 350 dollars as of the writing of this article, but if you’d rather not fumble with transcription or voice-to-text software, the Orbitouch may be worth the price.

Warped Board

If you find that your shoulders and upper back hurt after typing all day, a warped board may help – some keyboards like the X-Bow spread the keys and then tilt them inwards, which forces the user to widen their wrists and elbows, and therefore their shoulders. There are many hacks, tools, and tips for better typing posture, and this isn’t a holy grail – you can fudge this just like you can fudge any posture tool short of the ones you wear to force your shoulders back. But, if you just need a reminder to stop letting your shoulders creep up to your ears, this might be a decent investment for the cause. What’s nice about these keyboards is that they come in many different sizes, and the company even has a type cover option for tablets that’s comparable to Microsoft prices.

Sources:

https://www.vice.com/en/article/3abavv/this-keyboard-lets-people-type-so-fast-its-banned-from-typing-competitions?utm_source=pocket-newtab

https://orbitouch.com/

https://x-bows.com/

Mechanical Keyboards

Elizabeth Technology February 4, 2022

If you like to watch streamers, or you’ve ever considered investing in a larger keyboard for gaming, you might have seen mechanical keyboards out in the wild before. They’re big. The keys are heavy. They make a lot of noise. They’re clunky. They can cost quite a bit as a hobby. And yet, they’re growing in popularity. What’s the deal?

Ever Slimmer

Perhaps it was rebellion against the difficult-to-clean and unsatisfactorily quiet keyboards of the laptops we started to see in the late 2010s. Especially Apple, which kept getting slimmer and slimmer until dropping it between the edge of your desk and the wall was a real concern.

Many of the portable, detachable keyboards designed to help solve this problem are not much better, designed to fit alongside a touchscreen device or laptop in the laptop’s bag. Slim, aluminum keyboards are designed for travel first and durability second, and this problem has become more apparent than ever when everybody has stopped travelling. Why sacrifice the convenience of a larger, easier-to-clean keyboard when you’re not going to get the benefits of that sacrifice?

Sensory Delight

In an article about Apple’s butterfly keyboards (cited below), the author discussed the sensation of trying to type on them. They were nearly flat, they were unfortunately delicate, and the key itself barely moved when pressed. It felt like typing on a touchscreen device, tapping your fingers onto solid aluminum and plastic over and over and over again with 100% resistance and no audible tell that you’d hit the key right. That’s fine for some – it was not fine for the people who’d grown up on clunky, solid, inch-thick Best Buy discount keyboards, those who were used to haptic input when typing.

Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, offer a wide array of sensory input. You can get them nearly silent, or you can simulate the sound of typing on a typewriter; you can get thin or thick keys; you can change how much resistance your keyboard gives you; you can even get keys that light up when you type, so if you type like me and your eyes drift between the screen and the keyboard, you’ll still be getting input even if you go for a quiet option.

They come in a number of colors and with a number of accessories, too, so you can get weird with your accent and functional keys. Notable examples include a tiny three dimensional cow for the tilde key, a Japanese-style pagoda, and many more – often hand-sculpted and easily searchable on Etsy.

It’s a Good Time

Someone on TikTok has been steadily sculpting smaller and smaller magnetic Kirbys for their keyboard’s ‘K’ key. Another has sculpted every key on the board into food using a combination of polymer clay and acrylic paint. As mentioned before, you can get a keyboard that lights up with your inputs, and you can get keys in a number of colors – any color you want, if you’re good at mixing and applying plastics paint. Really, the sky’s the limit. If you want it to feel like you’re sinking your fingers into butter every time you hit the keys on the left side of your keyboard, but you need to work the right side out because you need to build up picking strength for guitar or whatever, you can do that! Many mechanical keyboard bases are set up to accept the standard scissor switch keys that everybody but Apple from the years of 2014 to 2020 uses, so you could in theory even strip the keys from the Best Buy discount keyboard and slap them into a new frame, given it’s big enough to prevent crowding. Even that’s not really a concern – size standardization benefits everyone, so most sold-separately keys fit most bases.

Shapes and Sizes

Mechanical keyboards are also available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. If you need a small keyboard that only has certain characters? You can buy it, and customize the keys with separate parts (not included usually) when it comes in the mail. If you need a split keyboard, that’s on the market. If your needs are hyperspecific, a mechanical keyboard might just be the keyboard for you.

