Saturday, January 26, 2013

Macs and PCs

So you know that I'm now an independent consultant/contractor and working with a larger defense contracting firm.  I work from home.  And I've had a Mac for over four years now.  As much as I love my Mac, though, it just wasn't cutting the mustard for work.  So I bought a Dell laptop with Windows 8.  Which is a bitch.  But everything will work out in the end.  And now, the rest of the story.

I've been a Mac proponent ever since I got my little Macbook.  They're high-quality items: the hardware is sturdy, the software (mostly) just works without drama, and once you get used to the Apple way of doing things, they're intuitive.  I thought my Mac would perform well for work.  After all, it can read Word documents and save in Word format, and read Excel documents and save in Excel format, and email is email, right?

No.  Yes, the Mac will read Word documents, but then it saves in Apple's own Pages format.  You have to tell it to "export" a document into Word or PDF format if you're going to send it on to your cohorts on PC's.  That leaves you with at least two versions of the same document on your computer.  And the conversion process is not entirely error-proof, as I discovered when a client complained about some hammered files.  It's the same with Excel spreadsheets, which are opened in Apple's Numbers program, and Powerpoint presentations, which are opened in Keynote.  Now Apple's programs are not bad.  Pages is a really good word processor, and Keynote is as good as Powerpoint, but Numbers is only a basic spreadsheet that is nowhere near as powerful as Excel.  And there's nothing in the Apple world to compare to Microsoft's Access database (at least, not without spending lots and lots of $$$).

The Mac's Mail system had its own issues.  My computer monitors several email accounts, and it seemed to occasionally pick an email account at random to send from.  So instead of sending from my official work email address, it would sometimes send from, say, our joint personal address.  Very embarrassing and unprofessional.

So it was clear to me that I needed a separate computer specifically for work, and that the computer had to be a PC of some sort.  We've had two Dell computers in the past, and I worked on Dells in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I went with what I knew.  I ordered a 17" Dell Inspiron laptop with Microsoft Office Professional.  It came with Windows 8 installed, rather than the older (safer?) Windows 7.  The UPS guy delivered it this past week and I've been playing with it since then.

The reviews are mixed so far.  On the positive side, I've had no more embarrassing faux pas with my email addresses.  Outlook works well - it's much more capable than the Mac's Mail, anyway, and to my eyes, it's much easier to find, sort, file, and store emails.  It's a relief to be able to work with ONE version of a Word or Excel document rather at least two.  Excel can do so much more with spreadsheets than Numbers can.  And I've got some Access database files that I can finally open up and fiddle with.

On the negative side, I've got a few things to gripe about.  For starters, this Dell computer is not built at all to the quality standards of our previous ones.  The keyboard is flimsy and the casing doesn't feel sturdy.  It is nowhere near the same class as my 4-year old Macbook.  But all the hardware works and the 17" screen is nice.  If you're looking for a sturdy computer, though, go with the more expensive Dell Latitude or a Lenovo (previously known as IBM).

Although Microsoft Office works fine, this new Windows 8 system is a kluge.  Microsoft took two good operating systems, one for the tablet and one for desktops and laptops, and jammed them together.  It's like taking a football lineman and a tennis player and making them play each other's games while tied together for a 3-legged race.  They're built to do different things and they just don't play well as one.  I had to go over to Barnes and Noble to pick up a "Windows 8 for Dummies" book (the large one, over 1,000 pages) just to get started.  Good thing I did, too, or I'd never have figured it out.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, is intuitive.

One of the annoyances of Windows 8 is that a lot of things are "apps" and open only in full-screen mode.  Things like the Reader program that opens PDF files.  Whose bright idea was that?  I want to be able to open PDF files in windows that I can resize as necessary, so that I can look at the PDF file in one window while making notes or writing emails about it in another.  Win 8 doesn't give you that option.

Another annoyance is that some programs open up as both "apps" and "programs".  Internet Explorer is one.  If you open it as an app, it's full-screen; open as a program, it's in a window.  That in itself is not a problem, except that they are really two entirely separate things.  If you save a bookmark in the app version, it doesn't save in the program version.  Dumb.

But most of this is minor.  Microsoft is betting the farm on Windows 8, so I think they'll make major improvements in Windows 8.1 and 8.2.  Meanwhile, what I've got is now taking care of business, so I'll keep it.

Lessons learned:
- If you work from home, you need separate computers for your work and personal worlds.
- Macs are great, but they don't play very well in a primarily PC business network.
- If you want a sturdy computer, don't get a Dell Inspiron.
- If you get Windows 8, get one of the many books to tell you how to use it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Busy Times

Things have been happenin' here at our household.  As noted in my last post, I've been working in a new job.  I'm still on the steep side of the learning curve regarding what, exactly, it is that I'm supposed to be doing.  I want to do what they want me to do, better than they expect me to do it.  And I'm not quite there yet, of course, but things are going well overall.  At the same time, I don't want to do more than what they want, because I'm a part-time help, and piling up billable hours when it's not necessary is a sure way to land on their wrong side.  So, as an independent contractor, the idea is to stay aware of what's necessary, do a great job of what you're supposed to do, but don't go looking for additional work.  How would you like it if you had a plumber who was great at what he did, but he kept going around your house reworking your pipes without you asking him to do it?  I'm the plumber.

