Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Windows XP discontinuance - AP's view

Here's what the Associated Press (specifically Bree Fowler, a particularly savvy reporter) has to say about "the end of Windows XP ." If the AP complains about my requoting their article in its entirety, I will edit this posting to simply provide excerpts. However, since AP articles don't last as long as this blog does, I'm going to claim "fair use" or "archival purposes" or something. And I'll provide a reference to the original article: http://news.yahoo.com/end-windows-xp-support-spells-trouble-192945132--finance.html

I particularly liked Ms. Fowler's description of Windows XP as "persistently popular," and the remark from one user, who summed up his alternatives this way: "I am worried about security threats, but I'd rather have my identity stolen than put up with Windows 8." That sounds an awfully lot like "I'd rather have my fingernals ripped out with a pair of pliers ..." :-)

AP article begins here

End of Windows XP Support Spells Trouble for some
by Bree Fowler

NEW YORK (AP) — Microsoft will end support for the persistently popular Windows XP on Tuesday, and the move could put everything from the operations of heavy industry to the identities of everyday people in danger.

"What once was considered low-hanging fruit by hackers now has a big neon bull's eye on it," says Patrick Thomas, a security consultant at the San Jose, Calif.-based firm Neohapsis.

Microsoft has released a handful of Windows operating systems since 2001, but XP's popularity and the durability of the computers it was installed on kept it around longer than expected. Analysts say that if a PC is more than five years old, chances are it's running XP.

While users can still run XP after Tuesday, Microsoft says it will no longer provide security updates, issue fixes to non-security related problems or offer online technical content updates. The company is discontinuing XP to focus on maintaining its newer operating systems, the core programs that run personal computers.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company says it will provide anti-malware-related updates through July 14, 2015, but warns that the tweaks could be of limited help on an outdated operating system.

Most industry experts say they recognize that the time for Microsoft to end support for such a dated system has come, but the move poses both security and operational risks for the remaining users. In addition to home computers, XP is used to run everything from water treatment facilities and power plants to small businesses like doctor's offices.

Thomas says XP appealed to a wide variety of people and businesses that saw it as a reliable workhorse and many chose to stick with it instead of upgrading to Windows Vista, Windows 7 or 8.

Thomas notes that companies generally resist change because they don't like risk. As a result, businesses most likely to still be using XP include banks and financial services companies, along with health care providers. He also pointed to schools from the university level down, saying that they often don't have enough money to fund equipment upgrades.

Marcin Kleczynski, CEO of Malwarebytes, says that without patches to fix bugs in the software XP PCs will be prone to freezing up and crashing, while the absence of updated security related protections make the computers susceptible to hackers.

He added that future security patches released for Microsoft's newer systems will serve as a way for hackers to reverse engineer ways to breach now-unprotected Windows XP computers.

"It's going to be interesting to say the least," he says. "There are plenty of black hats out there that are looking for the first vulnerability and will be looking at Windows 7 and 8 to find those vulnerabilities. And if you're able to find a vulnerability in XP, it's pretty much a silver key."

Those weaknesses can affect businesses both large and small.

Mark Bernardo, general manager of automation software at General Electric Co.'s Intelligent Platforms division, says moving to a new operating system can be extremely complicated and expensive for industrial companies. Bernardo, whose GE division offers advisory services for upgrading from XP, says many of the unit's customers fall into the fields of water and waste water, along with oil and gas.

"Even if their sole network is completely sealed off from attack, there are still operational issues to deal with," he says.

Meanwhile, many small businesses are put off by the hefty cost of upgrading or just aren't focused on their IT needs. Although a consumer can buy an entry-level PC for a few hundred dollars, a computer powerful enough for business use may run $1,000 or more after adding the necessary software.

Barry Maher, a salesperson trainer and motivational speaker based in Corona, Calif., says his IT consultant warned him about the end of XP support last year. But he was so busy with other things that he didn't start actively looking for a new computer until a few weeks ago.

"This probably hasn't been as high a priority as it should have been," he says.

