Andrew Breese

Musings of a professional geek

Category Archives: Gadgets and Hardware

old laptop becomes htpc

My 4 year old laptop died about 6 months ago due to a horridly corrupted Windows issue which I found basically impossible to fix. Over the past months I’ve been trying to fix it, and find a new use for it as a home geek project. The issue was My account (yes, a non-admin Account with slightly elevated privileges) and the admin Account was unable to write files anywhere on the local disks. This meant that programs crashed, nothing would install, and likewise nothing could be removed. I went as far as booting into safe mode and trying all sorts of permission hacks (which looked like poor imitations of CHMOD) and new Account hacks before ensuring I had a good backup and wiping the damned thing.

I still have no idea what I did to corrupt the OS that badly and half expect it was either a drastic virus infection or a stupid “are you sure” prompt where I should have said “nooooooo!”. Without a root cause I’ll blame myself for the mess and move on.

So the laptop has been wiped clean and a fresh Windows 8.1 install is now running smoothly. I also caved in and bought a new laptop to muck about in and play games (a great gaming laptop is like a slow desktop gaming machine except it costs twice the price). The old notebook became the new “spare” laptop. It still a solid pc as it was nice when I grabbed it in late 2014. It has multiple IO ports, VGA HDMI and a good stack of ram and hard disk space. It got me thinking of a home theatre pc (htpc as the kids used to say).

First I tried an install if KodiBuntu for the OS but found the new disk management didn’t like installing from DVD or USB! Same for another version of Linux which was a frustrating waste of a few evenings. I gave up on using a Linux distro quickly after that. Windows 8.1 isn’t a great OS anymore but it’s already installed and I paid for it so might as well use it. KodiBuntu isn’t available for 64bit Windows 8.1 easily either, so it’s gone.

Aside – I wouldn’t use a Windows OS on a dedicated “appliance” pc by choice without a very good antivirus & firewall like Sophos home and ensuring the OS runs on an account that isn’t an admin. Call me paranoid? I’m considering an additional layer of protection by only allowing the laptop to connect to a dedicated and segregated wifi network on the router, however its not in place yet so still pondering. That may also mean upgrading my home router too, which I do not want to do just for that config option.

Then I installed Kodi (the renamed XBMC) tool and its working well. I was able to quickly add my old media box as a video source and I’m now starting to ponder how to use this theatre pc better, and what mods might be handy. Kodi made it very simple once i adapted to how the menus work.

My plan is to have a good “spare” laptop which can be lent, borrowed, moved about when needed and also used up play videos which are using codecs which my old WD media box does not play. The WD is even older and suffering from Codec fatigue, a nd I also worry that the WD is not supported and might be a little insecure by today’s standards.


Does Meltdown or Spectre affect normal users? Probably not

The impacts of two new CPU security expoits are being tested at present, and I’ve seen two different views – one that it will have an impact (of single digits), and another saying that those single digits are not relevant (or almost not) for gamers and normal users because they don’t involve the kernal.

TLDR = You have no choice except to Patch and move on. Maybe keep reading in the background.

  • The CPU exploit probably won’t greatly impact a gamer or a normal user, and if they do – it will be a small slow down.
  • Pretty much everyone is nominally affected, so the playing field is still level.
  • Patching the machines is important (duh!).
  • There are no known exploits in the wild yet.
  • It will be years before consumer grade hardwar is released which won’t be impacted, because deisgning new CPUs takes time, and then the companies will need to get the hardware into market.

The background:

iPhone IOS 11 broke the podcast app

I’m angry enough to rant about how broken the Podcast app is now after the IOS 11 upgrade; it’s overflowed into this blog. Normally I’d try to hold my angst in check however Apple needs to see the feedback from multiple places.

Essentially the update to IOS 11 for the Podcast App has totally reworked the UI and very importantly removed the Unplayed list, the Mark as Played features, which makes it difficult to use. The UI changes are illogical and clunky – It’s horrid. 

I decided to post feedback direct to Apple via their feedback section and speak with my device – so I’ve converted to using Overcast. It’s free, logical, and has well thought out features. It’s good enough that I might subscribe to the paid version. 

