What’s gone wrong at Google?

Google makes a lot of money from selling advertisers really specific access to likely customers.

They have been extraordinarily innovative in the way they do this, to the point where advertisers bid in real time to show you their wares and advert placement gets almost spooky when a product you discussed on the weekend shows up unbidden on your screen.

I’m not an idiot, so I don’t like any of this. I don’t like anybody, be they for profits, governments or a benevolent overlord peering so closely into my drivers and past activities that they can predict anything meaningful about my future behaviour.

I don’t buy the line that targeted advertising is better for everyone, if for no other reason than I have no belief vendors of a hotel room will give me the best rate if they know I have already booked non-refundable airfares.

But that isn’t my gripe with Google today.

I’m not so naïve that I think the ‘Don’t be evil’ motto lingers in any way, but I do like to think Google gives some consideration to how it behaves with my data, and what they might do with it.

A lot of people will argue they clearly failed this with the cancelling of Google Reader (a convenient way to manage headlines and articles from a large base of information sources like news sites and blogs) or the ill fated Google Plus nonsense.

These were clearly dumb moves, but in the last couple of weeks there have been fresh examples I rate as even dumber.

Firstly, and annoyingly for me, is the end of Google Music in preference for YouTube. I have nothing against YouTube. I battle through the advertising encrusted interface to watch an occasional video on replacing a stove element or a review of a new keyboard – content that still holds the promise of the early Internet where individuals would share freely information to make everyone’s life better.

But I will only watch an entertainment video there with the greatest reluctance. The site/app is gratingly unpleasant, with unwelcome advertising, and a UI designed to force the interactions the platform owners will allow, rather than what a viewer may want.

Suffice to say, I don’t want any more to do with YouTube.

My only use for Google Music was to store a bunch of music I own so that I can access it via a voice controlled hub in our kitchen. Why bother, would be a reasonable question, and the answer is that casting music via wifi to the speaker is unreliable, and not available from all the devices I want to use.

I understand for 80% of users, Spotify or Apple Music or YouTube or whatever streaming service gives enough music choice, but I really don’t want to just give up on some artists I quite like because they haven’t contracted to the right distribution system. And I would rather buy new music I like from the artists, in preference to spending with a platform that gives them only microcents per listen. Similarly, after buying Led Zep on cassette, vinyl and CD, you can excuse me if I would rather not pay them any more.

So audio streaming isn’t much use to me, and the YouTube service is painful to use. To top it off, I gather the voice activation function I use is only included if I pay for a premium subscription.

This is all fine, Google can do what it wants to make money, but this seems to me like layers of decisions that don’t benefit the customer piling up – in this case sufficiently for me to spend time both whinging about it, but also to bother to find a software solution somewhere like Plex or whatever to fix the underlying reliability irritants in the first place. I’ll update with what I find.

The second example was the silly posts on Google real online real estate in the form of an open letter that warned Google free services could ultimately be ended if they have to pay for access to news sites.

I’ve no truck with the wealthy media businesses in Australia who squandered their advantages to find themselves beholden to a government regulation to keep some revenue. That was just the worst sort of short term planning and failure of leadership. But I also don’t shed any tears for Google or Facebook having to licence some of the content they pass around and glean advertising revenue from. The Google response is tone deaf, and further shows Google has no interest in its customers best interests.

In any case, it is a good reminder to check where Google and others might have a little too much control of my data. In my case, Gmail and Google photos have become a little too essential, so I will add them to the list of services I need to build a better redundancy plan for – as the day will no doubt come when they stop being useful enough to put up with the down sides, just like YouTube.

More COVID-19

So a matter of hours after I post that the numbers don’t look credible, as if they were being constrained by a testing lab capacity issue or similar, China releases a big spike in infectious numbers and revealing they are now counting patients diagnosed but yet to be tested. It will be interesting to see if they change the reporting criteria for sites outside Hubei too.

It does reinforce this is an incredibly infectious virus, and illustrates how quickly business as usual health facilities reach their limits in a pandemic. Hopefully, the global response continues to be aggressive and effective.

Covid-19

The novel Coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak that started in Wuhan is concerning.

