Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Death of the iPod?

September 28, 2011

September is the month when Apple usually makes announcements about its new line of iPods. That hasn’t happened this year, and I am dismayed to discover that rumours about the demise of the iPod are swirling. Apparently it is possible that Apple may axe both the iPod Shuffle and the iPod Classic this year, with only the iPod Nano and the “poor man’s iPhone”, the iPod Touch, left standing.

I resisted buying an iPod for a long time, mainly because I was already listening to a lot of music, and I thought it was important to preserve certain times and places as pools of quiet. A portable music player would have made that more difficult.

Then I got married, and had kids. (Hallelujah!) These days, practically my only opportunities to listen to music are when I am out walking, or in transit somewhere. An iPod has made it possible for me to keep listening to the music I love, and I am thankful for that. I suppose that I have also grown fond of the little blighter.

Mine is an iPod Classic — 80 GB capacity, which has proved far too little for my entire collection, but adequate for an ample sample — and so is one of the models rumoured to be targeted for removal from Apple’s roster. I must register a protest. As far as I can tell, none of the other iPod models suit me. The capacity of the Nano is too little, not to mention that the screen is too small, not to mention that it has an annoying name, and not to mention that the thing can fall out of one’s pocket without one noticing — as my wife’s four sequential Nanos can well attest. The iPod Touch is a possibility, I suppose, but its capacity is again smaller than I would like, it is quite expensive, and it is cluttered up with a bunch of stuff that does not interest me.

(The demise of the iPod Shuffle, on the other hand, seems to me an occasion for quiet rejoicing. It is a monstrous device: a music player for people who don’t like music. Good riddance.)

Apple is apparently banking on people switching to the iPhone, but a phone is not really convertible with an iPod. For one thing, it is far more expensive, not only initially but month by month. And some of us do not want a cell phone, much less a smart phone. I just want a good quality portable music player. It seems, however, judging from Apple’s sales data, that mine is a minority view.

For now, my iPod is working fine, and I can continue to enjoy it. But when the time comes to replace it, my options are less attractive than they once were.

The same book

January 10, 2010

C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man and Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos are both superb books, worth reading and re-reading regularly.  According to Peter Kreeft, there’s a good reason for contemplating them together: they are the same book.  Both are inquiries into the nature of the spiritual malady that plagues modern man. The Abolition of Man proceeds irenically, and Lost in the Cosmos ironically.

Kreeft’s lecture about the books, linked below, illustrates his usual clarity and good sense (not to mention his good sense of humour).  If you know both books, I expect you will find his comments enlightening, as I did.  If you know just one or the other, the lecture is tailored to you.  (It is intended, he says, to introduce Lewis to Percy fans and Percy to Lewis fans.)  If you’ve not read either of these books, you should take a critical look at how you’ve been spending your time.

The rest of the lecture can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.  It is worth the time.

(Hat-tip: Korrektiv)

Rieff on theory

June 11, 2009

There are two theories of theory.  The first, and earlier, asserts that theory is the way in which “what ought to be” establishes its hegemony over “what is”.  Value and truth are inseparable; thus is content specified, a fact put in its place.  Theory is the reflecting mirror of man’s mind, catching glimpses of an order eternally right and good.  In this first tradition of our culture, which continued unbroken until the time of Francis Bacon, there could be disagreement on the means of bringing mankind to conform to the eternal and stable order of things as they really are, but not on the ends.  Things being what we know them to be, the intellectual and emotional task of life is to make our actions conform to the right order, so that we too can be right.  Theoretical knowledge is therefore of the good; the ideal is therefore most real, the model from which the is-ness of things, in their splendid variety, derives.  Theory is the way of understanding the ideal.  In this theory of theory, knowledge finally emerges, at its highest level, as faith; the best life is that of true obedience.  God is the final object of all classical theorizing; to contemplate God in the unity above all the variety manifested in His natural and social orders (or moral commandments), was the highest good.

