Category Archives: Computers and Internet

Never buy an IoT product that depends upon the Cloud to work…

So Google bought Nest and then a couple of days ago killed off one of Nest’s home automation products, Revolv, which was sold with a Lifetime Subscription. Actually, they didn’t directly kill the product but will no longer provide the servers essential to its operation after May 2016 – effectively turning it into a brick.

Lesson learned – never purchase any product that depends upon the Cloud for its operation.

Wes Miller discusses this on his getwired.com blog:

What did I learn from Nest ?

” …
As I look back at Nest, it helps me frame the logic I’ll personally use when considering future IoT purchases. Ideally from now on, I’d like to consider instead:
1.Buying devices with open APIs or open firmware. If the APIs or firmware of Nest were opened up, the devices could have had alternative apps built against them by the open-source community (to generally poor, but possible, effect). This is about as likely to happen now as Nest sharing their windfall with early adopters like myself.
2.Buying devices with standards-based I/O (Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi) and apps that can work without a Web point of contact. While a thermostat is a unique device that does clamor for a display, I think that most devices on the IoT should really have a limited, if any, display and rely on Web or smart phone apps over Wi-Fi or BT 4.0 in order to be configurable. Much like point 1, this would mean some way out if the company shutters its Web API.
3.Buying devices from larger companies. Most of the major thermostat manufacturers are making smarter thermostats now, although aesthetically, most are still crap.
4.Buying “dumb” alternatives. A minimalist programmable or simple non-programmable thermostat again.

In short, it’ll probably be a while before I spend money – especially premium money – on another IoT device.

… “

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Be very careful with what Android apps you run on your phone…

Be very careful with what Android apps you run on your phone…

I recently had occasion to try and ascertain what IP addresses my Droid Turbo was using both on and off WiFi. A quick Google search turned up several recommendations for an app called OS Monitor which I installed.

In browsing the opened TCP/IP connections for the various applications I noticed that there was a couple of connections for ES File Explorer – a file management application that I had installed about a year ago and had used sporadically. The application wasn’t shown as running on the phone however. Clicking on the connection showed that the two connections were routed to Beijing, China and Hong Kong.

Having seen the 60 minutes episode last Sunday about Chinese Industrial Espionage I decided to immediately uninstall the application and reboot my phone. Running the OS Monitor app again those two illicit connections were no longer present.

It may be that they were only tracking usage statistics, however in that case the connections shouldn’t have been established without the application running. In any case I’m not comfortable with a surreptitious process running on my phone sending who knows what to China.

Let’s be careful out there… the job that you save may be your own.

Backup Software Redux

The long standing quest to find functional Windows backup software has reached a terminus. I can fully recommend Macrium Reflect Professional v5:

https://macrium.com/

This software has worked well for me on both Windows 8 and Windows XP SP3.  I have it installed and working on 3 PCs and have been very pleased with it. Unlike Acronis and NovaBackup this company actually cares about and performs software engineering. There have been a few updates to add functionality, and they actually have a blog where they discuss the product and its development:

http://blog.macrium.com/

Recommended.

Annoying Android Bugs

Back in October of last year I purchased a Motorola XOOM tablet. Very nice, and it is supposed to be a “Google Experience” device – which hopefully means that the software will be maintained and updated.

When I purchased it the Android version was Honeycomb.  I added a few different apps – Evernote, Amazon Kindle Reader, News360, Google Reader, Google Currents and Google +. I enjoyed using it.

Somewhere along the way, I started experiencing an Android error message that would pop-up: “The Android.Media.Process has stopped.” There was an option to send a report when this happened and I always did but I think that they just fall on the floor or into a bit bucket somewhere. The problem got worse and worse so I started researching a solution.

Several people indicated that they got relief by going into the Settings, Apps, All Apps, Media Storage and clearing the cache. I did this and the problem disappeared for about a day then returned. So I basically suffered with it, clearing the cache whenever it happened and cursing at whoever might be reading the crash reports.

