Strategic Geekery

Anything not miniatures or wargaming related

Whenever you meet someone new, one of the first questions that comes up is “What do you do?”

For me, the answer is programming.  For some, that brings to mind the classical TV/movie trope of Mountain Dew, thick glasses, a pocket protector and walls of unorganized computers and blinking lights.  For others, I instantly get slotted as someone who knows how to program VCRs and can fix their computer.

My hope for this series is to dispel some of the stereotypes surrounding programming, confirm others, and give you a chance to learn some programming skills of your own, if you’re so inclined.

Programming 101: PB & J

If you’ve ever been to a summer camp, or leadership training or anything that required team building, you may have done the PB&J exercise.

Everyone sits in a room facing a table, which has a jar of Peanut Butter, a jar of Jelly, a loaf of bread and a knife.  Usually the team leader sits at the table, and calls out the most confident person in the room.  That person sits in the front of class, with their back to the table, and has to give instructions to the person at the table, and get them to make a PB&J.

The twist is, the person at the table pretends be an alien and has no idea what a PB & J is (let alone a sandwich), is mute and can’t give feedback, only follows the instructions of the person who  has their back to the table, and follows them to the letter.  The person assembling the sandwich doesn’t know how to open the jars.  Doesn’t know how to use the knife.  Doesn’t know how to untie the twisty-tie holding the loaf of bread together, has no idea what “spread” means, etc.

OM NOM NOM…

If you’ve never seen this, it’s hilarious, and usually ends with the assembly person covered in PB & J, a mess all over the table, and a hungry audience.

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Today’s post has nothing to do with models, and everything to do with the machine you’re (likely) viewing this blog on.  If you’re a Mac owner, congratulations on choosing a platform that gives free upgrades to the Operating System (OS).  That’s pretty dang handy.  If you’re a Linux User, your OS is not the limiting factor in your computer speed, so go play with your root – this article isn’t for you.

Why should the rest of you listen to me?  I have a Computer Engineering degree from Purdue University, and all my family members make me program their DVRs.  So there.

A Foundation

A computer is like a kid doing math homework.  The book containing the problems and instructions is the Hard Drive: permanent storage.  The pencil and paper are the computer’s RAM: it’s the (temporary storage) space used to execute the instructions.  The kid’s brain is the processor: interpreting the instructions and generating output, step-by-step.

Those are the three primary components of a computer: Hard Drive (permanent storage), RAM (temporary storage) and processor (executes instructions).  If any of those components gets bogged down, or becomes insufficient compared to the other two, the computer slows down.

Operating System

Firstly, if you’re reading this far, I’m assuming you have a Windows Operating System (OS).  If it’s XP or Windows 7, skip ahead.  If you have Vista, get a box of Kleenex.

Vista was a great idea, executed horribly; primarily due to it’s RAM management.  Whenever a program gets started up, it requests some room in the computer’s RAM.  This takes a small, but not insignificant amount of time.  The PC has to check how much RAM is available, what sections are free, and if there’s not enough room, it has to juggle multiple programs.

Vista took the following approach to RAM:  If Vista requests about half the RAM, it won’t have to rely on the hardware (the physical chips on the circuit boards) to manage RAM – Vista can manage the RAM space in software.   IE, Microsoft took control away from the circuit builders, and tried to do everything on it’s own.

While that’s a great idea, the problem becomes apparent when you realize that a processor can only execute one instruction at a time.  This means that Vista has several thousands of extra instructions it has to get through every time a program starts or is running.  That wouldn’t be a problem if the processor was faster and could handle the necessary volume, but of course, that’s not the case.

What ends up happening is that the computer is perpetually stuck in rush hour traffic on the highway.  The processor speed (road size in the rush hour analogy) hasn’t changed, but all of a sudden, there’s 10 times the traffic, and stuff just gets backed up.

How do you fix this?  You don’t.  Neither did Microsoft.  They just said “oops” and released Windows 7, which is essentially Vista, but without the custom RAM management.  They went back to letting the chips handle the musical chairs.  So, if you have Vista – upgrade to Windows 7 (or downgrade back to XP if you can find a copy).

Sorry.

Task Bar Party

Look down at the task bar, in the bottom right of the Windows screen.  There’s a small section that has icons in it, usually one per program running.  Often, there’s a button on the left side of the section, expanding it.  If there’s more than about 4-5 icons in there when your computer is sitting doing nothing, you are probably suffering from a RAM bottleneck.

Computer programs are selfish and conceited.  When most programs are installed, they add themselves to a list of programs that are executed whenever a computer starts up (cleverly enough, this is called the startup list).  They do this so that their major functions are pre-loaded into the Operating System.  That way, when you choose to start the program, it loads faster, thus looking like a nice, quick, easy-to-use program.