But there is a second theory of theory, one that arose both as a response to the death of the gods and also as a weapon for killing off those surviving, somehow, in our moral unconscious and cultural conscience.  In this second and more recent tradition of theorizing, theory arms us with the weapons for transforming reality instead of forcing us to conform to it.  The transformative cast of theorizing, unlike the conformative cast, is silent about ultimate ends.  In the absence of news about a stable and governing order anywhere, theory becomes actively concerned with mitigating the daily miseries of living rather than with a therapy of commitment to some healing doctrine of the universe.  In fact, the universe is neither accepted nor rejected; it is merely there for our use.  In the second tradition, theory at its highest reach is not faith but, rather, power.  A good theory becomes the creator of power.  And from that creation of power derives man’s freedom to choose among the options specified by the reach of potential powers laid down in the theory.

— Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Ch.IV.

Yesterday’s tomorrow today

November 18, 2008

It’s 8 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008.  I’m about to hop into my sleek, two-passenger air-cushion car and head off to my four-hour work day.  It looks cold and gloomy out there; the weather dome must be malfunctioning.  Isn’t it great to live in the future?

(HT: Light on Dark Water)

Cheap geek: Utilities

December 11, 2007

This is the fifth and, I think, final post in my series on free software. Today’s topic is utilities: all those specialized applications that handle small but important tasks. Since I am unable to impose much order on the set of utilities I have chosen to mention, I’ll simply launch into it.

Data back-up: A few years ago I had a major failure on my sole hard drive, and I suddenly found myself without access to the important files I had been storing on my computer. It took a great deal of work and expense to recover them, and I vowed that thereafter I would take care to maintain a back-up copy of these important documents. For this purpose, I use a free utility called SyncBack Freeware. It can be easily configured to copy files to an external drive on a regular schedule. I have it scheduled to run once each day.

Backing up to an external drive protects one against disk failure, but it doesn’t protect against theft or fire. Consequently, I also back up my files over the Internet to a remote location. There are a number of services available for this purpose; I use Mozy. Mozy provides a small application that is installed locally and runs on a user-defined schedule. It encrypts all the files selected for back up and only transfers those that have changed since it last ran. Since the files are stored remotely on Mozy’s servers, you may have qualms about backing up personal information. The company promises to encrypt and securely store your files, but if you don’t trust their technology, simply use their service (as I do) in conjunction with SyncBack: configure SyncBack to encrypt the files during the local back-up, and then have Mozy transfer those already-encrypted files to the remote server! The company provides up to 2 GB of space for free; thereafter they charge $5/month for unlimited space. It’s a great service.

System monitoring: There are a number of different aspects of my system that I like to monitor. For my disk space usage I use a wonderful little tool called WinDirStat. It crawls the directory structure of the disk, summing the space consumed by each directory, sub-directory, and file, and then displays the results in a convenient (and surprisingly beautiful) graphical format. It permits one to very easily identify not only the total disk space in use, but also which directories and files are occupying the most space.

To monitor RAM usage and CPU speed, I use a tool called SysTrayMeter. It puts a small icon into the Windows tray that shows what percentage of the system’s RAM is being used, as well as how hard the CPU is working. If you’ve ever wondered why your system is so slow – at a greater level of detail than “because it’s Windows” – then this could be a really useful diagnostic tool.

My Internet service provider limits my bandwidth use each month, and I must pay a fine if I exceed the cap. This is irritating, of course, but has been made less so by a little utility called BitMeter. It produces statistics on bandwidth use over the past day, week, and month, allowing me to ration my use and avoid the fines. Here’s a free utility that is actually saving me money!

File sharing: Have you ever wanted to share a large file with a friend, but didn’t know how to do so? Gmail now permits file sizes of up to 20 MB, which is large enough for most purposes, but what about when one wants to send a large batch of photos, or a video? One option is to use an instant messaging agent, such as that which comes bundled with Skype. Usually you can drag and drop files onto the agent and they will be transferred to the other party. I’m not sure how well that method would work with very large files, however. To solve the problem, I use something called Pando. Pando establishes a peer-to-peer network between your system, the Pando servers, and any party with whom you wish to share a file. Once the network is established, your friend simply downloads the file from your system to theirs. The file is also uploaded to the Pando servers, so I wouldn’t use it to transfer personal information unless it is first encrypted. The software works great, and can be used to transfer files up to 1 GB in size.