In January the Xoom was upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich. Awesome – maybe this will fix the problem. Unfortunately no – the crashes kept occurring and could be temporarily ameliorated by clearing the media storage cache.

Doing some more research I saw a few people report that they were able to clear this problem by uninstalling Google + and Google Currents. What the heck, give it a try.

Voila !  So far the problem has disappeared.  What the heck – why should Google know how to write apps for their own operating system ?

DataGridView Custom ComboBox Column

I’m writing a .NET Winform application to communicate with and exercise the functionality of our forthcoming Color LCD. One of the attributes that can be selected is a font from a collection loaded into the display. Each entry in the collection has the font #, filename, foreground and background colors, spacing, transparency, etc.  In order to make it easy to ascertain which font is selected, I used an owner-draw drop list combobox that I found on CodeProject with a few changes to handle System.Drawing.Color properties and corrected the handling of the selected item coloring in the OnMeasureItem and OnDrawItem overrides:

MultiColumnComboBoxDropped

This works pretty good and allows the user to select a font based upon more that the name of the font.

I now needed to allow the user to perform this same selection when editing in a row of a DataGridView.  No problem I thought – just use this control in a custom DataGridViewComboBoxColumn class. I’m already using a customized DataGridViewButtonColumn that allows me to disable individual buttons in the column.

I again researched custom DataGridViewColumns and put together a derived class that I though should work. I had to derive a custom DataGridViewCell, DataGridViewEditingControl and DataGridViewColumn. Got everything to compile and run OK.

However it doesn’t quite work. When I try and BeginEdit() on one of these custom combobox cells, the mulitcolumncombobox class OnDropDown event gets called, but the EventArg is null. So you get a Null Reference Exception. The class looks like everything is connected up properly, the derived combobox has the correctly populated datasource, and it’s Item collection is correct.  Something is not hooked up correctly but I don’t know how to troubleshoot what is wrong. The call stack only shows the BeginEdit() call, <external code> and then the OnDropDown call with the null EventArgs parameter.  I spent about 1/2 a day trying to find solutions or comparable approaches without any luck.

So for right now, I removed this customized column, and am simply using a DataGridViewComboBoxColumn that just shows and edits the selected font using the name property of the datasource. It works, but it’s not as apparent to the user what the attributes of the selected font are.

I’m looking for some pointers on how to debug this or how to correctly hookup a derived combobox in custom DataGridViewComboBoxColumn. Maybe it needs to be derived from a DataGridViewTextBoxColumn instead ?

Thank you!

Acronis True Image Home 2012 – $40 of hell…

I’ve been using Acronis True Image Home 11 for quite some time – and was generally pleased with it’s operation. One thing that it wouldn’t do however was to backup over a network share. We recently installed a DLink NAS, and I wanted to be able to schedule backups to it – something that XP’s backup also wouldn’t do. So I purchased the latest Acronis version – True Image Home 2012.

Whatever you do, don’t buy this program – it’s a total piece of shit.

Whenever it starts it checks for a newer version – even if you say no, it exits the program and goes into the installer. It says that there is a newer version available, but then says that it can’t find it. If you quit the installer, the program hoses the existing install. Then, get this – it won’t even uninstall – it fails the uninstall. And even better, if you chose to send the error information to Acronis via a link in their install program, the support e-mail is rejected by their server ! After it hoses the install, two services that it installs consistently fail on subsequent reboots.

I downloaded a ‘cleaner’ from their website that purports to remove all traces of any versions of their software from your system and ran it. Took quite awhile, and seemed to do what it claimed to do. Funny that their uninstall process couldn’t do the same thing but who am I to tell them how to write commercial software.

Did a reinstall, and everything seemed OK.

Having wasted about 2 hours messing with this piece of shit I got on with my work. In the process I right clicked on a file to view its properties and was surprised to see a new tab labeled Acronis Recovery. What’s this ?  I clicked on the tab and my mouse froze. Keyboard still worked, but no mouse – great !  Plugging and un-plugging the Microsoft Intellimouse USB didn’t restore funtionality. However if I logged out and then logged back in, the mouse started working again. Sweet !  OK, don’t touch that new tab that Acronis has polluted Windows Explorer with.

