Technical stupidity.

It baffles me how people let their stuff get so messed up, and how companies will go so far out of their way to NOT be there for customers.

I got a phishing scam email supposedly from First National, where we used to have accounts.  Being the nice guy that I am, I figured I’d let them know the specifics.  After all, some people are dumb enough to fall for stuff like this.  A fake “IRS agent” almost managed to convince my 88-year-old mother to wire a few thousand dollars to avoid going to jail — never mind that she doesn’t owe the IRS a penny, never has and has never tried to cheat on her taxes.

Well, of course the only way to contact FNBO or FNNI is via a web form.  So I spend several minutes sending detailed information to them — the target web link, the email header, etc.  Then I hit the “Submit” button…

And got an error message.

Screw ’em.

Into the dark side. Or whatever.

apple-logoMy Droid 3 has been giving me fits for a while.  The phone itself is fine…  there doesn’t seem to be a hardware problem.  A couple of months ago, though, it started nagging me daily to install a slew of app updates, including “Google Play Services”.  Half the apps I use regularly finally refused to run at all until I installed Google Play, which I resisted because it wanted access to everything on my phone.  All data, all history, location, email, everything.  I finally had no choice but to dump the phone or install the damn thing, so I installed it (and the subsequent dozen or so other app updates).  Since that time the phone has been plagued with odd behavior.  It will periodically freeze up, require reboots, not be able to place a call for several minutes after a restart, and I’ve had to pull the back off and remove the battery a couple of times when it froze up and started getting uncomfortably hot.

My employer offers me the option of having a corporate owned cell phone.  We’ve currently got a choice between Blackberry and iPhone.  I can understand their refusal to allow Android phones to connect to the corporate network — the ease with which an Android can be rooted and bent to the owner’s will is great for experimenters, developer and hackers (a term used in the proper, good sense here) – but it also removes any surety that an app can actually be trusted.  Anyway, the Blackberry phones are locked down tight and everything (web, email, etc) goes through the corporate proxies.  The iPhone situation is different; there’s a secure VPN app that handles all the corporate traffic, but outside of that app web browsing and email don’t pass through company servers.

I opted for the iPhone, so as of yesterday afternoon I have a shiny new iPhone 5S.  It is, I believe, the first Apple product I have ever owned, aside from a garage full of Lisas that passed through my hands back in the late 1990s. I have not used any Apple products for more than a few minutes since the Apple ][e.  No iPod, iPad, iPhone, Macs, iMacs, nuthin’ more than a passing familiarity.

So far I’m impressed.  The phone itself is a thing of beauty, which is to be expected of any new cell phone.  The Samsung Galaxy S III that Lisa carries (and the IV and V, I assume) are nice too.  So no big surprise there.  The thing is quite responsive, and almost everything is simple and intuitive.  I especially like being able to uninstall an app without having to wade through setup menus to do it, and the ability to effortlessly pull up the flashlight, timer, camera and calculator without even unlocking the phone — very nice.  It will even show me text messages and the first couple lines of new emails without unlocking the screen.

There are several areas in which iOS seems to really outshine Android OS.  The email client is a bit nicer than any I have used on the Droid.  iBooks has far and away the best PDF reader I have used on any platform.  The voicemail management is so well integrated with Verizon voicemail that I honestly didn’t realize it was there at first.  I see that there is a built-in flashlight app (lacking on the Droids) and timer/stopwatch.  The camera and its app is much better than anything I have seen on a phone before.  Overall, the UI seems a little smoother, a little quicker, a little more intuitive.  I can see why people rave about their iThingies.  And Siri works pretty well.  I even like the Lightning connector, though the cable they included could have stood to be about a foot longer — easily and cheaply remedied on Fleabay.  And while more of a hardware thing, the fingerprint scanning button is slick as all hell.

A few areas could use improvement.  For one, I do miss the “back” button.  I really do.  I get the whole single-button idea, but I’m constantly reaching for the back button.  A nightstand/dock mode like my Droid has would be awfully nice (maybe I just haven’t found it yet).  And for the love of all that’s good in the world, why can’t I just drag and drop files from my PC??  Using iTunes to copy PDFs to the phone is just plain stupid.

Anyway, the message here is really twofold.  First, kudos to Apple — the iPhone is really, really nice.  I don’t know that I would ever have bought one if I had to spend my own money on it, but it’s nice.  Second, shame on Google.  It took a lot to drive me away from Android, a platform I loved for what it was and what it represented.  They just couldn’t leave well enough alone.  They have managed to make it so intrusive and so inhospitable that even I had to walk away in disgust.

Now, about that Macbook Air…  hmmm.


Halt and Catch Fire premier

Last night I watched the first episode of Halt and Catch Fire on AMC.  I wanted to love it, was tempted to hate it, and in the end opted for neither one.

