Rants Technology

Updating / Downgrading Windows 7

In preparation for the arrival of Windows​ 10, I did the unthinkable and re-installed a hard drive in my system and re-loaded, from DVD no less, Windows 7. It was a painful experience that I don’t recommend to anyone, but I learned some things that were lost for a while:

  1. Hard drives as your primary boot disk suck. I had forgotten this in the move to SSD drives a few years ago. Everything you do is slower on a hard disk. If you aren’t running an SSD as your main drive, go out and and buy one RIGHT NOW.
  2. Additionally, I had the second 2TB Western Digital (WDC) SATA drive die in about a week, as I did this process. That meant that not only are hard drives slow, they also fail all the time. I haven’t had this problem with a single SSD yet, and they are in some cases older than the HDDs they are replacing.
  3. Installing Windows from scratch is unnecessarily lengthy and painful. On several systems I have had to setup Ubuntu or Linux Mint from scratch and in all of them I was fully operation within an hour or so. Win7, on the other hand, took all day to load, reboot dozens of times, accept EULAs, patch and update.
  4. If you have to scratch install Windows, please use WUInstall. It is a time saver (after I found it) and made the many hours of updates run with very little human intervention.
  5. Modern PCs have lots of complicated and specialized hardware. Running an older OS required downloading driver installers for everything, and many of them required service packs and add-ons from Microsoft. Sometimes to move ahead we need to leave the old behind, and device driver installers should be left behind. Run new OS’s, people.
  6. Considering how painful this upgrade process is, I have a better understanding of why the PC industry continues to shrink. Compared with the pain of updating, patching, installing and fixing all of my hardware was, running out to buy the latest phone or tablet is blissfully simple. And when the OS updates come over-the-air for those devices, they are many times smaller and faster than any PC update process known today.

In short, don’t do what I did unless you have a lot of time and patience or enjoy searching around the internet to learn why your shiny new PC doesn’t work properly.

General Humor Rants

A Slurpee Disappointment

For some reason today, Labor Day, I decided that I had to have something from my childhood as a reward for the dusty work around the house that I performed. It seemed only fitting that this treat have some kind of Coca-Cola flavoring to it, since that is one of the most vivid and constant memories I had growing up. Problem is, I really dislike the way Coke tastes now in the USA, so hopping over to the local Safeway for a beverage certainly wouldn’t do.

First I thought it would be a good time to stock up on some Mexican Coke again. I live in California, I have a Costco membership, this should be no problem… except that it’s Labor Day, Costco is closed, and none of the Costco’s nearby carry the sugary drink any longer. Strike one.

Alright, how about that kiddie treat standby, the vulnerable Coke Slurpee? I asked Google Now where the nearest 7-11 store was and I headed out the door. Upon arriving, I searched around the store to find the magic machine of frozen drink deliciousness. Only once I got close to the machine did I discover the sad truth: the machine was broken, flashing, and leaking some kind of darkened ooze. The store clerk was of no use, simply repeating what the machine had already communicated and then returning to his headphones and music. Strike two.

I set off for yet another 7-11 location. I am now discovering in my search that it is far easier to find Starbucks locations than it is to find frozen wonder drinks. After driving around for another 8 or so minutes, I find the next frozen delivery den. Inside there is a working cola flavored Slurpee machine. I grab a cup, turn the switch and delight in the process of fulfilling my admittedly short term goal of Coke nirvana. After paying the clerk and walking out the door I take my first straw-full of Slurpee and…. I am disappointed.

All of this searching, driving and anticipating had raised my expectations to levels that were unsupportable. I was left with a mildly cola flavored, ice crystal drink and a series of questions about how I recall my childhood. Was the Slurpee always this tasteless and bland? Is my memory fading now such that I couldn’t recall the previous bouts of poor cola taste? Had the secret recipe changed somehow in the intervening years while I wasn’t watching?

I believe I’ve learned an important lesson here: lower expectations are better expectations. And that it’s probably better to buy Mexican Coke, some vanilla ice cream, and make my own concoctions at home. Figures.

