Joho the Blog » computers

October 20, 2012

Ye Olde Local Computer Store

Last week I paid a visit to my old PC store, ICG Computers, in Brookline. I hadn’t been there in maybe 5 years because I switched to Macs and thus spend time at the Computer Loft in Brighton. Also, when I was a PC, I was building my own computers out of components, so lots more went wrong (= I did lots more wrong). And, yes, I wish I could compile my own hardware and install the Mac OS on it. (Hackintosh scares me. Someday.) But, my remaining Windows machine crapped out last week, so I carried it to ICG’s small storefront.

Ray greeted me by name. Because no one else was there, we took the opportunity to catch up.

Ray comes from China and runs a quintessential American small business. He’s honest as the day is long, and could teach any bigger company about customer service. But it’s been a lean few years for ICG. Ray says that the recession hurt his primary customer base, small businesses. There haven’t been a lot of new businesses formed, so they’re not coming in to equip their offices. And, of course, the PC business has gotten commoditized. So, ICG relies on repairs and aggressively trying to beat the Internet on prices.

The walls of the store are lined with components. Then there are a few tables of new and used machines. He prices his used machines against eBay, and his new machines against Net low-ballers. As a result, you can get a power-packed laptop for $250 or $300. And you can do so knowing that Ray knows the tech and stands behind what he sells.

ICG is a great place to buy a computer. It’s also a great place to hang out and talk about tech. Ray knows my own level of expertise and talks at that level. No condescension, no salesmanship, no BS. I always learn something talking with Ray. In this case it turns out that my PC needed a new power supply, and the one I’d put in was under-powered. So, yeah, Ray upsold me, but I have complete confidence that he also right-sold me, so to speak.

Bunches of small, locally-owned computer stores have gone out of business here over the past few years. So have most of the larger stores. Remember EggHead? CompUSA? Me neither. And much as I love the Internet, I hate what it’s doing to the Rays of our town, who epitomize the best of small business. ICG is surviving and will continue to serve our community. But I want Ray’s business to do more than that. It seems unfair that honesty, expertise, friendliness, and low, fair prices aren’t enough for a business to go gangbusters.

Am I plugging ICG? Damn straight.

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December 17, 2011

D is for Digital

D is for Digital

I’m enjoying a book by Brian Kernighan — yes, that Brian Kernighan — based on a course he’s been teaching at Princeton called “Computers in Our World.” D is for Digital is a clear, straightfoward, grownup introduction to computers: hardware and software, programming, and the Internet. [Disclosure: Brian wrote some of during his year as a fellow at the Berkman Center.]

D is for Digital is brief, but it drives its topics down to the nuts and bolts, which is a helpful reminder that all the magic on your screen is grounded in some very real wires and voltages. Likewise, Brian has a chapter on how to program, taking Javascript as his example. He does not back away from talking about libraries and APIs. He even explains public key encryption clearly enough that even I understand it. (Of course, I have frequently understood it for up to fifteen minutes at a time.) There are a few spots where the explanations are not quite complete enough — his comparison of programming languages doesn’t tell us enough about the differences — but they are rare indeed. Even so, I like that this book doesn’t pander to the reader.

D is for Digital would be a nice stocking stuffer with Blown to Bits by Harold Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry R. Lewis, which is an introduction to computers within the context of policy debates. Both are excellent. Together they are excellent squared.

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December 9, 2010

How the Egyptians multiplied

The title refers to The Maths, people! Get your minds out of the gutter for once, will you? Jeez!

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August 12, 2009

Apple: Totalitarian art

Jason Calacanis has an excellent post making the case against Apple, from an Apple fan’s point of view. I’m basically with him.

Doc Searls has long said that the key to understanding Steve Jobs — and thus to understanding Apple — is that Job’s an artist. We understand when an artist wants to maintain complete, obsessive control over his creations, especially when they are as beautiful as some Apple products are. But it’s not just artistry at work at Apple. Apple tends towards totalitarianism.

You can see why in its computer architectures: Its products work because they’re relatively closed systems that run tightly controlled hardware, unlike Microsoft’s operating system that has to be able to work on just about every piece of hardware that comes along. And Apple’s stuff generally works beautifully. (I switched from Windows to the Mac about three years ago.) But the hardwired connection between the iPod and iTunes — only recently loosened — is there not to benefit users, but to meet the DRM needs of recording companies and to tether users to Apple. The hardwired connection between the iPhone and the App Store represents a disturbing direction for the industry, in which Apple acts in loco parentis to protect users from their own software decisions, and (apparently) to exclude products they believe hurt the business interests of their partners. The App Store’s success makes it particularly threatening; it’s easy to imagine Apple’s rumored tablet adopting the same strategy, then other companies following suit.

It’s not an unmixed picture, of course. The removal of the egregious DRM from iTunes is a step forward, and seems to have been a step Apple eagerly took, and the movement of the Mac’s OS onto Unix added admirable transparency. Plus, Apple makes some beautiful stuff that works beautifully.

I just wish that going forward, I felt more confident that Apple is on our side, not just as customers but as digital citizens.

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March 22, 2008

Babbage’s difference engine

Here’s a short YouTube of the calculating machine the British Museum made in 1991 following Charles Babbage’s design:


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