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August R99

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Old stuff through October, 2015, with linkbacks all the way to October, 2008, is here.

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.

HP 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.

February 19, 2016: Storage grows too fast

Keywords: Seagate, backup, disk drive, Windows, streaming, network, WiFi, Cloud, NAS

Early Spring in Puget Sound Spring came early in the Puget Sound, with snow storms pummeling th'other coast, I am thinking it is time to wash the car. In the driveway...

If you've followed my exploits installing a Cloud drive, you'll understand one of my concerns was that I didn't want the drive's contents available "publicly", and especially not facing the outside world, which is what these devices, software wise, are designed to do. In installing the Seagate, then, I turned off most of the services that are designed to facilitate social networking, and even removed the files and file structure intended for media services. Media services are built into various flavours of Windown, and it should be possible to run media from any storage device that can be shared on a network.

Anal, you say? Well, maybe, but I know from my many years of betwork management in the phone company that all it takes for your network to be breached is one single (tcp) port to be opened - that is enough for any hacker worth their salt to inject code into your network, and gain access to your systems. When you bring up the Seagate drive, one of the first things it tells you is the outside IP address of your network - because the device has to know that to tell the Seagate public cloud where and how to find your device. In my case, it sees the outside IP despite the fact I have two firewalled routers between it and the universe. That is a real issue, I think - we work to keep the public safe, and Seagate and Western Digital open a door to every network they're installed on. Scary stuff.

I had been streaming recorded ATSC TV from one laptop to the other using Windows Media Player, but for some reason that sometimes led to the originating PC crashing completely. Having moved those files to the Cloud device, however, I now find I can stream without problems, although I had to fake out the media player by adding the Cloud directory to an existing server - the media player by itself seems to only want to see DLNA sources, but you can link into those. In other words: brilliant, I can now stream my recorded TV to all of my devices on the home network, without the server crashing occasionally.

I've got to tell you, though, that if you're going to store your "stuff" on an affordable Cloud device, you are creating a problem. In my case, it is a 4 terabyte drive, so you're going to be tempted to back up to it (as I do) (if you don't back up, as is the case with the majority of computer users, no need to read on). So then you will end up with files you can't afford to lose on your Cloud device, that is, unless you're like one of my friends, who "has nothing he can't live without" on his PC, and who gets a relative over when the thing breaks. I can't do that, for one thing, much of my professional stuff, going back to something like 1980, only exists on computer, and I do all of my finances on computer, and have my accounts data going back to March, 1990 - in one database. No paper.

There's two issues here. For one thing, 4 terabytes, over a period of a few years, isn't even close to big enough to store your "stuff". I'll give you some statistics so you believe me, but before I do that, the second issue: disk drives break, and die, and you cannot generally recover the data on a broken drive, so: how are you going to back up that much data? Just the 600GB backup took 99 hours, so how about 2,000GB? How about 3,000GB? Umm - transferring 4TB would, at that rate, take 660 hours, continuously - that's 4 weeks. And that is a transfer over gigabit Ethernet to a fast 7200rpm hard drive, which is about the best home networking technology can deliver, these days.

It is a real, rather than perceived, conundrum: the more data you put on a drive, the greater the risk you'll lose all of it, and the harder it gets to keep a copy of it all. Even though I own two of these 4TB cloud devices, I've not found a way to back one up to the other, there does not appear to be a facility for these drives to transfer files directly to each other. I'll take a good look at Windows' Windows 7 File Recovery, there in Windows 8 Pro, disappeared in Windows 8.1, then reintroduced as "Backup and Restore" in the Control Panel in Windows 10, although both in Windows 8 and Windows 10 it is only included in the Pro version of the operating system, I expect Microsoft doesn't think ordinary folks need to back up for free. It isn't a real backup tool (although it can create a full system image), but it can incrementally back up changed user files, and I just noticed it'll handle external drives, so perhaps it is a solution. Apple has "time machine" - the issue with many of these tools is that they only support a specific version of an operating system, which means you may or may not be able to restore your data to another version of said OS. Increasingly, this is an issue - buy backup software, the manufacturer goes belly up five years later, whatchagonnado. Etc. I've increasingly used xcopy or robocopy in a script, in Windows, but now, with the new cloud drives, I find these utilities no longer support mounted (NFS) network drives.

So there it is. I am continuing to use AIS Backup for my daily backups, mercifully that supports the cloud drives, and as we speak I am in process of trying to use Windows Backup to back up my other laptop, complete with an attached backup drive, which I could only get to work on the Toshiba by buying an eSATA-to-USB3 dongle, without that I'd have been relegated to using USB 2.0, come back next year. Why am I fussy? On that external drive live some files I have removed from my laptops and backups - some are too sensitive to carry around, some might be illegal in some countries I trsvel to, others are just getting too voluminous, and I wanted to move them off my laptop disks, so I don't run the risk of filling up the drive. I had that happen, recently, on my Toshiba, when I discovered the TV application there creates temporary files whenever I watch TV, files it then does not clean up. I set the application so I could pause and replay live TV, DVR style functionality, so in hindsight it made sense it creates temporary files. What I had not anticipated is that HD stuff is large to the point that in a couple of months, those files would take up close to 900GB of disk space. You read that right - almost a terabyte of spill files. And the OS said nothing, it just started swapping like crazy. All of which only goes to say the risk is always there, and it is possible for a full hard disk to lose you all of whatever it is you have on that disk, there may not be recovery (I've seen that happen). So having a copy of every file you have is generally a good idea.

February 10, 2016: Mo' Better Backup

Keywords: Seagate, Amazon, Western Digital, backup, disk drive, Samsung, router, network, WiFi, Cloud, NAS

Seagate Cloud While the picture in my previous blog post shows a Samsung Galaxy handset, the astute reader will have noticed that that isn't what most of the post is about. I decided, though I had pictures of both the Seagate NAS and the Western Digital NAS (network drive) I talked about, that they really weren't that exciting to look at - though I must admit that Western Digital has done a terrific job of giving their storage devices a uniform look, now persisting for years already. It is distinctive, and I get the impression they may have copyrighted the "book look" to the point nobody else can use it. Good show, nice equipment, and I am more impressed with their soft- and firmware than with Seagate's. I do have more Seagate than WD drives, but that is, mostly, due to the Seagate price point, they're always a bit cheaper than any of the other major manufacturers - possibly with the exception of small laptop drives, where I have found Hitachi (now owned by, you guessed it, Western Digital), to be cheaper, and very very reliable - let's see, the first terabyte Hitachi (2.5 inch Travelstar) I bought has been running since June 2012, inside a Lenovo laptop, 24/7/365, and I since put one in a Toshiba laptop, as well. I do maintain those laptops - they periodically have their covers removed, and are vacuumed and cleaned with compressed air. Overheating, dust and debris, are the most common causes of computer failure, as the vast majority of laptops and desktops have no filters, and will eventually accumulate enough dust (and for smokers, gunk) to start slowing down and then die. If you hear your computer's fan run fast, periodically, fine, but if it does that a lot, you need to clean its innards, before it cleans your wallet.