General Rants Technology

Check Your Email Addresses for Crying Out Loud!

Dear people of the internet, please help yourself out by verifying that the email address you sprinkle to every web site, sweepstakes form, shopping cart, government entity and social network is actually an address that belongs to you. I’ll even tell you how to do this, just follow these simple, basic steps:

  1. Open your email client (Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail) or web mail site (Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Gmail, etc.)
  2. Create a new email message.
  3. In the “To:” field, type in the email address you give out to everyone online.
  4. In the “Subject:” field, type “This is just a test”.
  5. In the body of the email, put in a trivial bit of text that only you should know.  It could be something simple like “I have three cats” or “I really like chocolate bacon.”  It doesn’t matter what it says, it just has to be unique to you.
  6. Hit the “Send” button.
  7. Wait a few minutes.
  8. If you receive the email you just sent without any error messages and it looks exactly like what you typed in above, congratulations! You win at using the internet. The rest of this article is not for you.
  9. If you didn’t get a response back, wait another few hours. If you still didn’t get the message, you need to read on…
Generally speaking, I am a nice person to be around (or so some people have toldme). I try to help people out when I can and offer suggestions when people get stuck or need some assistance. This is a courtesy I often extend to people I encounter on the internet as well, but to be fair, I don’t know for certain that these so-called internet people are actually real.

Over the past year I have started getting an increasing and alarming amount of personal and private emails delivered to my Gmail address. Normally, when I see an email that clearly has nothing to do with me I delete it or mark it as spam and be on my way. But during the past 12 months some of these internet people have really been pushing the boundaries of what I would consider safe or secure information to share online.

In at least three separate occasions that I can recall, I was so worried about the outcome of these internet people not getting these private emails that I directly intervened by calling the sender (using that old school voice telephone technology) and letting them know that they most certainly did not reach their intended receiver.  In each of these cases the sender was shocked that I wasn’t the internet person in question and then asked me to verify that I was who I said I was.  After the disbelief sunk in, they asked me, sheepishly in many cases, to please delete the messages and disregard any further emails sent from their address.  But this isn’t the sad bit of this story.

The really terrible thing is that these internet people just keep using my email address as their own, and on some pretty important forms and sites.  A small sampling of these repeat offenders are:
  • A notice from your landlord that your rent check bounced and that eviction is imminent
  • An official letter from your university that you have been put on academic suspension and have been asked not to return
  • Multiple emails attempting to confirm your financial records for a car and home loan from your bank
  • Appointment emails setting up and moving the times and places for your job interviews
  • Forms you must fill out to qualify for your state’s unemployment benefits
  • Confirmation emails for hundreds of dollars of computer equipment to be shipped overseas
  • Notices from your auto insurance and health insurance companies letting you know that your coverage has been dropped, the cost raised, or your claims were denied
  • Discrete FedEx tracking emails to let you know that your vibrator shipment is delayed
This doesn’t include the dozens of friend and family emails attempting to find out where you’ve been for the past month, why you won’t return their calls, why you were so drunk at that party last weekend and to let you know that your grandfather just died.  You would think that somewhere these internet people would wonder “hey, where did all of my friends, family, job, healthcare, insurance and banking emails go?”  But you would be wrong.

So consider this my plea to you, humble internet visitor: check your email addresses and make darn sure that the ones you are handing out actually belong to you.  Because I’d hate to be the one to tell you that your trip to Florida was cancelled after you spent all that money booking hotels and plane tickets, just because you didn’t get your confirmation numbers.

Your helpful internet do-gooder,


Rants Technology Work

Droid X Gingerbread Update: from First to Worst in one Download

Motorola Droid XMy day job is spent getting technology products and services made, shipped and into consumer hands as quickly and efficiently as possible. With such a job comes pressures to release things that aren’t quite ready or have known issues in order to secure time-to-market or competitive advantages. I sometimes have to put a companies best interests ahead of the consumer, even if I worry about the outcome. I state all of this up front so that people will have a clearer view into my thoughts on the process of software updates and the need to just ship something.