/Grumble, /Adapt, /Replace

4GX Wifi Plus- How to reset the device

I’m using a Telstra 4GX wifi Plus hotspot widget when I ‘m the road at present, and the silly thing locked up while charging. It displayed the 4-5 power bars and little else on the lcd screen.

I started playing with it as I couldn’t find instructions online – it’s like an expensive figget-spinner. To reset the 4gx: Hold the Power and WPS buttons in for 10+ seconds and the device will shutdown. Then start-up and it *should* be back to normal.

Telstra IP4 to IP6 mobile rollout – nice

ITNews has an article on Telstra’s improved capability to supply IPv6 addressing on devices on their mobile network – not revolutionary, but interesting because it demonstrates that they are genuinely seeking to move through to IPv6 and also putting material into the marketplace which is semi-technical and informative in nature. The IP address IPv4-IPv6 crisis was raised decades ago as a potential problem, and as a career techie I watch with interest when these things bubble to the surface in the general media.

As first spotted by CommsDay, the incumbent last month said it would introduce dual-stack IPv4 and IPv6 addresses on the Telstra.WAP and Telstra.Internet access point names from September.

Each device will be allocated a dynamic /64 IPv6 prefix, with access to the next-gen addressing scheme on Telstra’s network requiring further configuration on user devices.

Groovy. I like that. Many many folk bash Telstra, however if they do more network work, and communicate more about what the plans are and when they’re being deployed it will go a long way (for me) to gain faith in their wider capability as a premier telco vendor. Talking more about the technical issues and then extrapolating what that might mean to end users is useful – and for customers this means that the Telstra network will have breadth to meet addressing demand in the future. Internet-of-Things (IoT) is pushed in the hype cycle in universities, private companies, and the media – this means their mobile network should be “IoT Ready” (my words, not theirs though).

Something positive, lets get more of it.

…Disclaimer: these views are my own, of questionable accuracy, may be improved caffeine, may change with time, and are not representative of Telstra (duh), my employer (duh), my family, or anyone else…

Managing backup, cheaply

For years I’ve had no real backup strategy at home. Files saved into various cloud providers like DropBox, Google, etc are one thing which might appear to be backup-ish but they really are not a backup tool at all. Those are file sharing and synchronisation for the sake of easy access. In other cases the family was using a combination of removable hard disks and usb memory keys. In our house different files are in different “cloud” places, which makes finding them a mess and managing it difficult.

I decided that my holiday mini-project was to get a backup solution for the house.

Goals and considerations:

  • Applications should have a simple interface. Be usable by a non-geek to back-up their personal files.
  • The ideal solution should have multiple backups locations and hopefully different styles of backup. This means copying the same data into several different places, and consider using cloud or NAS or portable drives in combination.
  • Ideally be automatic, or at the very least able to be scheduled or controlled.
  • Be something my family can use, and something that I can maintain without too many headaches.
  • Due to the size of my data, a cloud solution is problematic. However some of my family might be able to use a cloud service, as they have a much small amount of data to backup. eg. My core set is around 180 gig with a fair amount of extra stuff I’d like to add to it, compared to my partner’s data which is around 12 gig.
  • Backup system should perform incremental backup, especially if this is to run over slower connections; like broadband or wifi. A very large part of my home’s data does not change often at all, and I want the software to alter the backups it has already made, not do the entire data block again.
  • USB memory drives are now hated and won’t be used as any type of backup. They are too easy to loose and fail too often.
  • Support for Windows is mandatory, anything else (Macs and Unix or blah blah phones) is a nice to have. I’m not a SysAdmin anymore so I no longer have a linux server chugging under my desk.

So in a bit more detail…

Simplicity is needed as I’ll most likely be configuring this, but in the event that I need to recover the data from a back-up I want something that I can walk somebody else through. I’m also likely to be called upon to “fix” a backup related issue on short notice and with a time deadline, so something that performs most of the work auto-magically (I hate that phrase but it suits) is important.

Multiple backup styles is important because any single style of backup might be corrupted or fail, so having several redundant techniques is a stronger/broader approach.