They also tend to be much easier to clean, as many of them are designed to be easy to take apart for customization – being able to strip the board down to the contacts means you can remove every crumb of anything that could get in, and the tools to do so are generally cheap now that the hobby’s hit the big time. Apple’s weird butterfly switches were incredibly easy to break and very difficult to replace, meaning a damaged switch could kill a laptop, but many other name-brand laptops have keys too small to get tools under. If you eat at your desk, a mechanical keyboard may be a welcome break from flipping the laptop over and still not getting the ‘G’ key free from whatever’s gotten under it.

Sources:

https://theoutline.com/post/2402/the-new-macbook-keyboard-is-ruining-my-life

Can We Make Thinner Things… Heavier?

Elizabeth Technology February 2, 2022

There are many issues that manufacturers have to dodge when designing a very thin laptop. The electronics have to be organized differently. The material cannot twist if the device is opened improperly, because if it does it might wreck the screen. Cooling becomes a huge issue, because fans take up a bunch of space but they’re also very, very necessary, and flatter devices are competing for less air space inside, not less.

My least favorite issue, though, is considerations of a device’s weight.  Why try to make things lighter and sacrifice strength for it if the device is already paper thin and prone to blowing away in the wind?

Aluminum

Most of the issue is already solved by the time you get to it – less material means less weight anyway, unless you’re working with some exotic, non-Euclidean material the rest of us aren’t privy to yet. However, manufacturers often believe in perfection, and the question they ask themselves is ‘how close can we get to a mathematically ideal device before the clumsier part of our client base destroys them just by looking at them?’ Not every device is destined for a desk, and not every device is going to be set down once and only picked up for cleaning.

This is why straight aluminum is often not considered. Aluminum, while lightweight and flexible, is too flexible at the thickness a computer’s shell needs to be. Think back to the iPhone 6, and #BendGate – if they tried to use aluminum, they’d lose the benefit of the aluminum because it would need to be thick enough not to bend under its own weight, or the weight of the user’s hands. Even now, iPhones use alloys instead of the pure material because it’s a better fit.

Magnesium and carbon alloys are heavier, but they’re also less flexible, meaning that opening the screen from one side doesn’t put so much pressure on the delicate electronics inside the upper half of the device. This is the ideal! But what if I don’t want the ideal? What if I want a laptop that could harm me severely if I dropped it on my foot? What do I do then? And, is it possible to do this purely with different materials and not rearranging the design?

The first laptops on the market were super heavy – I want a modern laptop that’s thin enough to fit in a backpack, even if it tears the handles off.

Critical, Unchangeable Components

The most literal interpretation of this would to be replace everything with something like plutonium, which is technically a metal. But, radioactivity interferes pretty badly with electronics, so all of the heaviest elements are out right off the bat. If this device is going to work, it’s got to meet certain specs.

The battery is almost always going to contain lithium. The optimal weight-to-thinness ratio is already determined, this is a hard and fast rule for laptop computers until the next big breakthrough a la Tesla and the car market. The casing for this battery, too, represents the ideal strength and lack of flexibility AND permeability necessary for laptops, so it can’t be made heavier either. Fans could be heavier, made with thicker blades and heavier material – but increasing the weight of the fans would mean that powering them takes more energy from the battery, cutting it’s life, so fans are an suboptimal place to add weight back in to the device.

The same goes for the plastics in the device, mostly within the screen and keys. Changing plastic at the desired thickness is usually not going to result in a positive weight change, but will result in a worse experience for the user. The older glass and plastics used in touch screens were heavier, but they were less responsive to touch and prone to false positives and wear-out. Cold metal keys are slightly less pleasant to touch than the non-conductive plastic ones used everywhere else, and metal circuit boards present a unique set of issues solved a long time ago by the PCBs (printed-circuit boards) used today for almost everything. Those can’t be heavier or swapped out for a different material without requiring major redesign.

Additionally, there is some empty space inside most laptops – that space aids air flow and cooling, so stuff can’t just be thrown in there without disrupting user experience elsewhere. Besides the weight thing.

Replacements…?

However, looking closer at the contacts beneath the keys and behind the screen, there is something slightly heavier we could use: silver. Silver surprisingly conducts just a smidge better than copper does. 1 cm^3 of silver weights 10 grams, where 1 cm^3 of copper weighs about 9. Not a huge change, but you might notice it. We don’t use silver in devices because of the price, not because of the additional weight, although that would eventually add up in larger, heavier-duty devices.