However, given everything I just said I am here to say that the latest Gingerbread release of Android (2.3.3 for those keeping score at home) on the Motorola Droid X is an unconditional and complete failure. Very few software updates in recent memory have done so much harm to a well respected product, to so many people in such a short period of time.  Don’t just take my word for it, go look at the US forums for the Droid X and see just how many people are having issues.  It isn’t just a few upset customers, it is thousands of them.

What makes this entire process all the more terrible is that Motorola had an early access program for select users to allow them to “soak test” the release before the general public got it.  Instead, it seems that the early access folks had only 48 hours or so with the update before Motorola and Verizon pushed this mess out into the world.  Worse still, many of these folks were reporting issues and asking to slow the roll out until at least some of the problems were fixed.  That didn’t happen, and now the Motorola employees on the forum have gone silent or suggested that the customers are simply not understanding the new update.

I am now left with a previously fantastic phone that reboots at least once a day, a battery that runs down in 7 hours, no working phone service if I dare turn on WiFi, a confused GPS sensor and an uglier user interface than I thought was possible to have.  Worse, because this new update is “better” than the previous Froyo release, there is no root access and thus no way to copy off the system log files or take screenshots to prove that all of this bad behavior is happening.  Bravo Motorola, you’ve turned my once useful phone into an expensive, defective paperweight.

I have certainly learned my lesson from this exercise. The next time I buy a phone I will make sure that it is fully unlocked, fully modifiable by the user and completely supported by the manufacturer rather than hoping that support folks will step in and do “the right thing” to help customers out.  Shame on me, indeed.

Rants Technology

Sony’s Hack Leaks 77 Million Users Data

I try to not mention things related to past employers or clients but the scope of this issue is so vast that I feel something must be said.

The short story is that Sony had some kind of hack attack that exposed the full data set of all of their users. And by full data set I mean names, emails, home addresses, passwords, purchase histories and credit card numbers. And by all of their users I mean 77 Million people world wide. Let all of that sink in for a minute. What would you do if every bit of information needed to make a purchase or impersonate you was made available, along with almost all of the security data needed to answer a password question or reset security at any online site?

In my case I had to do something that I should have done long ago: change scores of passwords.  I don’t often reuse passwords but I do sometimes create a single master password seed and then add bits to it at the beginning or end.  Such was the password that I had on Sony’s PlayStation Network and Qriocity services before this break-in. As of today I’ve now had to slog through the password change procedure for dozens of sites that previously used a variation of what I gave to Sony.  I’ve had to start thinking what secret questions and answers are used on the hundreds of sites, banks and other institutions that could now be known to hackers. I had to call my credit card companies and inform them that I am one of the unlucky 77 million suckers who just had their info stolen. And all the while I have to wonder where we are today on privacy and security.

You see, as much as I want to blame the big companies who have all my data and can possibly lose it all (or partner with someone who does) I also have to accept at least a little responsibility for caving in and giving up all of this data in the first place.  Worse, since I am also a technology product consultant (product manager or strategy provider, if you will) I have helped to devise and have recommended asking and capturing of some of the very data that is now out in hackers hands.  It gives me pause to think that somewhere there’s a nefarious, dark group of criminals using data that was formerly held by someone I worked for and that somehow I may have helped to gather or at least brought customers into that environment.

So although I am many years removed from being a Sony employee I am both angered by and sympathetic to the plight we now find ourselves in.  Short of disconnecting from the internet, mobile network devices and credit card companies forever I must find a way to work within and around this system of interlocking and now inter-sharing worlds. I don’t have all the answers but I do know one thing: I will certainly be recommending far less personally identifiable data capture and I will be asking much tougher questions about data security from all my clients, prospective employers and future service providers.

For those folks (users or customers) on the outside of these big companies all I can say is be vigilant with your personal data and make very sure that whoever you give it to really needs all of it AND can protect you when (not if) the next data breach happens. If you can’t get satisfactory answers to how safe you and your data will be with a provider then it’s time to leave and find a provider that will give you that information.