Great idea, right?  Sure, if it’s only 1-2 programs.  Unfortunately, every program does this, and over the course of a few months or years, your computer is struggling to maintain 20-30 pre-loaded programs and their functions, as well as whatever actual tasks you’re doing while on the computer.

Going back to the kid doing math analogy, it’s like asking the kid to do his homework while someone paints on his worksheet with a paintbrush, and another person is setting it on fire, and a third is trying to eat it.  There’s no way he’s going to get anything done – he’ll have to keep re-starting the math problem over and over and over again.

How do you fix this?  Try this.

Or, use my 5 step process:

  1. Click Start (then click RUN in XP)
  2. Type “msconfig” (without quotes), hit enter
  3. Select the “Startup” tab
  4. Click “Deselect All”
  5. Click Exit (Restart when prompted)

Ta Da!

Hard Drive Bottleneck

This is the last of my solutions, and one that is sometimes hard to diagnose.  While your Hard Drive may have plenty of space, if it has to work too hard to retrieve the data you want, then this can result in a slow PC.

Imagine you are tasked with maintaining a record, and all you have is a pen and paper.  As the record is told to you, you write it down.  However, the person who is telling you this record keeps amending what they mention earlier.  Now imagine that you cannot go back and correct your previous entry.  Instead, to keep track of changes and updates, you must add an addendum each time a change or update occurs.  Over time, you have a mangled, tangled mess of original data, changes and updates to that data, and some how you have to remember how it all relates to each other.  It would be a nightmare.

That is a Hard Drive’s world.  It cannot insert data into the middle of a record, instead, it can only attach it to the next available chunk of free space, and then map that small update to where it should be long in the original group of data.  So, if you have a folder of mp3s that you’ve been collecting for years, those mp3s are not all lumped nicely on the Hard Drive like they are on your desktop.  Instead, they are scattered all over the Hard Drive, because they were put where ever there was enough room.

To fix this problem, one must de-fragment the Hard Drive.  This is a long, grueling process, and is best done overnight.  When a Hard Drive is defragmented, it looks at all the data on the disk, and figures out what chunks belong together.  Then, it uses the computer’s RAM as temporary storage, and starts shuffling chunks of data until they bits and pieces are grouped better.  This means the Hard Drive is no longer having to jump all over it’s records to play a single song or display a document.

Disk defragmentation is easily started by doing the following:

  1. Right-click on your Hard Drive, and select Properties.
  2. Find a “Hardware” or “Tools” tab.
  3. Click on the “Defragment” button.
  4. Click the “Defragment Now” button.
  5. Go to Bed.

I highly suggest defragmenting 3-4 times a year.  If you download lots of stuff, or if you’re a writer or video gamer, defragment more often.

Conclusion

The two most common causes of slow PCs are too many programs running during startup, or a messy Hard Drive.  So long as you keep those two issues under check, your PC should run as fast as it did when it came off the assembly line.

If you have any questions regarding Computers, feel free to ask in the comments below!

I’ve never been a fan of photoshopping pictures of models, but there is something to be said about ensuring that a picture is true to the subject, and is presented well.  To that effect, I do a bit of editing to the photos I put up here, and today I’ll take you through this quick and painless process.

Here’s a picture of some of the first PP models I ever painted – a unit of Widowmakers. These are from about 4 years ago, as evidenced from the paint job and horrible photography.  However, it’s a good example to work with, so here it is:

Original Photo

It’s dark, the back guys are out of focus, and there’s stuff on the sides that take your attention off the models that the picture is actually trying to show.  Not all that great.

The photo editing software I use is GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), and it’s open-source and free to download and use.  You can get it here, on the official site: www.gimp.org.  It’s really lightweight, works quickly and it easily has most of the features of Photoshop that you’d pay loads of $$$ for.

Step 1: Start GIMP, Load Image

This part’s pretty obvious.  Once installed, you can right click an image and choose “Open in GIMP”, or just start GIMP and open a file like you do in any other program.

The GUI is fairly simple – three windows appear.  One is your toolbar, it has all the different tools that let you manipulate pictures.  Another has the list of layers, as well as a brush selection pad.  The big one is where the picture loads, and it also has the traditional File-Edit drop-down menus we’re all familiar with.

Once your picture is loaded, you should be looking at something like this:

Step 2: Crop

So, in my example photo, the subject is centered, which is good, but there’s some extra stuff on the sides, and lots of extra room on top.  That extra stuff makes the picture larger than it needs to be, which means the subject isn’t as large as it could be.  Time to crop the good stuff, and drop the bad stuff.