At the end of the day, I wanted to perform a backup. So I started Acronis, and again it ignored my intentions and tried to install a newer version which, as before, it couldn’t find.  And again – no mouse.

Checking out Acronis’ support forum it seems that the mouse lockup is a very common problem. The only resolution is to not use a USB mouse.

Really ?  In 2011, don’t use a USB mouse ?  This is truly fucked.  Why using a USB mouse would cause it to freeze, but only when using Acronis software is beyond me. Why do they have to fuck with the mouse or USB stack at all ?

So today I removed Acronis True Image Home 2012. They will not receive any more of my money. And I will go out of my way to try and make sure that they don’t receive money from anybody else as well.

Death by MBA – Caveat Emptor.

UPDATE:

I’ve had good luck with Macrium Reflect under Windows 8 Pro x64. I’m considering purchasing a copy for my XP Pro SP3 system, but I am in the process of retiring that box. See http://www.macrium.com/

How NOT to do customer support

Before Christmas 2010, I purchased a SansDigital TR8MB enclosure. The supplied controller implements a software RAID, and I wanted to see if there was a hardware RAID option available.

So I sent off e-mails to both SansDigital, the enclosure manufacturer, and HighPoint the manufacturer of RAID cards. This was over 5 weeks ago. I finally received a response from HighPoint tech support today – which suprised me since I had forgotten about it:

HighPoint's delayed tech support response

Acronis True Image Home 2010 – FAIL !

A few years ago, on the basis of several positive reviews I purchased Acronis True Image Home 11. The reviewers were right – this has been a fantastic program and has save my bacon a few times – as recently as a few weeks ago.

Fast forward to today, when my brother had to clone a disk and I recommended Acronis True Image. He went to the website to purchase it – of course, now, the available version is not 11 but 2010.

He tried to use this to clone his hard drive and it got about 75% of the way and then silently locked up. Restarted, repeat, same thing. Nice.

Start reading on the internet and it turns out that Acronis True Image Home 2010 is now a piece of shit – it doesn’t do anything that version 11 used to do – it locks up, corrupts backups, ad nauseum. And, in order to report the problems or attempt to get help you now have to pay in advance for any kind of support. Acronis’ own forums are full of complaints about the product with little or no company responses.

I’m left to wonder why a company would take a wonderful, highly reviewed product and deliberately break it.  My brother figured it out however – Acronis software is bundled with the non-OEM Seagate drives. Seems like a smart move for both companies. However, all hard drives now ship with bad sectors – fact of life due to the rapid increase in density and reduction in price – and he’s sure that Seagate got tired of having to swap out new hard drives that Acronis reported as having bad sectors. So they change the software to silently fail instead – blame gets distributed elsewhere, MBAs for both companies now make their quarter nut and problem solved !

My advice – do not buy any Acronis software anymore. They have deliberately crippled it and do not stand behind it. CAVEAT EMPTOR.

The Walmartization of Hard Drives

Lost a hard drive over the weekend. I was running a long test over the weekend to verify that the firmware changes that I had made to a product had stopped the infrequent ‘lockup’ reported by a customer. So I stopped by the office to check in on it – it was working flawlessly – great.

As long as I’m here I thought I’d check my e-mail. Pressed a key to bring my office machine out of hibernation – blue screen !  Never a good sign. It said that it was dumping the memory to disk, but there was no progress, and the HD indicator was on solid.

After about 10 minutes, I decided to press Reset. The machine wouldn’t even enter the BIOS, the HD indicator just came on and stuck on solid. Tried to boot a memory test CD, but it wouldn’t even access the DVD drive. Unplugged the Seagate 500G HD, and now the machine entered the BIOS and booted the memory test CD – memory test runs fine.

Took the suspect HD to another machine – same symptoms. The drive spins up fine – loads the heads – no weird noises are produced – but as soon as it is plugged into the SATA – the HD activity light pegs on and nothing else can happen – BIOS, DVD drive, nothing.