UPDATE: I must have some kind of bad luck.  Not even 12 hours passed before another break-in at another online site that compromised my personal data.  This time the site was using another one of my “seed passwords” that caused me to spend 3 hours contacting sites and resetting accounts.  The idea of disconnecting from the internet completely is starting to make some sense, in a bunker-mentality kind of way.


Rants Technology Web Links Work

Simple Idea, Difficult Execution

Suck Meter patch

I found a post from Techcrunch today that neatly summarized a process that I’ve used for many years but didn’t put into concise words: Make Products that Suck Less.

I have been through the new or improve a product process so many times that all of the advice listed seems old hat, but it bears repeating and sharing in these modern times. It seems that you can’t turn the corner in a store (or online if that’s your thing) without running into a product, while initially interesting or attractive, that is utterly terrible in its function and form.  I should know as I too have fallen victim to some of the crimes outlined in the story post.

Item number one on the list is It only takes one person to make your product suck. Truer words have seldom been spoken. Just recently a client that shall remain nameless decided to make the entire process of getting their product hard for users to understand because someone in another part of the company thought it might be hard to get it done right.  Let that sink in for a moment. You have money, you want to give it to this company for their oh-so-cool-new-shiny thing. The company wants to sell it to you, but someone decides that it would be easier for them or their team to simply not do the work, thus making the process of getting said product many times more difficult. Thus, if you, the customer, really want the product you must now wade through suck to get to it.

Item five is another favorite of mine, Customers demand sucky products. Not on purpose (at least not all of the time) but people will often ask for things that make no practical sense in a product and refuse to buy a product if it doesn’t include these features. Again, a unamed employer once held focus groups and polled industry analysts about what features they would want in the next version of the product. The ideas came pouring in and many of them were truly, completely awful. The kind of awful that if you built it into the product you would never be able to sell it without returns. After months of study, data collection, internal discussions and executive consultation nearly every outside feature idea was eliminated from the product plan.

I’ve often wondered how a freshly minted product manager (or PM in the tech world) is expected to be successful when they start a new job, given that they often don’t know the political back story of a company nor the history of a product and its customers. The kernels of information in this Techcrunch story should be required reading for such product owner folks, or anyone else who wants to ship a succesful product.  I don’t profess to be an expert at making products but I have created a fair share of them. I can say this safely: if possible, a product will suck more often than it won’t, and that just shouldn’t be the way it works.

Rants Review Technology Web Links

How Facebook is killing privacy

I have recently been called crazy (alright, not just recently) for my opinions of things found online.  However, recent changes in the way Facebook wants to use my private data (or what I thought was private) have me thinking that perhaps their site just isn’t for me anymore.  And for these thoughts I was labeled nuts, ridiculous and even a heretic, as I am also helping to create such grand systems of online data sharing.

During their f8 conference in April 2010, Facebook introduced a platform called the Open Graph.  On its face, it seems to do what users want: go anywhere on the web and see information about what their Facebook friends think and let them report their own activities back to Facebook.  Unfortunately, as a “feature” of this new roll-out comes the serious drawback: you are now watched, tracked and exposed everywhere on the web that Facebook has a deal.  What this means is that any data in your Facebook world is now available to any web site that uses the new Open Graph API.  Worse, these sites need only ask for permission once and they can reach in and grab all the data they want and keep it forever.

If all of this weren’t enough, some extra bits of bad behavior from Facebook are now becoming visible.  To “assist” in the social web expansion Facebook wants, they are now automatically opting-in every user’s private profile data to share with the web.  No longer are your favorite books, music, movies or your home town, education and events just between you and your authorized friends.  Nope, now Facebook is pretty much telling you “share it all or else you’ll have no profile page.” This is bad news, indeed.

So far, Facebook hasn’t caved on any of this.  Things have raised enough eyebrows that the US Senate has started asking Facebook to back down. It is likely, however, that Facebook will do nothing about all the controversy, chalk it all up to people not understanding how the web works, then plowing ahead with their own plans to completely own your identity and personal data online.  If you need a hard reason to believe that this will all end badly, look no further than the young Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself who tells the press “he doesn’t believe in privacy” online.  If that doesn’t get people to wake up I’m not sure what will.

