Archive for the 'Computers' Category

All your files are exactly where you left them

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

The title of this post comes from a Windows message displayed during a update to Microsoft Windows 10. At the time @theardvaark posted this tweet voicing his distrust of the statement, I muttered to myself “Don’t be soft. Why on earth would a simple windows update move them?

Despite now having worked with the Evil Empire’s products for something like 27 years, and so being used to useless error messages (“An unexpected error has occurred”, for example) and being downright lied to (any message produced by Internet Explorer), I still get caught out at times, and one such thing gave me a nasty shock the other day.

School of Hard NOx

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Oh dear, VAG seem to have cocked up, huh?

The fact that the EPA in the US caught them gaming the system with emission testing is interesting, and given that they face a huge fine, and the CEO Martin Winterkorn, having recently ousted Ferdinand Piech from his role, has now resigned.

I’m more interested in the tech. Simplified, it all hinges on EGR. It’s a common trick to disable EGR in a tuned diesel- in many ways it’s a huge pain in the arse, reducing efficiency, and therefore power and economy, and being prone to clogging up intakes, so with an EGR delete, your diesel will do better MPG, perform better, and not get so claggy. Also, as a diesel runs with excess air, if you don’t run EGR, you produce less particulates (soot), which is good.

The disadvantage comes with NOx production. No EGR means more NOx, which is one form of pollution generated by internal combustion engines, with health and environmental impact. This, and other pollutants, are regulated by EU Directives in Europe, and the EPA in the states, and cars that do not meet the standards cannot be sold new.

So, there’s a balancing act: try to keep particulates down, power and MPG up, but don’t create too much NOx.

Some diesels do this with AdBlue, but VAG have claimed to be able to meet the latest standards without the extra complication, cost, and space of the kit needed to inject it, managing with just a DPF. Nice trick.

Trick would seem to be the operative word, and you have to admire it. We’ve seen how networked cars are now, and that meant a clever algorithm was able to detect when the car was on a rolling-road being emmission-tested, and crank up the EGR, lovering the NOx output. On the road, EGR is reduced, so up goes the power and MPG. WIN!

How the conversation at Wolfsburg may have gone. From CommitStrip, click for original.

How the conversation at Wolfsburg may have gone. From CommitStrip, click for original.

Trouble is, that’s specifically not allowed by the EPA (PDF, 2.35MB), leaving VAG with a big headache stateside.

This does set me thinking if the diesel car boom could be ending: in particular, the UK’s CO-based taxation favours diesels, but as the amount of emissions gear required to meet the regulatory standards increases, the performance of the engines comes down and the complexity increases, and so therefore does cost. In one way, VAG’s (rather elegant) trick was actually good for the consumer, reducing costs and increasing performance, while seeming to meet all required standards. In another, it’s a cynical attempt to evade emissions law, risk public health, and increase profit. For sure, the fix is going to be painful for both VAG and its customers in the US: it remains to be seen if they have a problem in Europe too.

The root of the problem

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

The other day, I did something a bit unwise, and power-cycled my Volumio music player, and it failed to return to life. Eventually I got it hooked up to a TV to see what was wrong, and predictably:

Give root password for maintenance (or press Control-D to continue)

Unix and Unix-like systems don’t like having their power shut off without a clean shutdown, and the Raspberry Pi seems particularly prone to corrupting the root filesystem given a bit of provocation.

Now, generally, using fsck is like using chkdsk on Windows. It might fix things, or it might break them more. Not a big issue with what is quite a small image on an SD card, so breaking out dd soon should fix that: the music is on an external drive, and there’s very little config to do.

Except it didn’t. I wrote the image, and tried again. Many times, with new SD cards, even with a USB-microSD adaptor in case the laptop I was using had a duff SD slot, and also tried my other Raspberry Pi. each time, it failed. After much fscking about (literally) I realised the one thing I hadn’t changed. A Raspberry Pi runs off a micro-USB phone charger, and instead of the usual, decent quality one I used where the Pi is installed, I used a cheap nasty one that was handy. Evidently it wasn’t stable enough.

With it booting correctly and back in place, back to the music, and I’ve just discovered another great thing. As Volumio is based on MPD, you can either use the (very nice) web interface built-in, or connect a client like Cantata:

Cantata's interface- plays the music, gives info.

Cantata’s interface- plays the music, gives info.

or one of the multitude of others,and control from a phone, tablet, or PC.

I can’t help but wonder how many commercial jukeboxes are using this stuff in the backend…


Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Having learnt my lesson about staying up to date so as to not get stuck with a hard-to-upgrade install, I set about upgrading my Debian “server” to Jessie. How about that for ease?

