OpInionAteD - Menno Aartsen Rants and Raves - February 5, 2023

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Sunday February 5: Tax time, sorta kinda

Keywords: Windows Image Backup, Windows 10 Pro, brokerage, IRS, 2023 taxes, Intel graphics processor, ILIFE vacuum robot, Windows memory integrity
Annoyingly, some of my overseas shares have not provided the tax information required - my brokerage says it'll take a few more days. It isn't necessarily an issue, but I am so used to having my tax return filed by the end of January, now I have to keep an eye on the paperwork coming in. Otherwise, I have my return done, it's just that one statement the IRS requires.

With the exception of some manual vacuuming I use a small wet/dry vac for, my floors are all done by a couple of robot vacuums, like the Roomba, but a lot cheaper. One somewhat sophisticated unit with a horizontal rotating brush and a powerful battery does my living room and kitchen and bathroom, another, less sophisticated, does the bedroom, which has a fitted carpet and needs more suction, so I do that twice a week. Apart from a small carpet underneath my dining table, the floors are either laminate or vinyl (bathroom and kitchen), and the robot maintains them with ease, including the wool carpet in the living room. Something that helps in the "cleaning battle" are my two heat pumps, both of which have filters that catch a lot of dust.

Where, in the past year, my brokerage account performed dismally (I should think most people's did, during the pandemic), recently, it has been perking up. I am not sure if this is an ongoing trend, but it is on the up, my savings stopped dwindling. The dwindling had me worried, but there wasn't a lot of choice, with the pandemic, and it was not as bad as the 2008 stock market crash, which more or less wiped me out. Even so, I've had to take a small amount of money out, to create some breathing space. You all know how cost-of-living, even groceries, but even my rent, have gone up recently - I guess a lot of organizations are compensating for pandemic losses. So far. so good, is all I can say, I hope the positive trend persists.

Interestingly, I discovered some Windows management capabilities I did not know existed - pleasant, but puzzling, it's not like I got these systems yesterday. At any rate, for more than a year the Intel graphics processor built into the CPU hasn't been willing to drive the external secondary display, and I used an external GPU off a USB3 port to do that. That worked, though the audio (via HDMI) was a bit limited. And then, the other day, I discovered there was a workaround for something else that would not work - the memory integrity check under Windows Core Isolation - an operating system security feature. After many weeks of searching through databases, I managed to find a way to bypass this - a feature that failed with a "managed by your organization" error. As I don't have an organization, I had no idea where that came from - there was some of that in Google Chrome, as well.

Eventually - and that really took me weeks, if not months - I figured out how to defeat that, a safety feature embedded in the Windows registry - futzing with that without knowing what you're doing can really terminally blow up your system. But because I had finally managed to take full Windows Image backups - without the external disk crashing - on a weekly basis, with AIS Backup updates every day, I figured I could take the risk. And - hey presto! - it worked - not only that, but the graphics processor re-activation now lets the backlight time out, as well. And for unclear reasons, the password entry during bootup now works without additional activation - mouse clicks, or enter key. Strange, but nice and smooth - and the boot is even faster than it was already.


Friday January 27: The art of backing up

Keywords: HP, laptops, ZyXel NAS, backing up, storage, redundance, data recovery, restore, Windows 10, Windows 8.1
Where, in the past, before I kitted out all of my laptops with SSDs, I had difficulty adding external hard drives using the USB ports, it would appear that the new SSDs, after installing them and fine tuning Windows, have a very beneficial effect on system health and performance. Add to that the large 12TB NAS drive, now my only large scale storage device, and using that for daily backups, I need fewer ports and sockets on the systems to do what I need to do. The laptops are faster now, run cooler (both have had a faster CPU installed and the heat conducting paste "renewed"), and appear more stable. If, today, my Windows Image Backup on the Windows 8.1 system completes successfully, I can take the image backup off the NAS drive, and recover another 1.4 terabytes of space, which will make NAS maintenance faster and easier. In the past, those backups sometimes failed, but in the new configuration it seems external USB3 drives run flawlessly, on both systems. Letchaknow. If, in the future, I need more space, I still have my retired old 2-drive ZyXel NAS enclosure, which is in good shape, and if necessary, I can install two 8 terabyte drives in that enclosure, and mirror them.

