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Old stuff through February, 2016, with linkbacks all the way to October, 2008, is here.

December 7, 2016: Do homework, then decide...

Keywords: HRM, medical devices, mobile apps, cloud devices, accuracy, Amazon, gym, competition

Heart Rate

Endomondo report You may have seen some of the publicity surrounding the accuracy of "fitness trackers", more specifically the wrist worn variety, which have been tested up the wazoo, and found less than accurate. I picked the Time article to link, because it seems to have the most relevant information, without undue amounts of advertising, but if you Google the subject you'll find a plethora of articles and videos, some ridiculous, some stating the wrists bands are accurate, some stating the reverse.

I have the chest variety, which measure heart rate by detecting the electrical pulses that control the heartbeat - wrist monitors use an optical method of sensing blood flow. That may well be accurate when you are sitting still and the unit has good contact with the wrist (compare that with the pulse oxymeter you stick your finger in, which does a similar optical measurement), and is correctly positioned over the veins, but as you walk or bike or treadmill or do anything else involving movement, the wrist band will move in various ways, so to this engineer it is not surprising wrist bands do not give accurate and consistent readings. Do they need to? There are two answers to that.

One is that if the manufacturer states an HRM is 94% accurate, it then has to be, or you shouldn't say that - in fact, folks are now taking FitBit to court for making claims they say are unrealistic. The other is to do with you - what do you expect of your H(eart) R(ate) M(onitor)? Apart from the fact that I do not know what "94% accurate" means, would you be good if your paycheck was "94% accurate"? As a scientist, I can tell you this: if you know something is 94% accurate, you know the 100% accurate value, as well - because you can't calculate one without the other. Having said that, if you were to put three medical grade monitors in a hospital side-by-side, they would likely provide (slightly) different readings. As there are few reasons why you would need a 100% accurate reading, some deviation, then, isn't a big issue. Do what a friend of mine did, the other day - he compared his blood pressure meter with his brother's, at his house, and came out with very similar readings for both of them, on both devices. Case closed. If they deviate, you then need to compare those with a third meter, see what you come up with.

CooSpo chest HRM My cuffs (I have two) and blood oxygen meter I took into my doctor's office, and asked her if I could check them against their equipment. Again, case closed. It isn't about the 100% accuracy, then, it is about consistent results over time, so you can build a database you can refer to when you don't feel well, or at your next checkup.

As you may have read in a previous blog entry, below, I eventually bought the chest variety, which the medical profession feels is more accurate, the combined (with smartphone sensors) output of which you can see to the right (click on the pic to enlarge). One reason why I don't want to wear a wristband is that I stopped wearing watches many years ago, when I knew I could always rely on my mobile phone to have time, date, and my calendar, but then I carry my Blackberry on my hip 24/7, and I use the calendar, and I use it for email, I see no reason to wear two devices for one purpose, and I actually like not having that thing on my wrist, same as I don't wear glasses, but extended wear monovision contact lenses. Technology is there to make your life better. The other reason not to wear a wristband is that it talks to an app on your phone 24/7, and this then sends all of the data to the app's manufacturer, including your phone book, location, your email address, all your friend's email addresses, etc. I am allergic to this.

Another thing I don't need is to know my heart rate 24/7, including Christmas Day. I am not a heart patient, but as I wanted to know, for medical reasons, how high my heart rate gets when under exertion, I settled for the chest strap. I begin measuring when I leave the house to walk to the gym, then measure throughout my workout, then during the walk home - the output top right (which, IRL, has a Google map as well) is from a recent gym session. Interesting is that an average exercise app (this is Endomondo) makes lots of assumptions about what is important, rather than ask the user what it is they want. Endomondo, like others, is annoying, even tries to send you encouragement messages, and tries to get you to compete with other Endomondo users, not understanding that the "competers" are a subset of fitness app users, there are many different reasons for people to work out. In my case, it is simply health, and trying to help my body cope with the medical condition I have, as well as making sure I have fitness data I can take to my quarterly medical checkups. My doctors specifically do not want me to compete, because competing, as we all know, leads many people into injury territory, and for health maintenance it is completely unnecessary. This applies to millions of people - patients - in the world, and Endomondo and its competitors very simply have no clue how to cater to them.

So no, I don't count reps, I don't count steps, I don't check my pulse while working out, I just work out until I work up a sweat, or feel a joint or muscle protest, and look only at results over time, which is why I like having the stats in the picture. Tracking your pulse from workout to workout is a fool's errand, just as stupid as believing your protein knows drink to go to your triceps. Not gonna happen. I check a whole lot of vital statistics, but that is more out of interest, what you should check daily, first thing, before coffee, breakfast and shower, is your weight and blood pressure, and anything else you think is relevant to you, and stick that in a spreadsheet, which, even if you don't want to use a PC, you can do on a mobile or tablet. Even unsmart phones have spreadsheeting applications. The simple value of this exercise is that you can check deviations over time, and that way you have an early warning of anything that might go wrong, and take the information on a doctor visit.

I actually initially wanted to get a wrist band, did some research, then went to read the reviews at Amazon. I found: 8,331 different wristband fitness trackers (which would indicate this is an, uhm, really popular product) and, in the reviews, found hundreds of "incentivized" reviews - reviews where the vendor gave the "reviewer" a discounted or free product in return for their "unbiased" review. I've railed against this for years, as the practice begs abuse, and finally, as of October 3rd, Amazon no longer allows the practice. In my search for a fitness tracker the incentivization made it practically impossible to find a few reviews I could trust, in the end I came to the conclusion (especially with the negative publicity about wrist trackers) that this was, for my purpose, a useless product, turned out in a couple sheds in Shenzen by the millions. To be honest, for my purpose even the Apple Watch or Samsung Gear aren't "fit for purpose" as they use unreliable technology to monitor blood flow. Repurposing the concept of the wristwatch for things it was not designed for, then finding a technology that only half works, then filling your failure to do good science with advertising, is not smart. I get the same feeling I did when that Tesla killed its owner - you just should not implement that kind of automation without making it foolproof and failsafe - and no, Elon Musk, you cannot tell a customer "not to use that" any more than you can tell someone not to put bullets in the Smith & Wesson 66 they just bought, and not to fire it. Bam. It isn't how things work. One of these days, an Apple watch wearer will die of a heart attack their phone should have seen coming, and didn't, and that will be the end of that. Because, if you built this monitoring capability in your device, and you can prove (there's the crux) the device saw the symptoms but did not alert because it did not understand them, the maker is toast. And that will happen, because these products, from Apple Watch to Tesla, aren't tested the way they should be, they soothe maker ego, not consumer care. Remember how "ignorance of the law" is not a valid defence? I believe that once you can purposely monitor life signs and you sell your product as a device that can help you with your health, you are now required to understand what you "see".

December 5, 2016: Flying? Almost...

Keywords: Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, drones, FAA, weather, snow, winter, Trump, employment, WiFi, streaming
Don't worry about Sinterklaas, if you're not Dutch, the British, when introducing their own flavour of protestantism, rolled Saint Nicholas and Christmas into one, if you were wondering why Santa Claus and Father Christmas are the same thing. So, on to more important matters, like toys and Trump...

Hexacopter VI've bought myself a drone, as I think it is time I learned a new technology - it is sitting here, but I need to get some spare batteries for it, because with only eight minutes flying time I am not going to learn very much. I also don't know, as it is getting colder, whether or not I can muster the stamina to sit out in the cold for hours while learning to fly this thing, This is a six axis drone (I must admit I don't know what that means, in terms of functionality, exactly), complete with always-on WiFi camera so you can see what the drone is seeing, real time, other than that I am going to have to try it out to tell you what and how well it does. Amazingly small, the white thing in plastic in the front is a real time camera complete with WiFi server, powered by the drone's battery. Finding a large enough open space will be job one, although within fifteen miles or so there is plenty of countryside, seaward or in the direction of the mountains. So - batteries, and then the vendor sends you extra propellers, guards and motors when you "report in", that's not bad. I noticed tonight the model I bought is sold out already, and I ordered this before Cyber Monday - just in time, I guess. It is, I can see from the manual, considerably more sophisticated than the one I bought two years ago - but that was a gift, I never flew that myself. The "giftee" didn't do much with it either - one flight that ended on a roof, one that ended in someone else's yard, one indoors that demolished some glass ornaments, and it hasn't flown since. That drone had a camera with memory card, this drone will stream what the camera sees live to an Android or iOS handset (presumably with capture capability), which is much more cool, methinks. As an aside, drone ownership now has to be registered with the FAA, the Federal Aviation Authority, which will issue you a registration number ($5) - you have to pay by credit or debit card, so they have an address verification on you. No, there is no provision to enter the registration number in the electronics, which would be a good way of doing this, make it illegal to fly unregistered drones, and develop electronics to "zap" drones that don't have the number embedded. Owell. More to follow.

So, nice, the president-elect persuaded Carrier to keep some jobs in Indiana, rather than move them to Mexico. I agree we need to provide more employment in large parts of the United States, but I don't know that this will do it. On the other hand, American businesses have been moving business units abroad, and cheap labour into the country, for years. Only a couple of years ago, I walked into the security office at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, to sign the paperwork to get my contractor ID, and, with me, there was one other Westerner in the line, the fourty or so others were all Indian, and all from Microsoft's overseas subsidiaries - not the H1B variety of contractor, they already were Microsoft employees being "transferred". I spent time in the Philippines and India, watching as local folks there were getting ready to apply for contracting positions in Europe and the USA, getting their paperwork and permits together, then going to work for the EU and American subsidiaries of Indian and Filipino contracting companies with existing contracts with Western multinationals. It's been the practice, it is where the money goes, and stopping Carrier from building A/C units in Mexico isn't going to solve "globalization". To a large extent, we're feeding the world, and while that is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, we ought to get paid for doing that, that is the missing link. And no, I am not being critical, it will take time to convert the Washington environment, and power structure, then more time for the "new ways" to trickle down - if they ever will. But Mr. Trump is setting the stage, and he does not want it to be business as usual. It's time for that, I do agree. But I know much of the power structure in the gummint, from having to work with it, at all levels, and don't know that a President can actually cause that much change, if his cohorts aren't "with him". Having said all that, Mr. Trump is certainly shaking the tree, judging by his seemingly impromptu call from the president of Taiwan. Yes, Mr. Trump, I can totally see that a customer who spends billions on our military hardware deserves to speak to the CEO. Good show. You're growing on me.

In the interim, it is getting colder, bit of a freeze overnight, I am going to have to start taking my wipers off the windshield at night, it is December, so I guess that time of year. Winters here can be very mild, but they're talking about "lowland snow" on TV, and "lowland", that's us - the weatheroos seem to think the snow may get here Sunday night. I had dreams of moving South, a while ago, kind of canned that, partly for lack of money, partly because I still had some stuff to sort from back when, but I think that is mostly, maybe completely, done, at this point, and as I have been officially declared "in remission" (teehee) there really isn't much to stop me. You'll ask why the medical holdback - that wasn't so much because I was in imminent danger of anything, but my treatments stand and fall with good doctors, once you find those you have to build a relationship with them, and then get everything done that needs doing. You don't want to move and change doctors and clinics while all that is going on. I've just had a battery of clean tests, added to that a Medicare mandated Wellness assessment, and some of the physical complaints I had earlier in the year, have basically gone away, due to a reduction in medication, diligent working out, some changes in my diet, and more of a reduction in alcohol intake (I stopped smoking in 2010, cold turkey).

December 1, 2016: We're not Vegetarian any more

Keywords: hunter/gatherer, vegan, omnivore, chimpanzee, heart rate, HRM, blood pressure, fortunetelling

To continue, for the moment, on the raw foods topic I started below, we humans began eating meat some 2.5 million years ago, and eminent scientists have it that that was, not coincidentally, a period when our advanced brains began to develop. That's interesting - we can assume there was some brain development because we needed to develop strategies to hunt and kill animals, before this time, we were up in the trees, and the fruits that are there do not tend to run away and need to be hunted down a lot. If you, purely logically, see that we came out of the trees at that time, we became bipedal hunter / gatherers in order to discover meats and tubers and roots - again, largely not available in the trees.

Then, interestingly, we actually developed to digest stuff raw - heating food by burning, and later by cooking in vessels, then by cooking in vessels in water, didn't happen until 2 million years later, some 400,000 years ago. We ate stuff raw, and, presumably, we learned to pound things to make them easier to digest. Vegetables? No. All you need to do is look at older Hindu (=vegetarian) folks in India to see how much vegetable matter you need to ingest just to stay alive, and remember that Indians cook their vegetables so they are more concentrated, take away their boiling and cooking and you end up with five to ten times the volume you would need to eat.  Just think about it: a head of cauliflower has maybe 150 calories. But way back when they didn't have heads of cauliflower - they had stalks. So in order to get a 500 calorie cauliflower breakfast, they'd have had to find maybe four or five pounds of cauliflower stalks, take off the inedible bits, and then they could eat the rest, and sit there and bloat. That's just breakfast, of course. So, no, I don't think they had time to do a lot of veggies - that's what vegetarian animals do, cows, orang utans, elephants, they spend all daylight hours foraging, and moving from feeding place to feeding place - not because that is a leisurely activity, but because it is the only way they can get enough nutrition, and that is using the specialized stomachs you and I ain't got. We're omnivores - compare yourself with the chimpanzee, and you'll find that animal, a close genetic relative of your cousin Bobby, gets perhaps 3% of its diet from meat, the rest from - well, actually, a large percentage figs.

So eating some foods raw - say, meat, fish, fruits and roots / tubers, all foods that have concentrated calories, is actually in our ancestral biological makeup. Lettuce is not. The shell of a corn kernel is indigestible, as well (and that includes popcorn). And it is proven there are some proteins that are not available in any agricultural product, but only in animal products (a category that includes eggs and milk). I know it is heresy and i will burn in hell for saying it, but you do realize that a steak is a chunk of processed grass, don't you? While I do appreciate a Dutch researcher's well founded view that that a steak costs 3,000 litres of water to get to be food on your plate, that is becoming a problem because we keep making babies, and stack 'em all on top of each other in vast urban areas. The steak, as a product, isn't the problem, it is the volume we produce that should have us pay attention. Calculate how much grass and hay that steak cost, and you'll find an equally staggering number, but you see, we can't digest grass - it is somehow important in this discussion to understand that a cow is a living self-reproducing machine that turns indigestible produce into human edible foods, like milk and cheese, and eventually, meat. Goats, too. And sheep. And I am not having the horse discussion with y'all. I'll continue this at some point in the future, suffice it to say that even the house cat has trouble digesting raw meat, today, as most urban cats have never been fed anything raw by their owners. We should not confuse instinct with need. You can buy, even here in the United States (in Europe they're in the supermarket) frozen one day old chicks, by the way, and feed them to your cats from when they wean - you'll find they love them, growling as they "play with their food", and a lot healthier than "bacon cheeseburger flavoured" canned cat food. I spotted that at Wal-Mart, the other day, how crazy can you get? The chicks are of the male variety, by the way, they're destroyed, as roosters, for some reason, don't lay eggs, make trouble in the cages, and don't produce the flavourful meat hens do.

So I got the CooSpo heart monitor, unexpectedly cheap and easy to pair with an app on my Lumia mobile phone. I bought the unit without knowing what app I was going to use with it, and this was one of the few where I could tell from the reviews it would work with Windows Phone, although I have an older version, 8.1. I have other handsets, but I normally take the Lumia to the gym, I had had it running with an exercise app, so that was, kind of, the tool of choice. Long story short, the free miCoach app from running shoe manufacturer Adidas did not work for me - it will not run if GPS is not on or not working, and in that condition it'll turn heart rate detection off, too. Apart from that, miCoach somehow found my date of birth, which I did not provide it with, and so I canned that. I then tried Endomondo, an application that I ditched years ago, when I found it was mining everything on my old Nokia phone, but in the interim they appear to have seen the light and today, you can run Endomondo without telling it anything except your email (you do need to go online and tell it not to share anything with anybody, but it lets you do that). What's more, it works flawlessly, even behind a screen saver, it synchronized with the H(eart) R(ate) M(onitor) expeditiously, and I have now done a full 1.5 hour gym walk-and-workout where it "got everything" and didn't kill my battery. Though I had GPS on for this workout (and it actually tracked my walking inside the gym) you can run it without GPS, and it will work just fine. I do think some of these apps need to start getting out of "competitive" mode - I work out to maintain my health, not to compete with others and potentially injure myself. The developers should give an option between "health" and "compete" modes, and let you decide what you want to track. I have friends (folks I love dearly) who post their runs and bike rides on Facebook, diligently, I just think that's overachiever stuff, that serves nobody.

Word of caution here - one of them was a picture of health, competitive long distance cyclist, tall, blond, Californian in origin, scientist, musician, recent Ph. D., no health complaints or concerns, who, a year or so ago, suddenly fell over, bike and all, dead so fast his feet were still in the pedal straps. Turned out he had triple vessel disease (all three coronary arteries blocked), due to his physical prowess had never noticed a thing (nor had his family, doctors, or the medical folks in Verizon who do the employment checkups), and this would have been easily detectable had someone done the right tests, a chest scan or ultrasound, but these are tests you don't get unless you've got something going wrong, or have complaints. If you can cycle sixty miles in the French mountains and do a smiling selfie after, not at all out of breath, you clearly are in perfect health, right? Medicare now mandates those scans for smokers and former smokers over 65, but I can't help but think there is a battery of tests that younger people in the picture of health should get, too.

So why my sudden attention to heart rate? There isn't anything wrong with my ticker, that gets tested frequently, and I monitor blood pressure and ancillaries thoroughly, but it has something to do with my thyroid hormone, or lack thereof. Bear with me, it is an involved story, but that way at least you'll understand I am not a hypochondriac, even though I know how to spell that. I hope. Something I wasn't really aware of is that the thyroid plays a part in the regulation of the heartbeat. As a consequence, if some intrepid surgeon removes your thyroid, and the endocrinologist then prescribes a replacement hormone, the heart may start to race, or beat irregularly, palpitate, partly because the body no longer can regulate the amount of hormone released into the blood, that's now a daily pill. Although my endocrinologist back in D.C. had explained it, I never put two and two together - when they remove a cancerous thyroid, they like to put you on a higher dose of hormone than strictly necessary, to reduce the chances that any cancerous thyroid cells that remained in the body after radioactive iodine treatment will re-activate. I guess back in D.C. I was just too overwhelmed by being radioactive for a while to take everything in. They do all this very thoroughly, at least in my case, with a full body scan before and after, with the body artificially starved of iodine, so any thyroid cells are active, and, with residual radioactivity, show up on the scans. At any rate, long story short, I've had heart palpitations more or less since my surgery, although my blood pressure and heart rate are in normal ranges, and it is just alarming and annoying to be aware of your heartbeat, something you normally never notice (if you do, go talk to a doctor), and even sometimes to be woken up by it.

In other words, what I am experiencing is, under the circumstances, normal, monitored well by three doctors and myself, but it still causes some anxiety. At one point it got alarming to the point I had a cardiologist do a full heart workup, the issue being that once your heart becomes irregular, you may not notice if something really goes wrong with it, and that is why I worry about it more than I probably should. My doctors aren't concerned, I work out at the gym five or six times a week, so I should be good, but for added "protection" I will now use a heart rate monitor so I can see how high (during exercise) really is high.

So there.

You must have noticed the press, both before the election and after, has been extra-ordinarily engaged in predicting the future - as if there was such a thing. To begin with, much of the media had the election outcome completely and totally wrong, and now they're all trying to figure out who president-elect Trump will assign to cabinet positions - which the press had mostly wrong, so far - and what his policies will be. I predict they'll get that wrong, too. I think it will be a massively good idea to simply wait until he gets into office, and then see what happens. We've never dealt with this kind of guy before, and making endless hours of commentaries and endless reams of posts isn't going to do anything meaningful. I don't think he wants to be read, our Mr. Trump, and I think his staff is under extremely strict orders not to release any information. There have always been folks in the "inner circle" used as conduits into the media - not this time. And that is, actually, excellent. You'll hear the horn, around the corner - I don't necessarily even think all of his tweets are designed to indicate policy. He's just thinking out loud. We're maybe not used to that, but if would be kind of refreshing. May you live in interesting times....

November 25, 2016: The Realtor Who Roared

Keywords: tartar steak, Google, Trump, president-elect, tuna, raw foods, matjes, browser compatibility, Android, Alphabet

LA FitnessI always forget to smile when I take a selfie at the gym, compounded here because the phone I was using has no front facing camera. Besides, why post these selfies? Then again, why not... *grin*

No, I don't like Trump either. I didn't think he'd be the best choice for our country. But guess what: He Won. He Got It. You have to give credit where credit is due, he ran a hard campaign and came out on top. Donald Trump, the non-establishment candidate. So whatever the gazillions of commentators say, Mr. Trump came out on top and he will be our President, for at least four years. So in my book - and I had a lot of rednecks in my old neighbourhood in Virginia say that, eight years ago, about Obama, after they had done enough White House Watermelon Patch jokes - he is our President, and we need to support him. Because he will be running the place, and we need a place that is functional and successful. Not running riot with "He is not my president" placards while tearing up the streets. He got it, live with it. It is called "democracy", it is what y'all are so enthralled with when you look at places run under autocratic rule by military juntas or totalitarian regimes. Get ready for the next election, but don't let's try to mess the place up, save the good bits from the Obama years, and move on. I have always believed change is always good, and that is what we got, peeps.

It is snowing in the mountains... slightly early, but winter is on its way. Snow boots.. check. Gloves in car... check. Ice scraper indoors (warm)... check. Thermal leather gloves indoors (warm)... check. Snowbroom in garage... check. Gloves in exercise bag.. check. Snow jacket.. check. All that's left to do is clear out the back of the car, re-arrange the emergency gear, and put the snow chains in. While with snow tires and four wheel drive I am not required to use them, State Law requires you to have them in the car when crossing the mountain passes East. And the oil - I need to change my oil, filter and fresh oil ready in the garage, all I really want is a sunny day so I don't have to get cold or wet, or both, doing it. Air filter done, injector/carbon cleaner in gas, tires done - oops, not the spare, need to get under the car and check the pressure.

raw meat and fishSo let's take another look at the raw foods I crave - when you read this, please remember I grew up in The Netherlands, and there are many things that are eaten raw (as in: uncooked) in Northern Europe that horrify most Americans. Matjes herring, by the way, isn't really raw - while not prepared in any way, matjes are tradionally caught, gutted on board ship, and then brined - sodium, the active ingredient in brine, acts as a preservative when added to the fresh fish filets, and causes structural changes in the meat that makes herring edible right out of the storage vat - that is how the catch is processed, into small vats, 40 herrings per vat, in brine, no oxygen, no decay. So, while "raw" herring isn't cooked, it isn't really raw, either, but the preservation process, refined over six(!) centuries, and not dependent on mechanization or refrigeration, very functional. Having said that, freezing and refrigeration have contributed to improving the flavour of herring, which is no longer increasingly saltier due to the length of time herring was in its, uh, pickle... In the picture, left, are my main vices, considering I can't get real matjes herring here in the Pacific Northwest, the Scandinavian version they do import is way too salty for the Dutch palate. Some stores, notably in California and in the Northeast, do sell it, but shipping on dry ice isn't necessarily reliable, and the Eastern European matjes I found at Costco are salted herring more than matjes (there's no sea to catch herring in inland Eastern Europe). But the frozen tuna - tuna almost always is sold "from frozen" - the distance it has to travel, and the size of the fish, make it impractical to ship any other way - is rapidly becoming my "fish oil alternative". The Fed has it this tuna has been frozen long and hard enough - see the rules here - that it is perfectly safe to consume, provided it is thawed in accordance with the instructions, which basically boil down to "defrost in the fridge, then eat immediately". I do that religiously, letting my tuna defrost in a closed container wrapped in kitchen paper, so juices - blood - and freezing water are absorbed away from the meat. Works a treat, delicious and, I understand, super healthy.

Meat, ground beef, as I ranted below, is a different kettle of, well, meat. While the issue with fish is parasites, meat has different contaminants, bacteria and the like. Even so, I started buying prepackaged ground beef (like in the picture left) which is "created" in meat packing plants, about as close to the source as you can get. The shrink wrapped trays you get in the supermarket may be a long way "from source", shipped as beef to distributors, from there to stores, processed there, handled multiple times on its way to you. So I am going to give this vacuum tubed ground sirloin the same treatment my tuna gets - draining wrap, refrigeration, then a week's worth of freezing. I figure just draining the fluids and the blood may help remove, and through the freezing, kill, contaminants. I've been eating raw ground beef, in a number of ways, ever since I grew up, in Europe, so perhaps I am resistant to some of the bugs y'all are not. After all, when my buddy and I went to work in South East Asia, again, most of our crew developed "Bali Belly", a.k.a. "Delhi Belly", but we did not, we eat native food in the countries we're sent to. We figured that things 300 million Indonesians eat can't be all bad, just don't start your day - in the deep tropics - with cereal with fresh milk and fried eggs. That, at the time, was produced specially for the whiteface expats, and that meant serving and kitchen staff had no experience with how to make and keep Western food safe. "Only drink bottled water" but then we discovered the housekeepers were cleaning water glasses with their bare hands - in a country where toilet paper was available only in expat stores, or a one hour flight away, in Singapore.

gmail misfire Here is (see my rant below) another network that says "you're not compatible" - Google. That's an issue - you'd think that, with Google's mother company Alphabet having some 65,000 employees, they could spare a couple to guarantee compatibility, but no. Google has a peculiar problem that Microsoft had before - Google makes it own operating systems and browsers, so, rather than concentrate on communicating with you, Google has a ve$ted interest in getting you to use Android and Chrome and all that other good stuff. If you're in advertising, this is actually a massively stupid idea - your interest is to make sure that anyone, anywhere, can view and use your output, from banner ads to Youtube. So think about it - last blog, I showed you Twitter cannot show ads in some browsers (by its own choice!). To the right, here, you can see how Google can't display ads in my browser - again, by its own choice! And it isn't that it is not possible, Twitter and Google have chosen not to show things in browsers they don't like. Chosen. Like Microsoft in the past, Google thinks it can do advertising and operating systems, both (AOL, way back when, did that too - until someone invented the World Wide Web and Mosaic and massive AOL and its Keywords went the way of the dinosaur). It has been proven time and again that you can't mix the two, in the long term - and what I don't get is that Google does not understand you don't need to. Especially now that Google has been split up into separate operating companies and is now Alphabet, and they have throttled back on some of the more esoteric activities, like self driving cars, you' think they could take care of their client, the consumer, first. Being commercially successful by killing other people's products has never worked in the long term, while making sure everyone, especially the lower echelons, can see and use your products, in the long term, makes you a winner. Advertising is advertising, and perhaps that can be combined with making search engines and databases, but it isn't compatible with operating systems. Before you tell me I am off my rocker, I am a UNIX developer by training, and so well familiar with Android and Chrome and the stuff Apple does, because all of it is based on ripped versions of Linux, which itself is based on ripped versions of UNIX. While UNIX is a brilliant operating system for network elements, and the folks at MIT did a great job building a graphical shell around it, you can, today, take almost any operating system, and do that, because the latter day processing units, the CPUs, are so fast and so versatile. They are in fact so good I am using a laptop with an Intel I5 processor as my everyday machine, because I currently don't need the speed the I7, which I own as well, allows. That's new - even the I3 in my old Lenovo was, at times, stretched to the limit, but the more recent Intel chipsets are blisteringly fast, outputting 4K graphics without straining themselves, even with Intel's graphics processors, which aren't the fastest on the planet.