The story of the Samsung phone is a bit different. I have had a Samsung prepaid handset in the car since 2013 - I had tried to install several tracking devices, so I could locate the car should it ever go missing, and eventually decided that none of these things worked very well. I had also worked on finding software that could monitor my car and its engine, and eventually figured out that some clever Android software, combined with a cheap cellphone, would probably do better than any other solution. The T-Mobile prepaid Samsung handset I bought to use with an existing T-Mobile line has worked very well, and has actually lived in the car since then, in use as monitor / dashcam when traveling, and as a locator device when parked.

Back in 2013, that Samsung cost $83; the one I just bought as a replacement was only $78, and I can report that those few years make a huge difference in features, speed, ease of use and display. Most importantly, when the dashcam resolution of the old Galaxy was only 640x480, in the new handset it is a respectable 1280x720, just one notch from "full HD". You really don't want any more, because the higher the resolution, the larger the video file, a 5 minute recording in the new Galaxy now takes almost 700MB, so I ended up having to get larger SD cards. I am now quite pleased I upgraded the phone, the new Galaxy is faster, and generally works better with the Caroo Pro software I use. I've also not had the new handset complain about low temperatures and a hot battery when charging while recording, something the old one did, now and again. With a larger display, it is easier for me to monitor engine performance, as well, although that's not a "must have" feature, that's more boy toy stuff. With the Bluetooth OBDII dongle I bought back in 2013, this new Galaxy is pretty solid, the old one occasionally had to be rebooted when it couldn't find the dongle, not with this one, and the assembly gives me the works - engine performance, car status, dashcam with autofocus, GPS location, audio, and a decent display - I've tested it, and I can even use it as a WiFi Hotspot while it does all the other stuff, so I don't have to buy a new car for that, that is certainly a nice feature to have for passengers. The "extra" line? I pay T-Mobile $4.86 a month for it, it uses little or no data (just for the GPS maps it downloads), and the Android device manager lets me locate the vehicle 24/7. Not a lot of money for security....

But, back to network drives for a moment, as I have set up the resurrected Seagate drive, and am running a massive backup to it. The reason I stopped using NAS drives (I owned two before, an Iomega (now EMC/Lenovo) and a Western Digital, both RAID devices. Before that, I had built my own RAID device, based on Seagate drives and a Windows desktop with eSATA interfaces. The latter actually worked, although it needed LCAA (loving care and attention), but the Iomega and the WD didn't, they hung, didn't take full backups, went inexplicably offline, and stuff. I don't necessarily think they were wholly to blame, router technology, a few years back, wasn't all it was cracked up to be either.

So, I am delighted to be able to report that today's NAS drive, in combination with a high speed fiber based router, does much better. As in, solid like a rock, I am surprised to hear myself say. This is all the more surprising as the Seagate Cloud device I am using arrived DOA, I plugged it in and the LED came on, and that was all that happened. I sent a pissed email to Amazon, after discovering the box had had its shrink wrap removed, and the seal was broken, bad on the vendor, but Amazon's folks ("shipped by Amazon") should have noticed. True to form, they mailed me hours later, they'd refund me straight away, absolutely this was their fault, don't ship it back, and we'll discount a replacement, and ship it overnight for free. Good on Amazon, and I ordered a Western Digital cloud device straight away, which arrived two days later, delivered by the Post Office on a Sunday. Teehee.

I decided to see if I could salvage the 4 terabyte drive from the Seagate device, since they didn't want it back, but after removing the covers, decided to plug it into a beefier (4 amps v. 2 amps) power supply, just to test. And you guessed it, off it went, LED came on, two minutes later the drive spun up, and another few minutes later the Ethernet port woke up. This being a NAS (network) device, you can't hook it up to a PC, can't see what's going on until it is completely up and its network interface recognized by your router. Long story short, the Seagate is up, powered by a UPS, you really can't run a Cloud without battery power, and I've managed to copy some 130GB of surveillance video to it, and back up an entire 600+GB hard disk to it, using a compression algorithm that ran, over the network, for almost an entire week (that's how long network backups take, if you were wondering, 99 hours in this case). Glitchless, pretty amazing. So far, so good, while I am battling the Amazon vendor of cheap-but-unreliable SD cards I bought to work with the Galaxy dashcam..

February 3, 2016: Cloud? Shared with who(m)?

Keywords: Seagate, Amazon, Western Digital, backup, disk drive, Samsung, router, network, WiFi, Cloud, NAS

Samsung Galaxy CoreRunning out of space on my 2 terabyte backup disk, I had little option but to buy a larger disk. This isn't as easy as it sounds - my laptops all have a terabyte drive installed, I have two active 750 GB and one 2 terabyte drives that I back up to, and another 1.5 GB of archives. Backing up is good practice anyway, this just means more of it. The primary issue with backups is that you end up relying on them working, and I have, from my lab days, the experience that backups are often not accessible when you need them. They sit there, on a disk, and deteriorate over time. I can give you a long story why this is so, but for now, just take my word for it. As my drives are all down to 100 or 200 MB of spare room, it was time to consider getting a bigger backup drive, and the only drives I could find that were big enough but affordable were NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices. After buying an older "but new" model Seagate NAS drive I found the vendor cheated, sent a broken device with broken seal out as new, and of course, it did not work. (I did eventually get it working, read my review at Amazon for that saga), but had to spend more money and get the Western Digital 4TB My Cloud Personal NAS. I am not going to be using it to stream video over my home network, so in terms of being able to use it for NTFS file services (a UNIX concept that lets you mount drives as file systems) one NAS drive should be as good as the other. If you're wondering why I am not going to use this to stream video, I do that from one laptop to the other already, and Windows' Media Center does not like storing on what Windows thinks are removable drives. Apart from that, video files can build up in size very quickly, and I would rather not have them sit on a device that has "essential" backups, as well. I've actually noticed this, to my detriment, fairly recently - on the laptop on which I watch television, I found the TotalMedia app stores temp files, and does not clean them up when you shut down the application, and I found that it had stored some 900 gigabytes (I kid you not) of video temp files on the hard disk in that laptop. That's major - right now, I am seeing some 12.2 GB of video files from just four days of watching stored - and that's just US HD ATSC, recorded in MPEG format, not the British IPTV I watch as well.