It looks as though the virus is very contagious, and with a mortality rate higher than influenza – but with no vaccine or effective anti-viral treatment. What I am curious about are the figures being reported from China on infections and deaths.

For the past fortnight, infections have grown by a very regular number in the daily Chinese update. The figures don’t exhibit the variability you would expect to see in a normal distribution, and don’t reflect the growing infection totals. If they are accurate, the Chinese quarantine efforts have been spectacularly successful, yet fail with unexplained regularity. Hmm. Maybe there is a local limit in lab testing or other limitation which puts a daily ceiling on how many cases can be confirmed?

The last two days have seen figures released with a declining number of daily infections. Given the large population pool in Wuhan and the other major Chinese cities reporting infections, and the experience of cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, a decline infection growth strains credibility. I have seen a rumour stating only more severe cases are now being counted.

This is a concern if China has determined the economic impact of quarantine is greater than the increased illness and death a widespread outbreak would entail. If there is a lack of transparency, other governments might under rate the risk and severity of the illness, ultimately risking more exposure.

Hopefully, China has contained the outbreak, but it is disconcerting to watch figures that don’t reflect an expected path.

Some thoughts on blockchains and Bitcoin

I’m not a mathematician or Computer Scientist, but I like the elegance of a genuinely ne idea, so I’ve been watching the various block chain developments for a few years.
When BTC was under $30 I ran the numbers and figured my cost of power would never make mining profitable. When it spiked up over $100 I did the numbers again for cloud hosted mining, with the same result.
Now it is around $3000. Huh.

bitcoin

I think the blockchain currencies will end up being the less interesting part of the equation, unless you are using them to avoid Chinese currency controls, or deal drugs or something else you want to sell without a trail. The initial excitement was all about untraceable cash, but you can avoid taxes with cash today, and hold precious metals if you don’t want to be beholden to fiat currencies.

While bitcoin and other currencies (Doge, anyone?) are exciting in a speculative sense, and interesting in a fresh idea sense, they have a number of issues to be useful except in edge cases.
Number one for me is the energy use for mining and transaction processing. The algorithm that produces coins has increasing rarity built in, a bit like prime numbers in the real world, so to grow the bitcoin supply takes enormous energy – which could be used for productive purposes at less cost to things like climate change. This algorithm also ensures ongoing inflation, offering all the advantages of the gold standard in the 1970s…

Transactions also take energy to process, and there is debate at the moment on how to streamline this, but the current situation is that transactions are limited to around 7 per second, compared to VISA, for example, that typically handles thousands, and while there are ways to scale this, there are arguments against too – with the end result being a system that is less than ideal.

This combination suggests to me we’ll see examples of people ‘breaking’ the transaction system ‘for the lullz’, probably timed to coincide with bitcoin being launched for some legitimate, high profile system.

The other issue I’ll be interested to see merge is just how anonymous crypto currencies are. I don’t mean that there is a flaw in the implementation, but rather that privacy exploits will be developed that rely on meta data in the transactional record to breach anonymity. I don’t think this has happened yet, but I can imagine it being around the corner should transaction volumes grow enough that statistical methods can be applied to infer personal data from transaction patterns, timing, network origin etc.

In the future, I suspect the real action will be in Ethereum like block chain computational models, rather than currencies.
If you consider the blockchain mechanism as the underlying platform, then currency is just one application.
To draw an analogy, email was an early and cool application on the Internet, but the really innovative stuff that harnessed Internet technologies to make something with no real analog in the offline world came later, often much later.
When the Internet went mainstream in the early 1990s, there were plenty of people making a bit of money selling web hosting or writing client software, but much later the Googles and Facebooks arrived.
I think bitcoin is at the Alta-Vista or Hotbot level of maturity – people made plenty of money there but the world quickly moved on.
The Ethereal model is interesting, but there is little reason to use the Eth public coin (or, urgh, classic ETH), when you can host a completely separate fork for basically free. And less reason as the coin price rises.
So blockchain is real and useful. Coins are a valid application. They are a convenient current speculation, but like tulips or Hotbot shares, have little inherent worth. But the emerging applications might be very valuable.