By the way, don't wait shopping for the holidays, the deals are good now, especially online, the etailers have had their Christmas stock in for weeks, if you wait until the hype starts you'll only pay more, and right now just about everybody ships for free - in fact, if someone tries to charge you for shipping, give them a miss. Trust me. But don't wait, and don't impulse buy, see something nice, check online places at your leisure, there is always tomorrow that way. I got most of my gifts done, and earlier today even bought some toys for myself. Well, toys... one is a heart monitor, I think it is time I keep a closer eye on the ticker, as the thyroid hormone messes with that a lot.

November 21, 2016: Social networks are greed-iron

Keywords: tartar steak, central heating, backup strategies, Facebook, Twitter, Google, network security, user security, fake news, artificial intelligence

fresh steak tartare I am cold, tired, for no reason, although - a neighbour thought the grey skies and the chilling temperatures didn't make him jump for joy. Temperatures hit freezing - 32 - for the first time this year, yesterday, kind of out of nowhere, I had woken up to 50 the day before. And I see cold and snow roaring into the Midwest, but then that is pretty much the same every year. Hopefully there will be a bit of sun next week, I need to change my oil and refuse to do that in freezing rain. The seasons are definitely different this year - where my neighbour had grapes by the gazillion last year, this year the harvest was meagre. That's a bit how I feel, although I should be happy some of my financial woes, dating back to the 2008 stock market collapse when I lost my house and my savings, seem to have gone away. It has been a long hard slog, though, and I can't say I feel like celebrating. With the cancer and some other medical issues under control, I really should not complain. Next week a slew of blood work, then the annual checkups over the next couple of weeks, spend the 2016 insurance money while it is there. My 2017 health plan insurance contribution has gone up significantly, a bit of a bummer, considering the past few years it kept coming down, but there it is, nothing you can do. And if the preceding paragraph reads a bit gloomy, that is how I feel, although I probably have gotten through the worst of it all. Even got a Thanksgiving invite, so I should not be whining, but get on with the pumpkin pie.

Whaha... When I am cold, I tend to think that may be due to my thyroid hormone, or lack thereof. Not this time, but that is why I did not notice the central heating had conked out - the furnace was running, intermittently, but not firing. Thank heavens for friend and neighbour D., formerly a central heating engineer, who came over, manually started the thing up, said he'd order the part, and then very kindly not only ordered but went to pick up the "furnace ignitor", a ceramic thingie that heats up to some crazy temperature and ignites the gas. Thanks, buddy, I owe you.

I love tartar steak, but have decided maybe not to make that any more. It is not safe, while I've never yet had a health problem eating raw ground beef, but I should draw the line with the raw tuna, which, to all intents and purposes, is "more safe". Raw stuff, in general, veggies, meat, even fish, is rarely advisable to eat, humans aren't made for it, we're not "proper carnivores", nor are we herbivores. The French eat it, the Dutch, the Danes, the Germans, Norwegians, but the thing is Americans aren't into raw stuff, and when you live in an urban area with six million inhabitants the sheer volume of beef that has to be produced constitutes a risk factor, especially if you know beef and other animal products are only spot checked, the Fed making ample allowance for the volumes the market requires. Back in Northern Europe the shelves are full of beef prepared and designed to be eaten raw, from tartar steak to filet Américain, but there it is a real product, properly tested, and prepared by people trained for it. Here, it really is only served in upscale restaurants supplied by specialized butchers, in places like New York City and Los Angeles.

As it now stands my "new and improved" backup strategy works reasonably well - having said that, I have not had to recover a system from backup, so proof I ain't got, the full recovery I did around July 13 took (including drive recovery and diagnostics) a couple of days, and had as its main result that I discontinued some backup strategies, and ended up replacing my trusty ole Lenovo. Now, I back up on a daily basis anyway, but once a month or so clone the entire drive, as well, using free drive manufacturer's cloning software, and I have stopped using Windows Pro's backup software, which would not let me restore a full backup to a different motherboard. Should I have another drive failure - something I hope is, again, years away - all I will need to do is install the clone where the defective drive is, then run a restore from AIS, where I would set the restore for "newer" files, which would be everything changed since the last cloning session - not just my files, but operating system changes as well. That should be really quick and perfect. Famous last words, right? One thing I have done, as these HP Elitebooks were bought used, is order new CMOS batteries. The one thing you worry about is that a CMOS battery dies, and then you lose your BIOS settings every time you power down, and Lord knows what else. I've had that happen once on an old Sony VAIO, but there the CMOS battery was an ordinary button battery, one you can buy at the supermarket, and these HPs have custom batteries. They easily last five to ten years, but that is where the problem lies, you don't count on that battery dying, and you may not be able to get it at the corner store. So if you have an older PC or laptop, check if Amazon stocks the CMOS battery, and put it in your Wish List, and replace it when you next do maintenance, it'll set you back less than $10, in most cases. It may involve partly dismantling your system, though, so check the installation instructions before you buy, or else get yourself one of them geeks at Best Buy to do it.

Twitter video errorFor many years, I hammered into my staff's brains that websites must allow as many people as possible, using as many technologies as possible, to access information. That wasn't just because I was in charge of the information the law required us to make available to the consumer, but I had a very good understanding that many people use old computers, old browsers, slow network connections, non-smartphones, half broken systems, and what have you. One of my programmers in Chennai, India, once told me he had broadband internet at his apartment building - that meant that the 24 apartments in his building shared one dual channel 128Kb ISDN connection. Still, today, many cheap mobile telephones in third world countries only manage EDGE networking, with speeds up to 500 Kbps. And many of those networks and devices basically make it hard-to-impossible for their consumers to access our advanced services. The picture to the right is the error message I get from Twitter when I use my Seamonkey browser, one of five or so different browsers I use. There are some things I can do more easily with Seamonkey, which is based on Firefox, than with other browsers, and it has an email module which I use to store my POPmail on one of my systems. Facebook It is pretty much a security concern, I have better cookie control, and my email does not get archived in the cloud, where it isn't secure, once I am done with it. Does it make sense for Twitter to prevent people from seeing their video? I have no idea what the video shows, but in general, alienating users, preventing users from seeing ads or accessing information, is a completely useless exercise - most technology in use by consumers today is "outdated". If the folks at Twitter are interested: your arrogance, and over-reliance on advanced technologies, is why you are not doing well. You've lost your way, kids. It is comparable to the Fed telling drivers they can't be on an interstate if their car is older than fifteen years, or, as they do in Europe, ban older polluting cars from certain cities, because they forgot pollution goes where the wind goes, and pollution is dependent on whether, and how much you drive, not what with.

So, as you can see, Twitter, in its infinite wisdom, has decided it can mandate what tool I use to access my Twitter account. As does LinkedIn, as does Facebook, and many others. These are organizations that say they have deployed Artificial Intelligence, but as we can see their AI is not able to accommodate consumer's choices or limitations - I can use other browsers, but there are millions of people out there who don't know how to update their software, install applications, stuff. And guess what - the folks at LinkedIn (third party cookies, a HUGE security risk, mandatory), Facebook (won't allow you easy access from secure browsers using the Tor network, which stops Facebook from finding out where you are) and Twitter (more of the same) really don't think that people who aren't on the latest browsers and high speed urban networks, and preferably on mobile devices whose information they can mine, should be able to use their facilities. I don't mind telling you I took Facebook and Twitter off my mobile devices, while I barely use Skype and LinkedIn any more, because both now mandate third party cookies, which allow anybody to inject malicious code into your PC, and hijack you. It isn't accidental the large networks are being hacked - think Yahoo - as if there were no tomorrow, they require your browser to open an easily accessible port to what we refer to as "The World", and from there the hackers can get into the networks via a back door. Is that necessary? No, it isn't, but the networks make money by selling your data to third parties, and can't find a better way to do that. If they had real Artificial Intelligence, they'd be able to collect data without exposing you to malicious activities, but they do not. Think about - you've seen the reports about "fake news" on Facebook and Google, and how Facebook and Google are now using advertising link denial to discourage the practice - do you not think that AI, if it really worked, and if Google and Facebook had access to it, would be able to discern fake news from real news? Catching third party cookie hackers and fake news injectors with AI would be proof it worked, let me (as a developer) tell you that none of these folks have AI, or know where to point it to do real development. The picture to the left shows you all the times that Facebook queries my login - the reason is simple: I access Facebook using the Tor browser, which uses the Tor network, which means my access point changes, all over the world, and most folks, including hackers and Facebook, have no way to localize me. That's deliberate - my system and data are much safer when nobody knows who I am or where I am, so when this login appears to come from Budapest, Hungary, the next may be from Cebu, Philippines. The browser used, Firefox, helps in that cookies can't be parked on my system, they are treated as "session cookies" and removed when I shut down the browser (one of six I use). IOW: I am in charge of my security, inasmuch as I can be. Think about it - Facebook wants you to be safe, but at the same time it wants to, at all times, know who and where you are, what you're doing, who you're talking to, what website you just visited, and which one you're going to. Guess what - that is inherently insecure. Especially for you, because Facebook sells this information to anybody willing to pay for it, and it gets stolen, too, all the time.

Again: showing shoes on a smartphone to someone who is passing a shoe store is not AI. You can program that on a GPS receiver in BASIC. Honestly. Those techniques do not, considering the cost of implementing them, create revenues - tell me, you get a shoe on your smartphone while you're on your way to lunch with your boss, you're now going to buy shoes instead? C'mon.

November 13, 2016: Automotive, environment, wellness... all in one

Keywords: DST, electric vehicles, global warming, CO2, air intake, solvents, ignition cylinder, Daylight Saving Time, democracy, climate change

Dodge Durango steering column Two things not to do, or only do very carefully: use throttle body cleaner on the air intake behind your air filter (I have an aftermarket cold air intake) and give it a good squirt down the idle and run ports, and the valve, and your car won't start. Had to crank it a few times, leave it alone for a few minutes, crank it again, it then hesitatingly cranked up on very low revs, I then gingerly stepped on the gas, and it slowly came back to life. As if that wasn't enough, I bought some graphite at the same time as I bought the solvents, squirted that into the new ignition lock cylinder, and as very little came out of the tube I gave it a bigger squirt. That got so much graphite into the slot I couldn't get the key in any more. Had to use compressed air to clean it out, which got graphite powder all over the inside of the car and me. The key did go in, so I learned another lesson. Vacuumed and blew the entire inside front, and I guess tomorrow I'll take the steering column shroud off and blow those innards out, lord knows what graphite in the wrong places will do. If you've never maintained cars much, there is a lot to learn when you start doing it yourself, and it isn't fun as I only have the one car, so screw it up and you're done for. I've had dreams of buying a used VW Beetle Turbo Diesel, to run around in, keep the SUV for when I need it, but I can't afford two cars.

Hah. Took the shroud off, blew and vacuumed out the steering column inside, which is rather full of electronics, reassembled - and then the computer would no longer recognize the ignition key chip. After some tries, I figure the columns inside the shroud pushed on the wiring (the pink / green bundle in the picture) pushing the connector partway out of the immobilizer (the labeled rectangular bit), which would disconnect that, and the engine would start and then stop. After some careful realigning of the connectors and the wiring, and cautious re-installation of the shroud, all seems fine now. Weekend or next week change the oil and the oil filter, and things should be OK. Something I didn't know is that the Caroo Pro dashcam / monitoring application provides an explanation of error codes when they happen - hadn't had an error code since installing that, way back, lessee.. November 15, 2013, I installed that, you'd have to go to the archives to read that. The minute an error happens in the vehicle computer (ECU) Caroo throws up the code and a brief explanation, handy especially if there are multiple codes, which hasn't happened, thank heavens. It is a nice feature, and with the dashcam facility and the GPS, not only can you see what time it happened, but exactly where you were, how fast you were going, traffic, mountains, rain, all that good stuff. Kewl. Gotta tell you, though, until I took the covers off the steering column I had no idea that is jam packed with electronics - all of the data going to the instrument panel runs through there.

I vividly remember when Obama won the election, first time around, and nobody saw it coming. Put a black person in the White House. The same thing happened last week, except the process is reversed a bit, but both, people, are what we call democracy. There are millions of people giving you their opinions, all over the internet, I don't know I want to add mine - this is, absolutely, democracy, and predicting the future is a somewhat useless exercise. By the time President Trump is embedded in the machine that is Washington (unless he moves the White House to the golf course next to Del Boca Vista) we'll see what gives. It will be interesting, and I expect it is time the "other" party got its say. I see Army and Air Force folks in my neighbourhood driving around with service and American flags on their car roofs - they weren't doing that yesterday, so I would urge you to understand, and support, if you're on my side of the fence, to give them space and let them do their thing, it is, if you like, their turn. Somebody asked me, way back when, when I first came to work in NYC, if I was another "bleeding liberal", this a reference to my Dutch nationality, but no, I am not - and this was well before the corporation moved me to below the Mason-Dixon line, where the parking lot in front of my office was kept immaculate by a chain gang from the county jail across the street, about ten miles from the White House.

chain gang Arlington, VAI am not a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, I think you need to be born that way, but having spent half my career in D.C. working with "them", I think I have a reasonable understanding of what makes the other side tick. They won, respect the vote, people. As I said, this is democracy - maybe more so when you don't like the outcome. And as we've all seen so much "conjecture" in recent years, in this election more than ever, we need to take an urgent walk back from the speculation. It is getting worse because, especially in social media, folks now speculate on speculation, someone posts completely nonsensical information, someone else picks that up and "reports" on it, someone else embellishes the report on the report, and it goes on. I saw folks on Facebook warning each other about rigged voting machines - in all seriousness, although no voting machines were ever rigged or broken into (they're mostly not connected to the internet, or networks in general) but people believe in absolute fairytales...

I really don't like the time change. I am writing this on November 6, the day of the changeover, and I can really feel my internal clock protesting that it is later than it is (9:44pm, which is in real life 10:44pm). I am wondering why we do this to ourselves, yes, light earlier in the morning, but it seems to me it might actually be better to simply let nature, of which we are part, take its course. But I guess even Indiana now observes Daylight Saving Time, so who am I to argue? Force myself into the new time zone, like I used to do when traveling, there's a good boy. Bleh.

Speaking of well, I came across a couple of blog entries in the New York Times' "Well" section, where I find much information I can trace back to the original research, and thus trust, that made me think again about the fish oil and the calcium we imbibe so freely, without much of a scientific reason. Find the NYT Wellness section here. I've actually known about the risks of fish oil, the Omega-3 provider, for quite some time, especially as when I've had surgery I've had to discontinue it - fish oil depresses the immune system, and can affect blood clotting (as does Aspirin, including those pesky little ones prescribed for "heart health"). Why do we eat these things? As a kind of "what-if" insurance, and especially in the case of Omega-3, there are foods that let the body metabolize DHA, EPA and ALA naturally. One food I take that I did not before is raw tuna - I began shopping at Wincofoods to save money, when they built one near me (don't look for them on the right coast, they're "over here" only) and I found they had small chunks of frozen ahi tuna, shrink wrapped, that are safe (due to deep freezing, Fed says that's OK) to eat raw, sushi grade, and delicious - a dollop of chili sauce and some Chinese soy sauce and it is more than just a snack. They need defrosting, and the packages say to defrost them in the fridge "prior to eating", I wrap a piece in kitchen paper, put that in a closed container, and the next afternoon it is succulent and delicious, with the paper absorbing fluids and blood. The list of minerals and vitamins in ahi tuna is impressive, and as these are metabolized in a different way than the ones in a multi-vitamin, this is a healthy option - high in mercury, I limit my intake to one piece every other day. Other than that, it is clear from the science that these other foodstuffs that were bad for you - milk, eggs, cheese - actually aren't. Those foodstuff provide a number of the vitamins and minerals that we get these supplements for, and as I said, I think we mostly use the supplements as a kind of insurance. I have the advantage that my metabolic functioning gets thoroughly analyzed a couple of times a year, due to the medications I take, and I am now cutting back on the supplements, so I'll be able to see, in six months or so, what that does to my innards. I just never paid attention to that much - and while changes in the blood analysis aren't necessarily easy to analyze, why not see what, if anything, changes. It is all well and good to say that "too much" of this stuff isn't good, but nobody seems to know exactly how much is "too much".

Reading up on the goings on in The Netherlands, I see the organizations that work on climate change and traffic had forecast to achieve some 200,000 electric vehicles in the Netherlands bij 2020, three years from now. Currently, I understand there are some 100,000 on the roads. To be honest, apart from the side discussion about these vehicles - do people use them to replace their gasoline driven miles, do they have a fossil fuel vehicle as well as an electric - I think that's a remarkable number, and I wonder whether the soothsayers should not adjust their targets to reality. The Netherlands is a well organized affluent Western society. with a population of some 17 million - looking at Japan, where the electric vehicle was developed and first introduced, wealthy and on a developmental and organizational par with The Netherlands, that country has a population of 127 million, and, today, some 145,000 electric vehicles on the road. So what would your conclusion be? Mine would be that The Netherlands is doing just fine, probably better than Japan, on the evehicle front, and needs to adjust its goals to its reality. And yes, the government is absolutely right phasing out the subsidies - improving the environment using taxpayer Euros is fine, but there are better ways than subsidizing cars. You need to get folks out of their cars, and perhaps the better way to do that is to make polluting vehicles more expensive, as in, much more, and not subsidize what is essentially a luxury item. There are a lot of completely nonsensical ways to combat global warming - in Germany, it is now known, eco-electricity is expensive - in 2014, German households shelled out more than $24 billion in subsidies for eco-power, that's $296 per head of the population. German electricity costs some 35 cents per Kwh, so just the subsidy could buy some 842 Kwh per person (a 1,500 watt space heater could run on that for 561 hours, or more than three weeks - in Germany, that is, here in the United States, where we aren't as advanced, it could run for 818 hours, or five weeks).

All I am saying is that, simply from looking at published statistics, pollution as well as the cost of energy are increasing, and the idea behind all of this eco-development was that we would get clean energy and a commensurate reduction in polluting factors in our environment. We're seeing quite the reverse, I believe, and even if you look at something simple as the cost of "growing" ethanol in the United States, that is making agricultural foodstuffs and cattle feed and eggs more expensive, which is an extremely roundabout way of improving the environment. If at all. Advertising that eating meat pollutes, and then allowing drivers to idle in the queue to buy coffee at the drive-thru Starbucks makes no sense to me at all. Ah, yes, and let me make my position even more clear: plug-in hybrids are not electric vehicles. They're a marketing ploy. A hybrid vehicle is a car with two drive trains, rather than one. Both fueled by gasoline. Twice as expensive to build and maintain as an equivalent gas or diesel powered vehicle.

November 5, 2016: Cars, medication, and more Brexit

Keywords: Brexit, insomnia, hormones, HP Elitebook, health savings plan, Blackberry server, geek squad

At Harbor Freight, I go look for Torx drivers, to swap out my ignition lock cylinder, and while I can find the T-20 the instructions mention, it does not say "Torx". I grab the ones I think I need, and ask the manager guy at the checkout, who tells me he is only really familiar with the name "star key", never having heard of Torx, and indeed I can't find anything on their copiously stocked key stand that uses that name. Coming home, I Google, find some explanations that seem to indicate I got the right thing - having bought Torx bits at Sears before - but just now, I entered the receipt into my financial software - and guess what, that says "Torx T-Handle Hex Key". Tsss....

Dodge Durango dashboardHaving said that, despite trepidations I managed to part-demolish the steering column in my Durango, pull out the ignition lock cylinder, and replace it. This was more of a hassle than it sounds - I had left it way too long from when it became intermittently hard to turn, and that slowly got worse. I'd actually bought a new cylinder last year, read the installation instructions, and I guess I kind of decided this was hard enough that a bit of procrastination was in order. So, last week, it began to misbehave again, I went back to the Youtube instructions, realized that if I recoded the new lock with the old tumbler sequence (but not the old tumblers) I could continue to use the old keys, and finally had a go. You see, the electronic lock (activated by the chip in the key) is separate from the mechanical lock, so if I could simply get the tumbler sequence right, I'd be in business. Long story short - it was high time, several tumblers wouldn't come out of the old cylinder, and if you can't get them out you can't read their numbers, then insert new tumblers with the same numbers in the new cylinder. I ended up having to half demolish the old cylinder, force some of the tumblers out, and then found that half of them were worn to the point that their numbers were nigh on illegible. Get the numbers wrong, you can't use the old keys, and the new keys didn't have chips (even if they'd been "so equipped", you need the two original keys to program a spare, something I did not know until after I'd lost one original key). Anyway, I somehow, carefully, managed, the new lock cylinder is in, and all is well. Phew.

You may have read some of the commentary about smartphones and laptops and flat screens causing an imbalance in the human endocrine system - notably, preventing or delaying the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate (amongst others) the sleep cycle. While I can't tell you I've experienced clear evidence melatonin helps, I have (at a doctor's suggestion) been taking over-the-counter 3mg tablets nightly, for about seven months. He said to curb screen time before bed (yeah, right) and to try melatonin. Clearly, some doctors at least believe in using the supplement, although, when you look at the research, there is little evidence the supplements work - there is little quality control, and hundreds of manufacturers, so where would you even start? But what I've done is experiment with the time I take it (eventually settled on 11pm, for an around-midnight bedtime) and I now read a bit before turning off the lights, this to make sure I don't roll into bed straight from the screen burn. What else... ah, I went and replaced my sheets, with a non-chemically treated (non-wrinkle free) percale 100% cotton. And I switched  to hypoallergenic detergents, which I use with an extra rinse cycle.

hospital testsWhile I have no idea whether I was suffering from insomnia or something else, I do know I have more restful sleep. Because my prescription medication has changed as well, in those seven months, I can't tell you the melatonin did it, and from the research I am seeing it being used for much shorter periods of time, like up to three months. That may not mean anything, though, the melatonin tablets may be retraining my endocrine system. I'll talk to my doctors again, especially my endocrinologist, and will report back to you. I see crazy melatonin dosages on the shelves at Walmart, though, from what I've read I'd say to try the lowest dosage, and perhaps up that a bit if you don't notice anything much after two months. What I know from these hormones - I take the thyroid hormone, of course, under doctor's supervision - their adjustments must be gentle and slow, I get my hormonal dosage changes tested after three months, at the earliest. So it is likely other artificial hormones work the same way. Increasingly, though, researchers are beginning to discover the stuff they stick in pills doesn't work the same way the stuff from your food (or glands) does. If you've not read it, calcium supplements have been found to cause arterial deposits, rather than be absorbed by the body and removed if not needed. It is not yet clear what causes this, but it is clear that at least some of the compounds don't do what they're supposed to do. This makes sense - I've always maintained that the way the body works seems too elaborate to be able to be usurped by bits of chemical in a bottle or jar, I keep hearing folks in the gym who insist their potion "goes straight to my arm muscles" and actually believe that that is possible. Trust me on this - even if you inject it into your arm muscles you still can't make them absorb it. Crazy stuff.

On the one hand, this Brexit thing is really strange. I had not expected it any more than (seemingly) the majority of the British establishment, but when I look at the fires now raging in the "jungle" at Calais while it is being cleared, and I recall the vast rivers of humanity crossing the Eastern and Southern borders of the EU, the past couple of years, it is perhaps less than strange that the British went "enough". After all, they're at the end of Europe, so everything that comes West ends up in England and Ireland. The notion that people from Africa and the Middle East can just up sticks and demand EU benefits upon arrival is a bit strange, and it is, by now, clear there are opportunistic Islamic terrorists and economic migrants among them - people who aren't being informed on by the genuine refugees, who must know who they are. During 2015, 1.2 million refugee applications were filed in the EU, while I have seen estimated that only 30 to 35% of these applicants are actual refugees from war zones - that still amounts to 360,000 to 420,000 refugees. The problem, as the British have clearly understood, is that when you accept them and accommodate them, word goes back and many more come. The other problem is that the majority of economic migrants can't be sent back, because their countries of origin often won't accept them, especially when they no longer have identification - especially the economic migrants claiming asylum will "lose" their passports, because they know that lessens their chances of being sent back. It is very clear this is a trade - Algerians, Moroccans and Albanians, none of which are eligible for any kind of refugee status, keep coming, so it is clear that whatever the EU authorities do is not working. The Australians, who started to send migrants to camps in other countries that they pay for, have seen a precipitous drop in boat migrant arrivals, and are now augmenting their system by introducing a law that will prevent anyone arriving in Australia illegally, and not gaining status, from ever entering Australia again, even as a tourist or spouse.

I must admit to being completely confused about the elections here, and the fact that politics are now approached with a fervour that, until now, I only associated with religious fanatics. The whole idea behind this election is that we choose a president who will improve these United States, and do good for the population and for the economy. Shutting down Obamacare, which insures mostly poor Americans who never had health insurance, and not having a defined plan for something to replace it with, is, it would seem, bad medicine. Health Savings Plans, Mr. Trump? We've had those for years, I used one throughout my employment with Verizon. You pay for it out of income, which is not so good for low income and no-income Americans. If I have to listen to any more drivel about Mrs. Clinton's secure private Blackberry server, I am going to throw up. Yes, she had a mail server at the house. So did I. So did a lot of others. It was, at the time, an effective way to have control and have better security than your corporate environment provided. It would be helpful, Mr. Trump, if you talked about things you know about, which I suppose restricts you to talking about making money, setting up high risk enterprises, and the next blonde-on-heels from some backwater. Mrs. Clinton used to stand around in the U.S. Air terminal at LaGuardia, with Ms. Abedin and her security detail, at 7am, to catch the commuter Shuttle to Washington National - she, I, and a bunch of other worker bees, not something I expect you did a lot of. I must tell you I'd rather have a lawyer than a realtor in the White House...