He got his current PC just before Microsoft released Vista in 2007. He never bought another PC because, "As long as the machine is doing what I want it to do, and running the software I need to run, I would never change it."

Mark McCreary, a Philadelphia-based attorney with the firm Fox Rothschild LLP, says small businesses could be among the most effected by the end of support, because they don't have the same kinds of firewalls and in-house IT departments that larger companies possess. And if they don't upgrade and something bad happens, they could face lawsuits from customers.

But he says he doesn't expect the wide-spread malware attacks and disasters that others are predicting — at least for a while.

"It's not that you blow it off and wait another seven years, but it's not like everything is going to explode on April 8 either," he says.

McCreary points to Microsoft's plans to keep providing malware-related updates for well over a year, adding that he doubts hackers are actually saving up their malware attacks for the day support ends.

But Sam Glines, CEO of Norse, a threat-detection firm with major offices in St. Louis and Silicon Valley, disagrees. He believes hackers have been watching potential targets for some time now.

"There's a gearing up on the part of the dark side to take advantage of this end of support," Glines says.

He worries most about doctors like his father and others the health care industry, who may be very smart people, but just aren't focused on technology. He notes that health care-related information is 10 to 20 times more valuable on the black market than financial information, because it can be used to create fraudulent medical claims and illegally obtain prescription drugs, making doctor's offices tempting targets.

Meanwhile, without updates from Microsoft, regular people who currently use XP at home need to be extra careful.

Mike Eldridge, 39, of Spring Lake, Mich., says that since his computer is currently on its last legs, he's going to cross his fingers and hope for the best until it finally dies.

"I am worried about security threats, but I'd rather have my identity stolen than put up with Windows 8," he says.


AP Business Writer Joyce M. Rosenberg in New York contributed to this report.


Follow Bree Fowler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBreeFowler

Windows is dead. Long live Windows.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the impending death of Windows XP, arguably the best version of Windows we have seen yet. Well, today is the day that Microsoft pulls the plug on XP. Here is Microsoft's official announcement.

(I'm writing this on a Windows 7 computer. Windows 7 is a worthy successor to XP, and in many ways it improves on the XP, ahem, experience. But if Windows 7 is so good, then why does it have a "compatibiity mode" to enable it to run WinXP programs, and why did / does Microsoft have an official "downgrade path" for those who wished / wish to downgrade from Win7 to XP? Yeah. That's right.)

No matter how much you loved WinXP and want to keep it, it is now vital - critical - for you to switch to a modern operating system. With the end of official support, WinXP will become increasingly vulnerable to hacks and malicious programming. You need to protect yourself by switching to Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac OS X, or a recent flavor of Linux.

It's always tough to see an old workhorse retired, especially when there's so much work left in it. Windows XP wasn't perfect, and it was plagued with security holes its entire life, but it was the best operating system Microsoft came out with - better than any Windows OS before it, and better than any Windows OS that came after it for almost ten years. We bid Windows XP a fond farewell, and we park it next to the Big Boy locomotive, the Willys Jeep, the A-10 Warthog and so many other inventions that went obsolete long before they wore out or stopped being useful.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Common Core: It's Not Really as Hard as You're Making It

I'm afraid that, in this Common Core debate, the voices of reason (and the voices of the teachers, bless 'em) are getting drowned out by all the yelling and screaming. Adjectives like "shrill" and "irrational" to describe some of CC's vocal opponents come immediately to mind, followed closely by "stupid" and "morons," and then devolving into words not suitable for a G-rated blog.

Here's another attempt to inject some calm and rational input into the debate. A commenter to an article on Yahoo! Shine, an actual teacher, has this to say about Common Core:

Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum. I teach common core without a specific textbook or program. I look at the standard such as 7th grade geometry: 7/G.A.1 Solve problems involving scale drawings of geometric figures, including computing actual lengths and areas from a scale drawing and reproducing a scale drawing at a different scale. I find examples of the problem and worksheets to support practice. Then I assess as needed that the student has mastered the skill. The worksheets people refer to are from a private publishing company that has sold the school a new program. If you don't like the program your school purchased, let them know. Common Core hasn't changed the way I teach, it's just a different standard.