Mac OSX Chrome adware malware Cloudscout removal

cloudscoutSomehow, no doubt after installing some bit of software from a seedy part of the Internet, I ended up with ads being injected into my web browser as the pages rendered. You get this stuff all day on Windows, but not something I’d seen before on a Mac.
I looked for suspect extensions, and found none, but disabled them all any way.
The ads took the form of aggressive animated gif banners, plus highlighted words in text linking to advertisements, see above.

I tried searching the file system for suspect software, but didn’t find anything useful. I also tried searching the Internet, but while there is info for removing this from Windows, there is nothing for Mac that works.

I ended up watching the developer console in Chrome to see what connections the browser was requesting. The list I got that I reckon is suspect is below. I added it to Adblock plus and the ads are gone. If you know what software is the culprit, please post in the comments and I will update the post.

Good Luck

adnxs.com
scorecardresearch.com
dnsqa.me
hklmm.com
2mdm.com
cptlsrv.com

Power button on iPhone 4s

The power button on my old iPhone 4s (ok, I suppose I should retire this phone for something a bit more modern, but the obvious Apple upgrade in near $1000! so I am looking at China androids. Anyway) stopped working.

The Internet says it is the surface mount cable strip under the button that is likely to go wrong. I ordered one that included tools for about $5 from ebay. I ordered a new battery for another $7 at the same time as I was going to be opening up the device.

It was an exceptionally tricky repair. Much harder than replacing a laptop screen or anything except maybe when I tried to surface mount solder some RAM chips to a Palm Pilot back in 1998 (I failed, and wasted $50 worth or chips back then).

Luckily, I was a bit better this time, but the internal design is pretty close to impossible to repair, as if Steve Jobs said make it hard so it can’t be repaired, just replace.

If you are brave, there are directions to fix it here:

https://www.ifixit.com/Guide/iPhone+4S+Earpiece+Speaker+Replacement/7320

and here:

https://www.ifixit.com/Guide/iPhone+4+Power+%26+Lock+Button+Replacement/4332

Using an unlocked USB 3g dongle on a mac

The cellular telcos regularly have deals where they give away 3g/4g usb modem dongles for free or very cheap. I seem to have collected one from every network over the last few years. I also tend to churn networks pretty regularly, in an effort to keep data costs down.

At the moment, Optus Connect4Less gives me blocks of 500Mb for $5. Annoyingly, it bills in 1Mb increments, so I am flying through my quota pretty fast, but it is otherwise ok.

I have also recently come into a MacBook Air. Nice laptop, but since I haven’t use MacOS since about the end of last century, it is taking a bit to get used to.

One issue was getting a 3G connection working. The optus branded dongle sticks straight out , I much prefer the old Telstra Turbo stick with a hinged USB plug that points up. Fortunately, these are easily unlocked to take any SIM, and the drivers are available at ZTE’s site – as it is actually a ZTE MF626, specifically a MF626i to indicate the Telstra branded model. It includes dialling software with Telstra NextG logos that helpfully hides almost all useful config options. Don’t use it.

Instead, head to Network Preferences in the OS, select the ZTEUSBModem entry and enter *99# as the calling number. In advanced, under “Model” select GPRS (GSM3G). Now you can enter your network APN. For Optus, it is usually “internet”, for Voda it used to be “vfinternet”. Whirlpool has the latest details if you are not sure.

That’s it. Click apply to save the settings then Connect to try it out. Mine takes a minute or so before it is connected and the DNS is properly applied, so be patient. You can select “Show modem status in menu bar” to have a little phone icon to easily connect/disconnect in future.

Acer Aspire Bios bug is a pain

Apologies for the techy nature of this post, but I found many  people online with this issue that were clearly ignorant of how computers work, what UEFI and legacy BIOS’ do, and how they all interact. The info below has enough detail for somebody with access to a second machine and the Internet to restore an Acer laptop suffering the legacy BIOS F2 not working bug. If you stumble across it and it is too complex, rest assured your data is safe, you don’t have to reinstall everything, and you shouldn’t do that. Instead, point your helpful techy friend here to help you get working again.