As an aside, there is a swiftly increasing "storage penalty" for video. The 12.2 GB of MPEG video I mentioned earlier represents a little over 3 hours of HD video. And I recently decided to upgrade my dashcam, consisting of a Samsung phone with the Caroo Pro application and a Bluetooth OBDII dongle, as the 2013 Samsung prepaid handset delivered only 640x480 video, and a new prepaid Samsung Galaxy core has the ability to de;liver 1280x720 pixel video - almost full HD. What does that mean? 600 MB is just 5 minutes of recording, meaning an hour's worth of compressed video is still 7.2 GB. As another example, the 31 broadcast TV programs I've not watched yet, most of which are half an hour long, take up 127 GB. Saving some for future reference is something I gave up a long time ago. Where is the average citizen going to store all that stuff? The cloud isn't an option, most "free" cloud storage is now size restricted, while internet upload speeds aren't anything to write home about, so you're really stuck with home storage, and even though it is 2016, that still requires expertise to set up. If you're interested, the Seagate Cloud Device I just bought has a lot of folks griping about it, as you can read in the Amazon reviews here. The main problem? Setting up and using networks and network devices requires expertise, and most consumers "don't have none". Seriously, that's all there is to it. We're selling technologies that try to be "all things to all people", and they're not. Attempts at standardization fail, because we don't enforce the rules, and manufacturers introduce new features without any attempt at integration, pretty much along the lines where Apple refused to conform to GSM Association rules with its iPhone. They wanted to be different, something totally embedded in Apple's psyche, it is how Steve Jobs killed himself. If you think that's a bit harsh, I got cancer too, followed doctor's orders, and am still alive, in remission, and doing well healthwise, six years later.

Having bought my first Samsung Android device for car monitoring in 2013, I've just now replaced that with the latest prepaid Samsung, and there is a difference of day and night - more about the prepaid Galaxy, T-Mobile accounts and Caroo Pro in the next blog. There is something very interesting about the use of an Android cellular device for a dedicated monitoring-and-computing purpose.

January 21, 2016: Confusion abounds

Keywords: Turbotax, Freefile, IRS, New York Times, wellness, technology adoption, change, adaptation, migrants, refugees, Angela Merkel, immigration law, migration, illegal aliens

Ah. I told you in my Janary 6 blog, below, that Turbotax now restricts the Freefile option, but that is not entirely true. You can still use that, but you have to get there (log in if you have one) through the IRS website. They've done a clever renaming of the facility, it is either Freefile or Freedom File or some such, but go through the IRS, on or after January 15, and you can do a free return, provided you didn't earn too much. After you set it up, you can go there direct. If you had set up the Freefile thing already, going through the IRS makes Turbotax make you wipe everything out, and start over. Duh.

I have a hard time wrapping my head around Mick Jagger's ex-wife being the eventual owner of the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London. You can't make this stuff up.

For those of you interested in the confluence area of wellness and medicine, the New York Times publishes a wealth of very useful information, larded, to some extent, with less useful statistics, a trend in the press in general I deplore. (When you read an article about how the Danes deal with migrants, and the author doesn't tell you Denmark is one of the smallest countries in the EU, half the population of even Belgium, you're not getting an important aspect of why the Danes worry about the aliens flooding their country.)

But back to Wellness, I recommend the Times' pages, they have much information on medicine that is immediately applicable to your daily life, and they spend a good few column inches on debunking common myths. Recommended.

Interestingly, and perhaps even a bit related to wellness, I came across an older couple, who had been in a car wreck on the Interstate, whose Toyota had then been declared a total loss by their insurance company, and who had been given a 5 series BMW loaner, complete with California tags, while the insurance did its assessment. I'd have enjoyed the Dickens out of that, but they did not. Why? The Bimmer turns its engine off when you stop, and they couldn't get over the fear it wouldn't start up again. I thought that was fascinating. Can you imagine how many more cars BMW might sell, to conservative older people, if you could turn that feature off?

So no, the "green stuff" is not as important to folks as we would like to think, when they themselves are subjected to the new "green" technologies. You could think that, since we have technology to turn half the engine off, on the highway, that you could compromise, and have the six cylinder Bimmer ticking over on two cylinders while at the lights, so that these folks would not become as alienated as they clearly did. They eventually went back to what they were used to, an upscale Toyota with chrome and bells and whistles, which is what Americans generically like. It is fascinating to think that General Motors' Northstar V-8 technology, now discontinued, could have been used to build more fuel efficient engines, through the simple expedient of turning off some cylinders when their power is not needed. It's always been puzzling to me why you'd use this technology solely so some very expensive cars could "limp home" without coolant, when buyers of these cars could probably afford AAA memberships and rental cars. This technology could have been applied on existing V-8 and V-6 engines, if you're willing to netertain my notion that a V-6 with 350 horsepower isn't "eco".

Think about it. I maybe don't think of this often enough, but there are people who get out of their comfort zone, faced with new technologies. A few years ago, I arrived at Amsterdam Airport, and Budget asked if I minded a small diesel engined rental - I jumped at the chance, I'd never driven a small diesel sedan before, so was interested to try the Renault Clio Diesel they gave me, Budget knew that I, long resident in the USA, had probably never driven a diesel before. But new technologies can make significant change, and so many folks won't even try them. It is something, being a technologist, I don't think of often enough - but way back when, when we introduced voice dialing into the landline network, nobody used it. Not only wasn't the consumer prepared to pay for it, they just weren't interested, for the most part. In hindsight, had we developed a system that would have recognized a voice, from any phone in our network, we might have done better. We did have the technology, but I do think the lawyers might not have let us. Even today, when most cellphones have voice dialing, I doubt many people use it. If you can use voice dialing on one device, but still have to have the number for others, it's not going to work.