Screen capture: I never realized how frequently I would want to capture portions of my screen until I had a good screen capture program. I use PrintKey 2000, a very simple utility that either takes a snapshot of the whole screen, or permits you to select a rectangular region for capture. One click and the image is transferred to the clipboard, from which it can be pasted wherever you choose.

System maintenance: CCleaner (formerly Crap Cleaner) is a keen little application for freeing up system resources. It has a few different types of functionality. On one hand, it will scour the system for temporary files, defunct registry keys, orphaned file associations, and so forth, and clean them out. On the other hand, it provides a clean, simple interface for selecting what applications will start when Windows boots. It also has a powerful uninstaller, for tracking down and removing all those utilities that you tried but didn’t like. CCleaner is a very useful piece of software.

Desktop management: Linux users are accustomed to the idea of having multiple workspaces on a single desktop, but Windows users typically have to crowd all their open windows onto one screen. Personally I despise cluttered screens, so the discovery of Virtual Dimension came as happy news. It allows you to define multiple workspaces and switch between them with keyboard shortcuts. I don’t know how I ever got along without it.

File conversion: Zamzar is not an application that you install on your system, but rather a free, web-based service. Upload a file in one format (.doc, for instance), and download it in another (.pdf, for instance). The service is quick, and in my experience works well. Needless to say, don’t use it to convert documents containing private information.

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That is a fairly complete list of the utilities I use and appreciate. As always, I welcome comments or recommendations.

In closing, I will mention a few good sites where you can obtain free software. One is FileHippo, though note that they offer shareware as well as freeware, and shareware is generally not free. They also serve up plenty of beta versions, which could be buggy, so exercise good judgment. Another popular site is download.com, but it has some of the same problems as FileHippo, and I find it less well organized. A great site for getting specific recommendations for free or cheap software is Tech Support Alert. Gizmo Williams, the lord of the Tech Support Alert roost, is quite thorough in evaluating software, and many of the applications I use are recommended by him.

Happy free computing!

Cheap geek: Security

November 27, 2007

This is the fourth installment in a series on free software. Today the theme is something that is actually important: security. If you have a computer connected to the internet (and, fair reader, my guess is you do) you need to take steps to secure your system against malicious activity. Many people take a relaxed attitude toward computer security: why would anyone want to pick on little old me? The truth is that online crime is a booming business, and many attackers strike at random. They can break your system, steal information, or even take over your system and use it for their purposes without your noticing. I once left my computer insecure for a few weeks and later found that someone was using it to store their music files. I was lucky it wasn’t used for something worse.

One might argue that if security is really important, it would be more prudent to buy security software than to rely on free software. It’s not a terrible argument, but neither is it as strong as you might suppose. I purchased the security suite from McAfee, one of the leading security companies, but after a while it crapped out, I couldn’t repair it, Dell customer service was even more incompetent than me, and eventually I uninstalled it in favour of free applications. I’ve been quite happy since (except when I remember that I’m still paying for the McAfee license).

I’ll discuss a few different topics: anti-malware applications, firewalls, software updaters, and secure web browsing.

Anti-malware

A minimum requirement is to have both anti-virus and anti-spyware protection. For an anti-virus application, I recommend the much-praised AVG Anti-Virus Free. It has a well-maintained set of virus signatures, downloads automatic updates, and can be configured to scan your computer on a regular schedule. The only significant downside is that it uses a fair amount of memory — but then so do the commercial anti-virus scanners.

AVG also produces a well-regarded anti-spyware application called, reasonably enough, AVG Anti-Spyware Free. I have tried it, but I had some problems with the auto-update feature, so I removed it from my system. Instead, I use two other applications. Spybot Search & Destroy is a good tool that performs fairly well in industry tests. It scours your system looking for tracking cookies that are used to trace your internet activity. The current version also includes a module (‘Tea-Timer’) that will raise an alert whenever changes are made to the Windows registry. Spybot’s functionality is somewhat limited – no scheduled scans or automatic updates, for instance – but I don’t consider those serious limitations. The second application I use is PC Tools Spyware Doctor, which comes bundled in the Google Pack. It offers, in addition to full system scans, a degree of real-time protection to nip problems in the bud. Regular scans can be scheduled to run in the background, and updates are automatic.