My current laptop, an Acer Aspire V5 431p, is a Win8 machine that uses the UEFI standard that has superseded the BIOS firmware system used in PCs for the past few decades.
Changes to the UEFI settings are managed via Windows and necessitate a reboot into a special mode. All well and good, presumably this allows a bit more of a lock down of the system, to prevent installation of unsigned drivers, for example.
This machine has an option for backward compatibility called legacy BIOS support, so you can install an operating system that isn’t windows, or an older version of windows.
One feature that I haven’t seen well documented is the ‘secure boot’ facility that stops the machine booting into Windows 8 unless the UEFI is enabled.
I presume the rationale here is to thwart malware that targets the BIOS, although I’m not 100% clear on how completely disabling the computer is meant to assist the owner should they have a malware issue.
No doubt it helps Microsoft and the ISPs that suffer from botnet problems though, I guess.
In any case, I had cause to learn about this yesterday when I was trying to load some unsigned drivers for an unbranded China phone.
As Windows ever-so-helpfully denies installing them, with the message to visit the hardware suppliers website for signed drivers by default, with no option to override, I was faced with a computer refusing to do what I required thanks to Microsoft’s obstinence. A tip online suggesting there was a UEFI option to turn off ‘drivers must be signed’. I dived in to turn it off and decided to skip using UEFI as a boot loader as well, so I could have the old reassuring “Hit F2” option on boot up if I wanted to change anything like this again.
Sadly, due to a bug in Acer’s BIOS firmware, this was my undoing.
The PC booted through POST, displayed the “Hit F2 to enter BIOS or F12 for boot options” then ran through the boot order preference.
Of course, both the hard drive and the SSD in my machine have bootable partitions, but both happened to be Windows 8, which refused to load with an error saying No Operating System Found.
Mixed in was a brief display of some errors related to network cables/media. Hmm. That was the boot over the network option in my boot list so could be discounted. So why wouldn’t the system boot?
Hence my lesson about Secure Boot not allowing legacy BIOS boot loading.
Nothing for it by to turn UEFI back on.
Restart, hit F2. Nothing, just the same boot error message.
Try again. Restart, hit F2. Nothing, just the same boot error message.
Sometimes it can be a really short time window to hit F2, as little as 1/5th of a second I read somewhere. So I tried again. Still no good. I tried F12, and got the boot order list, so the keyboard was working.
Hmm. Google.
Many people describing similar issues, most of the threads with no answer or a description of somebody doing a complete FDISK and reinstalling. That doesn’t sound good.
I grabbed another PC and made a Unetbootin rescue disk.
Some success! The USB stick showed up in the boot list and let me boot to FreeDOS. I could also access the C: drive file system, it was still intact, so I just had to get around this secure boot issue. Which meant access to the BIOS, which meant hitting F2, which wasn’t working, thanks to a bug in Acer’s Phoenix sourced firmware.
I made a Win8 rescue disk from a spare machine. Again, it booted to the recovery tools, and allowed me to drop to a CMD and see the disk contents. I have good back ups, but at this stage I took the opportunity to copy over the last couple of files I had been working on for a presentation that evening!
How about flashing a new BIOS, I thought.
Excellent, the Acer support site shows three BIOS revisions for this machine.
Problem is, they are delivered as Windows EXE files. You need a working Windows install to run them to flash the BIOS. The support manual available online suggests the bare ROMs can be installed via a USB drive, but gives no details, presumably those are only available to Acer techs.
Grr.
So I have now reached the point where I have spent several hours trying to restore a system I can see is intact, thanks to an evil combination of a BIOS bug and Microsoft’s pedantic ‘don’t trust the user’ policies.
I have a bit of inspiration and pop a working Windows 7 HDD out of another laptop and boot from it in a USB sled. It boots!
Ignoring the pleas to install drivers and the ridiculous display resolution I run the BIOS flash program.
Version 1.2 is too old. version 2.17 flashes. Thanks, BTW Acer, for the complete lack of *any* documentation on the BIOS revisions. I am literally tinkering with the base level of my systems software, with the ability to nuke the PC forever if it fails, with a file supplied by the company whose bug got me into this place to begin with, using a file that has no documentation besides run update.bat while plugged into AC.
The machine reboots, the Win 8 spinning dots come up. Phew.
It takes many minutes and a few counts up to 100% before it is all working again, but the re-flash restored UEFI as the default boot loader and everything is good again.
Of course, I will have to go fishing in there again to load those unsigned drivers, but at least I can boot my PC.
So the lessons:
– Acer has woeful online support. Many users are complaining about this issue in the last few months, Acer response is invariably “Hitting F2 works”. It does not. It is a bug.
– Microsoft nanny-state security controls make it harder for you to do legitimate stuff with your computer, and lack of support for legacy BIOS booting wasted most of my day.
– It is this kind of thing that drives people to Linux! Might be time to check if WINE is supporting the Win progs I need yet…