I think it is time to own up to the generational gap: I believe that there must be the ability for me to control my personal information online.  I don’t think that a company should have unfettered access to all of my personal data, my friends and then be able to go off and give it to anyone, anywhere for as long as they like without letting me decide about it.  I feel there will always be a public forum on which to share certain parts of my life, but it should be on my terms and with limits that I set.  Yes, the future may be all about “the personalized web” and how great that will make discovering new things… but if it comes at the cost of all of my online privacy I think I’ll stick to hanging out with the uncool kids and their old-school, legacy information and decision-making processes.

UPDATE: after the original post went up the EFF put out this helpful summary of how bad the new Open Graph API is to your “private data.”  In short, if you want to have data shared between just you and friends, you can no longer be on Facebook.  Read Six Things You Need to Know About Facebook Connections for more details.

General Rants Technology

Goodbye 2009, and good riddance

Just by reading the headline you can see that I have no problems leaving 2009 in the dust. It was a crappy year in just about every sense. But rather than drone on and on about what really sucked about the ’09, because really, I could, I will instead pull the old “look back” list trick from my friends in commercial journalism. It works for them so it ought to for me.

  1. The economy – I really should not have to explain this one. If you had stocks, bonds, a retirement account or any kind of savings you know it sucked this year. Enough said.
  2. Employment – or the lack thereof. By ending the year at 10% the US finds itself in bad shape for those wanting work. In California where I am it’s a cruddy 12.3%.
  3. Healthcare – one of the “benefits” of working as a self-employed or small business owner is acquiring your own healthecare. It is neither beneficial nor cheap, I’ve learned. And it seems that Congress would like to make it worse. Way to go, elected officials.
  4. The Financial system – big bailouts, too-big-to-fail thinking, insane back-room deals to help out insurance companies, messed up mortgages and bank failures. Oh, and your credit card APR is going way up.
  5. Climate Change – yes, the Earth is getting warmer in some places. But it seems to do that on its own from time-to-time. Now the truth is coming out and it looks like global warming is all about getting fatter government grants.
  6. Sarah Palin – enough already! Between her book tour, crazy fans, crazy family or just plain dumb things to say this would-be candidate really needs to be given a reality TV show so the rest of thinking American can tune out.
  7. AT&T – their network bites, they are beginning to losing money on services and they really have bad customer service these says. It may be time to start looking for other options.
  8. Apple’s walled garden – better known as the App Store to most folks. It’s been a bad year for Apple on this front and next year doesn’t look to be much better given recent events.
  9. Netbooks – this abomination of technology really needs to die. It may be doing so already. There are no profits in making them, users are unhappy after buying them and most of the internet won’t run on them. I know people are cheap, but come on, spend an extra $50 and buy a laptop.

I thought about going on and listing some hopeful predictions for 2010, but let’s just think about the track record for such things: they just don’t pan out. If you can’t predict the easy stuff, like tomorrows weather, then trying to guess how a whole year will turn out like is just nuts. I will stick with my current belief that next year will just be a bit like this year, only with a “ten” at the end of it. We’ll see.


PC Building Fun

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I spent more than my fair share of quality time building and rebuilding PCs. Although it was all for a good cause, it was pretty painful. These PCs are supposed to work when you put them together, and yet these new boxes just didn’t run. As each build stretched on into the early morning hours it became clear that this was just a futile effort. In the end, I gave up my own (and a friend’s) working PCs to get the job done but I’m left with a puzzling thought:

Why is it that technology gets faster/better/cheaper and yet it is just as hard to use as it ever was?

Clearly I missed that day in marketing class.

Rants Technology

If At First You Don't Succeed, Fail, Fail Again

I’ve had a tough week, technology-wise.  Over the course of the last three days I’ve had two relatively new hard drives fail, a gigabit switch started having some ports go slow and a servo that controls the throttle on an RC airplane went nuts.  I think it may be time for some time away from the keyboard.