Initially I’ve chosen the CrashPlan application, as it allows a very simple to configure and run interface, which is suitable for non-IT literate users, and also has options that are reasonable for IT geeks. I’ll be testing this in a local setting (phase one below).

I’ve read there are solutions with easier interfaces and potentially slightly cheaper, but from my short scan of the featureset on the top 10 vendors, only CrashPlan has remote pc to pc backup which is independent of a cloud solution. I really like this idea when I can consider how a family might interlink their computer resources to backup each other’s data.

CrashPlan is also interesting because the basic backup tasks of saving a set of profile related data to a removable drive or other computer is really easy and free. Yup, free for the basic backups. There are a wide range of backup application vendors and especially cloud backup providers now (Backblaze, Carbonite, Crashplan, etc), so do a little digging to find the vendor that suits your needs.

Lastly before I get to the detail, a note about “the Cloud” and “cloud backup“. To be frank in Australia a typical USA cloud solution isn’t viable or fast. I love the cloud as a concept & tool, and liked the idea decades ago; before server centric computing was morphed by marketing jargon into calling it “the cloud“.

Downunder we are still not able to access cheap fast cloud services, and that kills what I’d really like to do – which is just pay a monthly fee and backup every damn file, quickly. I tried it with a few providers and the speed just isn’t good enough yet. Try moving 160gig up into a cloud provider and you’ll have a task measured in weeks! Time will change that eventually.

The rest of the article is about what I’ve got working and what is next.

Phase one is getting the solution working at our house, across the important computers. Not hard, a bit time consuming, and needs to be watched over a few weeks to know for sure.

Phase One – Get it working locally.

This means get the backup working locally to the home where the PCs are used. This was a simple task of installing the application on each PC and then pointing them at a backup location. e.g.

  • Laptop 1 is an older unit with very little free hard disk space, and also has a very small backup amount (12 gig). So that unit pushes data to Laptop 2 which has far more free space.
  • Laptop 2 needs to save about 180 gig of data somewhere, and has a local disk with 250+ gig free. So it pushes it’s data to a removable drive.
  • Ideally both computers would have a fair amount of free space and they could backup to each other, but such is life. When that older laptop is retired then I’ll use the new one in the same way.

This has been in place for a week now and seems to be working. I’m watching with interest how the different systems connect to each other, how much bandwidth they demand when running, and also how much cpu the solution churns when running and in background.

My hope is that the backup solution will “just queue a retry” when the appropriate destination isn’t present. It seems to, but time will tell. A month is reasonable shake down time.

Interesting and useful that CrashPlan sends a periodic email summary to me of where it is up to. I like that.

Phase Two – Get it working with a NAS, where the NAS is the destination for the backup.

Specifically, I want it to backup onto the NAS, and I’m not at all trying to backup a NAS. Backing up a NAS via a Windows program running on a separate PC, across a wifi network, … is a nightmare scenario with too many moving parts. Most of the articles linked below are addressing how to mount and backup a NAS drive to elsewhere using the CrashPlan client.

Instead I’m looking to use the NAS space as the place to drop the backups. CrashPlan does not do that easily either, but the work around for  cheating with a NAS pointed me at a working unsupported solution.

Aside on NAS backups – CrashPlan does not support backup to a NAS for Windows (macs and such work fine, as it is a limitation of the way Windows OS handles services running as users and the security permissions), so yes it can go between PCs, but those PCs have to have CrashPlan installed and my NAS is a more generic consumer media drive with no WindowsOS to use. This is a limitation that hurts the product for Windows systems.

There are unsupported known work-arounds though (have a read here), which is where this step comes in. I did not use the advice in the linked article, as it uses the “Net Use” command in a windows batch file, which I don’t see as a useful approach for Windows 7 and Windows 8. After too many years using batch files to bend Windows to my ever changing and unforgiving will, I now avoid it.

It certainly might be ok in WinXP, but thankfully I only need to worry about Win7/8.

Instead I’ve used an NTFS Symbolic Link (which is akin to a shortcut, but not), however the operating system sees the connection as present and working file or volume. Essentially the user will see a folder which looksalmost normal, and then when they open it the current user session credentials are passed through to the NAs and the NAs folder will show up.