As a side note, gold conducts significantly worse than copper does. Not enough to make it not worth using if it’s the only HDMI cable you can find in the store, but enough that a straight copper HDMI cord, even if it costs more, is probably going to give you better performance.

Onto the rest of the computer!

Steel is common because of how widely available it is, but the steel alloys commonly found in devices like laptops are usually only found in the structural parts of the device, not the shell, because steel is heavier than aluminum alloy for the same volume of material. You could replace everything with steel – but there are actually heavier options. The outside case is not responsible for conducting electricity and only partially responsible for dispelling heat. Carbon fiber shells are becoming more popular because manufacturers have realized this, but they could also replace the entire outside shell with platinum. Or tungsten.

Tungsten in particular makes a better choice because it’s extraordinarily hard and won’t snap the stuff inside the computer when you go to open it. You’ve probably heard the term tungsten-carbide – the alloy contains equal parts tungsten and carbon, and the end result (while lighter than straight tungsten) is one of the toughest alloys available on the market.

Consumer sites say the average 15 in laptop is about 5 lbs. Assuming 50% of this is internals and the screen, 2.5 lbs of aluminum alloy could be replaced by an equivalent weight of 17 lbs of straight tungsten metal. That’s what I’m talking about!

Heavier In Use

The Macbook’s delicate, flimsy butterfly switches provided an uncomfortable typing experience for some – a couple of reviewers likened it to slapping their hands onto straight vinyl over and over as they typed. The keyboard didn’t physically have the space to respond the way most other keyboards did. However, other laptop brands with ordinary scissor switches sometimes also have this issue, because they’re so thin that the ordinary scissor switch mechanism doesn’t provide a satisfying amount of resistance, either too much or too little. Altering key height allows you to also alter resistance, but if you’re really desperate for a keyboard that feels meatier than the one you’ve got, a mechanical keyboard may be your new best friend.

The same goes for the mouse, and the trackpad – you can do things to these items that makes them feel heavier in use. You can also just literally add weight to things like the mouse – the electronics inside are very small, the mouse is just the size it is because it makes it easier for larger human hands to use.

These devices can be heavier. Who does that benefit? I don’t know. But they can be.

Sources: https://www.tomsguide.com/us/gadget-materials-guide,news-22743.html

https://www.techwalla.com/articles/what-elements-are-used-in-laptops

https://www.etf.com/sections/features-and-news/4264-tungsten-one-of-the-heaviest-metals-a-a-hard-act-to-follow

https://www.bluesea.com/resources/108/Electrical_Conductivity_of_Materials

https://www.aqua-calc.com/calculate/volume-to-weight

Tape over the WebCam: You’re Not Paranoid

Elizabeth Technology January 24, 2022

It’s surprisingly easy to get into an unprotected webcam. Whether it’s through malware or the network itself not being secured against the internet, webcams are a major source of vulnerability in tech. A solid antivirus is a good start, but it doesn’t solve the root of the problem, the ‘unsecured’ part.

Tape and Stickers

Tape, sticky notes, and stickers are common sights on laptops in public. Most of the time, they work totally fine – if you turn on the webcam, all you see is a haze. However, have you tested the microphone as well? Can you hear yourself? The sticker can’t block that. The sticker may also leave residue, or fall off and render the system worthless.

The little camera slide that some new computers come with is better, but also not perfect. Just like tape, they don’t deactivate the microphone!

Tape is a stopgap, and it won’t protect you from someone getting into the microphone, which can be equally dangerous to your privacy. Some recommend using the aux jack from a broken set of headphones to keep the external microphone form activating, but if you don’t already have a pair with microphone enabled, that’ll cost you money.

Nefarious Websites

There’s a number of websites that compile unsecured webcam footage. In fact, many are open to the public, like Insecam.org. Is it a crime to access unsecured devices? Maybe, it depends heavily on the state, and whether or not the webcam was secured. Even stranger, certain webcams are subject to more rules than others – anything that can record audio may be subject to Federal wiretapping laws in the US, for example. Insecam allows users to trawl through unsecured cameras, and some, like cameras used by weather stations, are entirely public, and just have a nice view of the city. Nothing nefarious is happening with access to this camera. However, baby monitors and personal computers also pop up on the site – and while users can write to request that their computer is removed, they would need to know it’s there in order to ask.

These websites only have access because webcams don’t usually ask the user to create a password for them during set up. The computer itself may be password protected, but the camera software is uniquely accessible as long as the computer is on the network. Even then, if the computer has good antivirus, that doesn’t extend to things like doorbell cameras or baby monitors – the network needs to be exceptionally well-secured to keep these IoT devices safe, not just the computer or phone they’re hooked up to.