Update on the "refurbished" HP Elitebooks: I have my doubts about the resellers that hold refurbishment licenses, but the computers themselves are truly rock solid pieces of gear. Having said that, under Windows 7, Windows 8.1, as well as Windows 10, I've had to do a fair amount of manual stuff to get them to work right - and by right, I mean, yes, I am a bit of a perfectionist. On the "spare" Elitebook 2570p, I swapped over to the Windows 10 Pro disk, yesterday, to give the OS its updates, and discovered it actually had loaded the wrong audio driver, which worked, but did not properly program the interface. I ended up having to load the older Windows/HP IDT driver, which fixed all, but its absence had not been noticed by HP diagnostics or Windows' update software. I am specifically mentioning this because I have noticed "wrong" drivers even on new laptops and PCs, so this isn't necessarily a "refurb" mishap - besides, HP's diagnostics are quite advanced, but in my case, on perfect hardware with updated firmware, even they drop a stitch, here and there. I enjoy troubleshooting and fixing that stuff, but if you don't, and you don't have a "helping hand", I don't really know what to tell you. To be honest, things you don't need you really don't need to worry about, and in dire emergencies there's always Best Buy's Geek Squad, which has been around for so long they can't be all bad. One nice thing about Ebay and Blinq and Amazon is that you can return things that don't work as you expect them to, they're pretty good for as long as whatever you return is broken in some way, or seems that way. The only complaint, if it is one, that I can level at the HP Elitebooks is that their cooling can get noisy. This isn't a defect, if you have a small footprint laptop with a fast processor, large hard disk and gobs of RAM, it'll need a lot of forced air. The way the chipset works is that you can set it up to have the fan adjust to load, and the driver lets you tell the firmware to slow down the processor when the internal system temperature goes up. By default, it'll crank up the fan first, but you can, as it were, reverse that. Even then, it'll occasionally sound like an airplane taking off, and there is little you can do to remedy that. So far, it's always slowed down after a while, and both systems are doing it, so that was designed in. Keeping the vents and the fan clean using compressed air, which takes all of five minutes, if that, helps. Unlike most laptops, the Elitebooks have vents at the front and on the bottom of the casing, and so can "suck air" even if some of the vents are obstructed.

October 24, 2016: Scan, scan, scan away

Keywords: Brexit, Calais, migrants, Medicare, CHKDSK, Dexa scans, disk maintenance, PC vacuum

If, indeed, the French are now cleaning up Calais, the British voter, in choosing "Brexit", has finally brought home the ugly truth to the French and the EU: you can't let all these people in, and then shunt them on to the next country. Brexit closes the UK borders, abrogates those parts of Schengen that Britain implemented, and France (if the Calais eviction really works) has now understood it is stuck with migrants it could have stopped to begin with. I think the Hungarian and Slovenians are right - there isn't a law that says you have to let these folks in. If you do let them in, more will come, and perhaps Brexit (I never thought I'd say this) is the first crack in the EU armour, closely followed by the Walloons refusing to compromise on the Canada trade deal. The Austrians, even, are stopping migrants at the Italian border, and all over right wing activists are gaining political ground on the back of this ridiculous influx. Yes, a refugee will say anything to get in, but a 28 year old healthy male pretending to be 15 would have had to have a reason to flee their native lands. And if they're a stropping healthy adult, they weren't starving - besides, you can do all manner of medical tests to see what age such a person is, and the level of their past deprivation. I don't buy this "we can't X-ray their teeth" malarky, I really don't. If the Americans can X-ray pregnant women as a condition of receiving a residence permit, so can everybody, and a chest X-ray shows all sorts of stuff that can be used to determine approximate age and health - just a Dexa scan will do it, low intensity, low risk, you don't need advanced MRI scanners for this stuff. Get the TB patients and cancer sufferers while you're at it.

thyroid surgery I can't tell you how annoying it is to have a couple of long term medical conditions at the same time as you age. I mean, I know we all age, but beyond a certain point you get some "aging ailments", or whatever you call that stuff, but when you have medical things going on at the same time, and take powerful medication for them, it becomes hard to figure out what's what. Heart condition is one, in my case. I don't know that I have one, but the thyroid hormone I take to alleviate the effect of having had my thyroid removed has side effects you wouldn't think of. Some you discover over time, and they are hard to diagnose, very hard - after all, you're your own first line doctor, as far as that is concerned. A couple of years ago, it bothered me to the point I went and had a full cardio workup, wearing a monitor for a week, but no, there was nothing wrong. It just makes me wonder if there isn't a better way to administer these hormones. After all, the body's needs change all the time, and having a singe blood test done every few months, a sort of snapshot, isn't a very effective way of managing that. There isn't an on-the-fly test for these hormones, so an automated pump, like is used for some other ailments, is probably out of the question, unless we create a new type of test. Even for diabetics, I see from Google, automation is being worked on, but still far away, as an everyday solution. It is nice they do so much work on robotics, but I get the impression that, beyond the pacemaker, there isn't actually a lot that is working (and affordable). I have to wonder if we couldn't go back to "proper academia" and develop stuff paid for out of taxes and subsidies and available to all, including all those folks who currently don't even know they need medication, as they don't have enough insurance coverage to go and see a doctor when they need to. Which reminds me, I have my annual insurance renewal coming, dying to see what surprises are in store this year. Mind you, I am one of the lucky ones, Medicare paid up and my retiree supplemental insurance covers a large portion of everything I need. When I saw my Humira now costs some $11,500 for a 12 week supply (that's what the insurance plan pays, not my copay, I'd be toast).... When I first started on biologics, some 17 years ago, I think the cost was around $3,000 for a 90 day supply, that was a different medication, two shots a week, I remember well that after the nurse at my doctor's office showed me how to prepare and administer the injection, I drove out of the hospital parking and spent a whole evening pain free, first time in years. So if you've followed the noise about the cost of Epipens, and other drugs, yes, the cost of drugs is going up way faster than the cost of living, and I've not seen a real explanation.

Anyway, medical science is what it is, and it does amazing things. As I try and track my own functioning - more out of scientific interest than for any other reason - I find that the longer I take medication, and follow doctor's orders, the less I can connect with what does what to me. Especially working out, the gym, has amazed me, in terms of vital statistics. You see, my GP, back in Virginia, asked me to keep an eye on my blood pressure not long after I turned 50, just as a general precaution, and I turned that into an exercise, maintaining a vital statistics spreadsheet, on a daily basis. That meant (fast forward a few years) that when Verizon added a "free" gym membership to my retiree health plan, in January of 2015, I could track what physical changes working out (I go to the gym five or six days a week) wrought. It wasn't earth shattering, but blood pressure dropped a bit, weight went down by about 20 lbs, but then I added 10, over the next year, which I think is simply muscle mass (I can feel bulges here and there that weren't there a year ago), the only issue has been is that my heart rate is consistently high, which should not be the case with regular workouts, but this may well be related to the thyroid hormone. At the same time, if you look at the tables, median and maximum heart rate go up with age, and I keep forgetting to take that into account. So I'll save that for my next endocrine checkup.

Something else I have been keeping an eye on, and ought to have really written about, is the potential for dementia and cognitive impairment. Let me quickly add that no, I don't suffer from either, but as I read about these ailments, and even Alzheimer's Disease, especially in the superb "Well" section of the New York Times, I think about how you keep an eye on your mental faculties. If you're like me, and you've spent your life getting paid for using your brain, you kind of take your mental capacity for granted, but then you read about all the people, some younger than you, some older than you, who develop some kind of mental impairment, and you start to ask yourself how you measure this. Especially - and I've seen older people do this - using brain teasers, games, spelling challenges, and the like, and then I see from the research that repeating things you did before does not grow new brain cells. That kind of stands to reason, when you think about it, when you work out you exercise muscles you already have, you're not developing new ones, though you may grow them larger. Thing is, for mental agility, do you need new cells, or more cells, or both? I don't mind telling you that continued tweaking of Windows and my PCs, and getting and learning new versions of operating systems, helps me understand if my mind continues to be as agile as it was, as that is something I've been doing for decades, although I'll agree with the scientists that it isn't learning anything new, it is more of the same (I should add I worry less about mental exercises, I do those day in day out, doing what I do - it is the monitoring I am concerned with). Part of the problem there is that I am not adding functionality to my network - a while ago, I started working with the Amazon cloud, but must admit to getting terminally bored - if it helps, I ad built a cloud forerunner in my lab at NYNEX back in the '90s, and I can't say today's cloud is vastly different, though more available. Similarly, this blog lives in its own web server instance, which I maintain and program and run myself, using a commercial provider, and that, too, is a cloud. I am not using webtools, per se, as I write my own code, and have more fun maintaining a website that folk on handphones in the boonies in Asia can read, than doing HTML5 that they can't.

Chonburi poolOn a different note, I came across pictures I shot in Thailand, a couple of years ago, when I spent three months there, housesitting for a friend, while he was working abroad. At the time, I barely blogged about it, for a variety of reasons, some to do with his work, some to do with his divorce, there is so much data that could harm someone if it ends up on the internet, so I decided to 'write it later". Never got around to that, though, and since it entailed three months in a fascinating country, and pretty much a discovery trip on my part, and he has since moved and sorted stuff out, I think it is time I catch up on that. I was actually there for the move, helped and all that, and helped set up the wonderful new house he now lives in (and taught his four year old to swim, since it has a pool). So I'll check where all the pics live, and you have that coming, promise..

In my October 15 blog, below, I mentioned some Windows tools, CHKDSK among them, and it so happens I lost a file from my hard disk, the other day. Even though this was likely user (=me) error, one never knows if there is a disk problem, I have a terabyte of stuff on this drive, so decided to run a full CHKDSK (which came up clean). But that gave me the opportunity to time the process, I see people commenting with drive checks that run for days on end. To some extent, the speed with which a disk scan completes is due to the speed of the system, the amount of RAM, and the speed of the disk, but beyond that the interface matters. A disk check on an internal disk on a SATA interface will run fastest - the scan on my 2 terabyte Samsung (made by Seagate) internal 2.5 inch laptop disk, running at 5400RPM with a port speed of 6GB/sec, took seven hours to complete. The disk has some 600 occupied gigabytes, but the scan I ran checks the empty clusters as well, so that would not have made too much difference. So: it is important to run these tests, periodically, but count on the system being offline for half a day or so, more if the disk is external. Tomorrow, I'll run a clone of this same disk, now that I know nothing is broken, and I'll let you know how long that takes (result, the clone is actually a lot faster than a Windows Backup: for the 2TB drive, less than two hours, on an external eSATA port). Should be comparable using a USB3 port, most PCs and laptops don't have external eSATA ports, these days. These two procedures (with the tools I mention below added when necessary) are vital in maintaining the security of your data. I know it takes time, but all it needs is one head crash (most PCs don't have the fancy HP emergency head parking software my Elitebooks do) and you can lose anything from one file to your entire hard disk. And the more data you have on your disk, the more likely you are to not run maintenance and backup, because it takes too long, right? Oops.. I should add there isn't any point to the cloning if you don't know how to remove and replace your hard disk - for one thing, you have to use a clone disk that will fit in your PC - although for the vast majority of "common" PCs and laptops the instructions are on Youtube, and sometimes in manufacturer's maintenance manuals. I was delighted to find my "new" HP Elitebooks have extremely detailed maintenance manuals at the HP website, just make sure you can find this stuff before you try something. Having said that, PCs need periodic cleaning, so these exercises help with that.

October 15, 2016: It's like with teeth (or hair...)

Keywords: disks, drives, Winchester, Microsoft, Windows, Windows command line, Windows tools, drive diagnostics, roofing, repair, painting, neighbourhood, blogging

new roof A neighbour's house in the late afternoon sun, I just thought it looked pretty. At the end of summer, quite a few folks in the neighbourhood repainted or reroofed - some both. One neighbour's work crew found a split beam in the garage, caused by a mistake made by the original builder, and that led to everybody checking their rafters, as that builder had apparently built more than half the houses on the block. It isn't something you notice easily - in this case, a roofer repairing storm damage noticed the garage roof having a slight misalignment. That soon got more expensive, apart from jacking up and realigning the beam, gutters were now misaligned, etc. Anyway, repairs were done, the house in the picture (different neighbour) was reroofed and repainted, and doesn't it look pretty and American...

I am thinking I've not updated my blog recently - I haven't, October 1 was the last, I do apologize. I had picked up speed after not blogging too frequently over the Summer, but then started working on PC and laptop modifications again, and that interests me more than cooking. Funny, that - I actually love to cook, I just don't spend the time and the money that lets me blog about it. Or rather, I don't experiment with cooking often enough that is it interesting for readers / viewers to follow me, especially considering the number of folks who do this actively, all the time. I was looking at the output of some of the young new European bloggers - the folks on Instagram, Twitter, and, to some extent, Facebook, but I think I am just too far out of tune with that generation, and part of my not "tuning in" is that I have privacy and moral stuff going on they don't. Not that they're wrong, or I am right, I just have that much more experience with some of the excesses the industry gets up to, and some of this stuff I just don't want to participate in. You could almost predict that Wells Fargo would decide to push accounts on unsuspecting consumers - you do that once, nobody complains, you do it a few more times, you get merit raises, why stop? I've had money thrown at me, almost, during my budget control days at the phone company - I am talking about budgets of up to 50 million-plus dollars for a project, and that was in the days a million was a lot of money, before the last stock market crashes. One rep (Fortune 50 corporation) told me to get more orders in, he'd set up a slush fund somewhere. I am sure there are a lot of folks out there who take these deals, and never get caught. Is it OK to do a systems upgrade at the weekend in a coastal town so you get double overtime and can take your boat there and get travel expenses? I've never tried to stop folks from doing that, somehow it was part of the culture.. How about the freelance anesthesiologist who flies his own small airplane from Florida to D.C. in a hospital deal - like we don't have enough anesthesiologists locally - that I did report to the insurance, after they billed me for the guy's services as a separate line item. I could go on.

So I'll stick with the laptop-and-Windows stuff for now - it is interesting to keep that working right, and I know that at least the advanced blogs I see out on the 'net aren't done on tablets, nor indeed are the fancy videos we see (though they may be recorded on tablets and mobile, but that is only part of the process). I am a bit allergic, as well, to the vast price increases I see in mobile equipment - more expensive than PCs and laptops, while less capable, seems a bit against the grain. Small wonder Samsung batteries catch fire, although the overheating mobile batteries have been with us for longer than this last occurrence, occasionally, although they never led to an entire product being removed from the market.

HGST 1TB 2.5 inch drive I am not going to whine at you, not too much, anyway, today but allow me to, yet again, caution you that large hard disks, if you use them the way they are intended, can cause truly bad stuff to your data - and large hard disks installed in anemic laptops are now a sales argument, otherwise useless PCs come with a terabyte drive, since those probably cost under $30, wholesale. We'll assume you have the means to reinstall your software, but data lost, can mean forever. If you downloaded the software you bought, and it sits on the same big hard drive it is installed on, guess what... This is one reason I try and buy software on DVD - yes, once you install that it is going to go and download a new version, but it does give you a place to start. Software you bought years ago may not always be re-installable, even if you did keep the registration. Tied to that AT&T email address you no longer have access to? Tough cookies...

You see, since I almost lost a terabyte drive (see "July 13", below) I've been more diligent checking my storage devices. I used to be anal about this stuff, but realized, as I went along, that I assumed regular use of a storage device meant I'd find out if it were about to fail. In many ways, that's true, but in that drive failure I discovered, as well, that you can run diagnostics that can give you advance warning, in particular, when your drive develops bad sectors, and the diagnostics tell you they found bad sectors, and moved data. These are relatively new diagnostics, available mostly because someone put them on the internet, and they work well. Begin by checking who manufactured your hard disk, then go to their website, and download their diagnostics - those will usually tell you if the drive is still in warranty, as well. That HGST drive had no spare sectors left, used them all, and I did not know. Bad on me. I am not expecting you to run a drive diagnostic every week, but that drive failure can happen to anyone. I don't, and never will, know what caused it - to be honest, most drive diagnostics packaged with Windows that are readily accessible wouldn't have flagged this particular error, the only reason I found out was a peculiar noise the laptop occasionally made, only noticeable in the silence of the night. But yes, where PC and laptop maintenance were manageable, today this takes, with the memory and the complexity and the large hard disks, lots of time. I think it is worth it, but then I spent years with systems I had to maintain as State and Federal Law required certain data to be "protected and available at all times". So I established a routine, because I had to - I am talking about Wall Street and DoD related data here, not having that when you need it (think 9/11) can be a firing offence, and a career ender. Besides, we built and designed the high availability servers the phone company relies on for 24/7/365 database access.

Here is a geek website explaining how to use the SFC and DISM command line tools in Windows to "fix" your Windows, although I would recommend a full CHKDSK run ("full", since that checks both your used and all empty clusters of your disk) before starting the above commands, and again after. Here is the instructions page. With one Windows install, supplied by a certified vendor, I could not run SFC or DISM to completion, Windows Startup Repair wouldn't run either, and eventually I resorted to creating a Windows 10 upgrade DVD, using an ISO image, and the "upgrade" process repaired all damaged files in the Windows image. You don't know that it has, by the way, unless you do all of the above all over again, with a full CHKDSK at the end of it. It worked, but it took days. and I can tell you that if your Windows gets corrupted, and you don't do this, or have someone do it, you'll lose all of the information on your disk. This especially since users are often hell bent to "let me just finish this" before they take time for maintenance. Same as with cars and houses, you do that, you lose. And computers and data are a lot more complicated than cars and houses (Tesla maybe excepted, and the White House). But let me tell you that the vast majority of those problems deemed to be caused by viruses actually are either motherboard or memory failures, or Windows corruption, and the above tools will fix the majority of them, or give you an idea of what is wrong. and those ads about what to do when your PC slows down... mostly, that means you've got to turn it off and vacuum it - all of it, and blow out the fan(s) in the reverse direction (not in your bedroom, obviously, in the garage, or outside). PCs and laptops have firmware and drivers built in that crank up the fan(s) and slow down their processors when they get too hot inside, for whatever reason. That will slow down your PC or laptop, no matter how many "tools" you run.

October 1, 2016: Microsoft Certified Refurbishers aren't all that certified

Keywords: HP Elitebook, Sentry, Seagate, Microsoft, Windows, refurbished, MIL standards

HP in Sentry Safe Well, what do you know, these HP Elitebooks fit in my safe! I have one of those Sentry Safes, small, luggable, fireproof (up to 1,700° F), with a mechanical/electro-magnetic combo lock. It isn't so much that I am afraid of being burgled (although there is always that concern, I've not been burgled since living in London, although someone tried in Valhalla, NY, after my gear came back from an overseas posting in a removal truck), but one never knows. An important aspect is the fireproofing, making sure important documents are safe, and now I can keep my backup laptop in the safe too, I realized my Elitebooks are built to comply with United States Military Standard MIL-STD-810. That's dandy, although now I have to figure out if I should keep a copy of my importand data on there - that's a lot of work. I am already bonkers with the backing up, although true backing up I only do with systems containing data, but I do worry about the stuff on the NAS drive, which, at 4TB, I don't have the disks to easily back up.

I did discover, the other day, that my old Seagate 750GB multi-interface external drives won't talk to the eSATA interfaces on the HPs - let's see, I bought those in 2008, so high speed eSATA changing specs is not strange. That's not necessarily as bad as it sounds, as I have a USB3-to-SATA converter cable, but it means I have to think carefully about my backup strategies - and I have to get the old data on two of those drives onto my NAS drive, so I don't lose access to that. I tested - nothing wrong with the drives, just an old implementation of eSATA. Perhaps I should check Seagate to see if they have updated firmware.... Having recently discovered cloning, with free cloning software for their brand disks provided by Western Digigal, Seagate and Intel, I have to some extent replaced Windows 7 Backup, available on all of my Windows Pro installs, with Acronis cloning, as that gives me a backup I can boot the machine from. I found that not all Windows image backups will restore on architectures different from the ones they were backed up on, and that is a concern. Shows you how important it can be to use multiple different backup tools - you never know which one will still work, a few years down the road.

As I discovered, partly by virtue of buying two (the flesh is weak - mind you, I did terminally blow up my 2012 Lenovo, which I had just upgraded to 16GB RAM, and was going to hang on to), if you're looking for a fast solid cheap notebook, a used HP Elitebook is a good bet, but you have to make sure that either you're a PC aficionado with good Windows understanding, or that you have such a person available - cheaply, obviously, or the system won't be cheap. I now have a very serviceable HP Elitebook 2560P , and a 2570p, and with the disk and memory upgrades I installed, and some expert fine tuning of their Windows loads, I really am happy, and the cost (that is, the total cost for the two) was comparable to that of one underpowered new laptop at Best Buy or Walmart. As I've said before, affordable laptops, more than in the past, are mostly crippled in some way - they come with "Windows Home", and an anemic Intel processor whose primary feature is battery life, even if the system is called a "gaming computer", I could go on. It seems laptop manufacturers are jumping through hoops controlling the manufacturing cost of laptops, and consumers end up with really not very usable computers that won't handle much of anything - load a large spreadsheet and Skype will hiccup, that sort of thing. I can hear consumers cry how an Elitebook with a 12.5 inch screen is "too small", not realizing you can use an HDMI cable to plug it into a $250 40 inch LCD TV and have the largest PC screen in your house ever. The picture to the left shows you the innards of a cheap Toshiba Satellite - the hard disk isn't mounted, but in a rubber surround, shielding underneath it is glued to the drive, and the metal plate above it takes care of the cooling - the processor is anemic to the point it does not need a fan. With one memory slot, this "laptop" has truly been pared to the bone, and expandable it isn't, the battery is not user replacable, and the bottom plate not intended to come off. It works, but how long this would last in mobile use is anybody's guess. Compare that with the picture of the innards of the HP 2560p, in my post of August 15, below, and you'll understand what I mean...

Toshiba Satellite As I was digging up the manuals for these HP systems, and reading up on them, I realized they are built to comply with United States Military Standard MIL-STD-810. That came as a surprise, but explained their sturdy build, and the ease of service - where any laptop I've ever worked on has had to have panels unscrewed and hatches opened to get to where you install memory and replace hard disks, not so with the Elitebooks. Slide a catch, and the entire bottom panel slides down and off, and you can get at just about anything inside - amazing, considering these Elitebooks are a little more than half the size of a "normal" 14" laptop. Not only that, if you spill a drink in your keyboard it'll drain out through a hole in the bottom, and the air intake vents are both in the front and in the bottom of the plate, so if you put this thing on a soft surface it can still ingest cooling air (which, with fast hot processors, it does need in gobs).

Why am I banging on about this? I used to buy (for private use, next to the employer provided laptop) an affordable laptop every few years, expanding that with a Windows upgrade, gobs of RAM and a large hard drive, basically to make sure I could never get in trouble using corporate equipment for personal use. Working for a regulated Fortune 50 corporation, and being in charge of IT departments for entire subsidiaries, that seemed the sensible thing to do, and you keep abreast of laptop development, as you really don't want to "play" with the company computer, so you know how your users are equipped, and what does and does not work for them. After retiring, I continued my laptop buying trends, always making sure I have two functional PCs, if only because when you trade stock you can't afford to be out of commission accessing your trading accounts. That can get expensive.

So what did I get out of all this? To begin with, I was able to move two large hard disks I already had into the HPs. I had bought a 2TB 2.5 inch SamsungSeagate drive when the HGST (Hitachi) 1TB drive in my Lenovo began to fail, but then that turned out still to be under warranty (the drive, not the laptop) and HGST replaced it free of charge. So one HP now has the huge drive, the other the big drive, and I upgraded both to 16 GB of memory. One came with Windows 7 Professional, but as I was able to take the Windows 8.1 Professional from the dead Lenovo and activate it in the HP 2560p, I had the Windows 7 spare, and that moved to the other HP. That came with Windows 10 Pro, but that needed extensive patching before it would run properly. After I finished that, I took it out, disk and all, it is now a spare operating system, and put Windows 7 Pro in that system.

If you are wondering what I want with an ancient operating system like Windows 7, after applying all of the Microsoft and HP operating system patches, it is pretty much what Windows 8 and 10 are, minus the one hundred ways Microsoft uses those to collect personal data from you. And Windows 7 has Media Center, which I have licenses for, and which allows me to view and record broadcast and cable television on a PC. And I was able to install my old copy of Dragon 10 Naturally Speaking, dictation software I had been using, but which Dragon will not allow to run under Windows 8 and 10, you havta "upgrade" ($$$$$). So this is kinda cool, I have a spare laptop, which has some functionality for me, as well as gobs of memory, and a big very fast wide bus hard disk.

The Windows story is, at least to me, interesting. Microsoft licenses some official PC refurbishers to load their products with various versions of Windows, for which they get official license keys (Windows 10 has a digital key, connected to the motherboard ID, which gets activated from their license database). But what I found, both with Windows 7 Pro and with Windows 10 Pro, is that the installs these refurbishers do are broken, once you have the system up not all functions work right. Windows 7 (I've seen this twice) won't update, while one version of Windows 10 wouldn't update, another would not create recovery disks or allow backup. I managed to fix all of the problems, but the process is not for the uninitiated, and finding the solutions on the internet, then trying which actually work, very time consuming. Then, you have to run various diagnostic tools Microsoft provides, to make sure all corrupt files are fixed, or you'll have the same problem next week. This alone is one reason why I like having two PCs, so when one goes into failure I can use the other to research solutions and load code on USB sticks.

September 26, 2016: Fitness: you sleep with it?