Unplugged the bad HD, booted Seagate’s SEATOOLS CD, plugged in the drive and tried to run a diagnostic. The software can see the DVD drive, but not the HD. Great.

So I went and purchased a new HD, got my external USB HD with the last full backup from two weeks ago out of the safe offsite and prepared to do battle. Installed the new HD, booted my Acronis True Image recovery CD and started the recovery of MBR/Track 0, and the C & D partitions. After seeing that it had started, I left and tried not to think about it anymore – not easy to do.

Went back into the office on Sunday, the recovery process had finished. Booted the machine and it came up with no problems. Kudos to Acronis !

The same can’t be said for Seagate. The drive that had failed was purchased at the end of March 2008. It has a five year warranty so I can get a replacement, but what a pain in the ass. Back then I paid $100 for the Seagate 500G 7200.11 HD. Saturday I paid $100 for a Seagate 1TB 7200.12 HD. So in two years, the storage has doubled for the same price. I’d pay $1000 for a HD that didn’t fail however.

Switched to Seagate drives a couple of years ago after a string of Western Digital drives failed. And years ago we dumped Maxtor for similiar reasons. Also went through the IBM Deathstar drive debacle. It seems that ‘reliable hard drive’ is an oxymoron. Just imagine how many kids are going to grow up with no photos as their digital images are lost to drive failures, computer viruses and operator errors. 

Didn’t lose too much. I try and do regular backups, and if I’m working on something important I back up those individual projects on the office server with the RAID array and tape backup. Fortunately, I had checked-in the projects for the problem that I was working back onto the server so I didn’t lose that work. Lost some stuff that I was dinking around with and about two weeks of e-mails. It makes you paranoid which I guess is a good thing – it reaffirms the religion of backup everywhere and often.

So what do you do with your increasing data footprint to ensure it’s safety ?  How many times and places do you have to backup to so you minimize the chance of losing something ?  How do you keep it all in sync ?  Maybe it makes sense to replace hard drives once a year if they have a five year warranty – the cost of using a computer – and stack the old drives up as fallbacks.

At home I have a WHS box that sits in the corner and backs up the three home PCs every night. It cost me $390 for the box with 2TB – I won the WHS software at the Sarasota .NET meeting – and it is configured to run only when one of the home PCs is on and at night when it does the backup. So far, knock wood, I haven’t had to use it to do a restore. Maybe it’s time to spend $500 and put a WHS box in the corner at the office so that next time it happens I may only lose a days worth of data. But then where do I backup the WHS server’s contents ?  And where do I backup the backup of the backup ?

UPDATE: I had returned the drive to Seagate via i365 which is their data recovery service. They offerred a free evaluation to determine what was wrong with the drive, and optional attempts at data recovery starting at $500 depending upon how much data I needed to recover. They just called today and informed me that there was a firmware bug in the drive that caused the lockup. They updated the firmware with a process that is not available to the end user, and now the drive is fine – my data is intact. They are returning it to me at no charge.

Adios Comcast !

I received a love letter from Comcast when I arrived home yesterday…  Basically after being a loyal customer for over 6 years, Comcast has decided to cancel my $99/month cable/internet service. Their new and improved equivalent service will now be $140/month, or $130/month with their triple play phone/TV/internet offer.

So today I signed up for Verizon FIOS Triple Play service for $99/month with a discount to $70/month for the first 6 months. Unfortunately, with mandatory equipment rental my monthly bill will still be about $130/month, but I will save about $40/month on my landline phone service.  I’ve been on the fence about switching, but Comcast finally helped me to make a decision.

May the Comcast MBAs choke on the flood of customer service cancellations !

Adios Comcast…

UPDATE: At the end of December, I received a customer satisfaction survey phone call from Comcast – that was fun !  The surveyor couldn’t believe that Comcast raised my service by $480 per year and then wanted to know why I wasn’t still a customer. Death by MBA !