Applications

Some applications require access to the webcam to function. Things like Skype, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom are obvious! However, some apps don’t really need that information, but they’re getting it anyway. Facebook’s excessive use of personal cameras and computers has been noted before. The app doesn’t need to be open for it to hear you, unless you deny it access to the microphone at first download. Other apps don’t make a point of telling you that they can hear or see you when they’re open, so it’s important to check the permissions a website or download needs for itself before you download it. Android will allow you to individually remove permissions for apps. For example, if you don’t want Discord to have access to your camera, all you have to do is tell it ‘no’ on an Android device’s settings.

It is important to note that doing this for apps will sometimes prevent them from working as intended. To use Discord again, Discord won’t allow you to upload photos unless it’s allowed to use the camera. TikTok is similar – you may have pre-recorded footage to upload, but it wants access to the camera. At that point, the choice is up to you! Just know that permissions may be revokable, and it’s a trade.

What You Should Do

Covering the webcam with tape or a sticky note is a stopgap. What you should do is password protect those items. Legally, it’s a gray area to access a network without authentication features, but bypassing a password is generally illegal. This means that if someone gains access to the webcam even after you’ve password-protected it, it may be possible to prosecute them.

Make sure that apps aren’t using the webcam when they don’t need to be, either! Facebook was notorious for requiring access to location, microphone, webcam, speakers, etc. when it probably didn’t need them. Why? Lots of reasons: they want to sell you ads, they want to sell your data, they want to sell you ideas… basically, anything and everything can be sold to you, the user, if they know enough about you to trigger certain responses. It’s how Cambridge Analytica got to so many people! The better the profile they make, the better their odds are.

Sources:

https://www.laptopmag.com/articles/webcam-tape-good-idea

https://www.reviewed.com/laptops/features/will-putting-tape-on-your-laptop-camera-stop-people-from-spying-on-you

https://www.laptopmag.com/articles/how-to-turn-off-webcam

https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-malware-webcam-hacking.html

https://iapp.org/news/a/the-secret-life-of-webcams-2/

https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/saltzman/2018/03/01/has-someone-hacked-your-webcam-heres-how-stop-cyber-snoopers/377676002/

http://insecam.org/

https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/security-cameras-ethics-and-the-law/

What is BlueTooth?

Elizabeth Technology December 8, 2021

Specs

Bluetooth behaves a lot like ordinary WiFi, but over much shorter distances. It’s wavelengths fall between 2.402-2.48 GHz, which, as you might remember from the WiFi article, is fairly low-powered. The max range that most consumer devices can reach is only about 30 feet. This works to its advantage! Bluetooth was designed in a time where rechargeable batteries were either small or high-powered, but never both. As a result, it’s one of the better ways to control peripherals. How many times a year do you have to replace your wireless mouse’s battery, after all?

Bluetooth is currently at version 4, and at the cusp of version five. Version 3 saw major upgrades to speed, but no decrease in battery life; version four delivers all of that power for less consumption.

Bluetooth standards are maintained by an outside, not-for-profit body of experts, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. If something wants to be called Bluetooth, it has to go through them first – they oversee the licensing of the term for businesses worldwide.

The History

Bluetooth and WiFi have a lot in common with each other. The lower bands of their wavelengths actually overlap some, and they’re both capable of transmitting a lot of complicated information to and from devices. The very first traces of something Bluetooth-like started in 1989, and its first major use cases were unfortunately places where battery use blocked it – the 1990s was partially known for obnoxiously large mobile phones. Getting any info anywhere without a cord could get expensive resource-wise. However, the creators didn’t give up! The team that created it was pretty small, but they wanted to see it used elsewhere, and so they made it public – other people could get in on ‘short-link radio’, and it’s first working version was on two competitor’s devices, a phone and a Thinkpad.

 From there, it’s been everywhere. Bluetooth first saw commercial use in 1999, with a wireless, hands-free headset. The first phone with Bluetooth rolled out in 2001, and Bluetooth version 1 had a top speed of about 721 kbps. It was barely enough for the compressed data from a phone call to get to the headset and back, and it wasn’t nearly enough for music, but it was still incredible. Hands-free phone calls! Hands free phone calls!!!