This is useful as it disguises the network share as a directory local to the computer’s operating system, which can then be used by CrashPlan for backup. It also establishes the link as something which is persisted to all parts of the OS, which means that the authentication for the connection is no different than any other share. This is handy because the batch files would have required authentication details saved within them, which I conceptually detest.

Still to do -I need to double-check that the Windows indexing service and all the associated scanning services (anti virus, etc) are set to ignore that symbolic link. I don’t want the OS to manage that area at all, just point to it.

The approach is predicated on the NAS server being online and present when CrashPlan needs to run, but as do all the approaches (duh!); you’ll always need the location to be online.

The mklink command syntax needs to:

  • run the command as Admin, which on Win8 might be a UI challenge in itself. Find it in the GUI then right click to run with elevated permissions.
  • use the command switch to indicate it is a directory, using “/d”.

mklink /D C:\temp11111 \\server\share\foldername\

After adding the link and then configuring CrashPlan on my laptop to point to the NAS – it backed up.

That was an exciting nerdy moment for me as it meant that my files were now backed up in two places. A huge tick in the redundant locations requirement. This is in place now too, although I do need to make sure the local network isn’t being crushed by all the traffic. The backup app kicks off automatically, so it could gobble up the local network unexpectedly.

Still to do – Last trick I’ve yet to do is to investigate and configure the advanced setting to disallow it run during the “busy times”. I think I’ll set a schedule from midnight to 6am where it can run unhindered.

Phase Three – Get it working cross-site.

The last step is to get an additional redundant location which is also offsite.This phase is still very much in the playground stage.

The product’s cloud solution could do this, except that it initially said the data upload was going to take 4-6 weeks continuously running! Nope, sorry. I want a backup somewhere which isn’t in the house so that theft and fire can’t affect the backup and until the online speed improve I’ve reverted back to using portable hard disks.

Aside for investigation later – There might be a way to seed a backup set onto a portable drive, move it to an offsite location, then copy that backup to the NAS or some such. I’ll dig in to that later. Might be useful for both the CrashPlan cloud backup, or even backup across the VPN between houses.

This is the tricky and complex step, as it involves setting up a VPN into my home network and then configuring the laptops to recognise the NAS as a valid CrashPlan backup location. It has the flaw of affecting both my home bandwidth and the bandwidth of the other end, and also will chew up a lot of my family’s internet allowance each month. The usage is certainly something that I’m not sure about.

There are two options, either I use my account and backup between my computers and/or I setup an account for each user and cross link the machines. Hard choice, so I’m doing both.


  • My laptop will use my NAS, and also a removable 2TB USB3/SATA drive. I might throw a 3rd local network location in too while I figure out an external location.
  • My partner’s laptop will use my laptop, and also the NAS.
  • My mother’s two laptops will use each other (locally) at her house, and also share files into my NAS via a VPN.
  • My brothers family of laptops (4x of them) will backup onto each other in whatever mesh makes sense according to their disk space and backup size, also onto his removable hard drive, and then onto my NAS via VPN.
  • I’ll consider a family Cloud backup plan at this point too, to see if the backup is worth it, but frankly the speed from Australia isn’t great.
  • I’ve love it if each of the three sites all had a NAS which then swapped backups, but that is a dream for a more enlightened time. Maybe next year.

Another interesting factor in the choices is which VPN type to configure. PTPP is quick and simple, but not terribly secure anymore. L2TP is better (far better I’m told) but requires setup of keys, then OpenVPn is great and I use it a lot personally but I’ve never set it up before from the “end” side.

I got the PTPP styel VPN working at home with my router as the end point in a few hours, opened a firewall port, and then closed it all up again after reading more about just how hackable PTPP is.

And this is where I am now, muddling around with reading about OpenVPN vs L2TP config, and how that might be performed on my router, or more likely through my router straight to a host (yikes!).

It’s nice to have a technical challenge hobby project again.