Unfortunately, her words will not be heard. They make too much sense, they do not convey an extreme emotion, nor do they convey an extreme viewpoint. In the long run, the bullies and the reactionaries will take down Common Core, just like they're doing with the rest of society's useful institutions. In the end, the Common Core standards will be subscribed to by a small group of exceptional schools who quietly turn out exceptional scholars, while the rest of society wrings their hands about the decay in public education, never realizing that they have brought it upon themselves.

Note: This posting is a follow-on to my previous posting  on the topic. Click here to read it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Common Core: Getting past the bullshit and the myths

(Please forgive me. I don't use profanity very much. But this time it was truly needed.)

I'm getting fed up with all the attacks on the Common Core State Standards Initiative (abbreviated herein as "Common Core," or "CC"). It seems like the anti-CC folks, and the anti-CC arguments, come from people who have no idea what they're talking about.

Some people misunderstand one piece of CC, draw an erroneous conclusion, and trumpet their conclusion as proof that CC is bad. An example of this is the myth that "CC will let a student say that 3x4=11 and get away with it, if his reasoning is good enough." I dare any of you to find the text in official CC documents that supports that statement. There isn't any. It's a myth - or, to put it more baldly, IT'S A LIE. It gains credibility through retelling, but it's still false.

Some people hear an anecdote about a bad experience somebody had with CC, and they repeat the anecdote. They tweet it; they put it on Facebook; they put it on their blogs and again, through repetition, the anecdote acquires enough credibility to be a powerful (but bogus) argument against CC. These bad experiences are usually based on a misunderstanding. One example of this is the recent story of Jeff Severt, the "Frustrated Parent" who couldn't understand his child's CC math worksheet and got his 15 minutes of fame by crafting a snotty response to the question on the worksheet. As I have shown in a previous post, the guy proved that, even with an engineering degree, he couldn't grasp an elementary mathematical concept and couldn't read or follow directions.

MOREOVER (and I added this on April 7 and put it in italics), a lot of people's complaints are not about the CC standards, but about curricula (that's a fancy word for "lesson plans") developed by textbook companies and sold to school districts, curricula which claim to be compliant with CC. If you don't like the curriculum, then complain about the curriculum, not the standards. Despite what you may think, THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

Some of you may take the lazy way out and say, "But the curriculum is written to comply with the standards; therefore the standards must dictate the way the curriculum is laid out." That's some kind of logical fallacy. I don't know how to label it, but only intellectually lazy people would believe something like that.

My question to my readers is this: with all the resources available from the CC initiative itself, why are you relying on distorted opinions and anecdotes about stupid people, to form and to reinforce your negative opinions about Common Core? Why don't you bypass all the bullshit and go directly to the source?

And Now, A History Lesson:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was started in 2009. It was a collaborative effort between state governors, school administrators, teachers and yes, those nasty old teachers' unions. The federal government was not a part of it back then - and the federal government is still not a part of it. Okay, I can hear you sputtering with exasperation back there. Hold onto your horses, okay? We'll talk about the feds in a minute.

Before CC came about, departments in individual schools tried to come up with a common set of goals or standards, to ensure that all the students in their school learned the same stuff. It was a collaborative effort, driven by teachers.

Then teachers at many different schools in the district realized they were all working on the same thing, so they collaborated to create district-wide standards. Their efforts were usually coordinated by a curriculum chair at the district level. This was not a bad thing. Don't get your shorts in a bunch.

With the advent of No Child Left Behind, state boards of education were responsible for coming up with a set of common statewide standards, against which all students could be evaluated. Whether you like NCLB or not (I don't), it doesn't matter. NCLB led to the creation of state standards, and the districts hustled to conform, because statewide standardized testing was next. The state BOEs (well, the smart ones) relied on the work that had already been done by the teachers in the school districts in their states.