I believe my new saying for hard disks should go something like this:

“There are no such things as good, dependable or safe disks.  There are just disks that have failed and those that will fail.”

On the recommendation of some people on the Internet, I bought and tested a Samsung F1 Spinpoint 1TB SATA drive.  It seemed great: it was big, fast, very quiet and energy efficient.  Windows seemed to like it and a couple of my other PCs with very finicky SATA controllers took a shine to it as well.  After about a month or so of using it I decided to purchase 5 more, 4 to put into my ReadyNAS storage box and one “spare” to use for shuttling data around. I also convinced a partner of mine to pony up for an additional 4 drives for his NAS.  All seemed right in the world.

About two weeks ago I started noticing my ReadyNAS box getting slower and slower when trying to copy files from it or put files on it.  It also has a web page where the admin tasks get done, and most days I was fortunate to see that page in two to three minutes after trying it.  Great, I thought, some kind of firmware mess up (the box can offer and upgrade its own firmware) has happened.  So I slapped on a new version of the firmware, rebooted the NAS, and then nothing. Truly nothing, as in no web page, no network shares, no ping returns.  A few more reboots and things appeared to be working, so I left it alone to worry about it another day.

In the meantime I reformatted my main PC to be a full time Windows 7 x64 RC1 machine, so I fed it my existing Samsung 1TB drive to run from.  That worked for about 24 hours, then Win7 just stopped responding.  Thinking that I fouled it somehow (it happens, I go nuts on new installs from time to time) I hammered the whole install and did it again.  This time around it lasted for about 6 hours before Win7 coughed up an error message that roughly translated said:

“Dude (it’s California, work with me here), this drive is busted and you should back it up. Oh, and I won’t let you write to it any more. Have a nice day.”

Flash forward to June 19, just 24 hours after the desktop drive was rejected by Windows and now the NAS just disappeared.  I checked it to verify that it still had power but beyond that it did nothing but sit there and blink.  Reboot and try again.  The NAS works, but very slowly.  I finally get the admin web page up to view what the matter might be.  To my surprise there are no alerts in its log of “very bad things” that happen on it when I’m not looking, but there is another page where I can see the raw details of each disk’s S.M.A.R.T. report.  This is where all the scary data is on errors, retries and the like.  Imagine my surprise to find that one of my disks, labeled “2” by the NAS, has gone off the deep end with over 100K of errors in less than a weeks time.  I shut the box down and pulled that drive, replacing it with that “spare” Samsung I had been using as my portable disk.  26 hours later the NAS is up and running and it seems happy again, but I’m not so sure.

Along with my panic and rage, I notice that a few of my machines are running slowly when connecting to each other on my network or talking to the Internet.  That’s odd, I say to myself, since I often have self referential conversations, my network is all Gigabit Ethernet enabled save for a few older devices.  I check the gigabit switch and find that at least two of the ports are lit at 10/100 speeds.  The PCs confirm this and I sit puzzled.  It worked last week, I thought, but now it’s gone and slowed itself down for no reason?  A quick check of the Internets using some Google-foo and I have my answer, this Netgear 8 port switch, the GS608, has a history of dying slowly and taking one port at a time down to a crawl.  It just decided to make itself known to me while I’m fighting my hard disks.

Normally, three big failures at once is plenty, but since this is my life I had to make it more exciting.  I drove off to the RC airfield to fly my “reliable” airplane and the servo that controls the throttle goes nuts. It decides there are two settings: full on and off.  Stranger still is the fact that this has never happened on any airplane I’ve had before and after tinkering with the airplane and changing nothing it “cures” itself.  Knowing the week I’ve just had I packed everything up in the truck and took my toys home.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is supposed to be, other than when I seem to have bad luck in a portion of my world it happens in clumps.  I’ll certainly want to be extra careful the next time I get in something fast and dangerous to go somewhere… come to think of it my car was just in the shop for a safety system malfunction. Hmmm….