Grab the crop tool, it looks like the hobby knife.  Select the section you want to keep, and you’ll see the excess go dark, like so:

While in this state, you can drag around the borders and corners of that box until you’re happy with how it looks.  GIMP is nice and gives you really big handles you can click on to move the edges around.  When you;re happy, hit enter and poof, all the darkened areas are gone!

Step 3: Color Correction

When a picture is taken, the camera does it’s best to accurately represent what it sees.  But, what it sees may not be an accurate representation of the object.  This could be due to shadows, inadequate lighting, a cheap or bad camera, etc.  This color correction step attempts to reduce that misrepresentation.

So, open the Level Tool:  Colors -> Level…

This tool analyzes the pixel in the photo, and comes up with several tidbits of useful information.

Most of that I don’t care about.  I’m just trying to make the picture look as close to the model sitting on my desk as possible.

So, when the Levels Tool Dialogue pops up, I just hit the Auto-Correct button:

What this does is pretty cool.  It looks through all the pixels and picks out the one closest to pure white, and the one closest to pure black.  It then stretches those pixels until they actually are pure white and pure black.  Then, once it knows how it had to adjust those two pixels, it adjusts all the rest of the pixels in the picture accordingly.

So, if your picture is too dark, it won’t have to adjust the black much, but it will have to lighten the white pixel, so the entire picture gets lightened.  Likewise washed out pictures get more saturation.  If your picture’s too red, it knows that the picture is skewed red, and will reduce the red levels in the entire picture.  It’s awesome.

Click OK, and we’re almost done.

Step 4: Save-As

Always do your best to save the processed picture as a new file.  I don’t do this as often as I should, which is why I had to search so hard to find an unprocessed picture for this tutorial.  Saving as a new file uses space, sure, but it also makes sure you have the original in case you ever need it.

Here’s the original Photo:

Original Photo

And here’s the processed photo:

Final Photo

Now, it’s still not a great photo, but that’s due to how it was taken.  The final photo’s colors are closer to the actual models, and the models are bigger in the photo, despite the fact the photo takes up the same space on the screen.

Overall, the process takes about 30 seconds to a minute per photo, and it’s not a difficult thing to do at all.  I think it makes a world of difference in the quality of pictures, and when you’re trying to show off a model, what’s the point if you can’t actually see it?

This week is shaping up to be quite an interesting week.

Monday, while trying to fit a new media card reader into my 2 year old (custom built) PC, something went, terribly, horribly…  wrong.  Somewhere, something went “$&*^# this, I quit!” and Windows couldn’t find some magical driver and boot up.

Luckily, I’d built the system with this type of problem in mind.  My system has an ancient 40GB IDE Hard Drive (from the late 90s, I’m sure).  That’s what I keep my operating system on.  I have a pair of 200GB drives that I install large programs to (video games, mostly) as well as store all my music, videos, etc.
So, I yanked everything but the motherboard, took an old toothbrush to the accumulated dust, and cleaned everything.  I then re-assembled the guts of the PC, but left the storage drives unconnected.
A reformat and reinstall of Windows XP later, and I’m up and running.
All over a $7 media card reader.
*headdesk*
I’ll reconnect the storage drives tonight, close up the system and I should be back in business.  This type of thing is something I should do once a year, so I don’t mind it.  I just wish it had been on my schedule, and not been a surprise.
Tuesday, at about 3, I got called into the boss’s office.  Yeah, I was a bit worried.  He tells me to go sit and then goes and fills up his coffee.  I’m wracking my brain for what I could have messed up.  Then, he closes the door when he comes back.
Oh, dear.
Then I find out, effective next month, I’m getting promoted!
So, I took Lyndsey out to dinner, had some beers and a steak, and Key Lime pie for dessert!  (Sweetwater Tavern has amazing Key Lime Pie)
I spent the rest of the evening downloading programs (Chrome, iTunes, GIMP, etc) and updating the PC while I chugged away on the snotling wagons.  They’ll be done by this weekend.  I’m pretty excited, and I’ll have photos tonight.

Oh, and Lyndsey was in an artistic mood and made me a new banner for the blog!  Tell us what you think!

Tomorrow  Wrath should arrive!!  I tried to set myself up for having it on time, but thewarstore.com was out of stock, as was the LGS’s distributor.  My book shipped yesterday, so it should be here tomorrow.  3 weeks after release, but hey, I’ll finally have it and be able to dive into all the goodness.
Friday, well, is Friday, and kick starts a 3-day weekend.  w00t!

Pictures of the wagons tonight, and tomorrow I’ll be addressing Lost Hemisphere‘s Clash of the Titans painting challenge!



Transmission End.