Add a few lines to a config file (etc/apt/sources.list, to tell it where the updates are), apt-get update, apt-get upgrade (a cautious intermediate upgrade), apt-get dist-upgrade, answer a few questions, and off it goes, with 1 reboot (for a kernel change), and all services working with short interruptions only, and remotely over ssh, and only a couple of hundred MB download to have the latest release- running on antique hardware.

That’s how an upgrade should work.

A Bad Apple

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Andy, Ross and BrownhillsBob may be expecting me to have a pop at Apple here (as is my way), but I’m not going to, or at least only a brief whinge, with the main target (again) being idiots that claim to know a product, but don’t.

Those of you with long memories may remember this lengthy rant. A short swipe at OSX, and a big load rant at fucking Symantec (as a colleague commented, is there *any* company Symantec have bought and not fucked up the product?), and a big rant at fuckwits who don’t understand what they are being paid to do.

The OSX server mentioned in that rant failed. To be completely fair, it’s worked completely reliably for six years now, which is impressive. So I’m not going to complain, and it was clearly hardware that was bost.

A few attempts by colleagues and myself to resurrect it failed, so we called the support company (sadly the same fuckwits from the story back in 2009). They wander in, (bringing a manual, which sets off alarm bells- I’d expect a field engineer to not need it….) say the server’s not supported by Fruitco any more, that parts are a nightmare, briefly try (and fail to get) Target Disk Mode, (which, I note, doesn’t work with disks attached to a hardware RAID card, so wouldn’t have helped), shrug a bit, say that our diagnosis of a buggered RAID card might be right or maybe it might be the logic board (as there’s little more than those 2 fucking boards in it, this is hardly advanced diagnosis, and leave.

At this point, I begin to wonder what we’re paying the fuckers for, and I start restoring the files to the only place we have a Backup Exec agent and 1TB of spare storage: a Windows Server 2003 box. Most of the data restores, but some recent work is lost as it didn’t make the tapes (the Mac workstations being too old for Time Machine), and some initially didn’t restore due to file naming incompatibilities (take it from me, anyone using mixed operating systems (our backup is Windows-based) should read this, and this: most of the restrictions are with Windows, but you never know what OS you may be sharing files with. I personally think it all went downhill once spaces were allowed in filenames :-), and here’s my brief whinge: I know the limitation is Windows, but allowing “:” and “\” in a filename is just fucking wrong, and supporting your hardware a bit longer would be nice.

Now then, what to do? The users are (mostly) working again. First of all, the original support co is ditched. We call another supplier, and the difference is incredible: engineer arrives, asks all the right questions, listens to what diagnostic steps we’ve tried, sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, diagnoses a logic board failure, and offers to take the server back to the workshop to attempt recovery of the recent data for a very modest fee. Guess who’ll be getting the support contract, and potentially an order for new machines in a while?

It also makes me think I should have taken better note of the warning signs six years ago: these people claim to be supporting us (and originally claimed to know the product, but, as is so often the case, don’t. I’m glad to say that I didn’t arrange their involvement.

Debian Again

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

The “server” I built back in 2008 suffered a nasty accident at my own fair hands: a cack-handed attempt to patch the GHOST vulnerability, compounded by a previous, similarly cack-handed (though succesfull) approach to patching bash previously taught me a hard lesson in package managment on Debian-based Linux: Don’t fuck with the rules, and when you see a confirmation that says you must type

Yes, do as I say!

or the operation stops should be taken as n indicator it’s about to break. It did.

The handy bit was that the system stayed up, but I couldn’t start or stop services. This wasn’t going to survive a restart, so I got the data and config files off with SFTP, IMAP’d the email into a folder on mylaptop, and shut it down. Then work got in the way and I had to rely on gmail for a few days.

Rebuild was a bit fraught: Ubuntu Server no longer comes with a suitable kernel for the very old Celeron laptop i use as a low-power server, and I thought I’d have to use a desktop variant, but returning to Debian provided a install CD that worked, and after a few false starts with postfix config, it’s up and going again. The lesson learnt here is to be cautious (don’t break dependencies), but not too cautious (if I’d kept Ubuntu up to date, the 2008 build would have been upgraded by now, and \i wouldn’t have had to bodge the patches).


Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

I already mentioned my plans for a media streaming server with my Raspberry Pi, and finally got round to it: a friend donated an external disk enclosure that took a pair of 1TB SATA disks, and presented them as a 1TB RAID 1 volume over USB. A cheap USB hub, a case for the Pi, a £2.49 USB wifi dongle, and a quick download of Volumio (a modified Raspbian image) and all the bits are present, fitting them together was pretty simple, and I have a working media server with great sound quality, that uses little power and is completely hidden from view: all the hardware worked, with the only tweaking being a quick edit of /etc/network/interfaces to set a fixed IP on the wireless network.

