Wednesday, January 28, 2009

KDE42 Released : Microsoft Beware! Windows is looking outdated.

I just finished looking over the latest KDE42 (K Desktop Environment version 4.2.0 for Linux), and I was so impressed I just found myself repeatedly thinking: this latest FREE KDE42 desktop for Linux looks spectacular, and even more, it is extremely functional (yes, useful outweighs looks - are you listening Microsoft?) Over and over, feature after feature, I kept saying to myself "WOW!"

I am someone that has tried Microsoft Windows Vista, and after trying it, and hating it, has reverted to using Windows XP SP2 (or SP3) for all day-to-day mainstream Windows applications. Sure, Vista has some nice new features, but I overwhelmingly find it to be more eye-candy and bloat than true useful and functional improvements since XP. I can create a minimal Windows XP install in a couple Gigabytes or less, but no such luck with that bloated beast called Vista. I just purchased a new Dell Studio Hybrid recently with Vista on it, and without anything else installed, and I was flabbergasted by how much disk space an "empty" (fresh install) Vista OS took up (if you are lucky, Vista with SP1 may ONLY take up 10GB or so after you clean up unused files - unreal!)

Enough ranting about how lame Vista is... let's look to the future: KDE 42 on Linux! From what I am seeing, this is what Vista *should* have been. Sure, being Linux, it will suffer from a perceived "lack of applications", but most of that "lack" is a lack of mainstream Windows-only applications from major vendors, with the most notable titles being those from guess who: Microsoft. But, for most everyday users, Linux offers more than enough commonly-required functionality, whether Adobe's Flash or Acrobat Reader, Firefox browser, or a host of other applications.

And, unlike Windows, with Linux/KDE you do not need to wipe out your computer's disk drive and spend hundreds of dollars, and countless hours, to *try* the OS before you committing to using it... just try out a "Linux Live CD or Live DVD" with all sorts of common applications installed, and in as little as a few minutes (the time it takes to boot the running OS, with apps installed, from the CD/DVD media -- try THAT Microsloth!) Note: since writing that review, (the LiveCD link) Linux has grown a LOT and distribution options have improved... I currently prefer OpenSuse, Fedora, and Ubuntu/Kubuntu distros). Oh geez... how easy it is to again get a bit off course and rant about how lame Windows is with regards to nightmare day-long installs (especially when including time for "updates" and "Service Packs"). Onward...

KDE42 New Features
Here is a list of some noteworth items from the new KDE 4.2 release:
  • One of the coolest useful features in KDE42 is the desktop-application-quick-find thing (sorry, I don't know what it's code-name is), that lets you start typing the name of the open application, or sub-application-item too I think, and have KDE take you to the appropriate screen and application in as little as a few keystrokes when you have multiple applications and/or desktops open (note to Windows users: KDE allows you to have many virtual desktops that you can move between - perfect for keeping Email on one "screen", software development tasks on another, etc). If this existed on Windows, you could get to Control Panel (if it was open among many Windows) through a hot-key combo, then typing "CO...", and only typing as many characters as needed to uniquely find the "COntrol Panel" window and set focus to it. Nice (and, Linux only)!
  • Very nice integration of folder/file browsing on your machine in such a way that you can drag a view of a folder to your desktop, and have that folder window/panel visible on the desktop (not a shortcut, but a sorta window-panel view of the folder and files). Nice.
  • A slider-control within file-explorer (and other places) for sizing/zooming items within a panel. This is MUCH more useful than a dropdown (ala Microsoft) that you have to choose "details, icons, thumbnails" etc) - KDE has a faster and more useful interface paradigm here.
  • Desktop search is coming along, and in a sensible fashion. I utterly detest Windows desktop search, and de-install it on any of my systems, as I find it useless. KDE looks to have a better implementation even in early stages.
  • Improved power management - speaks for itself.
  • Improved printer configuration - something I don't mind in Windows, so I am always glad when Linux makes printer configuration easier with each release.
  • Smarter archive-file extraction and handling (about time).
  • And, of course, some requisite glitz and eye-candy including window and desktop transitions, etc. I do not care much about these things, though I can appreciate the fact that they look nice. Again, I focus on usefulness, usability, and features over glitz.

If you have not read the KDE42 Release Announcement, you may wish to do so. You can find links from there to pages like the Visual Guide to KDE42 page, which links to other detailed pages of pretty screen shots and videos demonstrating some of the features I have mentioned and much more. You will be awed (I hope) at how splendid KDE, and the Plasma desktop / widgets and overall functionality, is becoming.