Bluetooth Version 2 doubled that speed and also made pairing much easier, and both of these made speakers more possible. Version 3 was even better, so much better that it could stream video wirelessly between devices – its data transfer speeds were up to 24/Mbs, because it established a connection directly to the device’s Wifi protocols. Versions 4 and 5 promise even more – all of this, minus the heavy battery consumption that can come with using WiFi to stream things. As rechargeable batteries improved, so did Bluetooth. Where WiFi failed or was impractical, Bluetooth swooped in on machinery and appliances.

Today

Bluetooth is still in use everywhere today! Where cords and cables can’t do the job or would be inconvenient, Bluetooth swoops in.

Mice. Keyboards. Radio dongles. Car infotainment systems. Headphones. Speakers. Truly, Bluetooth revolutionized the way people thought about their peripherals, and turned serious, irritating issues with file transfers into minor inconveniences. WiFi ad hoc was the prior protocol – it was very annoying to set up and maintain a connection, but the only other options were often cords. And, unlike WiFi, walls usually don’t stop Bluetooth transmissions!

Better yet, the tech has slowly improved over the years, and now it can transmit at speeds it’s previous versions could have only dreamed of. Version 4 transmits at speeds up to 25 MBPs, on par with it’s earlier versions but with much less battery consumption.  Bluetooth can stream between devices with very minimal delay, making it a popular choice for soundbars and other similar peripherals.

Flaws (and Fixes)

Much like WiFi, Bluetooth can be interrupted by the microwave, if it’s not properly shielded. If your headphones begin to act up whenever said microwave is on, it might be time to replace it! WiFi too – if your devices won’t pair, it could be because the Bluetooth band and the WiFi bands are overlapping. Move your device further away from the WiFi so it can connect, and then move it back once the devices have paired. Bluetooth is also very short-range, and most consumer devices only broadcast to about 30 feet. It’s designed to be convenient, not powerful. Still, the newer versions of Bluetooth are able to reach further and further.

Connectivity issues are also unfortunately common. Bluetooth Smart, a low-energy version of Bluetooth from before 4.0, doesn’t get along with older versions of Bluetooth. Similarly, new versions are backwards compatible, but old and older versions may not be able to communicate if they’re both from before Bluetooth became backwards compatible in the first place.

Getting two devices who are compatible to communicate can be annoying too! And since so much of Bluetooth is hidden to the user, it’s possible to get stuck in a loop of turning both devices off and back on again to try and get them to connect. Especially if it’s something like a speaker or a pair of headphones – if it doesn’t connect while the other half is actively looking, you’ll have to start over. There’s not really a way around it – Bluetooth can’t be actively looking for the connection forever, and not every device can have a screen for users to monitor the connection’s progress.  

Sources: https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-bluetooth-4038864

https://www.androidauthority.com/history-bluetooth-explained-846345/

https://www.pcworld.com/article/208778/Wi_Fi_Direct_vs_Bluetooth_4_0_A_Battle_for_Supremacy.html

https://www.techlicious.com/how-to/how-to-fix-bluetooth-pairing-problems/

A Brief Overview OF LAN and WAN

Elizabeth Technology December 6, 2021

LAN stands for Local Area Network.

A LAN is just a network of devices connected locally, hence the Local Area part. This local area can be something as small as a house, or as big as a university. LANs are used for a number of things! The first Halo games are sort of famous for encouraging LAN parties, because the internet during that era just wasn’t good enough to prevent lag when the players were physically distant. LAN cut out the middle man and allowed the computers to communicate with each other directly over a much shorter distance.

LAN’s primary advantage here is clear: it’s speedy! Accessing computers within the LAN usually has a speed advantage over trying to access outside computers with the internet. When it was first being used and really put to the test, LAN also allowed users to share storage space and printers, keeping costs down while still keeping information within reach.

 It’s sort of like New York’s subway vs it’s surface streets: as long as what you need is at one of the stops (one of the computers in the network), it’s much faster than trying to cross the upper streets if the traffic is bad. If you need something from Milwaukee, though, the subways can’t get you there.

With that in mind, remember that just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s ‘insulated’ or ‘more secure’. LANs that have things like smart thermometers and remote controlled lightbulbs can leave gaps in security where there shouldn’t be and allow outsiders to get on the network.

WLANs (Wireless Local Area Networks) are just LANs, but wireless – the connection is made with encrypted channels instead of physical wires.