Keywords: JAMA, fitness tracker, Dexa scan, medical, health monitoring, heart failure, vital signs

Did you read the report on fitness trackers, and did you understand why the results were negative? I always am a bit perturbed when the lead scientist conjectures in interviews, unless, of course, he is a certified mind reader... but apart from that, there are more valid reasons why fitness trackers don't help improve a person's health.

pressure cuffs Fitness trackers have been proven to provide very unreliable results - a device strapped on your arm can't accurately read your vital signs, especially when you are working out, sweating, and your temperature is elevated - and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all human being, every physique is different. I've seen several science programs recently, medically moderated, on British television, where fitness trackers, biometric weight scales, calory counting apps, and similar health aids have been shown to provide unreliable results. It was kind of funny to get researchers to hit the track wearing six different fitness trackers, and get six wildly diverging results, as some British doctors did. I've tested this myself with a commercial biometric scale, whose readings are as far away from a Dexa scan, the be-all and end-all of non-invasive tissue and bone analysis, as you can imagine - at which point, interestingly, my rheumatologist cautioned me to have all Dexa scans done on the same machine, as even Dexa scans using different $60,000 scanners have divergent readings. These are $60,000 machines operated by specialized trained medical personnel in hospitals that have trouble reading accurately. Who knew... So a simple wrist band can't read your skin temperature continuously accurately, let alone anything else. I have, under doctor's orders, been monitoring my vital signs for many years, more so after I developed cancer, and I maintain a spreadsheet going back years, partly simply out of curiousity. And as that means I have a record of change (and non-change) correlated with the medication I take, and my level of exercise, I can safely tell you that if a medication change does not show up in my averages until at least a week later, and sometimes never, there isn't a thing you do in a 24 hour period that a "tracker" can see the effect of. If you do see a sudden change, you probably ate some bad fish, but it isn't due to your workout. I often compare these things to the specialized drinks and nutrients avid sporters take, as if a protein in a water bottle knows how to get to whatever muscle you're working on that day. Nutrients are things your metabolism takes care of, distributes and directs, not you. So much hype, so from that perspective, the conclusion in the research that fitness trackers alter users' behaviour, and create a false sense of security, may well be right. If you have a tracker that tells you about differences in your biometrics compared with the same month last year, that's great, but chances are you don't.

My very much physically performing friend and former colleague and super healthy long distance cyclist and father and husband and scientist fell off his bike, one day, last year, when his heart simply stopped - as the person who found him said "his feet were still on the pedals". Undiagnosed cardiac condition, triple coronary artery blockage. With a superb medical plan, a good physician, and observant folks around him, nobody, including him, knew he had a dicky ticker. He had never had any symptoms he could recognize - which, when you think about it, is likely the case with many patients. You would not, normally, have anything to compare your particular situation with - especially not if you're a physically high performer. He'd biked halfway through the French Alps the year before, and at this point I can only assume his body compensated for the relative lack of blood flow in some way, and because he always pushed himself, he never noticed anything, until his heart simply couldn't do it any more. This is - apart from our wishing Al were still around, he got his Ph. D. only the year before - in many ways fascinating to me, because the state of Al's coronary arteries would have been very easy to determine - he even had lethal heart disease in his bloodline - and what is clear from all this is that we do not have any kind of medical care in place that can determine a person's general state of health, as they grow up and then age. Seriously - three clogged arteries, he does not notice, and neither do his doctors? Something somebody, or somebodies, missed, wouldn't you agree? Would a fitness tracker have prevented his death? I doubt it - besides, being an avid technologist, he probably used one, in a GPS. watch.

And so it is with fitness trackers. They don't track anything useful - apart from anything else, even if they were capable of making accurate readings, they have no intelligence that can analyze, meaningfully, what they're reading. Search for "fitness tracker" on Amazon, and you'll find some 7,754 results today - subtract 1,200 "accessory bands", and you will realize this is a fashion item, churned out by hundreds of factories in China, it is a money spinner, not a health aid. They have no clue that that heart spike that only happens after an hour, once, when the outside temperature is 67 degrees (I am making something up here!) means there's a bad valve in that heart. If medicine is not an exact science fitness trackers won't work - for the most part, today's fitness trackers could access the Cloud, so why don't they? Most medical data never gets entered into any database, because the doctor or medical professional does not know it is relevant to anything - not their fault, databases of readings aren't much use until they've been built over time, and until you know everything about what affects a reading. And we don't. On-the-spot readings, especially, unless they're taken by a massive computer with gobs of data, rely on the user's interpretation. And the user, by and large, is not a medical professional or a statistician. Besides, if all fitness trackers could talk to the same database, we might get some useful information - but the competition prohibits that, no co-opetition in the interest of science.

September 19, 2016: Did you get your backup computer?

Keywords: England, Brexit, UK, HP Elitebook, Windows 7, Windows 10

As I am writing this, I have the BBC going on another screen, and listen to folks debating Brexit on the news. It's sad, I have to tell you. Folks in England, Prime Minister May up front, seem to think Britain has something to offer the EU, something that will provide Britain with leverage in negotiations.

HP Elitebook 2570p I lived and worked in England for many years, beginning back when the UK made overtures to join the EU, and eventually did. When I first came to the UK, it had a rich "upper class" - terminology that Virgin Atlantic took from the real world - but I was aghast at the poverty in what I had thought was a Western European country. People had electricity meters you had to put coins in, there were small packages of food in supermarkets, designed especially for the poor and for old age pensioners, who couldn't afford to buy whole entire pints of milk, and an elderly couple came into the pub I worked at, in Earl's Court, to share one bottle of Guinness, once a week, it was all they could afford. Elderly folk froze to death every winter, as they couldn't afford to heat their homes - coal was cheap, but as coal was phased out the elderly couldn't afford to switch to electrical or gas heat, which were expensive. We received Luncheon Vouchers, at work, the typical sandwich you could get for that was a cucumber sandwich, typically two quarter slices of white bread with butter and slices of cucumber. Coming from The Netherlands, I sometimes got the feeling I had arrived in the Third World - we expats, in fact, had a joke to that effect: Britain would be the first country in the West to achieve Third World status. By the time I moved to the United States, in 1985, Britain was in the European Union, and wealth had improved significantly. I haven't got a clue why the British populace decided it wanted to leave the EU, but the more I look at China, the more I wonder if the West's reliance on democratic institutions isn't leading to, shall we say, "unexpected results"....

Wow. Buying the second (backup) HP Elitebook, this time a 2570p with an even faster processor, I find they've sent me one with a BIOS password set. "No, we don't know what it is" and "You could try HP" and I am pissed off and go back into Ebay and set it up for return-and-refund. You can't configure a convoluted laptop without being able to change BIOS settings. While I wait for the return approval, I post my predicament on an HP user forum, and then someone comes back to say "call HP", which is kind of a stupid answer, but I did ask, so I call. Much to my spurprise, after twenty minutes on hold Elizabeth tells me "Sure, we can fix that for you" and proceeds to take my information, and, much to my complete astonishment, her colleague Kim emails me a BIOS unlock file, complete with procedure, half an hour later. This for a used business notebook that is out of warranty by several years. And another fifteen minutes later, and two reboots, the BIOS password is history and I can do everything I want to. Jeez. Thanks guys, this is completely unexpected.

I mean, first Blinq won't take international credit cards at their website, then, when I figure out I can order from Blinq through Ebay, Blinq sends me a broken laptop, which their vendor laboriously replaces, then Ebay seller Kramden Institute sends me one with a locked BIOS, buying equipment on Ebay is very much a hit-and-miss proposition. If that isn't enough, the Windows 10 Pro loaded by Kramden Institute is broken, it misses Windows source files and is unable to create a recovery disk. I didn't need Windows 10, have enough Windows licenses, but at the same time it annoys me when something is shipped broken. Not only that, when I went to fix some of the scratches on the aluminium cover (which they had mentioned in the description) I discovered this laptop has no camera (which they did not mention in the description). With enough laptops with camera, this isn't a huge deal, I've got an external somewhere, I think, but Kramden Institute is a clearly defective vendor - I wanted the fast processor and USB 3.0 ports, but that, indeed, really is all I got. Even the 160GB hard disk was a replacement, not the Intel SSD HP normally installs. Had I not had the expertise I do this HP would have been a dud.

Blinq's vendor eventually managed to send me a working HP Elitebook in good shape, the HP from Kramden Institute I have to spend a couple of days fixing. The BIOS password was one thing, but fixing the cobbled-together version of Windows 10 Pro was another - it took me all day, and took me patching and cleaning up the loaded version, then running the Microsoft Windows 10 Anniversary update, which, kudos to them, eventually fixed the problem completely. The loaded version was so bad I was unable to clean up the image, using SFC or DISM, the Windows tools that usually do the trick. HP's Softpaq tool, which figures out what drivers and utility software are missing / out-of-date, did the rest.

Where Windows Vista, 7, and 8, were designed for PCs and laptops, Windows 10 is a truly different animal. Microsoft realized it needed to ensure its operating system could run well on tablets, and tablets do not have masses of memory, and large hard disks. Of late, processors have become more anemic, this to facilitate battery life, and Windows has followed suit. The consequence is that Win10 runs very well on an old Vaio - in fact, it runs better than Windows 8.1 did on my Lenovo laptop, which had much more memory and disk space, and a more powerful processor. So much for "progress"..... and, I am sure, an entirely unintended consequence of computer development. To be honest, having Windows do so much more with clearly fewer resources may be a worrying trend, because there is quite a bit of advanced computing you just can't do on a touch screen with an anemic processor, and you can't use touch screens and portability as an ongoing excuse to endlessly disembowel computers. The development of the "Cloud", which takes some of the processing into the server realm is one of those "solutions" - but if you run software on your server because you cannot run it locally you're tying yourself to bad hardware and increasingly expensive services - you're paying twice for your computing power. I spent some time shopping for a hybrid laptop with touch screen, assuming I would eventually find a reasonably affordable expandable system, but no such thing. And as much of what I do on a PC requires keyboarding, not having a touch screen isn't a hardship, having gobs of memory and a huge hard disk are more important.

So I now have two working HP Elitebooks, one for every day and a backup, next blog post I'll tell you what I did with the various bits that came with them, from software licenses to SSD drives.

September 8, 2016: Getting things to work right

Keywords: HP Elitebook, Windows 8.1 Pro, Windows 10 Pro, UEFI, SSD, Intel, Toshiba, USB3, eSATA

Toshiba Satellite C55While I have at least got the HP Elitebook up and running smoothly, I am not sure about the rest of my systems, like the Toshiba in the picture here. As far as the HP is concerned, I spent close to a week figuring out how the settings worked, experimenting with Windows 7 Pro so I could see the effects (HP put enough options in this series of business laptops to think you're on a multiprocessor server), then received a replacement with a working charging circuit, and as you read this I have managed to patch in all HP drivers for Windows 8.1, including the ones for features I don't really need, and I've even managed to turn on the UEFI boot facility in the BIOS, thanks, partly, to the EFI boot core built into Windows 8, I even managed to turn on boot protection in the system, something it insists can't be done. I just like it when things work. I did, along the way, make some discoveries about things that don't work, and found out you can actually easily retrofit USB 3.0 ports on older systems. That's majorly nice, because rather than the one 5 GB/s eSATA port, I now have two 6 GB/s USB ports, as well (tested, they really do work).

For one thing, recovering systems from backup has become increasingly problematical - as far as I can see, Microsoft has made it hard-if-not-impossible to recover a backup image from one system to another. And that is for Windows 8/8.1 - in Windows 10, it won't work at all. The Microsoft solution for that is that you have to link your Windows Activation to a Microsoft Mail address, which in itself is somewhat more complicated to do that it would seem.

Intel SSDI should probably explain that I never link my Windows installation to any kind of email address, Microsoft or otherwise, because doing so allows Microsoft to collect personal data from your system. That was bad in 8/8.1, in Windows 10 it is a disaster, as it is hard-to-impossible to turn off, and every time Microsoft provides a major update, it turns half the stuff you have painstakingly turned off back on. And after I found a blog explaining how you could link your MS Mail address to Windows 10 to facilitate a computer move, I followed the instructions and then the promised inclusion of the email address in the activation screen simply never happened. Until today, that is - two days later, and after I cloned the system's hard disk to the SSD I took out of my new HP (the SSD is fast but only 160GB, and I wanted a 2TB in the HP). Suddenly, Microsoft ran an update that easily took half an hour, and then changed the activation. The update installed a bunch of crap I hadn't asked for, as well, and I now need to find out what it installed, where it is, and how to get rid of it, which is beginning to be a pain.

Increasingly, it is beginning to look the only way to reliably back up a Windows PC is to clone the disk. Reliably - one problem with backups is that you don't know if they work unless you do a full restore. That can be painful, if you have 600GB of data on a laptop. After I moved the hard disk from my Lenovo to the new HP I was, thanks to Microsoft's re-activation telephone number, able to fully activate the Lenovo load on the HP, but when I then tried to restore the backup of that load, taken on the Lenovo, to a different disk in the HP, it complained the version of Restore was wrong for the destination system. As I tried various different Repair DVDs, I noticed that, at some point, they were no longer even seeing the latest backup, but a previous one, and that, too, would not restore. As I had a cloned drive, it wasn't a problem, but I had lost some graphics settings, and wanted to recover those.

Whatever the case may be, I've been able to move the Lenovo load to the HP, and install an Intel SSD in my Toshiba Satellite, which has made it quite a bit faster. This wasn't easy - not until I found an Intel provided cloning package was I able to get that to work, SSD's don't work exactly the same way regular hard disks do, and other cloning software simply would not work - Seagate, Western Digital and Intel all offer a custom version of Acronis' superb cloning software, but they only work when there is at least one "own brand" disk attached to the system, and I have only managed to get the drive recognition to work on systems with eSATA ports (my now deceased Lenovo had an external SATA port, and the new HP does, as well). The only exception is Intel's cloning software, which comes with a piece of software that is able to override the drive detection - that's how I was able to clone the Windows 10 Pro load on the Toshiba Satellite onto the Intel SSD. Runs like a bat out of hell, too, after some tweaking, interesting, considering that Toshiba is thoroughly anemic. I didn't realize this when I bought it, but it is so slow it doesn't even have a cooling fan....

September 3, 2016: More hiccups than laptops..

Keywords: HP Elitebook, Lenovo, Holland America Line, Snoqualmie, casino, Windows 7 Pro

Holland America Line The shot to the left shows the Magnolia Bridge, downtown, and beyond that Port of Seattle Pier 91, where I picked up my landlord and his family after their Holland America Alaska cruise, the other day. Alaska is kind of the "next stop up" from here, Canada begins maybe an hour up the road, and sail or drive long enough, and you're back in the United States, and the State of Alaska. Never made it up there, it is quite a trek and the winters, obviously, are a bit fierce, almost drove up there a couple of years ago, when I realized just the cost of the gas is horrendous, and then if you want to take your guns and hunt, the amount of paperwork the Canadians want just for transit is just ridiculous. There are ferrys, but they're not cheap either..

While I knew Snoqualmie is in the mountains, I drove across the pass when I came here from Virginia, I did not know the Snoqualmie Casino is rather beautifully located on a mountainside, in the middle of the Snoqualmie Indian reservation, constructed as a very oversized loghut, with stunning mountain views and RV parking. Friends who felt they owed me dinner took me there, for the Friday Seafood Buffet, and I can't say I was disappointed - the food was absolutely fresh and expertly prepared, I had some of the bloodiest rib you can imagine, delicious, and I was surprised it is only a little over an hour from the Northern Seattle coastal area, where I live. No matter it's been up to 95 by the shore, up in the mountains the snowcaps are forever, and they're close. Spectacular. Thanks C & T!

As I am getting ready to receive another HP Elitebook, to replace the one that does not charge, I am again moving disks between laptops - partly because I think the cooling in the Lenovo doesn't handle the fast Hitachi terabyte drives well (that may have killed the drive I had to replace last month), partly because I think the Lenovo could be my main online storage, as I just discovered that what I thought was its memory limit, 8GB, isn't. I had another 8GB memory chip sitting around, and wouldn't you know, the Lenovo B570 happily takes two of those. The specs, and Lenovo, say "NOT", but then I ran some new diagnostics, the other day, which said it can take 2x8, I thought the diagnostics were screwed up, but sure enough, that works just fine. So this older (May 2012) cheap laptop gets a new lease on life, with 16GB of RAM, a 2TB Seagate hard disk, and gigabyte Ethernet. Who knew. I was all set to semi retire the Lenovo, but with the HP being more portable and having more oompf and more interfaces, as well as double the WiFi bandwidth, I can use that for everyday stuff I don't want to use the Lenovo for, while that can continue recording TV, with more memory and more disk, backed up onto my NAS drive, it should last another good while. As I said, who knew... (Postscript: as I cloned the Lenovo's hard disk, and turned it down after the clone, it died, have not been able to turn it back on. Thankfully, I had the clone complete, and was able to activate that in the "new" HP, thanks to Microsoft's change systems. Phew.)

That HP Elitebook 2560p is an amazing little machine, but the way it is delivered really isn't. Mine arrived with a dead battery, an OEM version of Windows 7 Pro I was able to activate, but not update, and lots of other drivers missing - for me, good, because I know how to fix all that and get it to work "properly", but for the average amateur this is a disaster zone.

To begin with, though the laptop is in good shape, it is not "New, Open Box". It is used and reconditioned - when I opened mine up I found the hard disk labeled for its previous user, clearly a corporate off lease piece of equipment, hardly used, that much is true. And while I don't know how much you can really expect for $169 (including shipping), I continue to believe that a product has to be "as described" for it to be sold. We have language for what they've done, "as is" comes to mind.. At any rate, after they replaced the dead battery in the laptop, I found the new battery was working but the laptop won't charge it, so now the thing is really going back, hopefully swapped out for a fully functioning unit. I've done enough research and configuration on it that I don't want to waste that completely, and it is pretty fast, for a laptop, and very versatile. So bear with me while I wait for the replacement..

August 15, 2016: Have another one, just like...

Keywords: HP Elitebook, RAM, laptop, Trump, Clinton, Washington D.C.

If you're wondering why I have had little to say about politics and the economy and stuff, of late, just the Trump attempt at running for President has shut me right up, in terms of politics. It seems that what with the retirement of Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman, the crazies are taking over real life. I think the man is a bit of a megalomaniac, admittedly there's no law against that, but when I listen to the bits of his speeches that are broadcast on the news I can only wonder why republicans give this man the time of day. Apart from being obnoxious, his campaign mostly consists of maligning everybody and their family, and I've not heard anything that tells us how he would want to run the country. If you're saying you're going to make "America great again", but you're not saying what exactly it is you're going to do to make our lives better...

Other than that, much of my Washington work life was during the Clinton administration, I can't count the number of times I was on the same US Air Shuttle Mrs. Clinton was commuting on, and I just don't think I need to comment beyond that - she's got the experience, she knows the place and the people, if you want a president who has actually been to the president school, you know who to vote for. And if that doesn't do it for you, please ship the idiot back to Del Boca Vista. Trumpectomy, kinda.

              Elitebook 2560pIn the meantime, I had been looking for a new PC, one that has more oomph and can handle more memory (RAM) than my Lenovo can, and found that the vast majority of laptops I can afford suffer from the marketing syndrome - anemic processors, little memory, but they have a touch screen, some are two-in-one devices, where you can detach the keyboard and use them as tablets. Perhaps I am old style, by now, but a tablet is a tablet, I do own one, and I just can't do advanced computing stuff on a bloody touchscreen without memory. I know, I can hook one of my Bluetooth keyboards up to the tablet, but that still doesn't give me a large high resolution screen and, well, stuff. Cloud? That's the solution for working with anemic laptops, but you have to pay for cloud stuff, and then your data is never entirely secure, and accessing your stuff from rural Thailand is a pain. I recall sometimes being unable, in Chon Buri, to pay my mobile bill, order medication, or access my bank account - in many places because cookie traffic from Thailand to the United States and back to Thailand, and vice versa, can be so delayed it hangs the browser, while in some cases vendors stop you accessing their secure sites because you look like a hacker, considering where you are and what data you're accessing. So in many cases, I run my stuff locally, and in a server park that I lease bandwidth on.

So I am waiting for an HP Elitebook 2560p - the vendor says this is "New, Open Box" - something I doubt but we'll see. It has a fast full power 2.6GHz processor, should take 16GB of RAM, and it is cheap as it comes with an old Windows 7 Pro version, and a small hard disk. None of that bothers me much, as I have the Windows upgrade sitting on the shelf, and the two terabyte disk I bought the other day ready to roll. Not only that, I now have the equipment and software to do an immediate clone of the disk that comes in the HP, so I should be good to go if, indeed, the HP is in factory state. It does not have USB3, but otherwise has everything I need, including an external SATA port, a rare commodity these days, it has some other ports I haven't seen on a laptop in years, some advanced security stuff in the BIOS, and HD graphics that may let me play back Blu-ray disks (I discovered, th'other day, that I actually have software and a drive that will let me record video in high resolution on Blu-ray, which is kinda cool).

If you look at what is available on the laptop shelf, today, you may discover they mostly have anemic processors, no ability to install massive amounts of memory, and hard drives that aren't very large or very fast. A state of the art HP Envy laptop at Best Buy costs some $1,000, has no more memory than the old HP I am about to buy, a slower Intel processor, a slow 5400RPM hard disk, and is set up to make optimum use of the HDMI 1.4 graphics interface - assuming you bought one of the latest 4K displays, because it has no VGA output, and older 4K displays will tell you they don't like what it gives them. A laptop with low voltage processor and low voltage memory is going to be low speed computing, take my word for it. If you're a gamer, you will know how to tweak such a system, and use the NVDIA graphics with a separate fancy display, but if you're an ordinary jock about 70% of what this system can do is useless to you. In which case you could buy the $165 old HP Elitebook I am about to get, because that will probably give you slightly more performance - yes, the Envy processor has four cores, but neither Windows 10 nor most of the software you use really knows how to take advantage of that.

So fingers crossed the Elitebook, once I am done upgrading it, and updating its Windows, will let me do some stuff I currently can't do on the Lenovo, like playing Blu-ray disks. It probably is a bit tired, being in daily use, and on 24/7, since May 2012, when it replaced the HP Pavillion that died after only two years. I think the primary issue with the Lenovo is that it does not have enough RAM - it has 8GB, which is all the BIOS can handle, and it occasionally hangs on spurious interrupts, probably a design flaw in the motherboard. I've noticed IBM's diagnostics say it can take 16GB, so my guess is that Windows sometimes tries to use memory addresses the BIOS won't make available. Additionally, some of the Lenovo system management software isn't compatible with Windows 8.1, which is not actively supported on this machine. I love tinkering, and especially giving older PCs upgrades they're not supposed to have. For Microsoft to help prevent newer versions of Windows running on older hardware (which, by the way, does NOT seem to be the case with Windows 10) is asinine.

August 2, 2016: I haven't yet figured out how to back up two terabytes

Keywords: Seagate, Samsung, hard disk, Windows 10, Unitek

Seagate Spinpoint I've sent the failing HGST disk off to its maker, and all I need to do now is test the other HGST terabyte drive I have, which lives in my Toshiba laptop. I have today re-installed the OS on that, since the free update to Windows 10 is still available, and backed it up, so I guess a CHKDSK and scrub test are next, just to make sure the drive problems with the Lenovo were just occasional, and not a whole bad series of devices. Losing a terabyte can be devastating, I got lucky hearing the disk beginning to fail, and understanding how to recover and get the data off. I must say that the new 2TB drive I put in the Lenovo, at the very reasonable sum of $106.48, has been a revelation, so far. While I have not tested it - you can really only test hard disks over time, and with fairly destructive tools - the unit, made by Seagate for Samsung, is running very smoothly. It is completely noiseless - thinking about it, I do not recall ever having a hard disk in a computer that I couldn't hear at all. While I was frequently able to hear the Lenovo laptop, late at night, now I am not hearing a thing. When the Lenovo was recording HDTV using the AverTV dongle attached to it, I would sometimes hear the hard disk making fairly frantic head movement noises, while the CPU got hot enough to kick the cooling fan into a higher speed. I always thought the CPU load was due to the dongle's processor requirements, but now I am not so sure - the new drive runs at 5400 rpm, rather than the 7200 the Travelstar ran at, and as both are 2.5 inch diameter drives, head movement in the new drive, at double the storage on the same platter size, may well be less. So it is possible that the new drive runs far less hot, and the total load just never gets to the point where the system gets (too?) hot. I realize this is somewhat of an "iffy" recommendation, as I can't yet prove this Samsung/Seagate product is so much "better", but you will hopefully accept I am a system engineer with some 40+ years of experience in tinkering with computer systems, and I did correctly surmise that the previous disk in this laptop was failing. Correctly, in that not only my own diagnostics said so, but HGST is now replacing the drive under warranty, it is almost three years old. They don't do that unless it is really broken.

In the interim, I took the opportunity to learn more about Windows 10, and reinstalled that on two systems, just to make sure I have clean installs and clean backups, and to try out the various different upgrade options Microsoft offers (I prefer the DVD ISO, without download during install). Windows 10 has digital licensing, my take on that is that once you lose your system, you can only recover from the backup, there no longer is a license key. Besides, I had a Pro license key for both systems, and I assume there isn't a way to use that in Windows 10 - I used mine in Windows 8.1, then upgraded to 10 (no Pro, no backup software!). But that all worked, on nice shiny new hard disks, and I think I can move those installs to new processors, when necessary, perhaps with an activation call to Microsoft. Of course, in the last few days when Windows 10 was still a free upgrade, Microsoft increased its level of system invasion - attempting to install Windows "upgrades" whose acceptance by the user simply constituted approval to install Windows 10. To be honest, I think the way Microsoft forced unsuspecting Windows users to accept an "upgrade" that is little more than a collector of personal information is beyond what should be legal, we have lost the clear view of what a manufacturer can do to a piece of equipment that you own, all things considered. It took me hours to find the dozens of places where Microsoft has, by default, provided applications and utilities whose sole purpose is to pass your data on to them. Having understood there are many people who won't use Microsoft's "free" mail systems, the new Windows 10 mail system will now allow anyone's POP or IMAP mail to be used - but Microsoft's mail application will parse everything you send and receive. Same with their Cloud, now severely size restricted in the free version. I've actually found three places in the operating system where Microsoft sets your permission for location services, turned on by default, so that maps, applications, browser windows and telephone applications can all find out where your PC is without your knowing it. For phones, I can see the point, for some tablets, I can see that too, but PCs, especially those that aren't mobile, there may not be a need. I have noticed quite a few websites that want to know where your system is, and to be honest, if they can mine that data, so can miscreants. Between the location of your IP address (if someone knows your router's IP address they can look up your location and often your street address your GPS coordinates, and your cellphone coordinates, there are now multiple ways to track you to your exact location. The majority of PC, tablet and mobile phone users are completely oblivious to the amount of information their devices send out to all and sundry. We should really be better, and be helped better, at connecting cause and effect: the more data software companies collect, the more data gets stolen by hackers, who put lots of nice little apps out on the internet, grabbing the same data from your device the large corporations take from you "legitimately".

