Geek

Take a bite of this Apple

Here’s an Apple I might just have to have a bite of…

You have to admit: it’s sweet. It’s like the iPhone without the AT&T commitment (or the hack that I’m not prepared to tackle). For now, I’ll just stick to a plain phone on a plan with few surprises.

As for digital sound, I listen to a few tunes, but mostly, it’s audio books for long drives or to ease the drudgery of doing laundry and other mundane household chores.

Thus far, I’ve managed on fairly inexpensive devices, because I’m never all that far from my laptop to change out and reload the contents of my audio player. However, the new iPod Touch has an interesting characteristic: it has a built in browser and wireless capability. So, from anywhere there’s wireless access, I could check what’s going on in the larger world.

Or my e-mail, for what’s going on in the smaller world.

Or, I could watch a movie, in complete disregard of what’s going on in either the smaller or larger real worlds.

My first computer was an Apple II+ (minus the joystick, but with two floppy disk drives, 64k RAM, and a 300-baud modem, thank you very much); that was where I learned to program, back when Apples still came with a command-line interface and geeky teenagers could still derive some joy from the things.

Now, far more computing power than a pickup truckload of those things could have produced would fit in a pocket (or a phone, for that matter). Still, I might just have to have one of these, once Alpha’s next tuition payment is made.

You gotta have this!

If you’re not using Firefox, there’s yet another (in a long list) reason that you should be:  AdBlock Plus.

The New York Times has an interesting pro-and-con piece, but the bottom line is most effectively summed up by the plugin’s creator:

“There is only one reliable way to make sure your ads aren’t blocked — make sure the users don’t want to block them,” he wrote. “Don’t forget about the users. Use ads in a way that doesn’t degrade their experience.”

That means no flashing whack-a-mole banners, no large (especially animated) ads smack in the middle of newspaper stories, no goofy dancing mortgage guy, and the like.  Advertising is useful to a degree, but when it reaches the point of saturation and irritation, people will either abandon the medium or find a way around it.

A few months ago when I ran for re-election, I did purchase a couple of online ads.  The local daily, however, had eliminated the ad space that I really wanted (tastefully off to the right side), and could instead only offer a larger ad that showed up in the middle of the page.  I specifically asked that the ad NOT run in the obituaries — this being offensive to me, even without friends or family listed therein — but of course, it showed up there anyway.  And I received complaints.

AdBlock Plus does allow for customization, allowing the user to exempt certain sites.  Google ads, for example, are non-intrusive and often helpful, so I’ve exempted Google from ad blocking in my browser.

Best of all, like all Mozilla products and add-ons, it’s free.

WiFi Willies!

Last week, one of my work-tasks was to set up a wireless network in a client’s new office.  Before I even turned it on though, I was picking up a wide-open Linksys-g signal from somewhere, and the possibilities of where it was coming from were limited to just a couple of places.  I went ahead and set up the office I was working on, then on my way out, knocked on the neighboring office doors to see if I could identify who was leaking free wifi.

No one was home.  All the possible candidates were businesses with an identifiable need for security — the kind of businesses with records they wouldn’t want the public just browsing through.

Today, I was back ironing out the kinks in my client’s print system, and the mysterious free wifi was still broadcasting strong as before.  So, on my way out after straightening out the printer problems, I again knocked on the nearest door.  Someone was home, and verified that indeed they were the office with a problem.

The secretary had no idea how to fix it,  so I paused for a few minutes to walk her through setting up WPA security.  Just about the time I walked away from her computer, my client called — they’d been kicked off the network! 

You know what happened: they were picking up the free wireless from next door instead of their own.  Once the problem next door was fixed, they went offline.  I patched in the proper security code for their network, and all’s well again.

Good deed for the day is done.

*  *  *
You know, I’m completely on board with the need for municipal wireless, and businesses offering free wireless are definitely more likely to have me as a customer than those that don’t.  I’ll choose Panera over Starbucks, Krystal over McDonalds, and any hotel with access over any hotel without, every time.   Hint: the Time Out Deli in Grove Center is going to find me hanging out more often, since AT set them up last week.  Good beer, good food, AND wireless!