Meanwhile, WAN

WANs, or Wide Area Networks, are generally used to connect LANs together across distances (although it doesn’t have to be just LANs – singular computers can also be connected via WAN). Where LANs work with a bunch of close-together computers, and don’t necessarily need access to the outside internet for them to function as a LAN, WANs connect computers over very large distances, miles, states, or countries away. The first versions of a WAN connected US Air Force bases together with a series of dedicated telephones, hard phone lines, and modems, followed closely by universities doing something similar to connect research labs. Now, we use two kinds of routers to do the same: core routers work inside the network (for the LAN) and boundary routers work to connect inside and outside (for the WAN). Not every system will have two separate routers to perform these functions – the router that connects your printer to your computer wirelessly while also connecting that computer to Netflix is doing both!

WAN, for certain organizations, still functions on wires connecting to routers – if the company has a couple of offices in different states, the home-base organization can be connected via a dedicated line to the flagship one. Boundary routers on either end of the line allow them to share LANs as though they were together! Whether or not this line is leased out exclusively to the company often depends on budget – other methods, like circuit-switching (which works sort of like an old-fashioned phone operator board, but for the internet) allow the company to treat the relevant line like it is their dedicated line when they need to send or retrieve something, but once that thing has traveled, it’s someone else’s turn to use it for data transfer. The info is only allowed to travel once the circuit is connected, which in theory prevents illegitimate access to the network.

SD-WAN

Software-Defined Wide Area Networks skip the designated line entirely and use encryption to simulate a line over regular internet service. This is also cheaper than a designated leased line. The original WANs weren’t designed with things like server clouds in mind, so they often had inefficient or unoptimized policies in place, which doesn’t matter on smaller scales but does on larger ones. Similarly, old-fashioned WANs often didn’t have to worry too hard about things like load balancing and redirecting, something that becomes increasingly important the more connections there are on a WAN. SD-WANs can compensate in ways that physical-line WANs could not.

And as previously said, WANs depend on a physical line. If that line gets damaged, then there’s no data transfer happening on it until it’s repaired. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it can be devastating, grinding business to a halt. However, SD-WANs have their drawbacks too. Firstly, they’re not necessarily automatically secured – they’re just connected. SD-WANs are a networking solution, not a security one. The old-fashioned line system limits the WAN’s ability to load-balance, but it does provide secure access via a physical cable that would have to be tampered with; SD-WAN can self-balance, but it requires a security solution as well, and that can be difficult to navigate in a world where things like the Solar Winds or Kesaya hack happened with seemingly no warning. If you’re shopping for an SD-WAN, make sure you get the kind that comes with a security solution built in – many do!

Sources:

https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/products/switches/what-is-a-wan-wide-area-network.html#~what-it-is

https://www.cloudflare.com/learning/network-layer/what-is-a-wan/

https://www.silver-peak.com/sd-wan/sd-wan-explained

https://www.riverbed.com/faq/what-is-sd-wan.html

https://www.checkpoint.com/cyber-hub/network-security/what-is-sd-wan/sd-wan-vs-vpn/

What’s a Kernel?

Elizabeth Uncategorized October 1, 2021

If your computer’s prone to bugs, you might have seen it give a ‘kernel error’ before it decided that it would be taking a very long nap. But what is a kernel?

A kernel is the program in the computer that decides what program gets to use what resource, specifically RAM.

Before the kernel, computer systems like Multics (the predecessor to Unix) effectively built the error resolutions into the programs themselves, but that gets really inefficient as computers gain more power, and with it the ability to host more and more programs. Unix’s kernel system was a blunt but more efficient fix: the kernel picks who goes first. The kernel is therefore also responsible for prioritizing: the boot-up program, for example, gets priority over the word-processing program until the computer has completed boot up.

But that’s not all! The kernel also portions out memory for two applications at the same time by putting up a virtual barrier to keep them from running into each other (trying to use the same portion of memory) and crashing.

But what’s a kernel error? Surely, one of the most essential functions of the computer can’t crash, right? It’s not even really an application!

Something PANIC() This Way Comes

When a kernel error occurs, it’s not always fatal to the computer, but it is a sign that something is seriously wrong. The kernel monitors both software and hardware, and if something essential breaks – it panics. The kernel stops everything happening to take a ‘snapshot’ of the kernel memory and then either reboots automatically or tells the user to. That snapshot can be used by Windows (or a repair shop) for de-coding what broke before the problem completely bricks the computer, or makes it impossible to retrieve data.

Kernel panics are commonly associated with things like the famous Blue Screen of Death. When RAM is what makes everything on the computer run, and there’s something wrong with the RAM, it’s difficult to recover, hence the shutdown. It’s kind of like putting the computer in an induced coma to try and save it.