Well, that was cool. I can now do a Windows Image Backup for either HP laptop - one overnight, in three or four hours, the other (larger) once a week, some 1.6 terabytes, in about twelve hours, completely free of "hiccups". I've taken the image backups off the NAS, and that now has some 50% space free. While it is a 12 terabyte box, it has a little over 8 usable terabytes, the remainder is parity space, so even when one of the four drives goes South, its data can without loss be auto-recovered to a replacement drive, for which I have a spare. It is one thing to theorize all this when you buy and install the array, but that was October, and now is January, and it all works seamlessly, and practically noiselessly, without any data loss or hiccups. Good show...

You may think I am overdoing the redundancy, but if you think about how dependent you are on your "devices" for communication and administration, and how you would cope if one of your devices suddenly packed up, life would get complicated if I suddenly lost half the data I need to file my tax return. The problem with backing up is that you never know what data you need, and my experience with backups is that they, too, can fail. At the very minimum, if your primary PC goes South, you lose access to your data - not only do you then need to get a replacement PC, you need to try and recover your data from your backup. In my experience, this does not always work - I know that on at least two occasions, in the past, I was unable to recover a hard disk because Microsoft has built so many safeguards against illicit copying into Windows that restoring the drive onto a new computer just wouldn't work. Windows Restore looks for the electronic signature of your existing system's BIOS, and a new (or even different) PC will not have that signature. That's why I have been doing all of this convoluted stuff - my next step is that I will try and start a recovery using an install/repair disk, something I recommend. I can tell you that if you have not tested a restore, you don't know that a restore onto another PC will necessarily work, the culprit likely being Microsoft's licensing scheme, now all built into the OS, interacting with the motherboard BIOS.


Friday January 20: Maintenance Month

Keywords: Amazon, Fire Stick, ZyXel NAS, backing up, no winter, income tax, broadcast TV, streaming media
bedroom AM I posted the bedroom, left, as I love the view when the sun streams in, early afternoon, especially with the black sheets when I turn up the duvet. Not spectacular, just a bit dreamy...

Big NAS drive or no, I am in process of filling that 12TB right on up. I had not anticipated that the broadcast TV recordings would take so much space, just the past couple of days yielded 5 gigabytes, while both laptops now back up daily, using AIS Backup, to the NAS - that is quick, as these backups are now incremental. It isn't a major issue, but in order for the NAS array to be able to "fail over" should one of the four drives pack up, I need to have more than 3 TB available. That basically means I need to move my standard Windows image backups off the NAS array, and back onto regular hard drives, perhaps on a weekly basis, that will make it easier to do a restore, and update that using the current AIS Backup. That should buy me enough room to fail over, should that ever be necessary. The way this thing is architected, if a drive fails, I ought to be able to simply pull it and replace it with another, one of the same configuration, which I have spare.

It is hard to believe winter is all over, in the past I've seen it roar back in, and it is only early January as I write this, but yesterday the temperature hit 60, admittedly in the sun, which, today, has been replaced with abundant rain. I am really wondering if we're seeing climate change here, time will tell, I suppose.

Apart from the upcoming taxes, I seem to have otherwise done all I needed around the New Year, from moving bank accounts to getting the paperwork for my overseas social security pension done and sent off. All I am waiting for now are the tax forms for my brokerage account, which is essentially my savings account. While I lost quite a bit of savings during the COVID pandemic, we seem to be on a rebound, so I am not unduly worried. Both American and foreign social security have gone up, which is nice, although that has increased my rent, or rather, reduced my rent subsidy. Can't win 'em all, I suppose, and I am largely still "in good nick", as they say. The medical things I needed to do before the end of the year, so they're covered by last year's insurance "remnants", got done too, though one medical outfit has suddenly changed its insurance parametere, that's new and inconvenient, and somewhat puzzling. Why do medical establishments suddenly no longer accept all major insurance carriers? Don't they need all the money?