To me the bottom line is obvious: Microsoft (Public, NASDAQ:MSFT) is losing whatever edge it had with regards to their Windowing Operating System. Other players are moving fast, and not just meeting, but exceeding, the abilities of Windows Vista (and perhaps Windows 7 - since that is coming soon). Microsoft needs to do something beyond evolutionary if they are to compete in the long term; fact is, the open-source community is getting their game on and working faster than ever to meet and exceed expectations. Perhaps this is one reason why Microsoft stock (MSFT) is taking a bath lately... it is not JUST Windows that is losing its edge, many of their products are becoming less dominant than ever as competition heats up (note: I still LOVE Microsoft SQL-Server, and consider it a fantastic product - no open-source DB even comes close).

Give KDE42 a look, and you will see what I mean.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Allstate, American Funds : Misleading Advertising

Even after all the current financial market and investment related issues that have swept the market, I keep encountering advertising and marketing propaganda from investing, insurance, banks, and related financial companies that are nothing short of misleading - if not plainly incorrect or impossible.

Allstate (Allstate Insurance Company - NYSE:ALL)
The first example of misleading advertising I want to point out is from Allstate Insurance Company / Allstate Life Insurance Company. I was reading the February 2008 issue of National Geographic, and noticed the Allstate advertisement that occupied the entire back cover of the magazine.

This advertisement was about women, and how the average woman spends 11 years out of the workforce taking care of family - and, how this left the average woman without enough retirement money, due to missed earnings and corresponding missed 401K contributions during the same time. I am OK with this argument in concept, but where it fails is the specific numbers that Allstate provides in the advertisement. I challenge them to show me some real statistical proof of this following statement they make:

"Unfortunately, those 11 years out of the workforce put a woman even further behind, costing her an average of $659,139 in earnings."
YEAH, RIGHT! What a ridiculous statement or assertion! So, Allstate, you are trying to tell me, and the rest of the population, that the average working woman is making $60,000 per year!? This is impossible. And this utterly false statement follows a sentence (of your own writing) where you state in the same ad: "Fact is, women are still earning less than me do...". So, by that same logic, Allstate is telling us that the average man obviously earns substantially more than $60,000 per year!? ABSOLUTE FABRICATION.

Let me at least cite a source for my own assertion that Allstate is utterly full of it with this misleading ad of theirs. How about information from the US Census Bureau:
In 2007, the median annual household income rose 1.3% to $50,233.00 according to the Census Bureau. The real median earnings of men who worked full time, year-round climbed between 2006 and 2007, from $43,460 to $45,113. For women, the corresponding increase was from $33,437 to $35,102.
Now, could it be that the primary distortion that Allstate is using to inflate their case for whatever product/services they are selling has to do with the use of AVERAGE vs. MEDIAN. Allstate is asserting that women, on average, make nearly twice as much per year as the MEDIAN earnings for women. But, if that is their game (using Average vs. Median), it is just that - a statistical abuse to mislead.

Fact is, if you throw Oprah's earnings, and those of a few other top 1%+ earners, the AVERAGE earnings are skewed substantially. But, the true likelihood that an "average" woman in America is missing out on making $66,000 per year is statistically incorrect. I guess Allstate did not feel that 11 years of missed earnings, times the median of $35,000 (for a total of $385,000) was shocking enough to sell their product. Sure sounds like a lot of money to me, but I guess that it sounds so much better to throw out a number twice that high instead.

This is quite typical of so many financial service advertisements in America. Abuse statistics, or use statistics misleadingly, all in hopes of selling more of your products. And you wonder why people lose faith in your companies and products, especially as of late, financial industry.

American Funds
Next, I was reading over the latest American Funds Investor magazine from Fall/Winter 2008. American Funds is generally a decent mutual fund company from what I can gather, but I take issue with the fact that they, in their attempts to sell people on their products and services and the concept of long-term investing in general, make rather optimistic assumptions to say the least - especially given the current stock market meltdown.

My particular issue with their latest magazine / pamphlet has to do with their little push for College-Savings plans (i.e., 529 college savings plans) and how to build up funds for your childrens' college education. They show a graph of how, if you contribute $100/month for 18 years during your kid's childhood, that it can grow to an amount between $39,000 and $48,000 by the end of that period (taxable vs. tax-free savings respectively).

OK, that all sounds great, UNTIL you read the bull @#$! below the graph about how "this example assumes an 8% annual rate of return (compounded monthly) for both investments". EIGHT PERCENT AVERAGE RETURN PER YEAR OVER 18 YEARS - GEE, THAT IS JUST A BIT AGGRESSIVE! Wake up American Funds! The stock market is FLAT over the past decade now. Where are you making an average of 8%? If you can GUARANTEE me such returns, I will have you manage all of my money.

This is not an OLD issue of the magazine... it is current... and yet it ignores that simple fact that there will not be such huge returns available anywhere for years to come, barring massive inflation to go with it, and/or devaluation of our currency embedded in such numbers. It just is not going to happen. And, it has not happened (past tense) either looking at the numbers for the past decade or more. Consider the Nasdaq, that was around 5000 points a decade ago, and now sits around 1500. And, you surely are not making 8% in government bonds, notes, T-Bills, or bank accounts.