Firewalls

A firewall is a network traffic filter. It monitors your network connection – both ingoing and outgoing – and blocks or permits traffic in compliance with a customized set of rules. This is a tough category for anyone committed to using free software only, for while there are a number of options, I have yet to find one that is really satisfactory. Some crashed, others made previously installed software stop working. For a long while I used Jetico Personal Firewall, and if it were just a firewall I would recommend it heartily. But it also monitors your system’s processes in real time, and this component is very chatty: windows were always popping up asking whether I wanted to permit this or that. In time I grew weary of these interruptions and uninstalled it. I’m back to relying on the firewall that comes bundled with Windows XP. Since it is included in every Windows installation you could think of it as free, but only if you squint a little.

Software Updaters

Every piece of software has some bugs, and these can sometimes affect the security of your system. Certain types of software defects can be used by malicious parties to take control of the application, or even of the computer on which it is running. Software developers are constantly discovering these problems in their code, and issuing new, repaired versions of the software. For this reason, it is important to regularly update your software. I will recommend three tools that help with this task:

  • If you are running Windows, it is imperative that you regularly install the patches issued by Microsoft. On the second Tuesday of every month (‘Patch Tuesday’) they release a set of updates for Windows and other Microsoft software. Windows has an auto-update feature that will download and install these patches without your intervention; use it!
  • Secunia Personal Inspector is an application that runs in the background and monitors the software you have installed. When a new security-related bug is discovered and reported to the major agencies that track such information, the program will inform you that you are running insecure software. If a fix is available, it will help you to apply it. At the present time it monitors the security status of more than 4000 different programs. Try it out; I was very surprised to find how many insecure programs I was running.
  • The FileHippo update client doesn’t track as many programs as Secunia (indeed, it only tracks the ones that can be downloaded from the FileHippo site), but it did find several out-of-date applications on my system that Secunia missed. It doesn’t tell you why your program has been updated – was there a security problem or just a functionality change? – but even so I think it is quite useful. I run it on my system once every few weeks and update if anything new is available.

Secure web browsing

Web browsing is actually one of the more hazardous things you can do online. Your browser encounters code on web sites and executes it locally on your system. Most of the time this is benign, but it can be used for nefarious purposes. There are a few simple things you can do to protect yourself.

First, install the McAfee Site Advisor into your browser. This very helpful utility adds extra information to your Google search results, indicating whether the link you are about to click is friendly or not. If the site you are going to is known to send spam, or has malicious code embedded in it, or would otherwise be inhospitable to visitors, McAfee Site Advisor puts a big red X next to the link. If that doesn’t help, you have noone to blame but yourself.

Second, Firefox users should install the NoScript extension. NoScript prevents JavaScript and Java code from being executed by your browser, unless you grant permission. It will break the functionality of some sites – indeed, this is the whole point – but if you trust the site the functionality can be restored. It will protect you from a variety of attacks, including the increasingly common and consistently horrible (especially to those who have tried to understand them) cross-site scripting attacks.

Finally, you can try Sandboxie, an amazing tool that isolates your browser from the rest of your computer, thus preventing any nastiness you may encounter online from getting access to your files. I haven’t used this very much myself, but I sure like the idea.

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That’s it for this installment. I’d be very pleased to hear if you have any recommendations or comments.

Cheap geek: Multimedia

October 12, 2007

This is the third in a series of posts in which I hold forth on the merits of free software applications. Today’s theme is multimedia: software for playing music, watching video, and viewing and managing pictures.

Music

At the present time I am without a proper stereo, so my computer is doing double duty as a jukebox. I have scanned a portion of my CDs into mp3 format, and I use software to manage and play them. I lean most heavily on iTunes, which is very well designed and pretty to look at as well. I sometimes find that it is slow, but I suspect this is because of the size of my digital collection, which at > 10^4 tracks is probably larger than most. Even when it is slow, however, it is stable, and I have never had it crash. In the beginning I was worried that using iTunes would subject me to advertisements from the iTunes Store, but that has not happened. It’s simply a great piece of free software.

If you have music in digital formats other than mp3 or Apple’s AAC, or if you just want a lighter-weight program for playing music, you’ll need something other than iTunes. I recommend foobar2000, which in my experience can play any file format under the sun. Its interface is highly customizable, but I’ve not bothered with that. In its most basic form it’s not much to look at, and I’ve never been able to figure out where the volume controls are, but it’s a helpful thing to have around in case you should ever run into an unfamiliar file type.