As it turns out, the Unitek drive caddy gives me a lot of unexpected flexibility in terms of being able to back up and restore PCs. Where, in the past, I replaced hard disks in new(er) laptops with larger hard disks, and occasionally would buy an external drive enclosure for some of them, the Unitek caddy now lets me use any of the older drives at will. It handles both USB2 and USB3, so all I needed to do is dig up my obsolete drives, reformat and verify them, and I have backup devices for all of my systems and file setups. I am not sure how I never came acroas this unit before, it'll handle 2.5 as well as 3.5 inch drives, up to 8GB, so it is an ideal solution - I can back up the Toshiba I've just set up in about 20 minutes, this using USB 3.0 and an old 160GB drive that probably came from my old HP, long since deceased... I've done a full test and done a restore in this way, as well, works just fine. Loading a licensed version of Cyberlink on the Toshiba, I was able to copy/convert a series of private DVDs to an old hard disk, on the fast USB 3.0 interface, in half a day, and then move them to a backup drive, from where they get copied to my NAS drive. Now that I have that working really smoothly, I had better go through the rest of my DVD recordings, the DVD, as a medium, is slowly beginning to die of old age, and older DVDs do deteriorate. One thing that became painfully clear to me, over many years of data storage, is that optical drive formats change - gently, but they do, ten years later your new computers can't read all older disks, some disks magically acquire scratches or smudges, over the years, and generally, this stuff just isn't as reliable as you thought.

July 21, 2016: Check the warranty on your hard drive!

Keywords: Seagate, Western Digital, HGST, Travelstar, hard disk, disk tools, SATA, bad clusters, warranty, recovery

overheating laptopI don't really have a good handle on what is wrong with the 1TB 2.5 inch Hitachi Travelstar I've been replacing, and writing about, because while some runs of Microsoft's CHKDSK show bad clusters, and report no spare clusters are available, another run of the same software using a different version of Windows reports cluster replacement. While I could no longer boot from that drive, after the latest CHKDSK run I was again able to, so it looks like Windows 10's disk tools do better than the tools in Windows 8.1. I downloaded a disk management utility from the HGST website (Hitachi became HGST and then was aquired by Western Digital), and that does not report disk failure in its SMART test, so I am now going to run a low level erase on the disk, and will then run an extended test, then a low level format from Windows, and then another CHKDSK. If this confuses you, all disks come with bad sectors, which are, these days, mapped out by the drive firmware, the preloaded factory management software, and drives will move the data from new bad sectors to the spare sectors every disk comes with. Once it runs out of spare sectors, which my drive reported earlier, the drive is ready to be retired. But now, using a different operating system and a different drive interface, it reported it had found bad sectors, and moved the data to good sectors. So it would seem it is developing bad sectors as it runs, and that is no good. The reason I put a question mark to this is that the disk is three years old, and should not be failing that soon.

So I hope I am not confusing you, just checking if this is a bad drive, if the Travelstar 1TB series is bad (I have another one of those, in my Toshiba), or if something else is wrong, I've only had this happen on a Lenovo SATA interface. The Travelstar is very fast, at 7200 RPM with a SATA throughput of 6GB/sec, consumes a little more power at 800mA than do the more conservative drives that run at 5400 RPM / 3GB/sec / 700mA, and it is therefore perfectly possible the thing just gets too hot. I do know that especially when I am watching or recording HDTV using my ATI dongle, the fan in the Lenovo can run quite audibly fast. This doesn't just happen with the Lenovo - I have another HDTV dongle, different brand, on another system, and there, too, when HDTV is being viewed or recorded (when the dongles display HDTV they record st the same time), there, too the fans ramp up. As the Lenovo has Windows Media Center, and I do most of my TV recording there, it does warm up considerably. So it is quite possible the drive overheated, especially laptops have limited cooling capacity, as they have to be able to run the fan off a battery. And HDTV is processor intensive - a 90 minute episode with full HD and 6 channel digital Dolby receives, decodes and then stores just under 8GB of data.

The reason I am going on about this is that many laptop users experience their systems slowing down, and as you know there are a million people selling all sorts of software fixes that promise to "clean up your computer", with lots of crazy stories on how this happens. What they don't tell you is that the vast majority of laptops (and even desktops) slow down because they overheat - they're never cleaned internally, clog with dust, and when that happens the processor runs hot, and (as designed) slows down, while the fan speeds up. Especially if you use your laptop sitting on the blanket or bedspread, a tablecloth, a chair, it won't be able to get cooling air, which typically enters laptops from the vents on the underside. The picture to the right shows the fan of an Everex laptop I took apart and cleaned after it began overheating to the point it actually turned off, admittedly while sitting in the sun on a car seat. Note the crud on the heat exchanger above the fan housing (the processor is underneath the heat sink to the right). Leave it sitting on your desk for a few days, and you'll notice dust has collected underneath it - dust that gets sucked up by the fan. Then, it gets worse, because as the system gets warmer, dust will cake on its parts and the fan blades and the fins of the heat exchangers, etc. Engineers build and test nice, clean and shiny machines, they don't put them out in a dusty warehouse on the Gulf Coast to see what that does to them, or give 'em to a teen to park on a pillow during a four hour Facebook session.

Anyway... I decided to go the whole hog, removed all data and the partition from the drive, then ran a full erase using the HGST diagnostic software. That completed successfully, meaning the software was able to write zeros to every disk sector, then I repartitioned the drive and did a full format under Windows 10 (the "full" format, with "quick format" unchecked, reads every sector of the drive). That completed too, but then, again using the HGST software, I ran an extended read test, and that failed. So the drive is losing clusters, and is no longer reliable, but then I checked its warranty, and teehee!, that stretches into November of this year, and gave me, right there, an RMA number for me to get the drive replaced. I had no idea how long these warranties run, but this is longer than I had expected, so all that was worth the effort - you can't send for a warranty replacement if you can't prove the device is defective, and I now have a printout that says it is. And I was able to "fix" it for long enough to clone the disk without errors, so I guess I did it all correctly, and I was right thinking the drive noise meant it was failing. The new drive, now running for a week or so, continuously, is completely silent, so another lesson learned.

July 17, 2016: They fix an army quicker than I fix a disk

Keywords: Windows 10 Pro, Sony Vaio, Seagate, Western Digital, hard disk, disk tools, bad clusters, recovery

I can't remember any military coup taking less than a week, let alone less than a day. I kind of figured the Turkish population would be happy to get rid of Erdogan, but could not have been more mistaken. Strange... Anyway, Erdogan, like Putin, is old school, does not negotiate, and if he does not like the game, he'll change the rules. If the Russians and the Turks truly like that type of ruler, and it does seem that way, I have to wonder whether the middle ages are coming back. It has been pretty amazing to watch, on live television, until somebody sent in the snipers, you coud hear the high velocity rounds on Reuters' live feed, just before it shut down..

Not too shabby... apart from some minor cosmetics, the Vaio is all done, happily running Windows 10 Pro without complaints, with the older Sony driver set, which wasn't intended for W10, quite a good show. As it turns out - and this is important for folks with older PCs and laptops they want to continue using - Windows 10 uses fewer resources and runs faster than its predecessors, so if you have a version of Windows 7 or 8 or 8.1, you could well extend your system's life by upgrading to Windows 10 - free from Microsoft until the end of the month. My Vaio dates to 2009, just to give you an idea of what works. Having previously maxed out the memory in the Vaio, I replaced the 3.5 inch hard disk (originall came with 160 MB) with a new, larger, terabyte disk, replaced the BIOS battery (in the Vaio, this is a button cell, not a rechargeable) so it is fresh - not only does it lose its clock when the battery runs out, the system loses all of its settings. The drive - a Samsung branded Western Digital, WD bought the drives division from Samsung a while ago - is smooth, and noiseless, which I couldn't say for its WD "Green" predecessor. So far, so good, now all I need to do is decide whether to hang on to this box, or sell it. It is nice to have a spare, especially since it now turns out it runs well, and efficiently. Curiously, when newer operating systems didn't have drivers for older pieces of equipment, that's all changed now - drivers are made for the primary processor of a device, these days, and so all of the older bits of this Vaio, from the audio chipset to the rewritable DVD drive, are once again fully supported, without having to jump through hoops. Only a couple of years ago, I had to manually change driver settings to get everything to work, but no more...

Unitek USB/SATA drive dockReplacing the Lenovo's drive with a larger one has turned into a huge hassle. As I write this, I am running a backup from the cloned copy of my main hard disk, a clone I had to do twice before it "took". Let me explain - it is kind of important, because hard disks do break down, and once one does, you have only a small window of opportunity to rescue your "load". I did have a couple of full backups, but stupidly, I deleted the Windows 8.1 image I had, as when I tried to update that, Windows Image Backup reported errors, and that meant my existing image could have been compromised. The disk has some 600GB of data, much of my active archives, email etc., and what I wanted to do was clone it so I did not have to install a new version of Windows on my new (2 terabyte, where the original was 1 terabyte) drive, then restore the backup to that.

For a month or so, I had heard an occasional chirping noise coming from the laptop - not alarming, but audible, and that could have been the fan or the hard disk. Replacing the fan wasn't something I was willing to do, I would replace the entire laptop, and if I did that I might as well first clone the hard disk to a new, bigger one, one I could later install in a new laptop, once I found one that was affordable and had all the bells and whistles.

Anyway, I am banging on about this because I managed to recover all data on the "old" disk, and "repair" the bad sectors on that disk using tools Microsoft builds into Windows (at least into veriosn 8, 8.1 and 10). It is time consuming, and involves not using the PC or laptop while the diagnostics and repair tools are running - on my terabyte disk, the commands, chkdsk, sfc and dism, take from four hours to a night to run to completion - each. There is a geek website, click here, that tells you how to do this, and as I said, it can work, I managed to clean up the bad sectors, recover the damaged operating system files, and repair the Windows image. After that, I was able to use Seagate's Disc Wizard clone software - from their website, works with of their drives. This software works well - in my original clone run it reported bad sectors, and that confirmed that both the noise, and the occasional blue screens of death, were caused by a drive failure. But after the drive repair, the clone procedure ran without a hitch, and I am now happily working away on a new Samsung / Seagate 2TB laptop disk, which seems (hard to tell though) smoother and more silent than the Hitachi Travelstar is. I am not, at this point, entirely certain what the issue is with the "old" Travelstar drive - barely have I fixed that, and recovered its load, then cloned it to the new Samsung / Seagate, or I can no longer boot from the Travelstar. So I'll run some diagnostics, this time using a spare laptop running Windows 10, with the "bad" drive sitting in the Unitek drive caddy (pic to the left), ideal for formatting drives, running diagnostics, etc. It supposedly can clone drives, too, offline, but I must admit to finding that a bit scary, without display report. Maybe I can figure out what causes the failures, and if there is any way to "reformat" the drive. This uses, for the most part, Windows tools that are relatively new (just because they have the same name doesn't mean they work the way they used to), tools I have not used before "in earnest", so it is a useful learning curve. Disks are scary, as a failing disk loses your data, but I see comments from other on Amazon that indicate they can recover drive formats, so why not try. I have recovered all of my data and everything is now freshly backed up, so much risk there isn't...

I could have probably saved me some time if I had simply restored a backup to a new hard disk, this entire process, from software install and testing the new disk, to completion and first backup, took four whole days. Thing is, I just wanted to prove to myself I could still do a disk recovery, especially considering these drives are so large, as well as physically small, and the low level tools I used to use no longer work, on today's cached and translated drives. I said it when I moved to big (in terms of storage) drives, a few years ago, the bigger the drive, the more stuff you can lose, and that is a scary proposition. This was close, although, as I said, I had a backup, several, in fact. For me, this is one of the things I do to maintain my skillset, Windows, by virtue of it becoming "tabletised" is even more complicated now than it was before (and it was never easy) and when you work on it you need to divide your attention between the "old" Windows tools, dozens of them, and the new settings area, primarily aimed at graphical interface users, from where Microsoft manages its dozens of methods to collect your personal data. I found three different places where you need to turn off location information, lest websites and applications can query your system and network stack, and the fact that Windows now has two browsers, each of which has secure and insecure modes, does not help. I could go on, but suffice it to say that it generally takes me a working day to incapacitate the data gathering tools Microsoft turns on by default. You're not even safe if you don't use one of Microsoft's mail tools, now - Windows will recognize any type of email, and pass that on to its servers as being yours (even if it isn't...).

July 13, 2016: Broken drives, and then some

Keywords: Windows 10 Pro, Sony Vaio, Seagate, Western Digital, Tesla, Samsung, Top Gear, BBC

hard disk collectionOf course, then my system changeover plans don't work, still trying to figure out why not... I intended to do a full live backup of the Lenovo laptop, which I had been backing up to an external Seagate SATA drive, and overnight it just wouldn't "do it". By morning I saw it had reported a drive error, but didn't know whether it was the source or destination drive, and it took me much of today to get it working again. I removed the antivirus stuff, and while I was out shopping set it to do a full chkdsk - which takes time, there is some 600GB of data on the terabyte drive. No errors in any reports, but as of an hour ago, I was able to start a backup that didn't fail, so perhaps tomorrow I can do that for real.

Not a complete waste of a day, though, I did manage to replace the 500GB 3.5 inch drive in the old Vaio with a terabyte version - great deal, $49, Samsung branded but manufactured by Western Digital in its "Blue" series. 7200 rpm, and it is a lot less noisy than its predecessor, which was a low energy drive made by Western Digital for Tivo. The Vaio wasn't as easy as all that, either, though: when I restored the new Windows 10 Pro load, it grabbed half the hard disk, and then Drive Manager wouldn't let me add the other half of the disk to the main partition. I then grabbed Windows a Windows 8.1 backup, and that did the same thing. The culprit, possibly, is that I had initialized the terabyte drive as MBR architecture, not in the newer GPT format, so I ended up using a Linux utility to convert the drive, and then I was able to restore a Windows 7 Pro load, turn the drive into one large partition, so now I need to run the updates and then update that to Windows 10 Pro - again. I don't mind, you do learn this way, even if it is doing everything twice, or (as my East Indian friends like to say) thrice. I did manage to use the unit described below to initialize the new drive, opening up the Vaio is a bitch, so I don't want to do that more than once.

Hah! I bought a unit that will allow one or two 3.5 inch hard disks to be connected to a USB 3.0 port, primarily so I can copy stuff to obsolete disks that came from older systems, so I can use them to store backups on. I found the unit at Amazon (where else) but now discover that it can do a lot more than just make drives accessible. It'll clone drives offline, and, judging from what I read, can clone different sized and format drives, too. It isn't a facility I expect to use a lot, but, considering its other uses, certainly handy to have. And as it is able to handle 2.5 inch drives as well, it really is multi-functional. I have normally taken 2.5 inch laptop drives I replaced, and put them in external enclosures, but as I have three of those, at this point, and barely use them, this contraption seems a better solution. As soon as I finish putting a 2 terabyte drive in my Lenovo (which currently has a single terabyte) and copying the load onto that, I'll try out the caddy, to see how well or badly it deals with backups. One reason all of my flavours of Windows are "Pro" is that that allows the use of Windows' backup and recovery software, which, in combination with an external hard disk, is an efficient backup tool.

The idea behind the bigger disk in the Lenovo is twofold: first of all, I intend to buy a faster laptop with more memory, and once I do that I'll put the 2TB drive in it, as a way to easily transfer my files and software (under Windows 8.1). Secondly, what I want to do is then change the original 1TB disk over to Windows 10 Pro, before Microsoft's "free" offer expires, at the end of July. I can then sell the Lenovo, should I so desire, not much point in selling it with an older operating system.

Have to tell you Chris Evans' demise from Top Gear is largely due to the BBC management team simply casting the wrong guy. First of all, it is kind of impossible to find another Jeremy Clarkson, then, Jeremy's brand of racist blue collar obnoxiousness is now politically unacceptable (why do you think Nigel Farage stepped down?), and Chris made a gallant attempt to emulate Clarkson, but just couldn't be somebody he wasn't. Not his fault, in my opinion, and the rise of Matt LeBlanc to BBC show host, entirely unexpected, is the innovative outcome of all this. I still think they should have given the show to funnyman, actor and gearhead Rowan Atkinson, who could have made Top Gear into his own show. The BBC can still do that, and what with both he and LeBlanc being professional actors, who knows what could come out. Forget the gearheads - the Top Gear that made big worldwide fame, after all, wasn't a car show, and making it into one now is way off the mark. Way.

I suppose I have to clearly state I do like what Tesla does, Elon Musk seems an amazing technologist, and his concept of an electric vehicle clearly was way ahead of its time. Advanced enough that there are European cities obliging taxi owners to ditch the Mercedes and switch to Tesla's, it is clear this type of car found itself a huge hole in the market. Yes, easy enough in hindsight, electric cars are expensive to manufacture, and need enough room for batteries and drive trains, so building a luxury sedan instead of an "electric mini" makes a lot of sense. There are plenty of folks who can afford expensive cars, and selling small electric cars that oblige their owners to have a combustion engined car as well, because there are things you do with a car an electric doesn't have the reach for, somehow does not make an awful lot of sense.

So why did the Tesla have to have this automation, a "robot" that others are testing and experimenting with, but haven't put on the road, in the hands of the consumer? Is this overreach? The fact the Tesla S has far reaching automation hadn't even been discussed that much, but Joshua Brown's death has changed that, catastrophically. Read the press release, and you'll see Tesla blames the driver for using the automation, having been warned it is new technology. I don't think that's funny at all - a customer is not a guinea pig, and if you're installing new technologies in products you make, technologies that customers pay for, you have to make sure the technology can't kill the user - think Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. It isn't even slightly a question in my mind - the technology has to be better than the human in order for there to be a point to having it. I find Tesla's contention that Mr. Brown couldn't see the truck particularly offensive - he died in the "accident", so Tesla has no way of knowing what he did and did not see. Last but not least, from the police report it seems the vehicle did not notice the collision, and did not execute an emergency stop. That, if true, is a real problem - if your autopilot does not notice the roof being torn off the car it is utterly failed technology, and I would say Tesla must immediately disable it in all of its vehicles.

July 3, 2016: Brexit and old PCs

Keywords: Brexit, UK, EU, Windows 10, Sony Vaio, IOT

1970s UK IDs Actually, when the British decided they wanted no part of the Euro, we could have all come to the conclusion it would come to this. Not team players, as we say in the Anglo-Saxon world. Yes, they wanted the EU, but not really. This is what you get with island people, who are used to having things their own way, because they have to. It is hard to explain unless you've done it, but if you can drive to a border and cross it, you're much more connected than when you have to cross a bit of water. You've got neighbours, you can borrow a cup of sugar, and if you have to get in a boat and learn a different langue to do that, it's just not the same. Travelers had an interesting joke about England - when you flew from America to Ireland, you got to Europe. Then when you flew to England, you were back in the United States. And if you've lived in these places, you'll agree that it is true. It's the Brits' own fault - they never lost Empire aspirations, understandable, and never tried to integrate, even once the Chunnel was dug. I don't know what it is, you can't just put French language signs into St. Pancras and think you've done your filial duties. And speaking English, a Really Important Language, fluently, does not help.

Having experienced first hand the impoverished state Britain was in, when I moved there in the late 1970s, and having seen how well it has been doing since joining the Common Market, and later, the European Union, I am flabbergasted at the Brexit vote. I can understand why some Brits are concerned - many Europeans have had misgivings about letting impoverished nations at the edge of the EU join in. But then that discussion goes back all the way to the 1960s, when Greece, at the time a country where half the population didn't have telephones or running water, wanted to join the EU.

Lessee... Back in 2009, I bought a Sony Vaio All-in-One desktop computer, which I've been using as a backup PC, on and off, since. My primary computers have been laptops for many years, and the Vaio is not, but it was technologically advanced, and quite well designed. Last year I retired it, after its hard drive began to make noises. The unit itself in in physically good shape, and after I replaced it with a Toshiba laptop I put it back in its box in the garage. Then, recently, I sold a router on Ebay, in all of 40 minutes, and as I moved a broken Tivo to the e-cycling, began to wonder whether I'd be able to recover the Vaio, update the operating system to Windows 10, and put that on Ebay as well.

Windows 10 setup screenI had previously updated the Vaio from Windows Vista to Windows 7, with an upgrade to 7 Pro, but when I tried to go from there to Windows 8 I found I lost access to the DVD drive. I'd never found a way to sort that out, and as I was only using the Vaio to watch TV, using an HDTV dongle and Windows Media Center, it didn't much matter, and I had backed out to Windows 7 Pro. Of course, as soon as I resurrected the machine and reloaded Windows 8, the DVD drive disappeared again, and stayed absent under Windows 10. So I loaded Windows 7 back in, and spent more than a day doing research on the internet, until I found a solution I hadn't seen before, at a website run from India by Vishal Gupta, listed as, the VG being Vishal's initials. And sure enough, I learned something, and it got fixed - little did I know you can actually see hidden (that is, loaded but not active) device drivers in the Windows Device Manager, and you can delete the drivers that don't work or do not need to be there, then run a refresh, or, as I did, power down the machine, and restart it. Sure enough, it recreated the drivers, and this time, the DVD driver worked, and stayed working when I updated the operating system. Magic. And so I was able to fully load Windows 10 Pro, which I did from a DVD that Microsoft makes available if you don't want to run the update online. I had to do that now, Microsoft insists the free upgrade to Windows 10 (only from Windows 7 or 8/8.1) stops on July 29, and much to my surprise it loaded without complaints on the Vaio, which was built for Windows Vista, I didn't really expect Windows 10 to load without tweaking, as I'd had to do with Windows 7 and 8. But no complaints, no tweaking necessary, everything loaded in one fell swoop. Even my avoidance of using or creating a Microsoft email address for logging in didn't cause a hiccup, other than that some of Microsoft's apps won't work without one, but that's fine. I was (this being a "Pro" install, I had paid for that upgrade a while ago) even able to create a full operating system image backup, which only took three DVDs (Microsoft uses its own compression algorithm to back up to DVD, which roughly doubles the standard capacity of a disk). So all good... The hard drive is a bit noisy, so while I was at it I decided to replace that with a new terabyte drive, might as well give the old girl what new life I can, the bigger the drive, the faster she'll run (that goes for all Windows installs, by the way, provided you set the machine up to regularly optimize the drive, I let it do that every night on all of my PCs).

Much to my delight, several news outlets have recently begun to report that IOT - the Internet Of Things - isn't happening. I've said that from day one - read my comments about Nest, below - basically, because connecting some appliance to the internet really doesn't lead to anything meaningful. Yes, there are refrigerators that can order groceries - but that requires an infrastructure, a store, a delivery person with access to your home, a lot of communication, and in the final analysis has little to do with the internet. Similarly, internet thermostats, internet hot water heaters, and internet lights, are all dependent on giving the power company the right to control your home - not something anybody wants to really do. The idea behind the "smart meter" is that it can be told to turn off, or down, your air conditioners when the grid overloads - but I really haven't seen equipment that does that, and even fewer people willing to come home to a hot water heater that's been turned off by Con Edison, because they needed the power (the power you pay for) for someone else. Does the power company know your daughter takes these long piping hot baths? Isn't that what the Internet of Things, with its vaunted Artificial Intelligence, is supposed to figure out? Even if it did, what can the internet do about it? Turn off the hot water? Why would anybody want that?

June 18, 2016: New laptop means much more storage

Keywords: laptop NAS drive, storage, terabyte, gigabit ethernet, dashcam, Nest, Google, Amazon

Umm, OK, let's see - I thought my Lenovo was a bit unhappy, but as it turns out it won't use its WiFi interface when the Gigabit Ethernet is connected and active. I think that probably is a security feature, so it won't inadvertently bridge two networks, at any rate, after futzing with it for a couple of days it looks like all that works fine. I am using a lot of interrupts on that unit, so some of that not working would have been understandable, but clearly a false alarm... Nevertheless, I do hear it is getting a bit noisier, which may well be down to the fan. That's set to run at low power when I am not home or asleep, but even so, it tends to go off like crazy when Windows Media Center is recording HDTV. That, in combination with Digital Dolby's 5 channel audio, uses a lot of horsepower, especially with the 7200 RPM terabyte hard disk I have in there, and using gigabit Ethernet, which I hadn't used for any length of time before. That itself was strange - the hardwire network interface always ran at 100Kb, until I started working with the NAS drive, which connected to my router at a gigabit.

Samsung dashcam I then decided to test that on the laptop interface, re-installed the ethernet drivers, and sure enough, it came up, at first intermittently, at a gigabit too. Some changes in the networks setup, and it runs at that gigabit all the time, and do file transfers from the laptop at some 44Kb/second, which is a lot better than 11 Kbits... If it confuses you I didn't use the fast Ethernet, much of my network traffic goes to the internet, and my home internet runs at 30 Mb/sec, so there was little need to set up something faster than 802.11n, my wireless speed. But with the NAS drive, which I only got at the beginning of the year, that equation changed - the drives, today, have Gigabit ethernet ports, the routers do, and so having my "main machine" connected at a Gigabit, using hardwired Ethernet, makes sense. Apart from that, having my data drive, and my main backup drive, not accessible via WiFi provides some extra security, sitting, as they do, behind a double firewall.

Considering I bought the Lenovo in 2012, it really wouldn't be too alarming for it to die, so I am shopping around - but clearly, I would have to find something that will take 16 GB of RAM and has a touch screen for me to get an advantage. Interestingly, there are some faster, more expandable laptops around, but few with a touch screen, and if I want the replacement to last four or five years that really is a must. Other than that, I probably should get a two terabyte hard disk, because the one TB I use today may not be big enough to last another five years, now that I have begun to keep a full copy of all of my files on the laptop (duly backed up on a daily basis!). That may sound a bit premature, but in the past I have bought new laptops, then installed them, then bought memory and disk upgrades, and transferred the load and redone the setup, nd it occurs to me, as I shop for a new(er) laptop, that that's a little assbackwards. I probably should put a larger drive in my existing laptop, restore the current load to it, get that working right, and then move the bigger drive to the new laptop, and then install new drivers (which it likely will mostly do by itself). Because when I look at the 4TB NAS drive I bought in February, that has, at this point, just under 2TB of space left, half gone already - I use this drive as a mountable Unix-style NFS device, which means I am able to run various backup applications to its drive emulation, while I store dashcam video and recorded HDTV on it, as well, the latter so I can stream recorded TV to one of my devices. While I delete TV programs I've watched, that's not the case with dashcam video, you never know when that may come in handy. At this point, a couple of years worth of my dashcam video takes up some 290GB, all by itself.