But, free wireless as a perk to attract customers is entirely different than just leaving your network open because you don’t know how to secure it.  The latter is dangerous for businesses (or people) that don’t intend to open their network to the world.  There are plenty of folks out there who are both smarter and more devious than myself… and they’ll exploit these weaknesses for fun and profit.

  1. Make sure your router password is not the factory default;
  2. Through your router, turn security (WPA is good) on and use a password that someone won’t guess;
  3. Don’t share anything you don’t have to.

I haven’t practiced any "wardriving" to see just how many open networks there are around here, but I’d be willing to bet we’re not far from having muni-wireless now — just unintentionally.

Saturday’s Challenge

At a quarter ’til midnight last night, Alpha came to me with the dreaded question: “is my laptop still under warranty?”

She dropped it. When attempting to power up, she only got those telltale three beeps that mean, “I’m so broken I won’t run at all.” Though her father did translate the initial “three beep” diagnosis, he did not offer any assistance (beyond “you shouldn’t drop it”).
And no, since it’s over four years old, no, it’s no longer under warranty.

Inspiron2650 1 So after taking her for the usual monthly trip to Wal-Mart for necessities like toothpaste and such, I sat down by a window (for better light) and took it apart. I mean, if it doesn’t work now, and isn’t under warranty, what harm is there in looking?

Fortunately, as I’ve noted before, Dell posts their service manuals online, so that anyone with a reasonable level of technical expertise and a little courage can take it apart without breaking it.

I knew that it landed on the back side, so I focused on the components that seemed nearest the point of impact. I knew that it was still getting power, but that the LCD panel never activated. I tried powering it up with an external monitor to rule out something as simple as the panel connector, but that didn’t work either.

From that, I surmised that the video card might be the culprit. It backs right up to the back of the laptop (connecting to the external monitor jack), which made that a plausible problem.

Inspiron2650 video card It doesn’t look broken — no burned spots, nothing obviously loose, no broken solder points that I could see (with my trusty but seldom-used bifocals, no less). It was, however, full of dust and cat hair — so I vacuumed out what I could, cleaning the video card with some canned air.
Next, I re-seated it as carefully as possible, attached the LCD panel connector, and put it all back together (using as few screws as I could, in case I had to disassemble it all over again).

Ta-Da!

Yes, I did a victory dance, right there in the kitchen. The two super-smart college kids in the living room (MathMan, a math major; Alpha, an electrical engineering major) were duly impressed. For a few glorious minutes, I’m more than just the lady that washes towels, fixes supper, and transfers money to Alpha’s checking account.

For a few glorious minutes, I am the Geek Goddess who saved the world as they know it.

Blue Screen of Death

It could be much worse, I’m sure, but this problem is getting on my nerves.

BSOD This is only one of many over the last couple of weeks, and I’ve logged most of them.

Contacting Dell Tech Support via e-mail isn’t the fastest way to resolve a problem, but it’s the way that wastes the least amount of my time, allowing me to send the relevant information in writing. And, since it’s not to the point where it’s more than an inconvenience, not wasting my time takes priority over venting frustration to a real person.

Actually, it got escalated to a fairly high level support technician — and one who writes as though English is actually his native language — by the second exchange. That’s pretty darn fine.

The latest has narrowed it down to one of four potential causes:

1) a corrupt operating system;
2) a virus or malware;
3) bad memory;
4) bad hard drive.

Based on this Microsoft Support Bulletin, option 1 looks like a good guess. So, downloading the hotfix should help, except that it doesn’t appear to be available for download; the link points to a phone number for Microsoft to have them send it to me. Calling Microsoft only took me to a message directing me to call my hardware manufacturer.

In programming, this is known as a circular reference, and tends to be fatal. If only it were so in customer service. So, I’ve replied to the Dell tech’s e-mail, asking him to get the hotfix for me.

Having earlier seen a ZDNet warning that a TrendMicro flaw could cause the Blue Screen of Death, I’ve manually updated my virus patterns, run a full system scan, then gone to Symantec to run a second, online scan as a backstop. Both came up completely clean, but I realize that there are new bugs, or variations of old bugs, that aren’t yet in the antivirus patterns. It could be a bug… I have to keep checking all possibilities.

I don’t have any of the usual indications that there’s a memory or HDD problem, so although the Dell rep offered to send out new memory and a new HDD, I’d rather rule out the other two first.