As I am conducting some training in the use of the newly acquired Amazon Fire TV Stick in my building, it becomes increasingly clear that the concept of "streaming" versus "live" is largely lost on many older denizens. Not their fault, they just have not really been made aware that TV, or broadcast TV, is no longer really "live", it is just broadcasters running and re-running program material that (with rare exceptions) has already been made. There are exceptions - some sports come to mind, "specials" like the Oscars and the Golden Globes, but even most of the early morning programming, like the "Today Show", is only partially live - if only to cater for the different time zones the broadcasters serve. The Dubai soccer championships, the other day, were broadcast live, where you have to ask yourself what the big attraction of "live" actually is. The more I delve into the Firestick, the more "live" becomes a habitual, and unnecessary, accoutrement of entertainment. There was a discussion of whether the Firestick provided last Sunday's "60 minutes" program - as it turned out, that was available on a streaming channel by the name of Tubi, for free. Ad supported, these "free" channels compete with each other, with as a result more and more "free" offerings. Way to go..


Sunday January 8: Happy one to you, too!

Keywords: Amazon, Fire Stick, streaming video, ZyXel NAS, vacuum, system maintenance
The cold, of course, is all gone - one day it was icing and 17 degrees, the next it is raining and 50. The rest of the country is still pretty much in the deep freeze - snow in Miami, can you believe it? I did put my snowboots away, though - only used them once, so far, to clean snow off the car - then again, it sometimes snows in March, so one never knows. For now, let's be optimistic. It is 47 outside, or so my car says.

Having bought the Firestick for our Community Room I am getting to experiment with it without having to program pre-planned stuff. I can set it up completely from scratch, as that TV set is barely used, and I have been able to remove the Wii that was attached to it, and move that to another TV set in the space. Currently, I am testing to see how long our in-house WiFi runs without logging itself out, whether it auto-logs in on demand, and what the Firestick does when it times out. It not only has a built-in screensaver, it also goes into an inactive state after a while, when it has to be "woken up" again. It listens for Alexa input 24/7, though, all you need to do is call it by name. Nice to be able to try this all out.

Now, I need to organize some training for the good folks in this building, a few sessions, so they can get used to "streaming", as opposed to DVDs, VHS cassettes, Blu-Rays, Broadcast, etc. I checked and noted that the vast majority of the titles in our library are available on the Firestick, though some are Pay-Per-View, which we won't support. So we'll see. I've written an instruction pamphlet, now I need to do a flyer, and schedule some classes. Wish me luck...

By this time, we've hit a Brand New Year, can't say I have partied much, sort of been busy writing up the Firestick manual. I have been doing some regular computer maintenance, and gave the "new" ZyXel NAS drive a thorough clean, using a vacuum cleaner. This is not without risk, due to the possible development of static electricity, but using the vacum as a blower, taking the NAS drive apart, and never physically touching any of its parts with the vacuum, should see me safe. It's been four months since I began using it, and as I do not know how much dust it gathers, what with a cooling fan running 24/7, that was important to find out - especially since it took me more than two weeks to run new backups and moving archive files to the Zyxel, which meant it ran for at least two weeks virtually 24/7. Normally, the NAS "times out" when it is not being used, and that means the drives stop, and there is less heat, and the fan therefore does not have to work as hard - though it runs 24/7, by design, at varying speeds. Happily, it wasn't very dusty inside, the blowing action worked well, and I think the four month interval is sufficient, in my case. That also means the drive gets a full reboot when I turn it down, something I normally never do, it is designed for continuous running. But I noticed, one quiet morning I could hear the fan humming, during backups, and that can mean it was accumulating dust, which can make the blades catch more air. Indeed, after the clean the fan RPM was down by some 10%, from 1,000 rpm to just under 900. I am well pleased with that - gave both laptops a blow clean as well, so I am good for a couple months.