Gigabyte m1405 screen repair/replacement

So my nice 14in Gigabyte notebook has been humming along, until I picked up the satchel and it slid out – falling 50cm onto the floor edge first.

This caused a crack along the left most 10% of the screen. I lived with it for a week or so, then bit the bullet to replace it.

A place on ebay sold me a screen for $100 shipped from the USA. After doing the swap I see the part number indicated the same screen is used in some SONY and Dell notebooks, so if I break it again I’ll be using a $75 part. The part number is b140xw02 V.1 (You can buy one here from Amazon. Note I get a dollar or two if you use that link).

I couldn’t find any instructions online, so I began with a bit of trepidation. The key things to know if you are going to do this yourself:

– the screen can be replaced without disassembling any of the laptop base.

– there are four screws under the rubber plugs at the corners of the silver screen fascia.

– The silver frame can be unclipped very gently. I used guitar picks to carefully prise it forward.

– The wedge shaped hinge covers can be removed by ripping off the mirror stickers on the outersides and removing a screw. I did this, but it may be possible to leave them in place if you are very careful.

– Once the front frame is off, there are only four screws holding the screen to the red metal lid.

– The wiring harness just pushes into place with a piece of tape to hold it.

– Now put it all back together!

Just pull it free and push in the new one.

The silver screw is one of four holding the screen tabs in place. No need to remove the black ones.

Samsung CLP-300 bargain colour laser printer

Colour laser printers have a lot of benefits over inkjets, but the latest models have computer chip enforced toner contracts (so you can only buy expensive “genuine” toner). I picked up a Samsung CLP-300 2nd hand for $20 that allows generic toner. Low cost non-OEM cartridges are $20 per set on ebay delivered for 3 colours + black. This particular model, and it’s network enabled sibling the CLP-300N, suffer an annoying paper feed bug that means they are readily available for sale 2nd hand. The pick-up roller gets dirty/worn, and the paper feed fails, often sporadically. This link includes some instructions for fixing this error, and I’ve reprinted the key section below:

1- turn off and remove power cable;
2- remove paper drawer;
3- remove image unit – don not let it under sun light. cover it.
4- put the printer upside down;
5- look at the axle of the big central rubber roller:

5.1- you will see both sides have a plastic balancer and locker.
5.2- left one has a small “finger” that locks it from slide.
5.3- take your cellphone and do a photo of the present position of the axle and the pieces as you will need to remember it after.

6-light and carefully, lift this small finger from the axle and slide the locker half inch to the center;
7- after this, you have the axlee in a so so free way. You can move (rotate) it, if you lift and free the inside gear at left end;
8- at the central drum, there is two locks, one each side. If you release them, you can remove a type of a plastic shell with the rubber belt attached to.
8.1- to unlock the shell you need to rotate the axle and position the locks in a convenient way. So, rotate it again, and so, remove the shell.
9-I removed the rubber belt, washed it with water only.
when repositioning the belt on the shell, observe it and put in a different position, as the slick area fits inside the shell, so a new surface is out.
10- mount it a reverse order.

The pick-up roller itself is available as a spare part on ebay from around $9. Search for clp300 roller.

A 10 minute fix makes these good as new.

I also came across the service manual. It can be downloaded here.