I am so sick and tired of these ridiculous advertisements that make, via assumptions, the case that you will essentially realize some fantastic pile of cash after a set period of time by using interest-rates and rates-of-return that are essentially unachievable (certainly not realizable as an AVERAGE of any sort). This is not just an issue with Allstate or American Funds, but nearly ALL financial service companies - I see this abuse of statistics and math constantly.

I guess companies just can not sell their products by making the only clear and honest statement they can, which is: SAVE MONEY, AND YOU WILL BE IN BETTER FINANCIAL SHAPE THAN THOSE WHO DO NOT, BUT WE HAVE NO WAY TO TELL YOU HOW MUCH BETTER. That just doesn't sound good enough... people want that chart showing that, if they save, they will be "rich" or have a huge pile of cash in the future.

Forget that stuff people... just start saving, and once you have established a decent record of saving, then you can start focusing on average-returns and projections if you still feel the need. But, projections are nearly meaningless; it is your ability to save that matters most.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 7000 and Blinking Red LED / Battery Charging Issues

I just purchased a new MS Wireless Laser Mouse 7000 for my desktop computer. I used it for a couple weeks on the initial charge, and everything was fine and working wonderfully, but then it was due for a recharging and it just would not charge, and instead presented me with a blinking red LED while on the charging base after just a minute of green-LED status preceding that.

I was all ready to take the new Microsoft Mouse back to where I purchased it. But, I
went hunting on the Internet to see if other people were complaining about the mouse recharge issues... YES! COMMON.

And the Microsoft Laser Mouse 7000 will not recharge for a RIDICULOUS REASON - which, I have to wonder how many batteries are pitched and/or mouses are returned because of, where MS needs to provide a SIMPLE FIX (due to a simple design flaw)
by way of a new battery and/or workaround.

MS Wireless Mouse 7000 DESIGN FLAW; SIMPLE FIX!
I came across a solution someone figured out, which *appears* to be working now, as my Microsoft mouse, with its small rechargeable Nickel-Metal-Hydride (NiMH) battery, is recharged again finally.

Symptoms / Debugging:
If you try to charge your mouse without a battery inside, you will see a red blinking LED on the top of the mouse [like the symptom you are experiencing during recharging attempts for previously unknown reasons]. If there is a battery in the mouse, and everything is functioning properly, that LED should be slowly blinking GREEN until it is fully charged, and then it should be solid green light.

Why do you get a red blinking LED / Light indicator instead of a green one, even with your NEW Microsoft Laser Mouse 7000, which presumably has a NEW rechargeable and fully functional battery?

Well, it turns out that the mouse has an internal switch/button/sensor positioned under the battery (when battery is installed) that senses the presence of the battery in the battery compartment. Unfortunately, the standard NiMH battery shipped with the Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 7000 is too narrow of diameter and does not fully depress the battery-sensor switch, and the mouse acts as though no battery is present, even when it is.

Solution / Fixing Mouse Recharge Issues, Problem
The solution is to: 1) get a thicker battery (which, I have no idea where to find one) or more preferably, 2) wrap some paper and/or tape around the battery that came with the mouse - just enough to make the battery-diameter great enough to depress the switch under the battery.

I have taken the approach of rolling paper around the battery (2 or three turns around battery with normal letter paper I had cut into a strip the width of the battery) and taping the paper together on outside so as to prevent if from uncoiling itself. Then, I placed the battery back in the battery compartment an put the mouse on the base / recharger unit. Voila! It now charges.

Note: do not put so much paper around the battery as to make closing the battery holder compartment door impossible. My battery-cover door was a snug fit when I was done, but it worked.

I still can not help thinking how many of these otherwise-working mice are being thrown away and/or returned when Microsoft (or their designer, manufacturer, battery supplier, etc) made a rather simple design flaw error that has found its way into the market. Talk about LAME QUALITY CONTROL procedures! Simple test: assemble multiple Microsoft Mouse components, use, test, recharge, check for issues... BEFORE manufacturing and distributing a pile of mouse pointer devices that have an error that should be caught!

Well, so long as my Wireless Mouse 7000 Microsoft device is back to working and recharging consistently, I am OK with it. I generally like it otherwise. My ONLY other annoyance with it is the left-side navigation-buttons that are oddly small and positioned in a weird location for simple use (as compared to my older, and nearly perfect Microsoft wired Intellimouse Explorer 4.0 USB 5-button mouse). The ONLY reason I moved to the Laser Mouse 7000 was for the WIRELESS aspect, and if it recharges OK now, I will stick with it.