Friday December 23: It is freakin' cold

Keywords: snow, ice, Xmas, filters
building lot 8am Not a lot of snow - I made sure I was stocked up, cleaned maybe an inch or so off my SUV, so it is usable, went to the store (which melted whatever was left on the roof), and filled up the fridge, one of those winter-you-never-know exercises. Since then, no more snow, but it did not melt, it is cold, and it just got colder - it's 6pm, and the temperature is down to 21 (Fahrenheit, or -6 in Centipedes). So far, my heat pumps cope admirably, working hard, as they take their air from outside, but as I turn the one in my bedroom off at night, it'll be interesting to find out how the new heat pump in the living room fares, especially since I just replaced the activated carbon filter that came with the unit with a new one, which is a bit thicker and more rigid, but easier to get. I do have baseboard heaters, but am kind of hoping I won't need to use them. We'll see... Yes, the heat pumps crank a lot more when the outside air is cold, but they still seem to extract plenty of energy from that frigid air - so far (it is 19 degrees outside, or so my car tells me) they are both still cycling, which I find surprising. My older whole house heat pumps in Virginia, two 50K units, could not cope with temperatures below freezing, and would switch to their electric heat coils, which was an expensive exercise. Thankfully, I had a woodstove, and five acres of trees, two chain saws, and a fireman neighbour who taught me to fell large oak trees without killing myself....

I am not much of a Christmas person, and I find especially the morning TV show malarkey hard to swallow. Presenter volumes go way up, and half the time there's a stylist praising products that are, to all intents and purposes, too expensive, slightly useless, and not selected and tested by the stylist, but by the vendor/manufacturer. I used to do that sort of stuff for women's magazines, way back when. I recall Jaguar threatening to sue us, because we placed one of their ads on a science page entitled: "Mars, the rusty planet". I'll grant you it is hard to select gifts for other people - I just had that experience wth my sister, who I bought a Hotpot for, which went back to China more or less linea recta. One can only try, eh?

So while my "old" Edgestar heat pump (sold by Whynter as the ARC-14SH) is doing excellent winter duty in my bedroom, the new unit, the Whynter ARC-122DHP, is maintaining my living room and kitchen, and keeps the place warm by itself at night, the 14K unit is just too noisy to sleep next to. Besides, between my goose down duvet and hybrid memory foam mattress, I really do not need additional heat in the bedroom, I don't use the "industrial strength" 240VAC baseboard heaters that are pre-installed in the apartment. While I will admit that "portable" heat pumps are noisy, they have some real advantages - they consume less energy than other electric heaters do, and they have filters, which means they do a decent job of keeping the air in my apartment clean and free of dust. Besides, millions of people use window air conditioners in summer, in the United States, so having that same noise in winter can't possibly be that much of a hardship, considering the cost savings over conventional heating.


Friday December 16: Streaming

Keywords: HP Elitebook, U.S. flag, Fire Stick, streaming media, Windows 8.1, Peacock, Britbox
building flag 4x5 Much to my chagrin the flag I put up in front of our building to replace one that had faded, didn't last that long, so I replaced it, again. I guess the 4x5 foot size flaps ferociously in the wind, and it tore its edge within a year, so I had to replace it. I guess the previous one was smaller, 3x4, but I like this size better on our tallish pole. I've bought a hopefully sturdier one, we shall see, this time I got a spare, as well.

I am trying to transition my television viewing to the Fire TV Stick, not only because it is easier to use than broadcast TV, but because I've ordered a Fire TV Stick for my building's community room, which means I need to get organized enough so I can write a basic guide for the other tenants in this building. For several weeks now, I've been rummaging around the offerings, but every time I browse I discover new channels and program sources, and I was not taking notes. That won't help anyone, so I am trying to get a bit more organized, in terms of knowing what free offerings are available where. The new Fire Stick won't arrive until next week, so I have time to do some homework and begin writing instructions.

Why streaming media now? The Fire TV Stick is, today, dirt cheap, requires no membership or fees, and so is ideal for some of the folks in this building who don't have a TV, or who don't have cable. While I have had streaming media for years, that's been, even before the hardware came onto the consumer market, I ran streaming video on my own servers, having built my own NAS, run on an obsolete PC using multiple redundant disks. Now, Amazon (and others) do it all for you, although many streaming providers do not make a profit on this technology, consumers really are not prepared to shell out for their subscriptions, as NBC has found out with Peacock. BBC and ITV now are trying the same with Britbox, but so much of their programming is available via broadcast, I don't know that they're going anywhere with that.