Volumio is cool: it’s like IPCop in that it’s an open-source appliance based on Linux with a web interface to configure it and use it, but you can delve “under the hood” with ssh. It uses the mpd server, and presents itself on the network via SCP or a SAMBA (Windows network) share for uploads, and advertises on Airplay or DLNA. You can control it with a wide range of clients for all sorts of devices as well as the web interface, and it just found my DAC with no tinkering, and the sound from a FLAC file is as good as the original CD, even with the Pi’s limited horsepower.

I have a good amount of ripping to do…..

Into the Digital Age

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Regular readers will know that I’ve got some prejudices about audio: for years I didn’t have an MP3 player, eventually relenting, although I still don’t do actual MP3s, and buy music almost exclusively on CD, though it has to be said, my views on downloadable music 10 years ago are starting to be disproved: MP3 at a highish bitrate (which is more practical with increasing bandwidth and storage) is good enough for most people, on most systems, at most times, and lossless formats are becoming more common, especially since Fruitco introduced their lossless format (though of course, they should have introduced it as an open format…).

One thing* has kept me away from using a computer to play music in the house: the analogue outputs of most consumer PCs (and I’m including Fruitco in this) hardware is a bit ropey- but then again, it was never intended for high-quality audio.

Enter the DACMagic. It’s a proper (though very small) hifi component with TOSLink, S/P DIF and USB inputs, and it’ll do the high sample rates that may not be neccesary, but more importantly, it’s a decent DAC chip with the compromise pushed a bit towards quality, and some initial testing sounds as good as the CD with a FLAC file (and, pleasingly, the device was recognised and working within seconds on Ubuntu).

The plan now is a Raspberry Pi and Volumino: the Pi’s analogue audio output is particularly compromised (hardly surprising given it’s a £35 computer) and the ‘proper’ stereo doesn’t have HDMI. There are cheaper ways to get better Pi audio with a Wolfson DAC, but as a bonus, the DACMagic’s inputs can link to my existing CD player too; a respectable but budget Marantz, and also, it comes in a nice black case that looks decent next to the other gear: initial comparisons sound like the DACMagic has improved sound here too, but that could be the confirmation bias- I’ve just bought it, so it /has/ to give an improvement :-).

*OK, two things. I’m an awful luddite, it would seem.

Surface Treatment

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

A few days ago, we got a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 at work. It’s not a bad machine: it’s a Laplet: a hybrid laptop/tablet, and it works well, if we excuse it for Windows 8- the hardware is nice, thin, light, and i7 versions are quick, so it’s a good fit for the very mobile staff that
will be using it.

I remain convinced that Win 8 is a bastardisation of touch-screen tablet OS and a desktop OS that feels like an unholy marriage, though I’m hating it less as I get used to it.

What really creates a whinge is this little stroke of genius, which caused a support call and much fannying around testing chargers this week.

You can see the product launch meeting now:


Yes, Microsoft launched a device, launched a dock for it at the same time (we got the dock a day or two after the device itself), and managed to make the two not work together at launch. Cue a large loss of faith in what should be a good product.


You see this a lot with technology, and come to that, with poorly managed processes outside of tech:

1. Decide on arbitary launch date and fix everything to that.
2. Skimp on the preparation/testing, or ignore the problems.
3. Wonder why it’s all gone wrong.

The result is pretty much as you’d expect; you look inept…

Dirty Boy

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

I’ve gone on here before about how web filtering is wrong and doesn’t work properly, and how the bigger the scale, the harder it is.

We’ve also seen that, according to an Ofcom report (PDF, 1.1MB) customers have greeted the filters with rejection.

That’s quite gratifying, I think. People are being actively prompted to allow censorship, and are rejecting it. Of course, that the tech required is now in place will make it easier to do more packet inspection should law (or other means) request it…

Here’s the Open Rights Group‘s take on it, the approach is humourous, but the message is serious.

If you think this won’t happen, try the Scunthorpe Problem for size.

I’m personally of the opinion that an ISP should do one thing: provide the infrastructure to route packets to the internet, and maybe a few basic services (like DNS, SMTP etc). You might note that the sponsors of that video refuse to offer a filtered connection, something they’re to be congratulated on.

If, like me, you want to defend an open, uncensored Internet with reasonably privacy, then consider joining the Open Rights Group or the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Note that ORG is a UK organisation, EFF is US-based.

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