For the hardcore geekiest of you out there, a sampling of the error codes is as follows:

STOP 0x0000007A (0xC0546B08, 0xC0000185,0xA8D61C74,0x07DC0860)
cdfs.sys – Address A8D61C74 base at A8D5E00, DateStamp 41107eb1

—–

STOP 0x0000007A (0xE1D408F8, 0xC0000185, 0xBF916582, 0×36234860)
win32k.sys – Address BF916582 base at BF800000, DateStamp 43446a58

—–

STOP: 0x0000007A (0xC07BAE90, 0xC0000185, 0xF75D2000, 0×26662860)
mountmgr.sys – Address F75D2000 base at F75CD000 Datestamp 41107b05

—–

STOP: 0×00000077 (0xC0000185, 0xC0000185, 0×00000000, 0x00ABE000)

—–

STOP: 0x000000F4 (0×00000003, 0x8628E8E8, Ox8628EA5C, 0x805D117A)

—–

STOP: 0x000000F4 (0×00000003, 0×86049340, Ox860494B4, 0x805D117A)

—–

STOP: 0x000000F4 (0×00000003, 0x861A3368, Ox861A34DC, 0x805D117A)

—–

KERNEL_DATA_INPAGE_ERROR
STOP: 0X0000007A (OxC07B9C48, 0xC0000185, 0xF7389DAD, 0x2BD50860)
ntfs.sys – Address F7389DAD base at F7334000 Datestamp 41107eea

# 0xC0000185 (which appears several times) signals a STATUS_IO_DEVICE_ERROR, caused by improper termination or defective cabling on SCSI devices, or two devices attempting to use the same IRQ. Well, this lappy doesn’t have any SCSI devices… so that’s a bit baffling.

Hope that hotfix arrives soon.

The Rotten Apple

Beta got an iPod (Gen. 5 video) for Christmas, but within a month, she dropped it. Even though it was in one of those clear plastic cases that’s supposed to protect it, force has to go somewhere — the old “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” thing.

iPodThe path of least resistance, of course, is the thumb wheel.

After searching in vain for any hardware technical manuals on Apple’s website (why not? Dell has them!), I called Apple tech support. I fully explained what happened — that she dropped it and the thumb wheel came partially out — and they kindly offered to overnight a box so I could send it in. It’s under warranty, they explained.

Well, yes, since she’s only had it a few weeks, it should be. I didn’t expect the warranty to cover accidental damage, but why not? DELL DOES!

One week later, I get the iPod back from Apple, with a terse form letter stating that the damage was due to “external force.”

Well DUH! I just hate sorry customer service. I really hate it when someone unnecessarily wastes my time and effort. And I absolutely, positively have no patience with stupid people who don’t listen when I carefully explain a problem, expecting either a solution, or an honest admission of their inability to resolve it.

Fortunately, there is someone out there who claims to be able to help: iPodMods. The estimate they gave me over the phone is about $30 (plus $20 or so for shipping). Still, that’s a whale of a lot better that being faced with buying a new iPod, or living with Beta with no tunes.

Just remember: Dell offers an idiot-proof warranty. I’ve tested it. They also post their technical manuals, so that when the warranty’s up, you can take the stupid thing apart and fix it yourself. I’ve tested that too.

Stupid rotten Apple.

Beware the Worm

ZDnet sent out an e-mail announcement last night about the Storm Worm — an insidious trojan that can cause the recipient’s computer to become part of a botnet (and slowing functionality to near nil, not to mention making it part of a mass spam spreader).

Since Thursday night, I’ve received notices that Bellsouth prohibited delivery of seven e-mails containing the trojan (under the versions W32/Downloader.AYDY and W32/Downloader.AYEN).  The subject lines varied, as follows:

  • The commander of a U.S. nuclear submarine lunch the rocket by mistake
  • Sadam Hussein alive!
  • U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has kicked German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Sending domains included HickoryFarms.com in the US, as well as a couple in the UK and Mexico.  Once infected, the machines spread it like crazy.

Be careful out there, and make sure your virus definitions are up to date!