Considering the HP EliteBook 2560p "subnotebook" was first released in 2011, with Windows 7, an Intel Core i5-2520M 2.5 Ghz processor and a conventional hard disk, it is definitely a bit anemic, but upgrading it worked wonders. Mine now has Windows 8.1 Pro, an Intel Core i7-2620 2.7 Ghz processor with a 4MB cache, maxed out RAM @ 16GB, a 4 terabyte SSD, and it flies. I had it working reasonably well before (I have mostly used this notebook to record broadcast TV using an ATSC dongle), but since I, after many tries, managed to transfer the Windows load onto a large (4 TB) SSD, and re-tuned Windows, the notebook seems to be twice as fast as before. More importantly, in the past it ran hot, especially when recording TV, fan always running, and often at the top of its capability. That's now history - not only is it faster, it needs much less cooling than before, I no longer hear the fan whine - why, I don't know, but to me this just means it will last longer - I did replace the fans in both my notebooks, something I think should be done periodically anyway.


Friday December 9: More maintenance done

Keywords: heat pump, time management, drainage, appliances
Replacing the heat pump in my living room was much less of a hassle than I anticipated - but that was partially due to the help I received from our building manager, H., who helped me remove the old unit, and put it by the trash, out back. But the hoses and vent assembly fit the window kit I already had, I managed to buy a unit with the same mounts, so that was cool, and it being a Monday, I was able to throw the voluminous packing material in the recycling bins, as they had just been emptied. Then, the unit, after "acclimatizing" for a few hours, fired right up, runs fine, and is a little less noisy than the older one was, so good all around. It's smaller, to boot, and mostly silver, rather than black, so doesn't quite stand out in the space. Got lucky. Lucky, too, that Amazon delivered at 10:30am, so I had all afternoon to do the install and swap.

Whynter heat pump I am not sure why I keep being busy - many of my mornings are partly taken up by laundry (in the building laundry room), which I kind of divvy up across the week, but other than that, the odd bit of shopping doesn't take that much time. Today, I went to the car wash, hit the supermarket, and then the hardware store - with some kitchen stuff in between, that took care of my morning. Because I have one of those small worktop dishwashers, I normally don't leave while it is running, it gets its water from a faucet, and drains in the sink, and I just don't like the risk that something floods (not that it ever has..). Once it's done, I open the unit and the dishes can dry while I head for the shops.

I did finish with the heat pumps today - checking the condensation drain works OK on the new unit, and cleaning, draining and replacing the filters on the "old" unit. That works really well - not a drop of water in the drain pan, much to my surprise, but then it begins every heat cycle with an evaporation. The drain on the new unit is interesting - it does not use conventional evaporation, but it has a built in drainage pump, which comes with a small hose that gets run outside though the air exhaust. That seems to work very well, although I'll need to re-check once it starts freezing again, you never know. There are two more drain connections, but my apartment does not have a drainage facility anywhere near where the unit is - those are more for homes where there is underfloor or direct outside access. After re-reading the installation instructions, there was only one remaining action - the condensation pump drainage hose was supposed to sit inside the outside exhaust opening, so I needed to loosen the window kit, push back the poly hose so the opening sat just outside the window kit, and seal the whole thing back up. I had noticed that hose, after a few days' running, was full of condensation, so the pump and drainage are working properly. Happy me - this is a new way of doing things, had not worked with this type of drainage before. My older heat pump drains though the compressor, which means it runs for quite a while in each cycle, first heating and evaporating the condensation, then switching to heating which means the compressor now cools and the circulation fan comes on. With the drainage pump, run cycles for the new unit are "short and sweet".


Saturday December 3: Things keep breaking

Keywords: heat pump, dual hose, credit card, snow, Windows Medcia Center, EPG Freevee, Firestick
The reason I have dual hose heat pumps is, predominantly, that they do a much better job of getting rid of compressor condensation than single hose units do. Single hose heat pumps, in heating mode, need to be manually drained regularly, although some newer models come with a built-in drain pump. They also get their air for heat exchange from inside your space, which is air you've just cooled or heated, depending, while dual hose units get their air from outside. In a house, drainage isn't so much of a problem if you can run a hose from the drain plug to somewhere, but in an apartment that isn't an option. So the dual hose heat pump uses a compressor cycle to evaporate accumulated water to outside, a function that, on one of my heat pumps, has just stopped working. This is when I miss the garage in Lynnwood, where I was able to tinker with stuff, doing repa