Blue Screen of Death isn’t the last screen you’ll ever see out of your computer, but it’s definitely not a good sign. It’s a good idea to regularly backup your data anyway, but if the computer starts blue-screening, and by some miracle it reboots with everything still on it – back up the important stuff right there and then! Don’t wait for it to error again!

Sources: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-hardware/drivers/debugger/bug-checks–blue-screens-

What Drives Ants Towards Electricity?

Ants.

If you were on the internet just a few years back, you might have seen pictures of those horrible, horrible electricity ants. Ants driven towards power boxes and cords, laptop batteries and electrical outlets. Sometimes they’d get to their goal only to die upon contact, lifeless ant corpses piling up in front of the device like some scene out of an apocalypse movie. Other times, they’d cluster together inside the box, nesting around something that could kill them at any moment.

But why were they so into electricity?

Some people say it was the warmth of the hardware, but that doesn’t fully track in summer. Some say something spilt in the box. However, most spillables also cause short-circuits, which the user would have definitely noticed before the ants got there.

Which Ants?

Well, experts disagree on exactly why, and different species seem to have different reasons. A species of Crazy Ant that lives in Texas doesn’t like to dig its own nesting burrows. Instead, in the wild, it would use cracks and crevices in rocks. For Crazy Ants, an electrical box is a fantastic place to nest, and they’re so small that they can squeeze in with ease. Pest control experts in this region generally agree that the space is why Crazy Ants love electronics, not the warmth.

But wait, there’s more!

Fire ants, known for their aggressive behavior, may be swarming electrical boxes because they think they’re under attack. An ant gets shocked, and it releases a bunch of attack pheromones as it dies, because ants have no concept of electricity. This attracts more ants who all do the same thing. Yikes.

 

What Can You Do About It?

Ants may be a nearly unstoppable force of nature, but there are some limits. Pest control experts get a little better every year at effectively destroying ant colonies at the source, and electronics get a little more difficult to squeeze into as they approach full waterproofing. Not to mention, the worst ant offenders live pretty much exclusively in Texas. Other species might still approach electronics for heat and get caught in that zap-death-avenge cycle, but almost none of them are as aggressive as the species of fire ant currently cursing Texas, or as small as the species of Crazy Ant. Aside from flukes, most people have nothing to worry about.

 

Sources:

https://www.livescience.com/37720-crazy-ants-invade-electronics.html

https://www.mistersparky.com/expert-tips/circuits-and-wiring/bugs-in-your-electrical-outlet-it-really-can-hap/

 

 

How To Read Minecraft Computer Requirements

Elizabeth Uncategorized December 24, 2020

A depiction of a computer gremlin weilding a poorly drawn Minecraft pickaxe

Shopping for a computer used to be so simple. You’d walk into a store, buy a desktop (likely one of two or three models the store had) and go home, and then let your new beige box-screen computer spend most of its days quietly, on your desk, only waiting to be used for AOL or maybe a game or two. Certainly not Minecraft yet. But now…

Now there’s thousands. And you want to play Minecraft. What do all these numbers mean? What does RAM even do?!

Desktop or Laptop?

We’re far past the era of desktops being the be-all end-all of computer strength. In fact, a decent laptop can keep up with a trash desktop any day of the week! For casual gaming, games that don’t require fine control of the mouse (although Bluetooth mice are very popular), or games that don’t take up a lot of space in your computer’s storage, a laptop is likely fine and more comfortable to use. After all, you can carry a laptop to the sofa or the desk, but the desktop is stuck where it is. A decent laptop should play Minecraft just fine.

What’s RAM?

RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and essentially acts like the short term memory of the computer. Think of your amount of RAM as your ability to multi-task, where a higher number means better -tasking; if you have a lot of RAM, you could cook breakfast and write an essay at the same time without burning your eggs. But if you only have a little, you’re gonna have to finish your food before you pick up that pen, because you’ll simply forget that there’s anything on the stove.

 

But what does that mean as far as Minecraft goes? Games can take a lot of RAM to play right, and if you’re looking to play the game with lots of mods, you’ll need a little more than the standard Mojang has listed on their website – mods are great, but they aren’t always optimized to work with each other at maximum efficiency. 4GB is a pretty standard size for a less-expensive modern computer. For the newest Call of Duty, or CyberPunk 2077 at full detail? It may come up a little short, but for regular  minimally-modded Minecraft? It’s totally enough.