Hard on the heels of warnings from some edge-of-Europe police forces about the cultural problems they expect with the millions of migrants and refugees, it looks like the inevitable has happened in Cologne and other central European cities. Middle Eastern and North African males, marooned in a Western society with which they have no connection, not even the ability to speak the language, explode into tribal behaviour - if that is what happened. We need to be careful here, make sure we have evidence, but there is really no other scenario that is even remotely feasible. And Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, really aren't countries where they have border experience with "other" cultures that, for instance, the Austrians, Italians and Yugoslavs have, and where some of the prior warnings have come from. So I am not surprised the assaults happened - what I am surprised about it Germany's insistence, until recently, it will take all comers, although it has recently moderated the rules somewhat. Perhaps Ms. Merkel is meeting her nemesis - democratically electred, she appears to have become somewhat of a president-for-life, as if the German democracy is not able to find someone else capable of running the country. She has been Chancellor, after all, from a decade - that's longer than a head of state can "sit" in many modern democracies. At any rate, "deporting" asylum seekers and refugees, back to the war zones they came from, is not legal under EU law, as well as logitically impossible, and that's been a problem in Germany and other EU countries for many years. There are quite a few convicted criminals who cannot be deported, and who simply end up back on the street, Mrs. Merkel knows this full well. Even the British have convicted terrorists they cannot deport because of family ties, and nobody in Europe is about to suggest to start doing concentration camps again, and the "migrants" know this. Interestingly, some European countries are beginning to use localized measures to stop the wanton influx - there is a passport check on the Øresund bridge, the Danes want to take all assets over 10,000 Danish crowns away from migrants, to pay for their cost, and Germany has begun to turn back migrants who have not requested asylum at the Austrian border - a first attempt at making "destination shopping" impossible.

January 6, 2016: Still some winter left

Keywords: winter, New Year, 2016, cold, snow, eSATA to USB, Turbotax, Freefile, gym, working out, Silver Sneakers, migrants, Greece, Turkey

Great. Turbotax software now restricts the types of income you can report through it, meaning I can't use it to report overseas payments, I have to "upgrade" to a more expensive version. I'll hit the IRS site on January 15 to see what else is available, but clearly, Intuit is no longer the great software it always was. Quicken, equally, is restricting the years of modeling you can do, forcing you to buy a newer version. There was always some "encouragement" from Intuit to upgrade, but after all these years, the company now intentionaly cripples its software, year-on-year. There will hopefully be a new company picking up where Intuit leaves off, yes, it is OK to make money, no, it is not OK to intentionally disable long term users, who have helped build your company to where it is today.

Heard on the news: Mindful self-compassion. WTF is that?

Snoqualmie While not necessarily an auspicious start to 2016 (best wishes to all, of course, enjoy that New Year smell while it lasts), neighbour D. and I went and worked out this morning, like we do most weekdays, and the odd Saturday or Sunday (for me). Gratifyingly, D. approached me, earlier in the year, as he and neighbour G. had noticed my losing weight, from when I took up the Silver Sneakers program, and began going to the gym, last January, and it turned out his "hurdle" was that he didn't really know how to work out in a gym. This is a tough one for some - gyms, especially in the suburbs, are a bit foreboding large places with lots of machines, vapid receptionists, and over-constructed folks who seem to enjoy maxing themselves out. So it was nice to be asked, and as I am older, have a couple of existing conditions, doctors I can ask questions about working out, and have been trained in safe physical therapy back in Europe years ago, I was able to help D. get a workout regime started that does not strain his body, and gives him all the benefits of aging healthily. Probably one of the riskiest aspects of going to the gym is injury - easy to avoid, but almost easier to inflict on yourself. As my rheumatologist commented when I told him I'd be joining a gym "don't do classes, for now, they make you compete and you will hurt yourself". Competing is in the nature of the beast, for most, and class instructors don't really have a way to track every member of their training class.

Anyway... as of the middle of 2015, D. and I now walk to the gym together, work out, and walk back home, the walk to-and-from being an important component of the exercise. Especially at the moment - it is bitterly cold again, the other day my thingamie read 19 degrees (-7 or so for the Centipedes). If nothing else that tells you if your body's built in heater is working OK....

One of the computer "problems" I needed to solve was that newer laptops come with a USB 3.0 interface, with the eSATA port I had been using for years being discontinued (except on the motherboard, of course). That's a bitch - I have a few eSATA drives, my backups live on those, and I need to somehow be able to use those drives with both computers. comes to the rescue with a USB 3.0 to eSATA Cable Adapter which runs at good speed (I think I am getting about 3GBps, half of the rated eSATA speed, but fast enough) and helps make these disk formats compatible. I've got a total of 8 terabytes of eSATA storage, so you can imagine the $30 or so was worth it - yes, the drives all have USB interfaces as well, but they are of the slow variety....

Having just watched BBC show more migrants with small children arriving in Greece from Turkey in what is now winter, I have to tell you the Turks aren't doing what they said they would, stopping these folks crossing their country, and we're not doing something we should have started a while ago: put all parents who bring children across the water in inhuman circumstances in jail, take their children away from them and send them back where they came from. We're crazy to play along to the type of blackmail the people smugglers use - and the Turkish government not alerting neighbouring countries there are some 100,000 people a week traveling through their country - how do you not notice this? How do people without identification get into your country? I am not really surprised jihadis and terrorists have unencumbered passage through Turkey, both ways, and if you see how the Turks deal with Kurds and Armenians, you can only come to the conclusion Erdogan likes unloading Middle Eastern masses on the EU. There are not our friends, they're not even allies... There's not much we need to do to stop this - as the White House now is deporting families back to their home countries in South America, they do have television down there. They'll stop spending $10,000 or $20,000, only to be shipped back home - with nothing. This is ridiculous. We're helping the people smugglers. Why?

December 30, 2015: Have A Happy!

Keywords: Christmas, Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, Miranda, O2 Arena, natural disasters, migrants, BBC, TV, Aardman, Downton Abbey, Donald Trump

Harley Santa I was lucky enough to come across this Santa in the middle of the pre-Xmas shopping frenzy, although I had to fight off a bunch of other road users using the "I'm bigger than you" technique, to get in position to get this shot, phone in one hand, 3 ton SUV in the other. It really does look like the recession is over, people are spending, long abandoned houses in the neighbourhood are being done up and sold, some razed, lots of new cars, money is flowing. Gas (here in the Seattle area) is down to $1.99 per gallon, in some places (that's €0.47 per liter, for the centipedes), that does wonders for the economy - and is expected to last.

As I write this, we have another Christmas in the can - with excessive flooding in England, tornadoes here in the South, the devastating brushfires in Australia, and the ongoing "migrant crisis" in Europe, though our own Homeland Security is now deporting entire families back to South America, as that seems to be he only way to get the folks down there to understand being smuggled here isn't a good idea. The Europeans are getting that message through as well - no longer are some European countries allowing "family reunion" visas, something migrants seem to be relying on - send a couple of small kids ahead, if they survive the journey, they can send for their parents - if nothing else, that makes it clear there seem to be a lot of planning and politics involved in this "refugee stuff". Dutch newspapers are following the exploits of several of those teens, in the Netherlands and Sweden, who are supposed to eventually bring their families over. But if you look at Austria, which got almost a million migrants, you see that there isn't housing for that much of an influx, not to mention unwillingness, especially in the tourist resorts, to bring people with a vastly different morality, which they are used to imposing on their environment, into their communities. Tourists in bikinis and strict Muslims do not mix, and yet they have to. I follow Austria a bit more closely than other countries, as my parents and sister used to live there, and I spent time there myself. Back in the 1970s, I ended up driving down from Amsterdam to Salzburg in a rented Volvo, to retrieve my sister, who'd had enough of the tender mercies of our abusive father, having left home myself a few years earlier.