Finally, a suggestion for playing streaming media: I expect that you are burdened by that lumbering behemoth RealPlayer, which sucks up your system resources, tries to commandeer your file associations, assumes control of your CD drive, and generally gets in the way of whatever you’re trying to do. Uninstall it now, and use Real Alternative instead. You’ll never have any reason to regret it.

Video

Since I don’t have a television, when I do want to watch a movie I do so on my computer. It’s good, therefore, to have a quality DVD and video player installed. I rely on VLC media player, which can play pretty much any video format, as well as most audio formats. About the only thing it can’t handle is Real media, but we’ve already taken care of that problem above. It’s also lightweight in its use of system resources. I consider this an essential application.

From time to time I want to load a video onto my iPod, and that requires the video be converted to a special format. For this purpose I like to use the Videora iPod Converter. It’s relatively easy to use, and it works well.

Pictures

Ever since I bought a digital camera a few years ago, I’ve been accumulating folders full of digital photos. At first I was forced to simply go hunting through them when I wanted to find something. Then I installed Google’s Picasa, and now my problems seem so far away. Not only does Picasa help with management of large numbers of photos, but it allows you to add captions to your pictures, tag them with dates and locations, assign search keywords to them, and even upload them to a web site where they can be shared with friends (though I myself haven’t tried doing that yet). It’s a real pleasure to use, with a very smooth user interface and presentation style.

For editing pictures, Picasa does provide some basic functionality, but I find that sometimes I want more. A few people have recommended to me Gimp as a one-stop shop for digital image editing, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to use it. I like to use PhotoFiltre, which has a nice, clear user interface and does most everything I want it to do. Another possibility would be Paint.NET, which isn’t quite as nice to use as PhotoFiltre but does have some really excellent digital effects filters that can turn your photos into, for example, pencil drawings or oil paintings, like this one:

At the Vatican

That’s all for this installment. If you’ve any comments, leave them below.

Cheap geek: The basics

September 27, 2007

This is the second in a projected series of posts on good, free software. Today the theme is “the basics”: software that provides the basic functionality that few people can do without. I will break the discussion into two main parts: office software, and web browsers.

Office Software

Most people have the need to deal with text documents, often in Microsoft Word format; many people need to handle spreadsheets, often in Microsoft Excel format; many must handle presentations, often in Microsoft PowerPoint format; a few people need to deal with databases, often in Microsoft Access format. But Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access are — you guessed it — not free. Nevertheless, such is the happy state of things, there are free alternatives.

The main alternative, as far as I know, is OpenOffice. It contains a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker, and database, all of which are compatible with Microsoft’s software. With OpenOffice you can read Microsoft files sent by your friends, or send files that your friends can read with Microsoft’s software. (This interoperability is not yet a reality for the new Microsoft Office 2007, but they are working on it.) There might occasionally be problems with files that incorporate rarely used features of MS Office, but I myself have not encountered them.

Another option, if you have a persistent internet connection, is to use Google Docs. For this you’ll need a Google account, and you’ll get only word processing and spreadsheet functionality, but you’ll also have the convenience of being able to access your files from anywhere that you can access Google. Your files are stored remotely on the Google servers, and you access and edit them over the web. Initially this might seem odd, but the interface feels very much like that common in desktop software, and I find the service easy to use. I would hesitate, however, to use Google Docs with personal documents; the files are certainly supposed to be secure and private, but mistakes can happen, and there may be wisdom in the view that mistrusts giving Google too much information about ourselves. The choice is up to you.

When I am writing documents, I prefer to edit simple text files in a light-weight word processor. For this purpose, I use either Vim or EditPad Lite. Vim is based on the old Unix program vi, and, like its predecessor, it is the ideal word processor for people who like their software to be as difficult as possible to use — at least at first. The functionality is all tied to keyboard shortcuts, so that you need never touch the mouse, and the shortcuts are wonderfully difficult to guess: xG to move to line x, dd to delete a line, yy to copy text, / to search, and so forth. There is a learning curve, but when mastery is achieved (which phenomenon I have witnessed but never truly experienced) the results are dazzling. Actually, there is a version of the software called gVim that provides a mouse-based interface in addition to the older, more revered keyboard-based one.