Why am I going on about this? I've simply noticed that file and archive sizes keep growing, in my case even though I really don't have any major new devices, something that often leads to larger files, like new cameras. But even so, the dashcam is creating large archives, my HDTV archive is growing faster than I can watch (I used to use a Tivo, but a TV dongle on a laptop is actually much more convenient!), and, old IT hound that I am, I maintain two backups of everything, in two different formats. You see, keeping files for future reference is great, but then you do have to keep backups and/or copies, and if you do that you have to keep those in multiple places.

What with the seeming demise of Nest's Tony Fadell I couldn't help but think about this "intelligent" thermostat, especially since I ran across a display stand full of 'em at Home Depot, the other day. I've never understood why you'd need a remotely controllable wi-fi connected thermostat - part from anything else, remote controlled thermostats were widely available before, there were network connected thermostats (without Cloud connections, for the most part) and I've never felt the need to change my home temperature while driving around. These days, using your phone in the car could well be illegal, and I really don't know an awful lot of people in the USA who really can't wait until they get home or leave to adjust their thermostats. Most folks I know have a day- and a night setting, heating up or cooling down a whole house can cost a bundle, and apartments are often centrally or steam heated, for a fixed rate. People in Europe, where energy costs much more than it does in the US, probably needed Nest more than we did.

So, here again: Nest tells Google when you're home, how many people live in your house, whether you have A/C or not, what kind of smartphone you use - it does more for Google than it does for you. Right? In many ways, considering you pay for devices like Amazon's Echo and Google's Nest, we're going to have to seriously ask ourselves if they're actually delivering anything new, for the money. I have my doubts about this, as I am not seeing new functionality in the gadgets. To some extent, this goes back to smartphones, which may have made applications you used to have on your PC or laptop portable, but have added little that is actually new. Let me put it this way - you used to have to go to the living room to watch TV, then we got laptops and tablets and things that let us watch what we want where we are, but now we have to go to the living room again, to talk to The Device. This makes no sense. They keep trying to add stuff to the "living room", like 3D and 4K, while it should be clear, by now, that younger folk like their portable lives, let's face it, all sitting in one room watching what one person in that room decided we're all going to watch is so 1980s. We have choices, and devices, and the networks should take the lead and stop doing "family shows" that are only watched by old fogies, out of habit. Seriously.

June 7, 2016: Big Data is You

Keywords: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, AI, Artificial Intelligence, R&D, Hello Barbie, FCC, FTC

Stunningly, Facebook has announced it will read your messages, and try to understand what you're discussing, and will act on what it perceives. While Facebook's terms and conditions allow the company to use anything you post on the platform in whatever way it wants, the big question here is what makes these folks thinks it is OK to read over your shoulder during private conversations. The other question is what Facebook's rationale is for using you, its user, for research. Way back when, in my phone company R&D days, using, even playing back publicly, customer conversations was subject to severe restrictions. I recall one internal Operator Services meeting where we had intended to let the folks present, all staffers, listen in on a directory assistance call with speech recognition, and ended up with the lawyers telling us we could not legally do that. We got around it by having one of us make a couple of calls, into an offline workstation, but as of that day I was in and out of our in-house legal offices even more often. And considering the size and functionality of Facebook, it is beyond me why they are not subject to a modified version of the telecommunications act - even with no phones involved, communicating is what Facebook does, especially with Messenger (as I am writing this, Facebook announced further that Messenger will become a standalone application for mobiles, one you will have to load separately in order to use it at all. Is that related to the parsing, perhaps?). I think we should take a good look at this, especially since the laws and regulations for this have been around for decades, and there is plenty of legal expertise in them. I am not saying that what we did "was better", but experimenting using consumers unaware their actions are being used, and unaware what their actions are being used for, is a bit much. Apart from anything else, you really can't use someone for tests without their prior approval, and without paying them - after all, the research you do will benefit you commercially, and that means you have to pay participants, that is a long established maxim in the American world of R&D. This strongly reminds me of the problems Facebook encountered with its emotion manipulation trial in 2012 - in this new trial, some folks using Messenger will have Facebook take actions based on their utterances and interactions, and if that is not applied to all users, those unwittingly subjected to this algorithm, as well as those who aren't, are all part of an experiment Facebook didn't get anybody's permission for. There may be a grey area, but it is not normally a mile wide.. and the only reason Facebook and Google can more or less do as they please is that their services are "free" - the consumer does not pay, and in the United States that means the consumer has few rights.

Interestingly, Facebook states in its blog that its system, named "Deep Text", uses AI to understand language. This is where I have to tell you that a system whose creators designed the recognition, the front end and the back end of Facebook is a parser, not a self learning intelligence. Intelligence would not be limited to one particular system, created by the same people who made the parser, and limited to people interacting in ways that Facebook itself has delimited, and are therefore predictable and adjustable. Just as an example, if somebody emails a cousin, who speaks a different language, and then decides to have a Skype conversation with the cousin, Facebook would not know, nor would it have access to the Skype conversation, or the two Twitter messages that would be exchanged later. That would make it impossible for Facebook's "intelligence" to develop any kind of understanding of the way two humans interact, where the understanding of language is perhaps only 30% of the total interaction. Intelligence, you see, would figure this out - and intelligence living wholly inside Facebook would not be able to do that. Paraphrasing Facebook's developers, this in't about "deep learning", we're nowhere near that - this requires what I will call "wide learning". And within the container, not even being able to look over the rim, you can't do that.

I've said it before; it is high time we created a good definition for "intelligence", considering commercial scientists and developers think the system that controls a self driving car is "AI", and a system that reads messages is "AI". Apart from anything else, we need to stop using the word "artificial" in "AI", considering we don't use the term "natural intelligence" for anything definable. If we create a system able to learn and derive conclusions from its learning, we may well call that "intelligent", but there isn't anything artificial about it, since we created it. Whether the interloper was silicon based or carbon based is really not relevant. Unless, of course, the Creator meant to say that an "artificial" intelligence is inferior to a "natural" intelligence - of that I am reasonably sure. But again, just so we're clear: playing "Go" or playing chess does not require intelligence, just prodigious mathematical and computational abilities. Yes, that's special. No, it isn't Einstein.

A.I. systems are pervasive, Ms. Crawford, principal researcher at Microsoft, said, pointing to a doll like Hello Barbie, which speaks and listens. “You might think that’s a fantastic toy, that’s really wonderful,” she said. “What you don’t realize is that it is the front to this huge data ingestion machine that is taking all of those statements by that child and then using them for a whole range of purposes.”

What Ms. Crawford does not add is that the new devices from Google and Amazon, not unlike a previous iteration of Microsoft's own Xbox, aren't "speakers" - which is how they're advertised - but microphones, data collection devices. They listen 24/7, something they can do only when connected to their "home base" cloud, where their intelligence is based. And they indiscriminately record anything they hear, and try to interpret sounds into commands and controls. Anything. Grandma throwing up, two people fighting, children at play, a 10 year old having sex, a 15 year old trying Dad's whiskey, anything and everything. All the time. It is just a piece of furniture, you won't even notice. And there really isn't any legislation to cover these technologies - if a service provider wants to put a voice control device into your home, and provides some type of functionality with it, they would have to listen to de device all the time, to catch the activation. And while, if these were deemed telecommunications devices (which I personally think I could make work, legally), they'd be subject to severe restrictions as to what could be done with the input, they're not classed as such, but probably as remote control devices - which they really are not. If you can activate ordering software in the Amazon Cloud using the Echo, and make a purchase, it is not a remote control. Unfortunately, you'd have a better chance getting the EU to regulate these things, than expect the FCC or the FTC to step up; in the USA, the government seems more interested in development and financial progress than in privacy and reigning in corporations. That is, unless the banks start bankrupting people wholesale again, that's when everybody wakes up, a bit on the late side.

June 3, 2016: Is your Windows Update stuck?

Keywords: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, KB3035583, update, Windows 10, disk error, Windows Update

So really all you need is a Windows Update that won't install, one that turns out to be a full Windows 10 upgrade, and then when you start troubleshooting Windows loudly complains its mount partition is defective, none of the error messages make much sense, it hasn't been malfunctioning, but when an update won't install subsequent updates won't, either. So I had to fix that. The culprit was Microsoft's KB3035583, which, unbeknownst to me, has been around for at least a year, and is a forced upgrade to Windows 10, downloads 6 Gb of install code without your permission, hidden code, and impossible to remove unless you uninstall the update that downloaded it. Apparently, in Microsoft's zeal to update everybody to Windows 10 before they start charging for it, they're forcing the download onto all eligible Windows PCs and tablets, where they can start the upgrade without the user being able to prevent or stop it.

This is where big terabyte disk drives are a problem, because they take forever to scan. First I had to remove large numbers of temporary files, some of which I had no idea what caused them, one install clearly had not happened, and there are my HDTV temporary video files, and a temporary install that would not let itself be deleted under Windows, so I had to find a Linux boot drive and do the remove using AIS. Then, just the CHKDSK (drive level check) needed the night to run. Then, Microsoft's System File Checker took hours. Then, "dism" (Microft's Deployment Image Servicing and Management tool) took another couple of hours. Only then (we're effectively talking halfway into the next day) could I try to install the Windows 10 Pro update using an ISO image on a DVD. That took the rest of the day, well into the night, but at least it worked - although, of course, after that install finished Windows decided it needed more updates - those pushed out since the 'big" update was pushed out and failed, without telling me. On my other system, I needed to remove the update, and the Windows 10 installation files, because that runs Windows Media Center, which isn't compatible with Windows 10, and actually gets removed by the installer.

This is a big issue. 98% of consumers aren't able to do what I just did (98% of that 98% don't have the patience or the understanding that if they don't do these things their entire computer will eventually fail, likely with the loss of all stored files), and it is beyond me to understand why Microsoft thinks it is OK to unleash this crapola on their customers. Most have nowhere or nobody to get things fixed, and I am not even talking about those whose son or nephew or neighbour "know all about computers". I mean, do you know what an 'ISO file" is? And do you know how to burn an ISO file to DVD? And the reason behind the changes that make up Windows 10 (and especially this latest "upgrade", which is more of a reinstall) are, apart from various fixes and regular updates, additions to Windows to do two things:

Make Windows a multi-platform (phone, tablet, PC) operating system, a process that began with Windows 8.1; and
Make Windows a data collection engine, mining the user for every bit of personal and identifying information Microsoft can find.

This equally began in 8.1, but they've gotten much better at it now, to the point where Microsoft is putting back a lot of the tools it has taken out, over the years, like Mail and Calendar. Increasingly, Microsoft gives you applications and tools whose use require you to log in with a Microsoft email address, and under Microsoft's Terms & Conditions, which you agree to when you log in, they can then parse any of your information, and use your data for marketing purposes, and resell it to third parties.

Where Facebook and Google, in particular, are doing the data collection with abandon, and have been for years, Microsoft has not, in the past, had an emphasis on data mining, and that is now changing. Never mind that Microsoft does not have a marketing organization to sell personal information, you have to get it before you can sell it. Facebook can only be used if you log in and provide personal information, and that is what Microsoft is trying to bring about - you can bypass the login requirement on Windows devices, but it is not easy to figure out, and you forego a lot of functionality doing that. The waiting, then, is for the provider who figures out consumers are perfectly capable of figuring out where they want to get what - in many cases, they already have their favourite providers. It is safe to assume your provider has a pernicious and secondary motive when they install "finance" and "news" and "weather" on your computer without asking you. A decent provider would ask you what you'd like, build a script that lets you get what you want where you want it - it is only just now I've seen, in Windows, for the first time that you can set a third party mail provider in your mail application, in Windows - but then I check on the security of that and read that Microsoft will then automatically send that email address to its calendar application, and will add any mail addresses you use to the contacts database - again, automatically. I understand why that is a handy facility to have but - hey, Microsoft - for Microsoft to decide how I do what, and what with, is the usual Microsoft hubris. It installs so much crap, during the update, and turns on so many data sharing facilities that were turned off that it took me over half a day to verify everything and turn it off and (insofar as possible) uninstall it. When you wade through it, though, one thing is massively clear: this stuff is just there so Microsoft can figure out what you do on your computer.

Anyway, before I meander off into deep space, once you have a stuck update, doing a search at will lead you to a few fixes, at least one of which works fine. The fact that a Windows 10 "upgrade" package (IOW, much more than a regular update) sits in the Microsoft Update queue, not installing, without any kind of warning, is of major concern. That "update", you see, will stop any subsequent updates from installing. You won't know that anything is wrong, and any fixes, security updates and driver updates will now never come to your PC. As you can discern from the above, your average consumer is not going to be able to figure out, let alone, fix, this issue - recently, a neighbour was so unable to use his PC that he got his son to reinstall his PC, once it wouldn't boot any more, and I expect there will be a lot of folks like that - I saw, in just a few minutes, hundreds of folks with the same error as me, all over Microsoft Support, trying to figure out how to get things back on track. That's not good. Perhaps, Microsoft, you should not be trying to be all things to all people, while outGoogling Google. Not going to work, and you're wrecking a good operating system by loading it up with useless crap.

May 22, 2016: Artificial Intelligence is dying in the wings

Keywords: social media, Facebook, IBM, TJ Watson, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, virtual, AI, Artificial Intelligence, self driving cars, Siri, Cortana, Echo, Home, Einstein

So my question is whether Facebook has reached a growth limit, or whether it simply wants to take over the universe. It must have realized that the emphasis on mobile devices is beneficial because on most phones and small tablets, Facebook takes up the entire screen, or most of it. That means it leaves no room for other applications, and it becomes easier to use Facebook's messenger than the handset's own mail application. I am old school, came up with the PC, so I use my mobile phones, and even my tablet, more or less the same way I use a laptop. But because of my habits, I will do mail and Facebook sooner on the laptop than on the handset. In my particular case, I don't run any mobile apps that mine my address book, and if I have to use a mobile app, I do that on another handset, one that does not have my address book. In the case of Facebook, once I found you can't even disable the app from accessing your camera, I removed Facebook from every mobile device I own. I am extremely security conscious, partly because I spent so many years in secure telecommunications, supervised by a real military type, part of what I and my team did was service to our Federal clients, and it gets hammered home when you drive past the Pentagon twice a day, on your way to work and home. My webmaster came straight from the General Staff, when she retired from the military, she interviewed in uniform. I think the security that came baked into my job, once I was transferred from NYC to D.C., is a useful trait to have.

I vividly remember loading up LinkedIn when I got my latest Blackberry, only to discover that once you installed that, and logged in, LinkedIn immediately copied your address book, without asking. You can then turn that off, but that's kind of a moot point when the copy is made. LinkedIn, you may recall, got fined for sending email to folks whose addresses it had copied from user's smartphones. Apart from the fact that that is not legal, I have "sensitive" email addresses on my Blackberry, addresses I used to need access to in the course of my work. As it is still possible for Verizon management retirees to get called in for strike duty, these are addresses I may need, so I have them on my secure, protected device, on which I do not run apps that mine data - not that that is always easy to figure out. Check the permissions, and you can usually tell - if the app wants access to your address list, and you cannot turn that permission off, the maker of the app is going to copy your address list. This is one reason why folks get so much spam and phishing mail - their friends have given the spammers their email addresses and telephone numbers, and the social security numbers of their ex-spouses.

See, while we're being bombarded by tech providers advertising their AI, I see precious little proof. Facebook's "trending" column is suppsed to marry the latest popular items up with what you're particularly interested in - in my case, it never fails to produce either 2 or 3 (all) items that do not interest me. Penis transplant? Why is that "trending"? Apart from anything else, I'd be interested in a few months time, but here in the United States it would not be possible for a serious press, umm, "organ", to discuss the transplant, the therapy and its functioning. And singers falling off stages.... I have never shown any interest in artists on Facebook, save for one of my nieces who is a singer, and I can safely say that Facebook hasn't got a clue about what my interests are - while I've been around long enough for their AI to figure that out, if it worked. I know when it does work - as Google and Yahoo and Microsoft have figured out, unless you find some excuse to make people log into their service so they can monitor your browser while you surf, they haven't got a clue. This is why LinkedIn and Facebook require you to have third party cookies enabled, which is a huge security risk, and should not be allowed. So that is why I use the Tor browser, which masks my ISP, won't retain cookies beyond one session, and does not allow the social media provider to "see" what I am up to in the rest of my computing environment. LinkedIn is particularly bad - something that I really found out of order is that LinkedIn, which I have only ever used for business activities, and not as a social network, "found" relatives of mine I did not know I had. It is very unlikely they discovered these folks, whose names I did not know and who I had never been in contact with, using legitimate techniques. Worse, I've never had any family in my LinkedIn contact list...

And then I see a Google announcement that they're introducing their "Assistant", similar to Siri and Cortana, which will run on their upcoming Google Home device, similar to Amazon's Echo, as well. I have significant privacy misgivings about these services and devices, especially where households with underage children are concerned. These can be recognized by the services (Microsoft did this too, on some Xbox versions) and so Google and Amazon are able to silently collect data on minors, and resell that data to third parties. Why am I making this assumption? Microsoft, Google nor Amazon have ever introduced any of these services and provided a statement about the privacy, safety and security features built into the services. They tell the press what the new capabilities are, and it is clear that if they don't tell us what limitations are built in, there aren't any. It is the same for Facebook - once you give Facebook access to your camera, it can record from that camera whenever Facebook wants it to - on one tablet I have seen Fabook's app would not install without access to the camera.

Am I paranoid? I don't think so. The EU government is activating quite strict rules for these services, but the US government is - due to economic considerations - failing to do so. If it did, those rules would apply to the worldwide services of American corporations, and it would be much easier to control how and what is collected, and used, by the services. Access to your computer, your files, and your devices, should by default be turned off for all services, and you would be able to go into a menu to turn things on (and off) as you desire.

There can only be one reason why this is not implemented: the social networks surreptitiously collect personal data from your systems and devices, and do not want you to be aware of it. As someone pointed out the other day, Amazon does not have a logout option - instead, you have to go through menus to tell it you're "not that user". Facebook, on mobiles and tablets, equally makes it very hard to log out. Microsoft makes you come up "live" for chat, and you can only turn that off after they have advertised your login. Skype now is a tile in Windows 10, and logs you in all by itself, if you've told Windows 10 your Microsoft user name. You can opt not to do that, but the facility is built into the install so cleverly it looks like there is no other way to install or activate Windows. Once you've given it your login, you can ostensibly remove that, but that does not stop Windows from reporting what you do to Microsoft, regardless. The only reason I have Skype installed on my Windows machines is that I do not use my Microsoft email address in the application, and only use the desktop version.

So let's go back to the Artificial Intelligence that all of these providers, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, say they use in providing services to you - AI that can work only, they tell you, if you log into their systems before using them. Facebook has taken that the furthest - you can't use Facebook at all if you do not log in. Real AI, of course, would know who you are, and not need you to tell it - imagine you have to introduce yourself to your neighbour every single time you see her, so you can say "hello". In humans, that's called Alzheimers. Go to Wikipedia and look up "Artificial Intelligence", and you'll find that in the introduction, the examples given are two Google products, which means Google (and others) have usurped the term "AI" for marketing purposes. Because, you see, playing Go or Chess and beating a human player is something a computer can do - it requires computational ability, not intelligence. The same applies to self driving cars - they require prodigious computational ability, not intelligence. The telltale mistake in the sentence in Wikipedia is that the writer refers to "professional players". A professional player is somebody who makes a particular game their source of income, and that, again, has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence.

It may well be we've never really bothered to define intelligence properly, and perhaps that is something we need to work on. And then we need to define what we mean by "artificial intelligence", and perhaps come up with a different terminology for it. Yes, Albert Einstein had prodigious intelligence, probably best understood by saying he was able to conjecture things that could, originally, not be calculated, or seen. Stephen Hawking is, quite possibly, an even better demonstration of intelligence - he is able to think on a par with Einstein, but does so even though he is, indeed, profoundly disabled. I have, myself, worked on speech recognition, and can tell you from experience in my worldwide travels there are so many different flavours of natively spoken English, there is no speech recognition in existence today that can successfully understand even 30% of spoken English. My hair stands on end when I read (East) Indian newspapers, where I see they don't just change idiom and grammar, they've added a huge vocabulary of words that did not exist in traditional English - a necessity in a society where English is a primary language, that has a sixth of the world's population. These folks will eventually all become literate and educated, outnumber all other English speakers combined, and it is their English that will be the dominant language. The majority of folks working on speech recognition today are working on American English, which most definitely will not be the dominant form of English. Anybody working on Indian English as a research subject? Only IBM, as far as I know, all the rest think Indians can be taught "proper" English, not realizing India has its own English literature, and a worldwide workforce - what do you think programmers do? They write code, in a programming language - emphasis on "language". There are few non-Indian coders in the world today, does that suggest anything?

Anyway, it is, at this point, vitally important to begin letting the public know that 99% of what the non-scientific proponents say is Artificial Intelligence is, in fact, just fancy (and very clever, and very advanced) computing. What is probably most important to understand is that if any of the providers needs information from you to understand what you do, and where you're wanting to go, it does not possess any kind of intelligence. The comment one of Google's senior honchos made, the other day: "Google’s autocomplete feature that most of us use when doing a search can instantaneously touch 500 computers in several locations as it guesses what we are looking for" means they have a very advanced, fast, network. It also means a senior Google executive does not have a clue what intelligence is. How much data a system can gather to find information means it is basically, a completely stupid system. Yes, an intelligence can use previously gathered information in creating suppositions, conjecturing, and arriving at conclusions, but if that information is a prerequisite, we're looking at advanced computing, at clever algorithms, not at AI. There isn't even a fine line - if there were such a thing as Artificial Intelligence, your PC would have come with a free desktop application that gave you the capability to do "thinksheets", if I can propose a new piece of terminology. Writing this, I find it is rather difficult to come up with definitions and examples of what differentiates intelligence from calculation, more difficult than I expected it to be. IBM's Watson system (now running in distributed fashion in IBM's own cloud) comes perhaps closest to an Artificial Intelligence. Two bits of proof for that: IBM, at Watson's website, doesn't mention AI even once (they know what I know), and Watson is, unlike all these other systems at the social folks, dedicated only to research, learning and developing. IBM has long had a tradition in which it segregates pure research from development, something we used to have in telecommunications R&D, but alas, no more. At any rate, the primary aspect of artificial intelligence is that it is autonomous - it learns and operates by itself. Microsoft's infamous attempt at creating a chatbot is a perfect example - it learned only from those communicating with it, the rest of its "knowledge" was preloaded by developers, not garnered in the world. It didn't have AI, because it was not able to correct itself - an AI you do not take offline, because it cannot learn that way. Similarly, Google's AI is reading 2,865 romance novels "to be more conversational". Novels do not converse, and they do not use everyday speech language. Apart from anything else, written word is vastly different from commmunicative language, the only thing that will come out of this is that Google's AI may learn to write novels. I honestly, when I read these kinds of things, wonder whether these folks have sprung a leak, I wish we still had Monty Python and could do a skit about a Google Self Driving Car asking instructions from its passenger using Fatal Desire language. And that, I promise you, will happen. You willl one day get online to order printer paper and be connected to Julia Roberts drooling down the wire. Let me put it this way: if Microsoft's chatbot is AI, I don't want to even slightly think about AI driving cars.

Here is a good example: Amazon builds as much intelligence as it can into its sales and presentation software - Amazon is, unfortunately, contaminated by producing some of the products it sells, always a sure fire way of contaminating your search software, because its systems will, at some point, decide to try to sell one of its tablets to you, rather than whatever it is you're looking for. That aside, however, I purchased a couple of things, a while ago, that help me deal with my medical condition. One was a multi-vitamin with extra folic acid, something my doctor wants me to take, but labeled by its manufacturer as specially created for pregnant women. And then I tried several different kinds of vaseline based skin lotion. On the basis of these two bits of data Amazon has decided I have given birth, am a mother, and eligible to join its Mother's Club, whatever they call it. Their software should have long known I am male, and should also have long known I buy no children's things, at all, ever. Now I know Amazon doesn't purport its systems to use Artificial Intelligence, but it does state it has, uses, and sells the service of "machine learning", which is kind of the precursor to AI. From the above example you can easily discern that Amazon's intelligence does not work. If a system with predictive capabilities can't even figure out that a male customer cannot have children, and from there try to work out why this customer would buy those particular products, Amazon's voluminous and expensive efforts at injecting a form of AI into its sales platform are a sad failure. And the failure is at the back end, at the place in its software where verification of information is done. If there is such a place. Even if I look at Amazon today, logging into my account, the primary focus is on the Dash button (never bought toilet paper on Amazon) and "free movies with Amazon Prime" - I've not bought streaming movies on Amazon for years, ever since my Tivo packed up, and I've not bought Blu-Rays or HD-DVD disks for quite a while. Below the above, all Amazon tries to do is sell me things I bought before, which is a somewhat futile exercise. If you've got my screen real estate, and you don't put good stuff on it, your AI does not work for shit. On top of that, like with so many, Amazon's webserver formats its screens for tablets, even though it is easy to verify what type of device a login comes from - most of the time, I am on a laptop with a large 4K HD screen. I can do something with that, Amazon cannot.