Telecom Changes

Uh oh.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the FCC has approved the merger of Bellsouth and AT&T:

The Federal Communications Commission approved AT&T Inc.’s $85 billion takeover of BellSouth Corp. Friday, after the telecom giant offered a series of major concessions to consumer groups and regulators.

The agency approved the deal, the largest ever in U.S. telecommunications history, by a unanimous 4-0 vote. The merger creates a behemoth that will have a market capitalization of over $220 billion — more than double that of nearest rival Verizon Communications Inc. — and will serve 67.5 million local phone customers in 22 states, as well as 11.5 million broadband users.

The FCC released a statement saying that “significant public interest benefits are likely to result from this transaction.”

Approval of the deal was never in serious doubt, but it was held up for months because of objections from consumer groups and Democrats.

AT&T broke the logjam by proposing a series of conditions this week that won over the Democrats, including a pledge not to prioritize any Internet content provider’s traffic over another’s, a principle known as “net neutrality.” Lawmakers, consumer activists and some Internet companies said that without such regulation, AT&T would be able to strike deals guaranteeing Internet companies like Google Inc. higher quality or faster transmissions than other providers. (Read AT&T’s filing.)

The net neutrality condition applies to the portion of AT&T’s network that connects consumers’ homes to the Internet backbone. Special data and voice networks used by corporate customers would not be subject to the rules and AT&T’s own nascent video offerings would also be exempted.

AT&T also agreed to lower rates for some high-volume voice and data lines that serve corporate customers and are leased on a wholesale basis to smaller telecom carriers. And it pledged to offer stand-alone high-speed Internet access for up to $20 a month. Companies that offer Internet phone service, like Vonage Holdings Corp., would stand to gain if consumers don’t have to buy their phone service and Internet service in a packaged bundle.

Hmmm.  We’ve been considering switching over to an IP phone service for some time now, but haven’t done so because we 1) don’t like Comcast internet service, and 2) anything else without phone service bundled costs more than phone+DSL.

The next question is, does AT&T offer wireless phone service that’s worth a flip, and if bundled with high-speed internet, do they offer it at a decent rate?

I’m still not very happy with US Cellular, but am waiting out the contract for another couple of months.  However, I’ve yet to find anyone who thinks their cell company provides good customer service.

Free Broadband?

There is an application now before the FCC from M2Z Networks that would allow them to provide wireless broadband internet access — free of charge — throughout the United States.

Free? Following the broadcast television model, users of the service would have to purchase a receiver (just as one purchases a TV or antenna to receive broadcast signals) and the service itself would be supported through advertising revenue. The speed they’re promising (384 kbps downlink) isn’t as fast as regular DSL or cable internet products, but is faster than the “DSL Lite” product used as a comparison in Comcast ads.

Unlike wired products (cable or DSL), the infrastructure cost of the wireless product would be more feasible to provide to rural areas that now have prohibitively expensive, if any, access.

The Coalition for Free Broadband Now site has more consumer-oriented information, but you’ll quickly notice that the site is a PR effort to generate consumer signatures on their petition for FCC approval.

I detest the thought of even more commercial interruption than already exists on the internet, but at the same time, recognize that there is much to be gained by improving electronic access for more Americans. I would not like for it to be the only option, but much like cable TV and premium cable channels, it seems like there would still be a market for faster, commercial-free (at least from the ISP) internet access. However, the free option might drive down costs for those services, particularly in areas where there is little or no competition.

A few of the immediate beneficiaries would be students who need internet access for homework, parents who would like to interact with the schools via K-12 Planet or similar services, and a general upgrading of Americans’ technological literacy. Distance learning options are growing rapidly, from online college courses to submitting assignments via e-mail in middle and high schools, and will continue to expand and improve. To bridge the digital divide, internet service must come to be seen as an essential utility, much as water, electric, and telephone.

It’s time.

Sad News

Sadly, the CNET editor who’s been lost in the Oregon woods for more than a week has been found.  Dead.

The news Monday that his family was rescued from the car where they stayed was most hopeful, particularly with the qualification that James Kim was an experienced outdoorsman.  I had hoped against hope that he had found shelter through the nights and would be reunited with his wife and young daughters.

I’d never met him, but CNET is one of my primary sources for technology news and reviews… I know that the whole organization mourns his loss.

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