In the field of mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recognized the major effort that these teachers were making, and so NCTM surveyed the teachers and developed a uniform nationwide set of standards for mathematics in all grades. I imagine that similar movements were happening in other subjects.

So in 2009, a bunch of governors and school district administrators had the bright idea to codify these efforts, and define a core of knowledge, the bare minimum standards that American students should learn. This core would be the same in all participating states or districts; hence it would be known as the Common Core, and the standards as the Common Core State Standards.

NOW, ALL YOU ANTI-COMMON-CORE LOUDMOUTHS: Notice that the CC standards were driven by the teachers - the ones doing the teaching - and fostered by the governors of some of the states in the Union. Not all of them.

Like all good things, the federal government got wind of CC, and they messed with it. They screwed it up. They didn't change the content of CC, but they took what should have been a teaching tool, to be handled delicately by skilled practitioners, and turned it into a club, to be wielded by clumsy politicians and inept bureaucrats. They made threats like, "If you don't adopt CC in your school, or district, or state, we will withhold federal education funding." You can blame it on the Obama administration if you want to. You won't be very far off. I wouldn't say it was Obama's doing, but the few times I've heard him speak about Common Core, it was obvious that he didn't understand CC any better than the anti-CC forces did.

A Special Message for You Mormons

The Mormon church has had to endure a lot of bad press in its 180-plus years of existence. It seems like the same lies, half-truths, and innuendo keep getting repeated over and over, in spite of the church's (and its adherents') attempts at rebuttal. In addition, it seems like everybody knows a friend of a friend who has a scare story about a Mormon, illustrating just how evil, terrible and bad the Mormons are.

Now, all of you Mormons know that the lies are just lies. You know that the anecdotal Mormons are either extreme fabrications or aberrations. Don't you wish that people would find out the truth about the Mormons by talking to a Mormon? or by reading the official Mormon website or something? Doesn't it really frost your cookies when people try to find out about the Mormons from somebody other than a Mormon, and they end up getting it all wrong?

So why the hell are you doing the same thing with Common Core? If you want to know the truth about Common Core, then go to the Common Core website. Read everything the creators have to say. Don't rely on CC's opponents to tell you the truth. Read the actual standards themselves, not somebody's interpretation of them. Use your own brain; don't borrow somebody else's.

Finally, a Message for Everybody

The Common Core standards were developed by teachers, for teachers. It was, and remains, a grassroots effort, with the students' best interests in mind. Although CCSSI itself was launched only four years ago, the groundwork for it was laid years before - by teachers.

This isn't something that was thought up by politicians, bureaucrats, administrators or union bosses. It came from the teachers themselves, because they cared about their students.

Don't believe the negative stuff in the press. If it's not outright lies, then it's distortions and innuendo. Even the anecdotes are suspect, as I've shown in the case of Jeff Severt. If you look behind the stories, you will see that they're based on misunderstanding, and sometimes on stupidity.

Finally, and I can't stress this enough: read the standards yourself. Go to the Common Core website and read them. Understand them. Make up your own mind. Use your own brain; don't borrow somebody else's.

Final final note: My wife says I'm ranting. Yes, I certainly am.

Update, April 7: I found a great explanation of the difference between Common Core standards and Common Core curriculum. I quoted it in my latest posting. Click here to read it. 

Dear "Frustrated Father": Stop acting like an idiot.

The Internet is all atwitter this week about a "Frustrated Parent" (Jeff Severt, by name) who couldn't figure out "his son's Common Core math assignment" (I put that in quotation marks, because that's what a journalist wrote, and journalists are not always accurate in their reporting. (Imagine that!)).

The father's version of the homework first appeared on a conservative Facebook page called The Patriot Post. It was picked up by TheBlaze, who published a breathless article about it. That article caught Glen Beck's eye, and he did an interview with the father. From there, it went viral. For example, Yahoo has been hooting about it for days.

So what was the homework assignment? Here's the photo that was posted on Facebook. (FB lawyers: I claim "fair use." Get away from me.)