Other than that, not much else is going on - the holidays are done, save for New Year's, although here in the United States life doesn't come to a standstill, as it does in Europe, with its extended holiday period. I never much enjoyed, that, a high pressure month, with, in The Netherlands, Santa Claus on December 5th, and then my and my sister's birthdays, and for whatever reason my Mom died in December, too. Here in the US, life goes back to normal much more quickly, and we don't do retrospectives on TV with quite the gusto the British do. Something I particularly enjoyed was the Aardman retrospective - the folks who put Claymation on the map, with Wallace and Gromit, even getting to where they made a major feature film, Chicken Run. And then there was the big show Miranda Hart put on at the O2 Arena, performing for a whopping 16,000 folks - and that was just too much. Miranda is an intimacy actress / comedian, and just the acoustics, amplified as they have to be in the Arena, preclude intimacy from being convincing. Before you think I am taking Ms. Hart down, she is a superb performer, and I am sure she has reached a stage in her career where when the Beeb goes "you're doing the O2", one does. England isn't America, and one's career depends, to some extent, on playing ball, I expect she gets significant leeway in the series she writes, produces and performs. Success, and the trappings thereof, have made Amanda gorgeous, although I think she can do without the "overweight" jokes, there's not an ounce on her that doesn't belong there. It's just not a spectacle I enjoy, and some people, say Jack Dee, carry an oversized audience better than others. But it is easy to criticize, I think my largest ever audience was some 400 people, and I don't think I could do more without shitting myself. So, good for you, Amanda, and what a career it is. I do hope she'll do some stuff Stateside, she is hilariously funny, and we love the accent, if Cleese can do it, so can you, lass, although you should get off the clapping breasts, already. For those of you who think I am not qualified, I spent years in the theatre, producing, managing artists, in what seems like a previous life, I can still sense what goes on in the wings when the curtains open, that has not really changed, methinks, though the scale certainly has. For most of you, the only band I've been involved with you may have heard of would be Focus, back in the 1970s, in Amsterdam, fronted, at the time, bij Thijs van Leer and Jan Akkerman. "Victoria" was in fact a bit composed on the piano in my flat, behind the management office in the basement of Amstel 69.

So British TV has been a bit boring, all we've had, in my book, that was really good, was the last ever episode of Downton Abbey, well executed and smooth like a gravy sandwich. They did well canning that when it was a going concern. East Enders' Christmas special I didn't watch, these days it is full of murder and mayhem, and who needs to watch that when they have Donald Trump on TV every day all day. I am not quite sure why the press intimates he might make president - this is the country that put a largely black man in the White House... Trump might make the Republican nomination, which would be a perfect demonstration that the right has really entered the realm of fantasy, but I cannot for the life of me believe anybody in their right mind would put Trump in the White House. The man no longer has a neck, and must spend a million a month just to look like he's still got it together, take his corset off and it'll all end up on the floor waiting for the hazmat crew. I cannot help it, but when I see or hear Trump I see the gold "T" on the tail of the ancient Boeing 727 he used to fly around in, parked at Laguardia. And it isn't that I think Hillary is the best man for the job, but she has the expertise and the control, and I think she is, right now, all we've got, a good cleaner-upper, and she knows better than to screw around.

And as I am unlikely to get another blog out before 2016, enjoy your celebrations (unless you're somewhere they've now prohibited "Christian" New Year's - you have my permission to have it on March 3rd, they won't see that one coming), and I hope you've changed what needed changing in 2015 already, because New Year's resolutions have a tendency not to work. Regardless - Have A Happy!

December 20, 2015: From Muslims and Migrants to Medical

Keywords: migration, Islam, refugees, European Union, climate, carbons, TV doctors, eczema

Muslims in Osdorp The picture has some of the previous Muslim migrant streams into the Netherlands - long time resident of the United States, I was startled realizing a significant part of the western part of Amsterdam is now a Muslim enclave, complete with women who aggressively accost you if you're taking a picture of the local market with them in it... And this was 2008, before large parts of the populations of Syria and Afghanistan are arriving. I understand refugees are currently holding public protests in towns across the country, as they feel they don't have enough privacy and creature comforts in their hastily assembled places of shelter. I understand homosexual refugees are having to be housed separately, as the "other" refugees have attacked snd hurt them. There are regular fights in the centers that have to be policed, between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

I am still very puzzled by this humongous influx of refugees into Western Europe. And when you read the local papers in some of the countries of the EU you see very weird things happening - some would-be migrants send their children, unaccompanied into the migrant exodus so they can become refugees (easier if you're a minor) and then bring over their parents under family reunion law later. Some European governments are beginning to disallow this practice. And other refugees, upon arrival in holding camps in the EU, discover it'll take a year or more before they can receive legal status, resettlement and a place to live - not strange considering the numbers - and book a flight home, unwilling to accept this, after the grueling trip. Add to this the ISIS fighters discovered among the refugees, and even the apparently radicalized Pakistani woman who, with her American husband, murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, CA, abandoning her six month old baby in the process, and you have to really start worrying about something that appears to not be what it seems.

Increasingly, voices in Western Europe are clamouring that the refugees have come for security, or perhaps for the standard of living, and build ghettos inside the EU where their values and ethics are law, with disregard for the local and regional cultures. After all, once this is all done, they'll be there in numbers sufficient to change the political landscape. I don't intrinsically have a problem with that, but when I see the previous wave of Turkish evacuees complain about the new wave of Syrian evacuees, you've got to task yourself if this is sustainable. After all, their numbers are larger than ever before. And it is clear the people smugglers are sending boats into the cold sea, with winter approaching, because they understand you can't stop the "refugees" now, because they would freeze to death if you did. That's not migration, it is a large money making crime syndicate, and the "refugees" understand full well what they're doing.

My only real comment on the climate negotiations in Paris is this: There is no such thing as "renewable" energy. Once energy has been converted to a different state or substance, there is no way to magically turn it back into its original state. The carbon issue is completely peripheral to what we should be focusing on: we consume energy without having any technology to create more. A solar panel reduces the heat reaching the surface it has been mounted on, with unknown results. A wind turbine reduces the velocity of the air flow that drives it, with unknown results. No "energies" can magically be "renewed". Energy is a finite resource, inasmuch as we are talking about forms of energy we are scientifically and technologically able to harvest.