What’s a GB?

A GB (Gigabyte) is a unit of data storage, and likely something you’ve seen before to advertise USB sticks and memory chips. The amount of storage a game takes up is not directly linked to how long the game is, or how many areas of the game’s world there are. Things like textures, or the individual designs of the game’s items and environment, can eat up space, even if the game itself is short. The same goes for enemy AI and usable items, but textures can be adjusted to use less memory in play, where AI usually can’t be.

As a recent example, CyberPunk 2077 is notoriously hard on older computers because it’s textures are very, very detailed – players with older computers may be forced to sacrifice some visual quality to get the game to a playable state for their device. Minecraft textures are pretty simple (unless you download something to change that) and the programming that makes playing the game possible makes up most of the storage the game needs.

 

What’s a GPU? Or a CPU? Are They the Same Thing?

CPU stands for Computer Processing Unit, and GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit. The two do similar things (that’s the ‘processing’ part of their names) but they do it for different reasons. A GPU is making decisions that get the image onscreen faster, while a CPU is making decisions that allow the computer to do what you’re telling it to. Basically, the CPU has a smaller number of cores designed to complete a wide variety of tasks, while the GPU has a larger number of cores better suited to specifically the graphics of a game, which also includes generating the environment, calculating where the player should visually be within the environment, playing animations associated with tasks, etc. which all involve reacting to player inputs and commands.

 

Let’s talk about deciding which kind of GPU to get. If you’re looking at Minecraft’s system requirements right now, you’ll see that its minimum requirements are this mess: GPU (Discrete): Nvidia GeForce 400 Series or AMD Radeon HD 7000 series with OpenGL 4.4. What does that even mean?!

 

Brand

Let’s break it down into easier to read bits. The first word there is almost always the brand name. Here, it’s Nvidia and AMD. Next, the series: GeForce and Radeon. Now, looking up the brand will tell you more about what this name means, and unfortunately it seems like these are labeled like this for the same reason cars are named things like “Camaro” or “Malibu” – it’s meant to invoke a sense of something without actually definitively ranking. The numbers are a better indicator of approximate quality, as it’s more descriptive of a particular style’s place in the series – and when in doubt, try to find the manufacturer’s website, and bring a list of equal-to or better-than GPUs to what you need just in case the store or website you go to doesn’t have the exact one your game recommends.

 

Cores

There’s also the number of cores recommended for the CPU. When you see something like ‘quadcore processing’, that means that the machine has four cores that can follow a ‘thread’ of processing each. Quadcore = four threads. Octacore = eight threads. What number should you get? Well, it depends on the machine. Intel recommends a quadcore over a dualcore when upgrading – it’s possible for the CPU to bottleneck the GPU when processing is limited to two cores (which just means that the GPU’s done calculating the graphics before the CPU’s done with its part) and two cores are also much slower than four.

However, it seems like most people don’t really need octacore (eight core) processing – PC Pepper recommends octacore for streamers, and it looks more and more like CyberPunk needs all eight cores to actually work as intended on its highest available settings, but Minecraft seems to be fine on four (at least right now in 2020). Older cores will process more slowly than newer cores – but if the machine is older, it might be possible to shore up the demands of the game by turning down the viewing distance and texture quality, something many modern games include in their settings.

 

What’s an HDD?

A Hard Disk Drive is a set of disks coated in magnetic film and stacked together that stores and reads data with a ‘transducer’ (a head attachment that reads and writes on them) kind of like a record player’s record and needle. This is different than SSD, or a solid-state drive – SSDs are faster and frequently smaller, but they’re still somewhat cutting-edge; they have no moving parts and draw less power than HDDs. A modern HDD should have no problem keeping up with modern games, but if microseconds make a difference, like they can for streamers or top-tier competitive gaming, an SSD might be better. Depending on the computer manufacturer, the laptop you choose might come with an SSD as default. There’s really no reason to pick one over the other besides cost right now – don’t dismiss a reasonably priced computer based on what kind of drive it has.

 

 

 

Sources: https://help.minecraft.net/hc/en-us/articles/360035131371-Minecraft-Java-Edition-system-requirements-

https://blogs.nvidia.com/blog/2009/12/16/whats-the-difference-between-a-cpu-and-a-gpu/

https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/products/docs/processors/cpu-vs-gpu.html

https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/products/docs/memory-storage/solid-state-drives/ssd-vs-hdd.html