For those of you who don’t know me, I lived through the period in question, and in the same industry…  although not working for TI, or a fictitious Texas OS vendor, or even directly in the PC end of things.  Still, those were some pretty exciting times.  I was fixing mainframes for a living, but lived and breathed microcomputers every day.  When micros first came on the scene (we didn’t call them “PCs” until well into the 80s), it was like the Wild West, in all the good ways.  There was opportunity around every corner.  I would be hard pressed to count the number of companies making computers in the pre-IBM days; some very cool things were being done by a lot of gifted and smart people.  I remember one in particular, a machine made by Ohio Scientific that had multiple processors (6800, 6502 and Z-80 if I remember right) and could boot different operating systems depending on your mood.

Anyway, the first bit of bad news came during the opening scene — a typed-text description of the “HALT AND CATCH FIRE” machine instruction.  It’s a simple concept, easy to explain and even a little humorous.  And they got it completely wrong.  Stupidly wrong, in fact.  I felt like a doctor watching Gray’s Anatomy or a cop watching Blue Bloods.  Sigh…

It got a little better from there, but there was some really stupid technical nonsense thrown in for no good reason.  Something real and believable would have been just as dramatic, or maybe even better.  You can’t cut a soda can in half with a pencil soldering iron  – and why would you need to to fix a Speak & Spell?  I especially loved the scene where he’s tediously de-soldering connections on the back of the circuit board — then triumphantly extracts the chip FROM ITS SOCKET.  And then of course there is the biggest non sequitur: ALL of the IBM Personal Computer’s schematics as well as the complete assembler listings for the BIOS were readily available from IBM, in the IBM Model 5150 Personal Computer maintenance manuals that anyone could buy.

So building a clone of the IBM PC was really pretty trivial from an engineering standpoint, and other manufacturers jumped in early and often.  Most tried to build better machines that ran their own version of MS-DOS, and most used the same bus so that expansion cards were interchangeable.  It took a while for the tyranny of the marketplace to grind everyone into making exact clones of the IBM machine, other than some speed improvements and of course much lower prices.

The list of ridiculously stupid technical gaffes is pretty impressive.  The scene where they start reading out the BIOS?  Well, first off, there were no white LEDs in 1983.  You could have any color of LED you wanted as long as it was red, green or yellow.  And binary 1101 is a hexidecimal D, not B.  PC motherboards don’t arc and spark, and if one did it would be dead, dead, dead.  His oscilloscope was displaying a stupidly Hollywood-ized pattern, and why would they need to use one  anyway?  Could they not read the pinout from a common EPROM data sheet?  He’d just finished explaining how all the parts were off the shelf common stuff.  And why would such a hotshot engineer not rig up an interface to his TRS-80 to read out the BIOS chip?  For that matter…  why not just type in a few lines of BASIC program to read out the BIOS and save it to disk, print it or display it on screen?

From a technical standpoint the show is senselessly over-dramatized in ways that really spoil a lot of the “geek appeal”.  If you know much at all about the technical matter at hand you’ll spend half your time shaking your head and saying, “Wha??  No…”  They did, however, seem to do a fairly decent job of catching the general tone of the period, and the story line (other than the glaring issue of the whole made-up BIOS thing) has potential.  I just wish they’d have hired an actual technical consultant, or listened to him if they did hire one.


Improving the Neato vacuum

If you have a Neato XV series robotic vacuum, and you don’t already have one, you need to switch to the curved/spiral brush.  This is the one Neato ships with the “pet” versions of the vacuum.  It’s far quieter than the one with the parallel straight rubber blades.  The sound of the vacuum is reduced from a dull roar to a far less intrusive sound.  I can barely hear it when the vacuum is running downstairs and I’m in my office.  I’ve also noticed that it also seems to pick up a lot more dust and debris.  Overall it’s a huge improvement.

I ordered mine from Crucial Vacuum, part number 945-0002.  Best 25 bucks you can spend on your little robot friend.

Got a new phone

I decided I would try out Straight Talk Wireless, so now I have a new phone. It’s a cheap little Chinese Huawei Ascend Android phone, but it’s doing okay for the less than $20 I spent on it.  So right now I’m just trying out the WordPress Android app, & a new voice keyboard plugin. This is being posted from my phone, using voice input.  Maybe now I’ll post more. Maybe not.

Neato Robotics SV Signature robotic vacuum

Santa left us one of these for Christmas.  While Lisa was not terribly thrilled, I for one welcomed our new robotic underling.  🙂  And, within a few days Lisa decided maybe “Rosie” wasn’t so bad after all.

Neato XV Signature
Neato XV Signature

The thing does a pretty nice job of keeping the floors swept.  Unlike the Roomba, the Neato robots take an orderly approach to vacuuming a room – they take a lap around the perimeter to map out the room, then use a linear pattern in most places to make sure everything gets covered, but only once or twice.  I like the approach.  I was originally a little concerned about tire tracks, but it just looks freshly vacuumed.