At the same time, we've been really busy around the house.  Last week, we put new carpet in the living room.  The old one was original, laid down 14 years ago, and it was the cheapest possible carpet even then.  It was long past its shelf life.  So on Sunday, we started moving stuff out of the living room and into wherever we could put it.  By the time the carpet guys got here, we looked like something on an episode of "Hoarders" ... except in the living room, which was barren.  Shameless plug: we used Pearlman Carpets from Asheville.  They had done our bedroom last year and we knew they would do a  great job.  They did.  So that afternoon, we started putting everything back in.  Took three more days to get it all done.

Guys, you'll relate to this.  The big issue for us was the electronics.  A TV, DVD player, satellite receiver, and sound system can be confusing to connect, especially when they range in age from 16 years (sound system) to 2 years (DVD).  When we disconnected everything, the resulting spaghetti pile of cables looked like we'd never get it figured out.  But we took our time, and labeled everything before it was disconnected, and it all went back together easily.  Bullet dodged.

Another challenge was moving the couch and bookcases.  We're talking heavy stuff, and J and I aren't spring chickens anymore.  Ever used those sliding pads you can get from Lowe's or Home Despot?  We got a set and what a difference it made!  Even Janis could move the couch around the living room on the old and new carpet all by herself.

Immediately after the living room, we reworked our office.  We had a desk that was just too small for two of us to work on, particularly when one of us (me) was trying to do a real job.  So we bought a new component system at Office Max that is essentially two 55" desks in an L-shaped arrangement.  J's got her side and I have mine.  It's so much better than sitting in a chair with my Macbook on my lap, using the arm of the chair as a desk to hold a notebook.

Speaking of the Macbook .... no, I'll save that for my next post ...

Sunday, January 06, 2013

New Year, New Employment

Yes, it's been quite a while since I last posted.  Holiday activities don't really make for interesting blog posts since everybody is doing something more or less similar.  I'm staying away from political rants as much as possible, so all the excitement over the fiscal cliff debacle was just background noise.  Annoying noise, but very predictable these days.  I was also getting over a bad sinus infection, and that really makes for a boring blog post.  So what could I write about?  Movies?  Eh.  Not many rate a post. Weather?  You must be kidding.  The dogs?  They're my life, but you don't really care.  No, I had nothing much to write about, so rather than launch lots of random words into the blogosphere, I decided to just shut up.

But now I have something to write about.  I am employed again.  I'm working as a program and project manager with a defense contractor on a really interesting project.  We're going to help build a security installation overseas.  I've been spending my time reading lots and lots of background material, emails, documentation, websites, and so on, trying to get as smart as possible as fast as possible.  Basically, I'm going thru the same routine here that I did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and repeatedly during my Navy career: I'm thrown into a new situation where I need to be an expert on pretty much everything by sometime yesterday.  And that's a kinda fun place to be.

This new job fits me to a T.  Besides giving me the opportunity to work on a very interesting and worthwhile project, it is (for the most part) virtual.  I don't have to deploy anywhere - I can do the vast majority of work from right here.  So my commute is from my kitchen to the office down the hall.  Cool.  There will be travel occasionally, but nothing that will last very long.  I can be (and am) interrupted by my wife and dogs regularly.  The job is also part-time, or at least it will be once I'm up to speed.  That means that I'll be able to set up a studio and start painting again.  About time, too: it's been going on two years since I've had a real studio and been able to paint, and I'm going through withdrawals.  (Well, not really, but whenever I walk into an artist studio now and smell the linseed oil and solvents, I go weak in the knees).  So I'm a pretty happy man.

Speaking of studio stuff, I learned the other day that two of my paintings will hang in the Pentagon for about a year.  The Veteran Artist Program (run by a group of veterans who are artists in the DC and Baltimore area) has organized an exhibition by veteran artists.  They selected these two works:

Oil on canvas, 60"x60" 

Oil on canvas, 60"x60"

I will have to deliver these paintings to DC personally.  They're large (5 feet by 5 feet each, meaning the figures are life-size) so they'd be really expensive to ship.  And I just don't trust shippers.  Besides, I want to see where these are going to hang.  If they're buried in the basement or something, forget it, I'll bring 'em home.

One final note on art stuff.  Next month, I will have an exhibition at UNC Asheville.  Yes, I know, I just had a show of my Afghan drawings there.  This one will be different.  In the past, they've had a group show of work by various alumni.  This year, the school decided to focus on one alumnus at a time, and the Fickle Finger of Fate pointed to me.  So I'm going to show a broad selection of paintings, prints, and drawings done since I graduated from there almost ten years ago.  (Holy crap, it doesn't seem like that long ... but it is).

So.  Things are moving along.  Feels good to be getting active again!