All I am trying to say is that there is, as of yet, no such thing as Artificial Intelligence. Look at the recent fracas about Facebook's "News", and consider we now know a bunch of young non-journalists using an instruction book manage the feed. That means Facebook does not have functioning AI, because that would manage the News quite capably. Facebook is introverted to the point it hasn't hired any abundantly available well know journalists and editors, either. I've already mentioned the blithering nonsense we hear from Google's Diane Greene, who tells us that what AI does is "guessing". We know Microsoft can't keep a chatbot online or under control, and Amazon is not able to correlate the information it has available in abundance. Quite possibly Virtual Reality is getting the amount of press it does because the tech folks need to hide they have no functional AI yet, and the PR folks do an unfortunately terrific job calling everything AI that isn't, like self driving cars and speech recognition. Perhaps I should talk to the gummint and be given a team that can analyze all of those offerings, and provide a grading system to those projects that are legitimately on their way to AI, and figure out how far they've come, and what else they need to do. One thing is for sure: especially the commercial social networks do not have anything resembling AI, because intelligence caters for the needs of people, not for the sale of advertising - and that is what Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and most of the other want working AI for. They're not trying to predict your behaviour to improve you living environment, they want to know when you'll be ready for your next hamburger. In the long run, that is a recipe for disaster, as these folks are telling their advertisers they can tune into their users, when all they are really able to do is see their users go to Starbucks in the morning - which Starbucks already knows, and which Dunkin' Donuts knows it can't do anything about. And that's where it all ends.

May 13, 2016: Paying for results you can't measure is a business model

Keywords: social media, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, virtual, unreal

Funny, or perhaps just hard to understand, is that Facebook's fearless leader wants to consolidate control over what is now an empire. Being an innovator, I wonder if he should not be going on to invent other things and environments, as you can, for instance, see Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos do. Both are personally branching out into other enterprises, space, publishing, things that aren't related to, and run from, their primary enterprise. Zuckerberg, from what I can see and read, now just wants to be a mogul, it isn't that he hasn't earned the right to do that, but there must be so much more fun things he could be engaged with. Most importantly, I don't see him making much of an effort to fire up a new generation of entrepreneurs, and help them make their ideas and dreams come to fruition. The difference between a fruitcake and an entrepreneur, after all, is one person who believes in them. It would be a pity to see Zuck turn out to be a one trick pony. OTOH, maybe he is't really the inventor type, but an up-and-coming mogul. Looking at Facebook's performance, he is hard to fault.

It would seem both Microsoft and Facebook have set their sights on chatbots being the Next Best Thing. I've tried Cortana, but, at least on my Lumia, that gets things wrong much of the time - I suppose you can work with Cortana and Siri, which, after all, both say they learn from you - but the idea behind AI is that you should not have to train them (there are folks who think otherwise). Having said that, I am a database expert and so am much more at ease with Google Search and similar services - much of the time, I use Privatelee, which is the default engine for Seamonkey. That isn't necessarily the best, but I can always sidetrack to Google, it is just that I like Google not knowing everything about me. Having said that, Google is without a shadow of a doubt the best search engine around - both in terms of algorithm and database. And having said that, you have to ask yourself if, considering we're nowhere near perfect in resolving written queries, adding speech and voice recognition to that mix makes things better. Methinks not.

Well, no. The article in the Times didn't say people spend 50 minutes per day on Facebook. It said they spend 50 minutes per day on "Facebook, Instagram and Messenger". That's a diluted statement, and one that I have to wonder about. Facebook is a corporation, fine with me, but it "sells" multiple services, and those should be able to be analyzed separately. I am certain the numbers will be impressive even if split out, but Facebook has reached a size that it does not need to pad its numbers. So why does it? It this all in the clear quest of its CEO, seen in the recently announced new share class, to become a true mogul, the Donald Trump of the online universe, or is something else at play here? Regardless, when I look at Facebook, I note that traffic inside groups has become much less "intense", if that is the right word, although I must reasonably take into account that I and my existing "friends" all age, and that does change our focus. Having said that, this analysis seems to show Facebook can only grow now by getting members to spend more time online, so they can have more advertising put in front of them. I don't have a problem with that, but nobody has ever put a calculation in front of me that related advertising directly to products sold, as in "this particular ad went up on Tuesday, and we sold 24,000 more of these cars in the next couple of weeks". You could only do that if there were one particular model and brand car, for a specific price, that was advertised in one particular place, and things don't work that way in marketing. With cars especially it gets tough, because many "sold" cars go to buyers that have the car manufacturer finance their "purchase", and deals out of that obfuscate the financial picture. If you will, sales and marketing methodologies have made it impossible to analyze what exactly sells what (and if you think I'm off my head, I've seen plenty proof of this in the sales and leasing methodologies of telecommunications networks, but unfortunately am not at liberty to tell you about how that works, but it isn't essentially different, although with cars and shoes and ginger tea the picture gets even more "opaque".

I still don't get the virtual reality stuff. Look at 4K HDR, 3DTV, curved screens, and some other techological advances of the past decade, and it looks much like the consumer has little appetite for advanced technologies that do not provide major improvement beyond the HD everybody has, today.

Recording and transmission technology has not kept pace, is one restraint. You need programming for these formats, and few TV studios and TV cameras are equipped for them. You've maybe not thought about this, but a one hour Blu-Ray movie takes up some 25 gigabytes - compare that with the 5 or so gigabytes HD movies on DVD take, or the 5.5 gigabytes an HD broadcast (all of the above with full Dolby Digital audio) takes on disk. And I am not even talking about the file size of a 3D or 4K HD movie. The problem is that if you and your neighbours all take 3D and 4K cable subscriptions, the networks will simply grind to a complete halt. Yes, we have a fiber infrastructure that can support those kinds of data requirements, but the backbones (which are, to a large extent, shared between providers, offered to all by specialized folks like Level 3, who found out their fiber is deteriorating at a much fast rate than anyone had anticipated) do not. Because once high rate video is offered by one or two, the other 25 will start offering it too. We're behind Europe in delivery of data speeds, and if you think of multiple 25 GB/hour channels needing to be delivered to each individual household, you can easily discern that the 6GB/hour cable companies and other providers are delivering in the USA today does not come close.

So no, there is no programming to speak of, there is no way of delivering this stuff in volume (which is how money is made) and if Comcast tells you they can deliver 1GB/sec on their DOCSIS interface (which isn't as fast as it sounds), that isn't ctually the relevant bit of information. There are tools out there you can use to model the capacity of intercity fiber networks (MANs), and there are tools that you can use to see the delay introduced when you run a network test with a node in Vermont, or Virginia. Those are the relevant things to look at, as you have no control over where much of your data comes from, and there is a good chance your Netflix movie comes out of Northern Virginia, clogging up multiple networks while on its way to you, two or seven states away. That isn't an issue, that's what the networks and nodes and centers are built for, but taking anything more than 20% of their capacity, continuously, will kill them. Read about the new technologies, watch the news, by all means - and if you're a gamer, you'll be spending thousands of dollars on the new technologies, and an even faster network connection. For the rest of us, it will be a pipe dream for years to come.

Comcast, of course, is running ads on the local TV channels, here in Seattle, WA. The service person featured says she lives and works in "the greater Washington area". That's the other side of the country, Comcast, that's how they refer to D.C., over there, with the adjoining bits of Maryland and Virginia. We're in Washington State.

April 28, 2016: Facebook's security is so much hot air

Keywords: Facebook, ESET, Bratislava, malware, deception, Chetan Gowda

So, suddenly, Facebook tells me, as I log in, there is malware on my system and would I please click the link below and download their malware scanner, and run it. The scanning software is made by ESET, a company in Bratislava, Slovakia, and stands out by specifying in its Terms & Conditions it does not adhere to the international contract standards as agreed in the United Nations, and only goes by the rules of one district court in Bratislava. Facebook, of course, will not allow you to access your account unless you run this stuff.

I check on another browser. Same thing. I check on another computer, with a different flavour of Windows. Same thing. I check on two more browsers. Same thing (note that malware lives on a system, and it isn't likely to live on another system, especially if that other system has no mail handler). I check on a tablet, which doesn't run Windows. Same thing. I check on another browser on the tablet. Same thing. It is unlikely every device I have has malware. I scan all systems completely overnight. Next day, same thing.

Note that Facebook does not detect the malware until after I have completed logging in - this makes no sense, you detect malware on the browser, even before login. I move one system to another network, download the software and run it. It now begins scanning, and lets me access Facebook while it is doing that. This is even weirder - if you have a client with malware, you do not, and I really mean this, you do NOT give that client access to your server. Not. Never. You give them the software, tell them to take their computer off the internet, shut all browser windows, and then run the scan.

ESET now installs two processes - one is a Facebook Malware scanner, the other an ESET scanner, and the two go to work. After a while, the Facebook Malware Scanner terminates, does not tell you it has done so, does not tell you what it has found, nothing. In the interim you can now log into your Facebook account normally - including ON ALL OTHER SYSTEMS and devices that aren't being scanned and haven't been scanned. The ESET scanner never terminates, sits there and consumes some 50% of CPU cycles, and nobody ever say another word about the malware and what it was etc. The other systems and browsers and tablets that Facebook reported had malware and that have not been scanned now don't appear to have malware any more - magically, running the ESET scanner on just one computer has cleaned every single computer and device I own.

According to Chetan Gowda, a software engineer with Facebook’s Site Integrity Team: “You can run the scan, see the scan results, and disable the software all without logging out of Facebook—making it seamless and easy to clean up an infected device.” Not. I vacillate between calling this bullshit or nonsense - while I understand it is hard to police billions of users, many simultaneously, detecting non-existent malware, forcing people to use software without any kind of legal protection, then running spurious processes that don't do anything - really, Facebook, this has nothing to do with keeping your users safe, or even policing your "partners". I'd like to get Facebook to tell me, as well, what ESET does with the data they get off my system. According to their Terms, they can use this any way they see fit, again, only under the supervision of the Bratislava District Court.

April 17, 2016: Our brains do not work well enough to be digitized

Keywords: Google, artificial intelligence, misconception, medical, pill hill, chatbots, cancer

Medstar D.C. A recent article in the New York Times discusses Artificial Intelligence, but not, I fear, in a particularly meaningful way. Read this quote: "The A.I. resources Ms. Greene is opening up at Google are remarkable. Google’s autocomplete feature that most of us use when doing a search can instantaneously touch 500 computers in several locations as it guesses what we are looking for.". Diane B. Greene is the head of Google Compute Engine, who seems to believe that what I just quoted describes AI. Sorry, Ms. Greene, that has nothing to do with intelligence, artificial or otherwise. Building the systems, and making them work, certainly does, but what a very large computer system connected to lots of places collecting data does is not intelligence. Intelligence does not have data as a prerequisite. What you describe is advanced computing. The way Google and Microsoft and others try to tell us "intelligence" works is that you log into their system, where they have gathered as much data on and from you as they can, they now try and get more data, from your location and your network to your computing device and those around you, with all that data they now read what you're asking, and then they try and come up with an response based on all of the information they have. The clue is in Ms. Greene's use of the word "guessing". Intelligence is nothing to do with guessing. Guessing is what you do when you do not have enough information. Intelligence is what you use when you try to understand something. There is a chasm, a vast difference, between the two. Perhaps we need to start talking to the folks at Google and Microsoft and re-teach them what exactly intelligence is, and what it does. The recent Microsoft debacle, presenting the Tay bot, is probably the best example of how we neither understand nor are able to create AI. There is, with the resources and manpower this company has, absolutely no excuse to activate a malfunctioning bot, but then making things worse by not having a live team of troubleshooters online, and taking down a system just when you can be learning how it really works is unforgivable. The Head of Research should have been instantly taken out back and shot. There admittedly isn't a real "out back" on the Microsoft campus here, but I am sure they could have dealt with the failing executive in some other clever manner. Then again, that might have required intelligence...

Intelligence is when a brain, real or silicon based, conjectures, based on available knowledge, observation, as well as unavailable knowledge, and "fuzzy logic", and arrives at workable conclusions or solutions. What Google says, above, is that intelligence is when you have the ability to gather all the information you need. Sheesh - that means the First Boston Corporation brokerage workstation I was on the development team of, back in the 1980s, which collected information from four stock exchanges worldwide, simultaneously, was an Artificial Intelligence! Not, kids, not. You may have to ask yourself whether anything created with commerce in mind can have anything to do with intelligence. In the olden days, intelligence was related more to schooling, education, academia, and thought. It is conjecture, philosophy, religion, psychology, astronomy. It is not the development of new batteries, faster computers, or self driving cars. It is the explanation why we do not have intelligence, today, that can match our understanding, why there is no robot capable of understanding and transliterating languages. Even Google, as a search engine, is losing its way - "secure" (https) websites will receive a higher ranking than "non-secure" (http) websites. The simple purpose of a search engine is to find the information you are looking for, with the most relevant result position shown first. For years, and especially with this example, Google has found many reasons to give certain entities, technologies, and content preference over other results, even though those may be more relevant to your search. This is not intelligence, it is market driven deception, with Google pretending to "keep you safe". Did you ask them to do that, instead of finding an answer to your question? Google no longer finds information, it interprets information, with quite a few restrictive factors built into its algorithms, which is then presented to you based on what Google thinks is best for you. You are no longer in charge of your search, and will never be again. Google, in this respect, is not different from Microsoft, Facebook, and the Yellow Pages - rather than help you find the information you need, they all utilize commercial arguments to present you with the data that's "best for you" - advertisers pay for getting information in front of you, and they really do not care whether or not that information is relevant to you. This even though they all know little if anything about you, and the information they do have is never checked with you, and therefore prone to misinterpretation. On Facebook, you may encounter recommendations from your friends - even though they have never selected the products and services, and have no idea you're presented with them with their name(s) attached. If that is a form of intelligence, the definition of intelligence has just changed drastically. I recall very well when I joined NYNEX' research lab, back in the 1990s - we had an AI Lab, staffed with knowledgeable, brilliant people - but the entire thing eventually went away, because we determined AI would require computing resources and scientific and programming resources way beyond anything we'd every be able to get out of it in benefits. In many ways, the project I joined had an AI element - speech recognition of random callers into Operator Services, to determine what type of information they wanted. That, too, ended up being limited in scope - we could figure out what town they wanted informtion on, but nothing beynd that, simply because that would have required resources whose scope would have been so large we could not even calculate it.

To return, briefly, to my earlier narrative about cancer, illness, in short, about being human.... One thing I've discovered, over time, is that doctors, like most scientists, have hobby horses. With doctors, the problem is that they use them on patients, and that may send them down the garden path. My primary care provider in Virginia had a thing about diabetes, so he sent me on a wild goose chase - until my endocrinologist (that's the type of specialist who, amongst others, treats diabetes, and who I had been seeing about my thyroid cancer) ran all the tests in the universe, and couldn't come up with pre-pre-pre-pre-diabetes, let alone pre-diabetes. Here in Seattle, my endocrinologist opined that I didn't really have a lot of thyroid cancer - this after a team of doctors back East biopsied me positive, removed my thyroid, tested it, and after the surgery said I had actually been at stage 4, and gave me the test results in writing. Clearly, they can't both be right.

Here in the Seattle area, I originally went to see an endocrinologist at Virginia Mason, only to discover their endocrinology department was in such a mess I had to change doctors five times in two years. With some other mishaps there, in other disciplines, and an accounts person accusing me of fraud, I ended up leaving Virginia Mason's medical care, and have not looked back.

So, in many ways, perhaps we do not need Microsoft's chatbot, or Facebook's chatbot, but we do need a doctor bot. Bots are best when they can provide solutions to complex problems, and a chatbot in Facebook is not specialized enough to be useful, or even successful. If you were to confine a bot to dealing with known sick people, you vastly narrow the amount of expertise needed to make the bot work. And you can reduce that even further - we have ENT doctors who do just ears, noses and throats, and that has a reason - medicine is a very large area of knowledge for a single brain to comprehend, and if that goes for humans, it goes for bots. Having said that, if you had an intelligent agent, that agent would be able to determinewhether someone is sick in the first place...

In science, diverging opinions are the norm, no issue with that, but then again, this does not help a medical patient. Much. As a patient, you get to figure out what's "real", if you like, and what's the thing this doctor will talk to you about, but the next one won't. Having moved around a fair amount, I've had to change doctors on a number of occasions, and one thing I can tell you is that that isn't good for your health. For one thing, most independent doctors don't really have a boss who supervises them, and who you can complain to, and who decides their raise every year, depending on performance. By this I do not mean there are huge numbers of bad doctors out there, but at the same time, for instance when I look in the Seattle area, I see a lot more doctors than I think the local economy warrants. I am not quite sure why that is, and I haven't even properly done the research to prove it, but I am under the impression this region has more doctors and medical establishments per capita than anywhere else I have ever lived - and that includes New York City and the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area. There is a piece of downtown that is referred to as "pill hill" by the locals - that ought to tell you something...

March 28, 2016: It all reminds me too much of 9/11

Keywords: Zaventem, Brussels, terrorism, Jihad, French colonies, French, Obama, Havana, Cuba, Windows 10, Lenovo B570, Windows 8.1

carcinogens galore Startling, to see a woman police officer, in Belgium, telling people in the international departure area at Brussels Zaventem Airport, with gun drawn, to leave the terminal. She did not just walk over, she was there for the whole thing, and if this and other images broadcast live fom Brussels in recent days are anything to go by, Belgium is no longer the pleasant, quiet backwater it has always been for me. Some of the best restaurants on the planet are in Brussels. And I would always delight in taking extra time to return my rental car to Zaventem, because there are some really nice cafés serving wonderful Belgian draft beer in the villages that surround the airport. "Nog een pintje, menier?"

When I started writing this blog post, a few days ago, it began with a piece about Salah Abdeslam, after his capture in Brussels. We all know what happened next, and so much has been written about these attacks I am sure you don't need my comments added. But there is something I have, as a former resident of the European Union, always wondered about - how did these vast rivers of Middle Easterners and North Africans get permission to live in the EU in the first place? I know how the Turks got to Germamy and the Netherlands - they were invited to come as menial workers, following Italian, Spanish and Yugoslav "guest workers", and after a number of years were offered permanent residence, and later citizenship. But for the North Africans, who mostly came to France and Belgium, the road was more obscure, and I think it is largely because they came from former French colonies, and spoke French, that they were allowed in, again, to do the stuff the French and Belgians didn't have manpower for. But now we see they did not exactly integrate - the bombers and attackers in Paris and Brussels were, for the most part, born in Europe, of North African descent. They must have been pretty disenfranchised, to turn to a form of genocide to air their grievances, but I have to wonder how much their parents and extended families are culpable for how they turned out. I recall my former brother in law, born and bred French, falling in love with a Moroccan woman, in Paris, and being told in no uncertain terms by her family in Morocco he could either marry her, and convert(!), or he would have his throat cut. Admittedly, Christians too have done some weird stuff, I can tell you stories, and look at how Irish Catholics and Protestants do things to each other that are close to what the North Africans do, but to see this go on on such a large scale, while some Muslims in the Middle East are trying to start their very own country with medieval law, truly boggles the mind.

I do not envy my Belgian friends having to clean up Brussels, where the North Africans and their locally born offspring have had decades to build an infrastructure, local integration and hiding places, an infrastructure now being used as the explosive center of a murderous intolerance I have difficulty to understand. I was there on 9/11, worked on recovery, lost colleagues - and I am sorry to say it does not appear to have gotten any better, the murderers now coming not from Germany, but from Belgium. Perhaps it is time the Euopean Union made better headway with the integration of law enforcement - you still do not have to be bilingual, let alone trilingual, to become a cop in Belgium, and the French officers coming to Brussels to assist Belgian police do not speak Flemish. Belgian security services may have to comb through all of French speaking Belgium to root out the rest of the terrorists.

Obama's visit to Havana, violently eclipsed by the Brussels disaster, sounds a much brighter note - it is hard to imagine we've had this embargo going on since 1960, and I don't know that it had any use, other than impoverishing Cuba and its population. While clearly ideological differences remain, we should be able to open up a profitable trade relationship, once the Cubans have been able to save up some of the dollars American tourists will bring by the boatload. It was interesting to see the Prez brought his entire family, and his mother-in-law, but then she does live with the family. Clearly not so much a State visit, but an Official visit. I'll leave it to you to figure out what the difference is, but a good move it is. It was so much "under wraps" I had to follow the almost-real-time TV feed on BBC, as no broadcast channels here in the Puget sound were carrying it live, which was a bit strange. That and the rain....

I've had this excellent Lenovo laptop since 2012, and it's been better than good. I managed to upgrade it to Windows 8.1, for which it was not designed, but it is now working flawlessly (for most of that time it ran Windows 8), with its upgrade to 8GB of RAM and the 1 terabyte disk I put in it. Going through all of its settings after the recent upgrade from Windows 8 to 8.1, I realized that it was not talking to its WiFi interface - not in itself a disaster, as I am using it with wired Ethernet. But then I noticed its setting, during the upgrade, had defaulted to something marginal, and I was frequently losing networking, and having to do a reset on the interface. After some futzing, I noticed to my amazement it suddenly reported running at a gigabit/second, something it had never done before, but then after getting the WiFi to work it defaulted back to 100 MB/s on the wired interface. Then, I lost WiFi again, and only after reinstalling the drivers twice did I get that to work again. Then I redid (for safety's sake) the wired Ethernet drivers, and decided that for as long as I could get it all to work again I'd forgo the gigabit Ethernet, no point in breaking things again. Then, of course, it suddenly decided to work properly (I didn't know it had a Gigabit interface to begin with, but I know my new router does) and now I have good WiFi (which was never brilliant) and the Ethernet runs at a gigabit. Teehee. There is a true difference in the two settings - large multi-gigabyte files were transferring at around 11 MB/second, and now transfer at 44 MB/second (transfer rate rarely is multiplied proportionally when line speeds go up, this due to traffic information going back and forth on full duplex connections, especially when you use long Ethernet cables). It does show how inefficient our networks are - 1 gigabit should be 10 tmes as fast as 100 megabits, but transfers files only 4 times faster, and that is pretty much "as expected".

I do not normally recommend manual installs of drivers, in Windows, unless you are very good at keeping notes of what you did, to what, why and when, but this will be the exception, I had not ever seen this interface run at gigabit speed, and I know I tried before. It makes little difference to your average internet experience - few homes have an internet pipe that runs at speeds of 100 megabits or above, and even if they do, the backbone won't run that fast - but in my case, what with my new Cloud drive in the network, I may gain some speed internally. Now I am stuck with this driver, because if I let Windows Update install its "update", it'll go right back to 100 mbit/sec. It is the risk you take when you port an operating system to a PC that wasn't designed for it - you may have to figure out what drivers to use, for some devices, as Windows information (.inf) files may not know about the particular devices in the system. That's fun on the one hand, but can get messy on the other - wouldn't be the first time I've had to do a full reinstall of an operating system.

I may have been worried this laptop might be slowly dying, but it now runs at a gigabit, at 1920x1200x60 (rather than 1920x1080x75, which would be standard HD at a higher refresh rate) using the VGA port on a 4K UHD display, with TV recording and a Bluetooth dongle talking to both a keyboard and an audio device, on a fully compliant UEFI BIOS. I can't turn that off, it was an early design, but then there isn't a need to, and the shutdown run from a command window lets me restart into the BIOS, and I can run some stuff and turn off other stuff that Windows 10 won't allow. Can't complain.

March 17, 2016: Cancer, take 10, or why we need Universal Healthcare

Keywords: cancer, heart health, medical statistics, carcinogens, arrhytmia, Rome, vinegar, smallpox, hormones, regeneration, cures

carcinogens galoreSo no, if you think I led you down the garden path, last blog, if you smoke you have a statistically increased risk of getting cancer, this is without doubt. But you can get exactly the same cancer if you do not smoke, which scientifically means the cancer is not caused by the smoke, or the smoking. It is, at best, aggravated. Then again, former colleague science journalist Jan van Erp used to say "life causes cancer". On the one hand, scorched hamburgers contain more carcinogen than do non-scorched hamburgers, on the other hand, the human organism has a plethora of defenses against carcinogens. Possibly fewer where the carcinogens are relatively new - we've only been barbequeuing since 1768 or so, before that preparing meat over hot coals was more akin to slow cooking, at some point someone noticed that heated food spoiled more slowly, and HP sauce was invented to mask the taste of decay. We seem to forget perfume was invented because people thought washing with water caused disease (depending on where the water came from, back then, that's not at all impossible), so they stunk, and foods were served with onions or vinegar or pepper because that masked the smell and taste of decay in a day and age when refrigeration had been forgotten, previously only used by Romans, when they lived close enough to mountain ranges that they could use slaves to bring down large amounts of ice and snow to fill large concrete cisterns with (the Romans conveniently invented concrete, which is why we can still visit humongous Roman aqueducts in Southern France). At the same time as running clean water and closed sewers, cleanliness and hygiene became a lost art right through the middle ages. Fermented beverages containing alcohol, beer, used to be a safer alternative to natural drinking water from streams people used to wash their bottoms in. None of this is in the remote past. It is the human paradox - some people reuse paper towels, blissfully unaware that improvements in health are partly due to our ability to use disposable cleaning materials and strong chemicals - the strongest acid the Romans had was vinegar, the product of the fermentation of wine.

We're developing our world and ourselves at such breakneck speed that we forget our life expectancy has only recently increased to where humans now routinely last into their 8th and 9th decade. With that, and with our ability to cure illnesses and injuries that less than 100 years ago would have killed the patient or the victim. We recover from heart attacks, from strokes, from broken bones, and from infections. Aspirin didn't become a worldwide analgesic and anti-inflammatory until 1899. The first recorded cure using the new antibiotic penicillin dates back only to 1930. Before 1930, infections would often kill you. Before 1899, so would inflammations. All I am saying is that, for most of human history, we did not have any of the miracle cures that we have today, and so our evolution and our organism have not in any meaningful way adapted - yet. We have medication - but relatively few ways to change the cause of our multitude of illnesses. We're able to spend billions of dollars to blow ISIS "heads" away, using weapons that cost $10 million apiece, but we have no way of reaching and teaching ISIS' children human values and the folly of their elders' ways.

It has only recently become clear the Inca empire, long thought to have been destroyed by smallpox brought in by Spanish invaders, was in fact long in decline by the time the Spaniards came to look for gold. It has been suggested - but this may not be the ultimate answer - that the Spaniards might not have been able to overcome an Inca empire had it not been weakened by illnesses the Inca themselves had "imported" from Northern America. I am not suggesting this is "the answer", but it makes a lot more sense than assuming one slave with smallpox killed many millions of South Americans - who, by virtue of their origins in Eastern Asia, should have had some genetic exposure to illnesses from that part of the world - smallpox is, by some, supposed to have originated in tropical Central Asia.