I’ve been amazed at the sheer amount of crud it will suck up from even a recently vacuumed carpet.  It does a decent job on wood and tile as well, but carpeted rooms is where it really shines.  You’ll still need to vacuum occasionally, since it doesn’t get all the way up to the edge – unlike Roomba it doesn’t have an edge brush, but the only time you will notice is if you let it clean up a very dusty wood floor.

It’s smart enough to recharge itself when needed, navigates well, and you can schedule cleanings for whenever you want – there’s also a spot clean mode and manual start, all with just a button push or two.  It’s only gotten stuck a few times.  Shoelaces are a problem, of course, but rugs don’t seem to be.  We do have a couple of pieces of furniture that are at just the “wrong” height.  For instance, one coffee table in the living room — the laser scanner can’t see it, but the robot can’t fit under it.  On the other hand, it gets under another coffee table with no problem and vacuums where the regular vacuum can’t go without moving the furniture around.

It won’t completely replace your regular vacuum, but it does a very nice job of keeping things cleaned up in between regular cleanings.  Costco has the best price I was able to find on them.

Experiments in media servers

For the past week or two I’ve been doing some work toward some distributed media (audio, video, etc) for various parts of the house. What I’d like to do, ideally, is be able to watch HD TV on any TV in the house without the added monthly expense and hassle of a digital cable receiver from Cox. I’d also like to be able to record the shows we regularly watch, play them back from anywhere in the house, stream music wherever we want it, that sort of thing.

So far Windows Media Center seems to be a really good fit for the DVR portion of the job… unfortunately, it would also require a fairly expensive box be attached to each TV.  It would also mean two remotes per TV, or a universal – and good luck getting one to actually work.  I suppose I could build some Windows boxes fairly cheaply, but we’re still talking about $150-plus per instance, and that’s assuming I re-use any old hardware I have around such as hard drives.

After some reading, including some stuff I quite frankly didn’t really believe, I bought a Raspberry Pi with a wifi adapter to play around with.  Now, admittedly I’m a little late to the Pi community, but it’s really a pretty slick little board.  The Raspberry Pi is a tiny Linux system running on an ARM processor with half a gig of memory, and using an SD card for storage.  There are a couple of Pi-specific XBMC distributions, and they worked great for music and movies.  It was pretty impressive to see a sub-$50 computer the size of a pack of Camel Lights streaming HD video over a wifi link, without a hiccup.  Unfortunately, XBMC doesn’t have native ability to handle a cable tuner like the HD Homerun.

I ordered an HD Homerun Prime-CC and picked up a CableCARD from Cox.  The monthly rental on the CableCARD is not unreasonable at $1.99, although I do think it simply sucks that they are encrypting pretty much everythign other than the local broadcast channels.  They certainly earned their two bucks over the past few days; since Friday of last week I’ve dealt with five or six Cox support people on the phone, and two on-site service calls trying to get the CableCARD setup working.  It seems that all of the problems we encountered were in the initial setup and (mis)configuration of the hardware from the Cox network end.  Once I got a tech who knew how to get a CC set up, it went pretty well… until they shut off our cable receiver, then managed to un-pair the CC again when I called about the receiver. Once we got that straightened out, though, things started really coming together.

Once the HD Homerun and CableCARD are working, you need a PVR (Personal Video Recorder) back-end to feed video to the Pi or anything else running XBMC.  I’m running Windows Media Center on a Win7 machine, with ServerWMC installed.  ServerWMC is a free program that allows remote XBMC systems to connect to WMC and pull video and program guide information.  So the setup here is [Cox cable] –> [HD Homerun Prime with CableCARD] –> [E4200 Wifi router (via gig-Ethernet)] –/(wifi)/–> [Raspberry Pi / OpenELEC XBMC] –> [Insignia 28″ LED TV].  If I were ambitious I’d make a Visio diagram, but I’m lazy…  and no one reads this crap anyway.

As of today I have streaming music, HD video and live TV thorough this system.  I haven’t tried playing back recorded TV, but that may  require transcoding…  I’m not sure if ServerWMC will stream recorded TV files or not, but if not they’re in a format the Pi can’t play, so they’ll need to be converted to something it can play.

Possibly the coolest part?  I was not expecting this, but the Pi has a CEC adapter built in.  CEC lets you control XBMC from the TV remote.  The TV sends remote button signals through the HDMI interface to the Pi, so only one remote is needed — no IR receiver on the Pi, no need for a universal remote.  Too cool.  That doesn’t even work on the little Windows EEEBox in the other room – I’d need to add an external CEC adapter for that.

I can see using Raspberry Pis for other things as well.  Having an inexpensive Linux machine, powered by a common cell phone charger and equipped with wifi, wherever you happen to need it — pretty nice.  I’m thinking one of them with the add-on dedicated camera (5Mpixel, 720p video) that I could set in a window to catch whoever has been letting their dog crap in the side yard would be nice.  A video doorbell seems like a fun project.  And one of them will make a nice backup for the Asterisk server.