Power User: Mine rescue puts PC crisis in perspective

John McCormick

Three hard-drive catastrophes in as many months is about average for a large office, but unprecedented for my small workplace.

My main drive'in a nearly new system'crashed last month so badly that none of my computers would even recognize it plugged into their drive cables. I normally back up work to the Web as I go, but I hadn't backed up in a while. So I lost some things.

I believe this crash was a true hardware failure and not related to my testing of Microsoft Windows XP. I can't be certain, however, because Microsoft Office is installed on the same drive with XP, and Word has been doing some strange things lately. I'll let you know in a later column if the crash turned out to be software-related.

Three system failures in three months convinced me to try another operating system. I ordered a CD-ROM of OpenBSD 3.1 Unix, which is also downloadable from www.openbsd.org. Over the years I'd forgotten how unfriendly Unix can be. When I tried to install this monster OS on a spare drive, it took five tries.

Is it just my imagination or are computers getting more cantankerous?

In contrast, Windows software seems to be getting easier. I've just received an interesting beta tool called Microsoft .Net Speech. If anything could make computers easy enough for everyone to use, it would be voice commands.

I've tried voice recognition software over the years and was always disappointed, even when a sprained wrist caused me to spend a full day training one of the two leading PC continuous-speech programs to recognize the way I pronounced words. Despite the training, voice dictation didn't turn out to be practical.

But using a limited set of commands to control an application or call up a Web site is quite different from teaching a computer program to recognize 50,000 words correctly.

The .Net Speech software developer's kit aims to make Web sites accessible via spoken commands. That's not only friendly for people who aren't computer-literate, it also could benefit agency managers seeking to improve site accessibility for the disabled.

My hard-drive woes, which boiled down to the loss of a few hours' work and a chance to get reacquainted with Unix, were nothing compared with last month's mine disaster-turned-miracle in Somerset, Pa., a few miles south of my home.

Before the PC was invented, I once worked in a surface mine as a mechanic. I didn't go underground this time, and only helped rebuild a dragline, but the successful rescue was a big boost for a lot of people'not just us locals.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected]


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