So it probably is reasonable to assume that some of those children being cured of cancer in our hospitals would have, only recently, never even have made it to their first birthday. Which makes the calculation of meaningful health statistics a bit of a joke. If you like, the more children with devastating diseases like cancer are admitted into hospitals, the better that means our health has become. The human organism is a very complex system, and as it grows and regenerates continuously for some 80 to 90 years, some of those processes misfiring is very much to be expected. For example, ever since they took out my thyroid I have been taking an artificial hormone to replace the thyroid's output, and as it happens this product, levothyroxine sodium, is given in a constant dosage, where the thyroid would adjust thyroxine depending on the body's needs. So levothyroxine sodium can have side effects - if you're over-dosing, something you have no way of testing yourself, you could have a racing heart, or heart palpitations. The problem here is that the average patient would have no idea what is causing the heart symptoms, and until you have a full blood workup ordered by an endocrinolgist, you wouldn't know you're taking 74 micrograms per week (a microgram is one millionth of a gram, and there are a bit over 28 grams to an ounce) too much - doesn't seem like a lot, does it? I read the other day that in the Dutch health insurance system, patients on levothyroxine sodium are never checked for TSH and T4 levels, after their "ideal" dose is established. Here in the USA, I was checked every three months after my original surgery, for five years, then went to an annual regime - at which point it became clear that what was fine a year ago, is not now.

What I am saying is that medicine is not an exact science, and there is significantly more that we do not know about our organism, than there is that we do. In my case, if we assume my resting heart rate should be around 70, when it is in fact closer to 90, my heart is doing an extra 28,800 strokes of the pump per day, which is a staggering 10,512,000 extra beats per year. So does this mean it'll wear out faster? Maybe not - the heart self-regenerates and adapts, given time (another bit of information we've only known about for a short period of time), but what does that take? What are the possible consequences of the overuse this biological mechanism? Levothyroxine sodium has only been around for 50 years, so its effects, other than its beneficial effects, may not have been studied in depth. As I am writing this, the BBC's countryside emergency program(me) is featuring a young woman in the Isle of Man, who has been to see her doctor because of gastric discomfort, had a battery of tests, was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and was put on a gluten free diet. She must have gotten a bit fat, because the program has the Isle of Man ambulance racing to come to her aid, after she unexpectedly gave birth - she didn't know she was pregnant, went to the bathroom, and what came out was not what she expected. As I said - medicine is not an exact science, and why the doctor involved didn't run all the tests they should have, on a young woman, is very much an open question. The baby did not fall into the toilet, I gather, and all is well, even with the father, who went a bit pale on camera. I hope Dr. Ellingham did remember to change the diagnosis on the new mother's surgery record....

March 12, 2016: Data security, and medical misnomers

Keywords: Quicken, Cloud, Broken Windows, data security, cancer cells, miracle cures, heart health, diesel particulate, medical statistics

If you'd like to get to my next cancer installment, scroll down a bit, past the Cloud security.

Whether it is related to my recent Windows update or not, within days Quicken sprung a leak when attempting to install an online update - I am assuming the Windows update did it, I had not seen Quicken updates (I am using an older version) for a while. I backed up the data file (thank heavens that did not get corrupted), removed and re-installed Quicken (I always buy the disk version precisely to make sure I can do that without a hassle), and that cured the issue, thank heavens, the one thing I can't be without is my financial software. Just to make sure I am on the safe side, I ordered the latest Quicken version, again on disk, I don't like it when things start breaking. Better safe than sorry.... Thankfully, Amazon had a good discount on the current version of Quicken, and got it to me within two days, love those guys (I am not a Prime member!). That, of course, led to my having to run yet another full backup, and yet another Quicken install. After getting Quicken to understand I do not want their mobile version - I think many companies now "routinely" supply a mobile version of their software so they can mine your smartphone data - the installation was uneventful, apart from the curious email from Quicken thanking me for activating their mobile software - which I hadn't. Only their "Free Credit Score Report" so far does not work "server error" (as of 3/10, it magically began working). But the rest is fine, though the data sharing that is now automatic between Quicken and Turbotax makes me hope their security is better than best, because I am not seeing huge new security efforts on their part. Even their two stage Turbotax security seems to only be a ruse to get your mobile number, because it does not extend to Quicken, which you would expect if your security is their primary concern, right? Just to be on the safe side, I am not having Quicken export my data to, which it never ceases to offer, and I am not backing Quicken data up to their Cloud, either. Intuit already have more data on you, if you use Turbotax as well, than your bank does.

My recent installation of the Seagate Cloud drive had an unexpected boon to it - because I no longer need to back up to the 2TB drive I was using both as a file archive and a backup drive (the combined purpose overfilled it), I thought I'd take a look at changing that over to Bitlocker encryption. I had experimented with Bitlocker earlier, but as one of my systems was running Windows 7, I couldn't encrypt on that, although Windows 7 Professional, paradoxically, will read encrypted drives. And Bitlocker encryption and Windows Backup don't like each other either, so it was only now that I could see if I can use an encrypted disk both on a Windows 8.1 and a Windows 10 system. It took almost a day to encrypt the entire disk, but it works fine, on both systems, including when using the eSATA-to-USB3 conversion cable. I was never comfortable having a disk with a plain readable file archive - I can understand you may think I am a bit security anal, but I do have some archives that contain national security information, and it is a lot easier to encrypt your backups than to try and weed out what is and isn't "sensitive". I recall well the first time I had to go to China, and realized there were, by virtue of my being in charge of a significant number of Federal Government data circuits, quite a few workfiles that I carry with me 24/7/365, but now could not. This is more of an issue than you may think - I and some of my colleagues weren't allowed back into Manhattan for a week or so, after 9/11, due to the risk of another attack, and if I had not, at that time, had my network maps on my laptop with me, recovery work, especially on Wall Street, would have been severely impaired - had I not carried my databases, the NYSE would not have been back online on September 17, 6 days after the attacks. We all carried, by that time, all of our vital information on laptops in Lotus Notes databases, properly secured and passworded, of course, which is how the phone company was able to have senior managers manage multiple locales - laptops, airplanes and late nights. All I am saying is that it has become second nature for me to secure my data, and that is in the day and age of exploding cybercrime a good skill to have, and a good thing to do.

I now never carry information that is sensitive, or, in some countries, illegal. If I have to carry it with me it is on a separate, secured, encrypted drive, but most of the time, if I need access to it when I am traveling, it "hides out" on an internet facing secure server that only I have access to. And no, it is not "the Cloud". The Cloud is probably the most insecure space there is, to store things, Cloud providers parse your data for marketing purposes, just read the terms & conditions of the providers, and any hacker worth his salt can figure out in fifteen minutes what Cloud you use, and take it from there. And can I please re-emphasize that, although I use a Cloud device, I have disabled its internet facing feature - it is not accessible from the outside world. There are two issues with the technology.. For one, if you can log into Seagate or Western Digital and access your home Cloud, so can a hacker. And secondly, once your Cloud device talks to your Cloud device provider, your entire home network is open to the outside world, and to hackers. You recall all this noise about webcams being open to the world, and folks putting up websites where you could watch other people's home cams - it is the same with these Clouds. Seagate, Western Digital, and all these other manufacturers are in the business of selling products, their primary aim is not keeping your network safe. If it were, their device would set up beginning with security, and from the two I have, I can tell you they don't, their first interaction with you is with all doors wide open. They begin with you setting up your access account with their outside provider, using your email address, which then gives access to your device from the world. Especially if you've never dealth with this technology before, you're going to use your standard email, which is how you're known on Facebook and Amazon and Instagram and what have you, effectively advertising access to your network in the World Wide Phonebook.

But, back to cancer, as I promised. One of the pieces of persistent misinformation you get fed, as in the Independent article I just posted a link to, is that "Cancer tends to be a disease of older people". We need to take a look at what differentiates cancer from, say, a cold, or lung disease.

Cancer, unlike many other illnesses, grows. It takes hold in one of your cells, then spreads to another cell, then another, and it goes from there, if it does not get discovered. So if you were to look at it statistically, never a good idea in health, cancer obviously is in some way related to ageing, because cells grow, multiply, die, regenerate, and as that process sometimes goes wrong, you'll get cancer as you grow older. That does not mean you can't get cancer when you're young, there are specialist hospitals full of kids with cancer, and when I was at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Hospital, the other day, to get a (routine) chest scan, a lot of the patients there were young and middle aged. It was a bit scary, I'd never seen that many cancer patients in one place in one morning, ranging from kids to an Army officer in camo in her twenties all the way to older folk in wheelchairs. And me. So yes, the older people get, the more they'll get cancer, and that means exactly nothing, you get cancer when you get cancer.

So, while I am not an expert, nor a medical doctor, those articles you read about wonderful miracle cancer cures? Does not exist - there is no one single condition called "cancer". Prevention of cancer by eating meatballs, or stewed crabgrass, or blueberries with "free radicals"? Doesn't work - in few if any cases is there a side by side comparison of identical twins leading identical lives in identical towns living in identical houses doing identical work married to other identical twins living in... but you get the picture. With careful research, the medical profession can certainly indicate the likelihood of certain treatments having certain effects - the famous "heart health" 81 mg (or 75, or 80) Aspirin is a good example. But even there - it is now known that taking one of those every single day involves some risks - my rheumatologist (it gets confusing when you have many doctors looking after your one health) now thinks three a week is more than enough for heart health. Here is what my favourite illness information database, the Mayo Clinic, thinks.

My emphasis, here, is that wherever you see statistics used to recommend something to you, you need to take that with a bag of salt, and preferably talk to an expert to see what the statistic means - or if it even means anything at all. "an increased risk of heart attack or stroke of 10 percent or greater over the next 10 years", which the United States thinks is an indicator for aspirin therapy, means nothing to me. If you live and work in New York City you breathe in so much crap, 24/7, that I am sure you are at higher risk of cardiac problems than if you live and work in rural Minnesota, but then again the BBC has recently published statistics of the amount of diesel particulate bus drivers inhale, so what if you live in rural Minnesota and drive a bus? See what I mean? Those statistics may have meaning to scientists and doctors, but for us to manage our health and work on illness prevention we have to work much closer to home than spreadsheets.

The BBC article I just mentioned had a researcher measure his diesel particulate intake when commuting to work, partially on a bicycle, partially by public transport, in and around London, one of those horribly polluted plases with lots and lots of diesel funes, from when the government subidized diesel because it was so much better for the environment - half of everybody in Europe bought a small diesel car. But just to give you an idea of how these statistics do not work, the BBC article I just mentioned has some significant numbers for pollution measurement, but then goes on to give an impossibly high reading when the researcher is in the London Underground. That's where the is no diesel pollution, there are no diesel engines. Says an air quality lecturer that that is caused by oxidised iron particles from the train tracks. Really? If a device that is intended to measure diesel particulate measures oxidised iron, as well, what else does it measure? How could we possibly rely on data that clearly can be this skewed? All I am saying is that it is completely nonsensical to put this type of clearly incorrect information in front of the public to make a point. Bad science, bad journalism, bad medicine. And I see this a lot, so my recommendation to you is that if you read or view anything that makes recommendations by using numbers or statistics, talk to a doctor, a scientist, someone who can help make sense of the numbers, which, in many cases, like in this example, are completely meaningless. I mean, if there is such a high particulate rate in the London Underground (and likely other underground systems) we should follow the statistic logic and shut it down as a health hazard. Just the London underground carries 3.5 million people per day, and all you need to do when you've taken a single trip is stick a Q-tip up your nose and look at what comes out. Don't push it up to where it comes out red....

March 4, 2016: Cancer: cures aren't miracles

Keywords: cancer, surgery, radiation, cancer treatment, immune system, Windows 8.1, Lenovo, endocrinology

thyroid surgeryReading a recent Telegraph article about BBC news anchor George Alagiah and his battle with cancer reminded me of my own, although I tend to not refer to being ill as a "battle" - battles you can win, illness is something you, with your doctors, try to manage. Cancer, in particular, doesn't "go away", you don't really get "cured", once you've had it it stays, if all is well, always there, in the back of your mind.

I suppose I have, by now, gathered enough data about some illnesses I have been exposed to to publish my own "research" - one's personal involvement may skew one's view of things, that is true, but at the same time, as a former journalist and research scientist I should be able to not fall prey to the bias one may experience as a patient.

So here goes.

You are not, after cancer treatment and / or surgery, miraculously cured three weeks later. It isn't how cancer works. If we utilize the common scientific view that cancer is caused by out of control growth of malicious cells in the body, if you have been formally diagnosed with cancer, you're not out of the woods until the medical profession determines, statistically, that the chance of recurrence is so low as to be negligible. That still does not mean your cancer can't come back, all it takes is one cell, and no, that does not mean your doctors and analysts missed something, cancer cells can hide in places nobody looks - often, doctors haven't a clue where that one cell was, you just suddenly "get your cancer back". Apart from anything else, the vast majority of cancer treatments, including invasive surgery, affect your immune system, and that makes you more susceptible to a cancer recurrence, not less. For example, you know that fish oil is full of natural goodness, like Omega-3. But did you know that fish oil depresses the immune system? Wantonly imbibing fish oil can depress an already compromised immune system - and if you have, or had, cancer, and were treated for it, perhaps even take medication on a permanent basis, fish oil can actually mess with your immune system. Not for nothing some clinics, before invasive tests, and some hospitals, before surgery, require you to lay off the fish oil for several weeks, to give your immune system a chance to get back to full strength. The issue here is that we often aren't aware of these things, in this day and age of the internet kitchen cabinet solution. So the standard things one does, like a low dose heart health aspirin per day, and a fish oil capsule per day, should be moderated. Talk to your doctor, do your research, and hit the Mayo Clinic before hitting websites you had never heard of. The Mayo Clinic, itself a renowned medical institution, has some of the best online medical support websites in the English speaking world.

But back to cancer and cancer treatment, I digress.

What I thought I'd do is give you (assuming you're new to cancer, or just curious) an idea of what to look for, and an idea of how to "deal with it", mentally. For the entire five years after my surgery and radiation treatment, and the subsequent scan to determine if there were any detectable cancer cells left in my body, I had a quarterly ultrasound and blood tests. Although my doctors (I had several, due to moving from one side of the country to the other, then due to the absolutely horrendous turnover of endocrinologists at Virginia Mason in the Seattle area) had told me I was "clean", they never declared me "cured", or in remission - even now, after lowering the frequency of my checkups from quarterly to annually, no doctor will go beyond "looking good". Allegaya says pretty much the same thing in the Telegraph article - and of course, a good physician cannot guarantee you you are "cured", but, in my case, the endocrinologist wanting to only see me once a year is a good indication my risk of recurrence is very low. I said "low", not "non-existent". There is no such thing, and I still have the note from my original endocrinologist in Arlington, VA, who wrote, after my initial biopsy and the examination of the surgicaly removed tissue "Stage 4". For the patient, actually, the stage is pretty much meaningless, it indicates a statistical severity, but any "Stage" will happily kill you. Stage 1, 2, 3, or 4, in all cases it is a good idea to make your will, and listen to what your doctors want you to do - if necessary, you could get a second opinion, which I was lucky enough to be able to do in Beijing, on my way to visit a cousin in Jakarta who'd had a stroke, this after my surgeon cleared me to postpone my surgery by a few weeks to make the trip - the picture above right shows me after returning from Jakarta, having my surgery in Arlington, VA, back in 2010. As it turned out, I would not have seen Ted in Indonesia had I not made that trip - he passed away a few months later, while I was having post-surgery radiation treatment in Washington, D.C.

One thing I personally believe you should never do is go for the "alternative" stuff, read up on how Steve Jobs disregarded the medical advice he was given - here is an insighful New York Times article on Jobs' condition and treatment. There is no way of proving he'd have survived, of course, and that always makes it hard to have these conversations, but my father did the same thing, and he, too, died. All I can tell you is that I followed doctor's orders, and I am still alive, and disgustingly healthy, now a little over six years after my initial diagnosis. In fact, partly due to the Silver Sneakers program Verizon's health care program pays for, I am today on less medication and in better health than I have been in years.

I'll continue this treatise in my next blog installment - need to think about how to put what, that sort of thing. I suppose I've never written much of this down as I don't like talking about myself. But as I deal with some of this stuff it is increasingly clear that blogging is a good way of sharing your knowledge, perhaps my experience and observations can help others in similar "predicaments".

Back, for a moment, to Windows 8.1, as I recently reported re-installed, or re-upgraded, on my Lenovo laptop, I've been surprised by its smooth performance (by comparison with my previous upgrade attempt, by now almost two years ago). I've even hooked it back up to an external monitor, and, with some difficulties, managed to get it running at HD resolution - that, by itself, isn't that special, but it comes up with large characters and large icons, and it took me quite a while to figure out how to get the Intel display driver to reduce the character sets and graphics. On my other laptop, I had to resort to an S-VGA driver and VGA cable running at 70 cycles to get there - here, I am relegated to an HDMI cable, but the 4K Seiki cable I had in my collection did the trick - I know I tried this before, but with a "regular" HDMI cable, there is a difference between them, as it turns out. Not only that, auto-turnoff of the display works too, which I recall was not functioning before - it turned off, but then would not reboot when the mouse was moved. Now, that works. Can't complain - I think everything that wouldn't work before now does. The only problem is that one of my Bluetooth keyboards malfunctioned, but the vendor on Amazon tells me they'll have a replacement out to me by the weekend. Fingers crossed..

February 29, 2016: Cook is no Jobs

Keywords: Windows 8.1, Cloud, Windows troubleshooting, UEFI, BIOS, boot settings, Apple, DoJ, Telecommunications Act

I rarely blog politics, but Apple's antics are a bit beyond what I think is acceptable. Part of the reason I have a strong opinion on this is that I've been exposed to my fair share of telecommunications law, by virtue of my Verizon career and my status there as a compliance officer. By law, telecommunications must be "open" to the authorities, provided the requests are duly supported by suitable court orders, and I do not see how a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment can declare themselves above those laws and regulations. There is an especially strong "wrong" smell when I see Apple only wants to protect privacy and civil rights of their paying customers, and not those who use Samsung or Microsoft phones. Apple has the funds and the experts and the expertise, this is not about "creating back doors", but about an American company assisting the authorities in gathering intelligence about possible terrorist activities, under a Federal court order. The slippery slope is when an American CEO decides there are reasons not to assist government. Government isn't always nice, and its methodologies aren't even always legitimate. But refusing a court order by using vapid semantics that have little or nothing to do with the matter in hand.. no, civil rights aren't involved here, the original owner of the phone is dead, killed legitimately by the government in the process of committing a felony, a form of "governmental self defence". The government has a "compelling interest", and Mr. Cook must discontinue his grandstanding. Apple, Google and Facebook are in the technology sector, and as such have a similar status to manufacturers and service companies, except they provide services and products in the telecommunications industry, and as such, have less protection than McDonalds and Caterpillar.

So there.

Back to the computer front for a moment - the Seagate Cloud device is running smoothly, barely audible, except when it "wakes up" and spins up, but never annoyingly loud. It's been absolutely glitchless, not a single error message or anything else, I am backing up to it on a daily basis, and streaming recorded TV, flawlessly, although that is partly due to the router I use. I can't say often enough, if you are planning to use a network drive or a Cloud drive, you may want to upgrade your router first, if it is an older model. Make sure you have Gigabit Ethernet ports. I got lucky in that I got my hands on a Verizon FIOS router, which, because it is designed to handle both Ethernet and TV, has a very high internal bandwidth. I don't know that you can buy those in the stores, though.

The Windows 8.1 upgrade on my Lenovo laptop is a revelation - way back when, when 8.1 was first introduced, I installed it, noticed that it did extensive data gathering, it was very hard to install and not fully functional without a Microsoft mail identity, so I backed it out, and reverted back to 8.0. While 8.1 still tries to gather as much data as it can, it no longer insists on an identity it can share with Microsoft, enabling their marketeers to use your personal information, and the tools it uses to "see" what you're doing are much earier to turn off than before. You lose stuff like Microsoft's calendar, mail and Cloud, but you can use other tools for these things, if, like me, you're fussed about your privacy. And it is smooth - smoother than 8.0, I can't put my finger on exactly what it does differently, it certainly isn't faster, but it is very "easy" on the brain.

I am also not seeing the hiccups and sotware errors I've been seeing in 8.0, and, interestingly, I now notice that where 8.0 boots "clean" from the BIOS, 8.1 maintains UEFI boot code in the chipset, even though the BIOS in this Lenovo wasn't supposed to be UEFI compatible - at least, there was no mention of it in the Lenovo online help pages. I expect this model Lenovo was introduced as Intel was creating a chipset to handle UEFI boot code, and I ended up with an interim BIOS, which did not fully support all UEFI bells and whistles. No problem, I am not complaining, but I know there are plenty of users who don't understand why they can no longer get into their BIOS settings. The solution is simple: open a command window (swipe down from the top right hand corder of your display, click the "search" icon, enter "cmd") and enter into the command window "shutdown /s /t 0" (without the quotation marks). The system will power down, and if you now power back up you can press whatever on your system is the function key that lets you get into the BIOS setup, usually, the key is in a legend at the bottom of your screen, on some systems you have to have that key depressed before you hit the power button. With variations, one of these procedures lets you turn UEFI off in newer, UEFI-compliant systems, so in most cases you have the option to do old style BIOS boots, which may be necessary if you use other operating systems, such as Linux (which I haven't touched for a number of years, that may be UEFI compliant these days, as well). The Toshiba Satellite I bought last year, when my VAIO became a bit old, works like this. If you ever want to boot from an external device or a DVD or CD, you'll need access to the setup, unless you left CD/DVD/USB as default boot devices, which isn't a good idea, because that lets someone else break into your system. UEFI does have a couple of advantages you should take into account, though: it makes booting faster (there are some settings in Windows for this, as well) and it contains secure code that prevents miscreants from installing malicious bootcode in the BIOS. This isn't a clever invention from some security analyst - I've seen malicious boot code in the lab, both in PCs and in hard disks, it can have pretty devastating consequences.

February 25, 2016: Updating and Upgrading

Keywords: backup, Windows 8.1, WiFi, Cloud, Samsung, dashcam, OBDII, insurance dongle, Windows troubleshooting

Samsung as dashcam This, then, is the recently updated combination dashcam / engine monitor / vehicle tracker / vehicle locator / WiFi Hotspot for a lot less money than buying a Chevrolet Cruze, or some such, where I think you'd need to get an Ontrack subscription as well. Ontrack starts at $20 per month, but for that you don't get tracking or Hotspot or anything useful, unless you're planning to have an accident every month. It does allow General Motors and AT&T to know where you are, and how you're driving, 24/7/365. I think you need to spend a bit more money to get the useful bells and whistles, though not half as much as your cellular subscription gives you. My extra T-Mobile line for this $75 dollar Samsung handset with its one time $20 monitoring software costs me $5 a month. The OBDII (vehicle diagnostic port) dongle that lets the Samsung talk to my Dodge cost another $20.

The dongle, which must occupy the one OBDII port your vehicle has, is an important reason I don't use the Progressive or Allstate vehicle monitor - in fact, I switched insurance companies, and now pay $24 per month less, without dongle, than I paid Progressive with a dongle. There isn't any way I am going to allow anyone to install a monitoring device in my vehicle that must be connected 24/7/365 (using a port that has other uses!) and reports back to my insurer where I am and what I am doing with the vehicle at all times. Apart from anything else, when I tested Progressive's dongle I noticed very quickly (I have video proving this) that these dongles autonomously report hard braking and acceleration without any regard for the sensors installed, or the weight and mass of the vehicle. I don't want to go into the science here, but deceleration and acceleration can only be measured properly taking mass and other factors into account, which these dongles are not capable of doing. Put my 3 ton 4.7 liter V8 SUV and a Fiat 500 side by side, and the dongles will report totally different parameters. Even the sensors used in the vehicles are different, as is the software in the ECUs (a.k.a. the vehicle computer).

I owe you a quick update on my backup Cloud exploits - well, quick, as it turns out backing up my file archive using Windows 10's backup tool took 36 hours, but it did subsequently do an incremental backup, automagically, in an hour. The tool tells me I backed up 773GB into a 565GB database. That's pretty cool. It is a file archive, as distinct from my "normal" backups - I use a Robocopy script to back up all of my data directories to a separate 2TB external drive, a habit I got into when I realized that I could no longer maintain all of my files on the 1TB drive in my laptop. So now, I have that Robocopy, and that archive is duplicated to the Cloud drive, which means that if the 2TB drive ever fails, I can restore the archive to another drive. At this point, between backups and my recorded TV archive (I delete stuff as I watch it, so that shouldn't grow unduly) I have used 1.5 of 4 terabytes - for now, I am going to watch how fast or slow that grows, while I figure out how to back up the backup.

It took just about an entire day, after my early morning gym workout, but I managed to uneventfully update Windows 8 on my Lenovo laptop to Windows 8.1 (8.1 Pro, to be exact). That is as far as it goes, Windows 10 does not support the Windows Media Center, and as I understand it will actually remove it from your system when you update to W10. In fact, it did that today, too, but then allowed me to reinstall it, as I had an active license key. It wanted me to key in the Windows 8 license key as well, I'd had the foresight to dig up the license keys before I started, and did a full disk image backup - two, actually, one before, one immediately after, even before running updates. Haven't yet tested everything that was there before, the important applications all run fine, though. I ended up doing this because I had difficulties with the trackpad drivers earlier in the week, difficulties I eventually fixed, although I still do not know what it is I did that fixed it. But then I thought getting the latest version of Windows 8 installed might help prevent any recurrence. It was weird though, for almost a week I couldn't close browser and mail windows by clicking on the close box, sometimes sitting there with ten windows open on my laptop screen. I'd wondered whether I'd been hit by a virus, but my virusscanner said "no". Having had occasional additional problems with locking screensavers and the laptop not wanting to wake from its energy saver, it was probably time to see if the OS update could fix that. Those problems may be self inflicted, admittedly, I am running fingerprint recognition as well as facial recognition, and I have a sneaking suspicion those aren't supposed to be both running at the same time. We'll see - so far, so good, the system is running smoothly, and woke up from low energy status without a problem, this morning. Low energy status, at night, because that switches the fan to passive mode, which means it does not go off like a banshee when it starts to record TV. The unit lives not too far from my bed, and at least under Windows 8, the Windows Media Center taxes the processor something fierce. Not as bad as in my old Vaio, now retired, though, the All-in-One desktop variety, that sounded like a 747 when the Media Center kicked in.

The time machine through February, 2016, with linkbacks to October, 2008, is here

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