There are a number of things that are just plain wrong with Mr. Severt's response. I don't know where to start. Let's start at the beginning.

1. He didn't read the instructions. The problem says, "Write a letter to Jack, telling him what he did right, and how to fix his mistake." Mr. Severt responds that 427 minus 316 is obviously 111, and that he could figure it out in under five seconds. Well, that's great, Jeffy, but that's not what the teacher was asking for. The fictional kid got 121 for his answer. What did he do right, and more importantly, what did he do wrong and how should he fix it? An engineer should be able to figure that out. (I'll tell you below.)

2. Mr. Severt, who is so proud of his Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering, who can do differential equations, and who (I assume) can read both an electrical schematic and an oscilloscope waveform, is unable to figure out a simple number line. I glanced at the diagram and figured out the problem almost instantly - in less than a second, anyway. (Wanna know the answer? Keep reading.)

For your information, Mr. Severt, we lose a lot of kids in K-12 when we try to teach them to do subtraction via the vertical method. Many students, like you and me, did just fine learning math that way. But a significant number of students are visual learners, some are kinesthetic learners, and some have dyslexia. For these students, it really, really, REALLY helps for them to use a number line to figure out the mechanics of subtraction. We teach them how to add and subtract on a number line, and then we show them how the number-line method corresponds to the vertical method. Eventually they have an "a-hah!" moment where it all makes sense, and then they can leave the number line behind.

It's like training wheels on a bicycle.

Or do you want an example from your Electrical Engineering curriculum? Let's talk about calculus. Do you remember L'Hôpital's Rule? Limits? Do you use those in your EE job? Well, you do calculus, right? When's the last time you actually had to use L'Hôpital's Rule? You spent a whole unit on it in Calc 1. It was on the midterm and on the final. Learning and understanding L'Hôpital's Rule was fundamental to understanding differentiation, and integration after that. That is analogous to teaching subtraction on the number line.

Five years before Common Core came about, I was teaching my seventh grade math students how to add and subtract positive and negative numbers, using a number line. It works.

3. "In the real world, simplification is valued over complication." Mr. Severt, I dare you to try to teach a second-grader about three-digit vertical subtraction, your way. Your explanation will be much more complicated, and less understandable by the majority of your students, than the number line.

4. About the number line, Mr. Severt says "The process is ridiculous and would result in termination if used." This is both arrogant and disingenuous. You know what? It's also a stupid thing to say. As I have shown above, the number line is a K-12 teaching tool, not a professional-level algorithm.

5. I will assert, with no data to back me up, that most of the anti-Common Core crowd are just repeating claims they've heard (like the silly "It's okay to say 3 x 4 = 11" claim) and anecdotes like this "Frustrated Father" one, and that none of these parrots have actually read the Common Core standards. If you think I'm talking about you, then, Dear Reader, you're probably right. GO READ THEM FROM THE SOURCE. What you are arguing against is not Common Core.

I think that this point, the point about learning about CC from the source, deserves another blog entry. Read it here.

6. For those of you still reading this, here's the answer. It takes longer to explain it than it does to comprehend it. To solve 427-316 on a number line, you start at 427. Take three 100-sized jumps to the left, one 10-sized jump to the left, and six single jumps to the left. You will end up at 111. The fictional Jack forgot the 10-sized jump and that's how he ended up at 121.

You're welcome.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why people don't want to stop using Windows XP

Windows XP, arguably the best Windows OS that Microsoft ever created, is scheduled to die on April 8, 2014. Oh, the OS will continue to work just fine, but that's the date when Microsoft will stop supporting it or issuing security updates and patches for it. After April 8, if you want to use Windows XP, you're on your own.

Yet people won't stop using XP. (Remarkably, most ATMs in the world run on Windows XP, even with three weeks remaining before the end-of-support date.) Why not? Because it works.