So there.

Not long ago, I watched a new BBC series, following a doctor who goes to live with patient families to figure out what ails them, and guide them to better health. It is one of the better examples of reality television, if only because the families under scrutiny allow a relatively raw look into their intimate lives, which can't be easy. I particularly picked up on one comment, to do with skin disorders and exzema, where the doctor, referring to a child, said eczema is often caused by wheat and milk allergies, and by skin contact with artificial fabrics. One of the things he did was to change the child's bedlinen to cotton, and eliminate artifical fibers from the child's clothing.

I can't say I wear a lot of artificial fibers next to my skin, but I'd never paid much attenttion to my bedsheets and other linen, for as long as they weren't clearly made of cardboard. So I went and bought a 100% cotton sheet set to try, finding that the vast majority of the sheet sets at Wal-Mart and on Amazon named something stupid, like poly-cotton, microfiber, or cotton-rich, meaning they're either partly or wholly artificial. I mean, calling something "sateen" if it isn't satin is probably a long term stupid way of marketing.. You actually have to look specifically for 100% cotton, which is more expensive than the artificial stuff, which, I suppose, is one way to figure that out. But then I washed the new sheets, and put them on my bed, and then unexpectedly found my bed was a lot warmer than before. Later in the week, I am changing back to my original sheets, so until then I won't really know if this is actually true, because it seems a bit weird to me. What brought it all on is that I developed a skin itch a year or so ago, and two doctors gave me two different diagnoses (that seems to happen a lot, here in the Pacific Northwest), and while moisturizers help, I am constantly trying to find "whole body" solutions. It makes sense, kinda, you do spend six or seven or eight or whatever hours in skin contact with bedsheets. I'll keep you posted.

December 4, 2015: Nukular power, thyroids, and cooold...

Keywords: climate change, Peter Thiel, thyroid, nuclear power, solar power, wind power, Seattle cold, migration, TV manipulation, lip sewing

Staggering numbers in a BBC article about climate change: "The livestock sector produces about 15% of global greenhouse gases, roughly equivalent to all the exhaust emissions of every car, train, ship and aircraft on the planet."

Wot? Is this true? I wasn't aware it is as much as that, thought I'd quote it so you can check for yourselves.

cold at the gym Entrepreneur and billionaire and Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel recently wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times on power generation issues, in which he makes a case for nuclear power. Of course, as I write this lots of heads of state are meeting in Paris (imagine how much money and time they could have saved if they and their cohorts and other attendees could have simply used Skype) to discuss global warming, which leads me to begin to loudly wonder what actual actions will result from this gathering, when we can't even agree on better means to generate energy? Seriously, if you think we can use solar power and wind power and tidal power to power society, you probably have not really thought about what will happen to the environment if we begin converting heat radiation and wind energy and tidal forces on a very large scale to consumable energy, making significant and irreversible changes to our environment. There is no such thing as "renewable energy", even if we were to get it directly from the nuclear processes in our sun it wouldn't be "renewable". There is no such thing, peeps, as "renewing" wind power, "renewing" solar radiation, and "renewing" tidal energy. If you slow down the air flow around the Earth, it isn't magically going to speed itself up, afterwards. If you put a solar panel over your house, your house gets less energy from the sun. Same for a solar panel on a piece of land. Who thought of this nonsense "science"? Can we take 'em out back and and recycle them?

Converting one type of energy to another type of energy takes the original energy away from whatever it was doing before. We don't know what will happen if we manage to convert 20 or 30% of the world's wind energy into electricity, but it should be relatively easy to research. Air flow - wind - does things, it moves energy around the globe, it helps evaporate and distribute moisture, it does lots of stuff. That rain we need to grow veggies? If comes out of clouds, which are moved by wind. If we slow down the wind, or, worse, redistribute its direction, there is no telling where those clouds will ends up - or whether they will even form.

We are, as is clear from the effects of some coal powered and nuclear powered energy, quite destructive. To think that we can now stop being destructive by using the word "renewable" and pretending our "new" sources of energy suddenly, magically, will have no environmental consequences, is sticking our collective heads into the sand. The Sands of Paris, this week. We're even flying the heads of impoverished states to Paris, as if they have any way of stopping their citizens from destroying their environment. I've just this week read this series of articles about Malawi, where they ask for a solution to the lack of rain, caused by the disappearance fo rainforests they've already razed and burnt. Their hydro power isn't working any more, as the rains stay away, and with that, the water. I don't know what to tell you, folks, you will probably need to move to Germany, because we can't put your rainforests back, you burnt them, they're gone, forever. Nothing we can do. Nothing you can do. Flying to Paris for the week will only make it worse, we should even take your airplanes away, so you can stay home and fix your land, you don't need to go anywhere, you need to be where your problem is.

It's been ruddy cold up here, at least to my standards, so far down to 22 Fahrenheit, equivalent to -6 or so in centipedes. My being chilly may partially be caused by my lack of a thyroid, as I understand it the thyroid regulates all sorts of matters physical that I was never really aware of before they removed mine, and I find I am colder than I recall being before. Having said that, the temperatures here in the Seattle area have plunged, considering it isn't even December yet, and perhaps - hmm, that's possible - my losing some twenty pounds over the year may also be a factor. Judging by the weather forecast temps may be coming back up to normal next week, because normally this part of the world is quite mild, I've not seen snow like I used to in New York and Virginia, for instance, although I did replace the "touring" tires on my SUV with All Terrain tires, which are good for M+S, as well. You're, in winter, not required to mount chains to cross the mountain passes, here, if you have a four wheel drive with traction (a.k.a. M+S) tires, although you must have a set of chains in the vehicle.

I am not buying it - those Iranian men with naked torsos, sewn up lips, all over TV, it all looks to me like they're manipulating the media, and the media are playing ball. I hesitate to write this, but when I read there are now more migrants crossing into Germany than last month, and it is fall, cold, freezing here and there, the conclusion has to be that the smugglers know what they're doing, the various authorities of border countries can't be seen to let small children and old people freeze to death. And then the lip sewing, the self-mutilation... This is crazy, and the Europeans are sitting ducks. Iranian refugees? From what war? Pakistani refugees, Afghan refugees, from which wars? And then you have to assume these are all people who have somehow paid the people smugglers - what happened to the people who don't have $10,000 lying around? And yes, of course terrorist organizations have inserted some of those well built young men into the migrating crowds, they would have been stupid not to. They may not even have had to pay for the privilege, the smugglers probably understand that if they don't cooperate, if their charges don't make it to the other side, they'll be killed. I mean, that's what they do, the "nouveau Taliban". And aircraft and cruise missiles won't help, only boots on the ground can do that. Which we're not doing, so the migrant onslaught, and the danger, continue. It may even be in the interest of terrorist organizations to help the migration, destabilize the West.