As good as vi undoubtedly is, my editor of choice is EditPad Lite. It is a glorified NotePad, in that it can handle only basic text files, but it adds helpful functionality like search/replace, as well as a convenient and intuitive set of buttons in a toolbar. It’s very clean, neat, and easy to use. In fact, I’m using it to write these very words.

Finally, a word about PDF documents. This file format is quite common, and most people have Adobe Reader installed in order to handle it. It’s true that Adobe Reader is free, and in that sense fits under the present rubric, but I don’t like it. It is simply too bulky, and loads too slowly. In its place, I use FoxIt Reader. It is super light-weight, and in my experience it has never met a PDF document it couldn’t open. Highly recommended!

Web browsers

By far the most commonly used web browser is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), now in version 7. Perhaps you are reading this using it. It is free, but I don’t use it, and for two main reasons: first, I find it big and slow, and second, it is the most frequently targeted web browser by Internet ne’er-do-wells, which makes its use risky from a security point of view. All software has bugs, and some of them affect security, but IE, simply because of its huge market share, has attracted the most attention, and new vulnerabilities are found in it all the time. That makes me uncomfortable.

Instead, I use Firefox. In recent months a number of vulnerabilities have also been found in it, but they seem to be patched quickly, and the update process is quick and painless. Firefox is not exactly light-weight, but for some reason it feels more responsive than IE. Perhaps the biggest advantage of this browser is its extensibility: it has been designed such that new features, written by whomever, can be added to it. There are now a large set of Add-ons to choose from, and some of them are really useful. Here are those that I most appreciate:

  • ForecastFox Enhanced: Gives the local weather forecast in the bottom bar of the browser.
  • Get Directions from Google Maps: Highlight any address in a web page, right click, and launch a map showing the location. Very helpful!
  • IE Tab: Some sites, which shall remain unnamed, require that you use IE. This Add-on will, at the touch of a button, make Firefox pretend that it is IE.
  • McAfee Site Advisor: Warns you away from malicious web sites. I’ll discuss this more in a few weeks when I cover security software.
  • Scrapbook: Allows you to save, in their entirety, local copies of web pages. It’s rather like bookmarking, except that instead of saving the location of the page, you save a snapshot of the page itself.
  • Tab Catalog: Shows thumbnail images of all open tabs, which is helpful when quickly jumping from one tab to another when you have many open.
  • Gmail Manager: Monitors your Gmail account, discreetly indicating whether new mail has arrived.

There are many other Add-ons for Firefox, but I haven’t explored them. If you know of any others that are useful, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

In fact, the same goes for anything I’ve written here today. I’m really just shooting the breeze, and am happy to receive recommendations or corrections.

Cheap geek: Prologue

September 19, 2007

This is the first in a series of posts recommending good, useful software that is completely free. I hope the series will be of some use to those who, like me, don’t like to pay for software, but also don’t want to use pirated software. It turns out that one can equip one’s computer very well without spending a cent, and without breaking any laws. It seems incredible, but the days when it was necessary to buy software are, for most purposes and for most people, well and truly over. I’m not entirely sure what kinds of software I’ll discuss in these posts, but I am likely to cover security and multimedia applications, as well as helpful utilities. The only over-arching criterion will be that everything be free.

I was about to remark that this topic is a rather nerdy departure from the usual fare around here, but actually I’m not sure that’s true.

I must stress that I’m not attempting anything like a thorough survey; my remarks are not offered in a magisterial spirit. I simply intend to talk about the software I myself find useful. If you disagree with what I say, or have other suggestions, by all means let me know in the comments. I am always happy to find ways to improve my system.

I run Windows XP (which, alas, one does have to pay for), and that will affect some of the suggestions I make. If you have a Mac or a Linux machine, you may have different, better options, and you can rest secure in your superiority. Please, no taunting of Windows users.

Since this is only a prologue, I’m not actually going to recommend anything specific today. I hope to have the next Cheap Geek post ready within the week. Until then, enjoy your non-free software – while you still can.