Not only does it work, but it has proven over the years, from its inception in 2001 until now, that it is a healthy, robust, easy-to-use version of Windows. It is such a good operating system that Windows Vista was unable to unseat it in 2007. Windows 7, released in 2012, was more an apology for the bloated, sluggish, dead-out-of-the-box Vista than it was a replacement for Windows XP, and it did not surpass XP in market share until August 2012 (according to Wikipedia). The only reason Win7 got any market share from XP was that Microsoft stopped shipping XP. After June 30, 2008. if you wanted to get an XP license, you had to buy one on eBay or Amazon. The latest version of Windows, known as Windows 8, has been received almost as poorly as Vista was.

XP has proven so robust and so popular that Microsoft has had to provide "downgrade paths" and "compatibility modes" for Win7 and Win8 users who wanted to revert to XP.

Some critics, Microsoft included, will say that Win7 and Win8 have a greatly improved feature set over XP. Well, so did Vista, and nobody wanted Vista.

They will also tell you that XP is riddled with security holes - not to mention regular old bugs. Well, so is every version of Windows that has come after XP.

The Linux heads will tout the superiority of Linux over any version of Windows. That's a religious debate that I don't want to get into here. But the pervasiveness of the Windows OS, in any flavor, is undeniable. And XP is the best OS that Microsoft has come up with yet.

Note: This post was written on a Windows 7 computer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

HP calculators live on, small thanks to HP

The first pocket-sized scientific calculator in the world was the HP-35, invented by Hewlett Packard and introduced to the world in 1972. HP literally created the market for handheld scientific calculators. Although many worthy competitors arose, none could match HP's quality, reliability and overall superior design. HP was king of the mountain until Carly Fiorina chose to pull the plug on the calculator division sometime in the 1990s, and ceded the entire market to Texas Instruments.

Carly's excuse at the time was that "calculators are not profitable," which was an outright lie. We won't get into that here. That's water under the bridge. The geniuses who invented such dominant creatures as the HP-12C (the financial calculator that refuses to die), the HP-41 series and the HP-48 series, have moved on to other careers. So has Carly. Around HP, some people still spit after they say her name.

HP calculators have a vast and loyal fan base around the world. Some of those fans were later hired by HP to revive the calculator division, but it was too little, too late, and HP has never reclaimed the market. Like I said, that's a topic for another time, and besides, whining about it won't bring back the glory days.

One of the wisest things HP did, after announcing the dissolution of their calculator division, was release their ROMs into the wild. You can find ROM images, and maybe even source code, for many of HP's calculators online. I believe you can even find source code and emulators for the Saturn and other 4-bit CPUs at the heart of the calculators. (No, I won't include links. Go sniffing for them if you want them.)

Thanks to this wise and generous move by some key players inside HP (see the note at the end), their calculators live on. You can now have an HP calculator app on your iOS or Android device. These emulators work as well as the real things, including support for external storage and printers (on some apps).

My (free) recommendations for iOS: i48 (left) and Graphix48 (right).

My (free) recommendations for Android: Droid48 (left) came first. Droid48sx (right) is a beautiful follow-on product.

go48g is a really sweet alternative to Droid48. And if you're an HP-41 fan, go41c is a beautiful (and free!) HP-41 emulator.

On iOS, youcan also buy i41cx, an HP-41CX emulator.
iPhone Screenshot 1

Once you've made the leap from free calculators to ones you actually spend money on, your whole world opens up. You can get expandable versions of the HP48 and HP41 series. You can get the HP-12c and all of its sideways brethren. And you can get my personal favorite, possibly the best overall scientific calculator HP ever made, the HP-42S. What? You've never heard of the 42S? Well, that's another story for another time.

Here's an open-source version of the HP-42S emulator! It doesn't use a single bit of HP's ROM images; it merely duplicates the functionality. (Merely.) For iOS (left) and Android (right).
iPhone Screenshot 1 Free42 - screenshot

A note about those "key players": The HPers who released all of this code into the wild were not the movers and shakers at the top, who nearly drove this once-great company into the ground. They were a tiny number of HP engineers and engineering managers with a combination of passion, integrity and vision that is seldom seen inside HP anymore.