November 24, 2015: That's it with the tests, and the Telegraph

Keywords: health insurance, low dose CT scan, medical, radiation, Telegraph blog, spam, comment spam, Wordpress

greenhouse @ 24 degrees It is cold, or has been cold, an early winter. This is the greenhouse, at 7am, frozen solid at 24 degrees. I must have seen this coming, because I dug the snow chains and snow boots out of the garage last week, though the forecasters all say there won't be much winter, as we're having El Niño coming in. Last year, we had all of two snowflakes, but this year... At any rate, as I write this the temperature is back up, fingers crossed.

What with the Paris attacks, the dreary fall weather, and me running around doing a battery of medical tests my health insurance more or less mandates (but thankfully pays for) this is a depressing November. I am not quite sure why exactly United Healthcare seems to suddenly want veritable batteries of exams - from vision and wellness and full physical to a number of ex-smoker scans - but I suppose I can't complain about preventative activities that are fully covered. It is just a lot of driving into Seattle, because, of course, none of it happens at one facility, on one day. I am told the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance now has a special low dose CT scanner for chest X-rays - those scanners normally liberally bathe you in X-rays, but as the Fed seems to have newly decided former heavy smokers must be screened annually until age 70, hospitals and treatment centers appear to have gone out and bought new equipment - here is a narrative from Swedish hospital. As I am being told this is much better (safer) than higher radation dose scans, I keep telling folks I am not that worried about the radiation, considering I've had radioactive iodine treatment, which, from a radiation perspective, is the real "killer", pardon the pun. That even made my ancient Army radiation detector go off. Although, to be honest, not worrying about it is probably the wrong attitude, but over the years I've had so many scans and X-rays, all of which were necessary, that I've stopped keeping track. You know, I could tell my doctor I don't see a need for the lung cancer screen, as I have no lung symptoms of any kind, but then you try and explain that to your health insurance. I wanted to know what all were the procedures the insurance covers for my annual physical, and ended up spending half an hour on the phone with an insurance nurse, which is terrific preventative service, but it then becomes quite clear you can't skip the tests, one thing you don't want is an unhappy insurer, health or automobile, regardless.

Anyway, the entire battery of tests is over with, went downtown to get the last CT scan this morning - quite an exercise, my GPS software hasn't quite kept up with the latest changes - which are somewhat weekly, here in Seattle, I don't think Microsoft is to blame, they are across the lake, after all - so while it finds its way, this involves driving around all over the place, even taking a sojourn in the wrong direction to get to an on-ramp going in the right direction, when I see that, even though it is mid-morning, traffic heading South is absolutely jammed. I decided, this morning, to avoid the highway, second time this week, I guess that was a bit of wisdom.

I have to tell you I've never seen as many sick and disabled people in one place as this morning, at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Horrendous. I guess that is, by and large, all they do, treat and diagnose cancer patients, it is just startling to visit a place where the vast majority of patients have some or the other kind of cancer. I normally go to multi-disciplinary hospitals, and they don't have that concentration of visibly ill patients, in many cases ill to the point that they need an escort or carer, more often than not a family member. The SCCA has its name embroidered around the top of the building, where, I am sure, you can see it well from the highway, but not at all when you drive past it. Only once you drive into the campus (which has a different name) is there a marker for the patient parking, which, unlike some other hospitals, you have to pay for. Having said that, the place is welcoming, friendly staff, shops and restaurants abound, airy, spacious, if you've got to be sick this is the place to do it in. Being able to compare medical care in NYC, the Washington, D.C., metro area, and Seattle, though, I see more competition here than I've ever seen anywhere else, in medical facilities, more hospitals per square mile than I've ever seen anywhere, and the spending here seems enormous, I really wonder whether this area warrants the investment in patient care - by comparison, both downstate New York and the Washington, D.C., metro area have greater needs, and as far as I can tell, fewer medical facilities. That probably goes for London, where I have lived in the past, as well, although the English National Health Service makes comparing hard.

On a different note, I've just canned the copy of this blog I maintained at the Daily Telegraph site. Between the constant comment spam in Wordpress, and extremely annoying abusive commenters in the main blog, people the Telegraph blog management team won't do anything about, I've had it. You can't remove comments - even Facebook lets you do that - and I and others got an avalanche of comments like these, from someone calling themselves "veteran09":

"The ONLY safe answer to stop humanity warring, is to reveal that THE CREATOR of all races is with Us Brits Incarnate in Our British Monarch. All the world can NOW be ONE - UNITED - UNITED THROUGH MEMBERSHIP OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF NATIONS !!! We Brits need to live according to Our Kingdom status - ie. THE MONARCH RULING. No longer letting the prime minister of a majority party ruling Us for 5 years or more. LET CHRIST BEGIN HIS PROMISED REIGN ON EARTH THROUGH HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II. GOD CAN HANDLE ANY CRISIS THAT ASSAULTS US. GOD SAVE OUR WORTHY TO RULE; CHRIST INCARNATE QUEEN."

Endlessly. Comments that bear no relation to the blogs they are posted in, by the hundreds, I would think this is a disturbed person, and as the Telegraph won't do anything about it I've stopped blogging there, and removed my stuff, Sad. It was, years ago, the primary reason why I stopped using Wordpress, you have to go and manage your comments section at least once a day, and I figured the professional blog managers at the Telegraph and with Disqus would have folks doing this. Not. And without blocking tools, I kind of got fed up having to do this all over again. So there. Even here, at my own site, I frequently get spam mails through the script I run, but as that removes code injection attempts they can't do harm.

November 6, 2015: End-of-year catching up

Keywords: health insurance, open enrollment, mobile apps, data giveaway, refugees, migrants, Affordable Care Plan, Medicare, Medicaid, people trafficking, contact lenses, Austria, weight scale, bone mass, body measurements

This is the time of year, in the USA, that we get to go through "open enrollment", meaning you can change your health and other benefit insurance plans outside of there being a "life event", like marriage or kids or things. Statistics I saw recently about Obama's Affordable Care initiative seem to indicate that in the states that have accepted the initivative, and in the states that have added to the existing Medicaid program, there are a lot more insured folks, although the statistics have it that a number of insurers have increased their pricing since last year, or made cheaper plans unavailable. I suppose that was bound to happen, I suppose I've been lucky to have my employer insurance, which, since my retirement, has been turned into a lifetime plan. It isn't free, but the employer participation is generous, so.. Ah, here it is, New York Times, of course.

I have to tell you, though, that I spent a good couple of hours on the phone with the insurance folks to figure out what was what, this despite the 200 page manual they sent me, and the time I spent going through that. That is on top of the Medicare PDF document I get from the Fed, which governs what these "Advantage" plans can legally do. It looked, for instance, as if I had two drug plans, until I found out there is the "regular" drug plan, and then there is a drug plan from the health insurer, which covers drugs provided as part of hospital treatment. I had no idea. And that's how I discovered, at the beginning of the year, I had this "Silver Sneakers" gym membership thrown in. And it is how I discovered my health plan covers an eye exam, additional to the vision plan in my benefits (which is more of a discount plan than anything else) I am, now that I've signed up for 2016, after two days wading through databases, not looking forward to getting the new manual, which will supersede this week's documentation once the New Year takes off. Phew. At least I get another Amazon shopping card after I have my annual checkup, next week. Hehe.

Every time I turn around there is yet another mobile app that does not shut down, sends all of your information to its creator, or avails itself of the sensors in your phone, or all of the above. The Weather Channel app collects the barometric pressure at your location, the LinkedIn app copies your entire phone book and sends everybody there emails from you, and I caught (and made them stop) CaroO Pro continuing to run, and send data to its Korean makers, after I shut the app down, draining my battery overnight. Facebook's app does the same thing. I've solved the problem by using different phones for different things, and generally staying away from apps, especially the Social Media apps, but I am beginning to think regulators should really begin to regulate these folks, especially considering the number of scammers that spend their days trying to break into these folks' databases. Occasionally, one gets caught, but I get the impression that's the exception, not so much the rule. I've been getting texts from T-Mobile I am sure don't come from T-Mobile, etc.

When you read some of the European news websites you come away thinking they're quietly going crazy, over there, with literally hundreds of thousands of "migrants" coming across Southern and Eastern borders. While I have no intel, I just can't believe these are mostly refugees - I think people traffickers have found themselves a humongous source of income, lots of petty criminals and smugglers and other miscreants have "retrained". I even get the impression that with the onset of fall they have stepped up their "shipments", as they full well know the European governments involved can't leave the people with children and older folk at the borders while the frost in the mountains sets in. This is completely crazy, and by now the numbers are so large I am certain terrorists are mixed in with the "refugees". I have a hard time believing parents will subject their toddlers and small children to these trips, which kills many, and the kids always die first. "Refugees" who pay smugglers $10,000, $20,000, per family? Citizens in Austria are so worried that where Vienna saw 10 weapons purchase applications in August, there have been 192 in October, according to the Austrian press, and an upward trend in other areas is reported. What has more Austrians spooked enough to need a gun in the house? How do, just in Austria, 4,000 to 6,000 refugees arrive at their borders, just at the weekend, in the freezing cold, literally throwing themselves at the barriers wih kids in their arms, forcing police and border guards to open the gates. I am not making that up.... the Austrians have plenty of clear video to back this up.

I mentioned contact lenses, in recent blogs - someone asked why I switched from 30 day wear to 6 day wear. An optometrist, a few years back, noted some vein growth in my corneas, nothing bad, but he said that indicated not enough oxygen was getting through my permeable lenses. I mean, who knew eyes breathe? And that if they can't get enough air they try to import a blood supply? It can mean many things - for one, I switched to a "more permeable" type of lens, but at the same time he and I decided I should not be wearing my contacts for the full 30 days "because you can". One risk with that is that you get so used to these things that you wear them for longer, the other that you don't take enough time without wearing lenses, so your eyes can't "rest" (just because the sterilizer says "six hours" does not mean that's enough time for your eyes to rest). So I throttled back to a fortnight, then to six days at a time, and glasses on the seventh, for a full 24 hours. An opthalmologist advised that using artifial tear drops, during that time, and not the ones with loads of preservatives, helps too. Using glasses isn't always pleasant, spectacles have a different correction from contacts, and you see "differently" with glasses, especially where depth perception is concerned. Besides, seeing well all the time, even when you fumble for the snooze button at o-dark-hundred hours, or being able to clearly see all of your partner while you're having sex, is a lot better than wearing glasses, which you take off at night. But you can't buy new eyes, so this makes sense to me, especially since I have bifocal glasses, but don't need bifocal contact lenses, with monovision (which does not work with glasses). So there's your answer..

And then there is the "biometric" scale I bought on Amazon, which provides clever readings, like body fat, bone mass and water content, apart from weight. I have no idea how good its readings are, at least, not until I see my rheumatologist, who is going to do some scans to make sure my bone structure is A-OK. I'll keep you posted as to the outcome of that, and as I said previously, I don't think these scales are anywhere near as realistic as the $100,000 scanners the hospital uses. Having said that, if the measurements the scale produces are consistent, it can be a valuable tool to signal changes in the body, which is how I use it. And I can report the scale is consistent - a nice bright ergonomic display, and repeated measurements are very much consistent. Since the online manual wants the soles of your feet to be "moist" (not a word about this in the manual in the box), I checked whether or not measurements before and after a shower show any difference - not with me. That may well be different if you have very dry skin, or very calloused feet, but I found the scale "accurate" - in quotes, as I have nothing to compare the readings with, I'll certainly let you know how that pans out. I should point out, however, as an engineer, that high frequency oscillation measurements may certainly provide useful readings - human body fat, and cell contained moisture, have quite specific resonation frequencies, and it appears to me quite a bit of research has been done by at least some manufacturers, to provide "reasonable" measurements. I wouldn't rely on these devices for medically applicable readings, but they certainly can provide you with a good view of body change. Buying one when you are starting on an exercise-and-diet regime may well help motivate, as you see the values get "better". I bought mine because I have reached a good weight measurement, but am now beginning (I suspect) to put on muscle mass, due to my frequent workouts, and so I no longer see my weight go down, paradoxically a good thing now. My only negative comment is that the display is made for younger eyes, and I have trouble discerning some of the smaller symbols. This is despite my brand new contact lenses and "measured" 20/20 vision, older eyes don't provide the acuity younger eyes do, and this is, in new digital products where the display emits light, often an issue, as the designers and the testers don't think of us oldies. So, guys, like with all other products - test them across age groups, ethnicities, cultures, the works. I recall the Philips designer, years ago, who told me they made two-head shavers for the Japanese market, as Japanese had "smaller faces" and didn't need three heads. That's what I am talking about.

The time machine through October, 2015, with linkbacks to October, 2008, is here

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