Last comments

I’m feeling far happier with just a basic backup being performed automatically regularly at home. Even without an off-site solution this is far better than nothing. The VPN questions will take a long time to get solved, and likely be a tech support challenge for the other users.

I wish I’d purchased far higher end gear for my media server and the hardware in the laptops, as it would have made this a little simpler, but my choice at the time was to limit cost and not be doing SysAdmin tasks at home. It means the next set of hardware will likely be mid range gear, and avoid the home user stuff.

…So if you are after a home backup solution consider CrashPlan’s free offering. All you need is either some diligence or an extra pc in the house to swap backups with; and the configuration is not hard.

Thoughts about Apple’s recent batch of news

It is almost like Apple has a Deck of Many Things, and got all the bad cards at once.

They’ve had a seriously large wave of mixed and poor press, which can’t be helping their position in the marketplace. That said, it feels more like a series of unconnected issues which could have affected any tech-giant. I have to wonder though if they’re spread too thin. MS has had months like this too and folks still use their gear every day, and the laundry list of odd things by most tech-farms reads a similar way – although not as many issues compressed into such a short time frame. We’ve seen:

Apple’s new iphone 6, which people have gone crazy for…

  • I’d love a faster processor and more ram in my old iphone 4. I’ve seen the speed difference between the 4 and 5 and it is dramatic for the same apps, so I can only think that the v6 will be faster too. Add a little OS bloat and App bloat and perhaps the speed difference will fade over time, just like it does in our other computers.
  • I’m certain that IOS8 will be a better operating system than v7, just because it is where they will spend their dev budget. I don’t look forward to the end of life for IOS v7, but it is coming very soon now that the sales have been so good for the new toy.
  • There is a comparison between the Galaxy 5 and the iPhone6 variants which all but says the Galaxy is the same feature-set. I’m not sure that is true give the hardware specs, but the high level feature-set looks darn similar.
  • Larger phones do not appeal a lot to me, because I want a device which is a phone first, then a pda, or tablet, etc. I need to be able to carry it without it being obtrusive, and hold it in hand easily. It needs to fit easy in a pocket, and there is no way in hell the new huge iPhone will fit in the pockets of my wife’s jeans. If Apple made a smaller but faster iPhone that the v4 form factor, or even just slimmer I’d really consider buying that for both of us.
  • I’d also pay for significantly more battery life. Not just an extra few hours, I mean give me a week between charges like the bad old days in the 90s mobile phones.
  • My iphone v1 (which couldn’t be purchased here in Australia) still works fine. I now use it as a music player in the house for one of the bedrooms. Yes, it needs to be always on charge, and it only holds a small amount of music, but it is doing great.

Apple’s iPhones 6s can apparently easily bend in your pocket…

  • If true, sheesh. Smaller tougher phone anyone? Can somebody rush a titanium laced backbone phone cover for the damn thing and sell millions of units…

Apple release a new privacy statement, which might take a broadside at Google

  • It reads well if you don’t think they’re being smart-arses. But only when you consider that it might be snarky, it reads like they are being rude. To be frank I’m not convinced that this was rude at all.

Apple has the (perhaps hack) issues with icloud file security.

  • Blaming the end user is pointless and exploiting them is horrible.
  • Anything and everything can be hacked given enough time.
  • I do not use iCloud because I do not trust ANY of the cloud services (yet). If you want my data, then come to my home (or my offsite back-up server) and get it from my cold dead hands.
  • And they are addressing it.

Apple gift the U2 album to users as a purchase, creating a storm of negative press…

  • Giving away free music from U2 should have been a huge promotional boon, but the auto-purchase rather than opt-in shows that the strategy didn’t consider the negative response at all.
  • Ironically you need to have an iCloud account to get it, so I can’t grab the album. This is where I’m OK with the choice to not use iCould – yes I miss out on the features and offers they are making, but I also know that my data is still mine. That approach adds risk of loss from theft and hardware failure, but I manage that risk through my own back-up.
  • I would like to listen to the album, but not really fussed, and certainly not going to pay for it.
  • I am sure that it will be available on illegal sites straight away.

Apple IOS 8.x Update rolled back due to lost calls and a few other issues

  • New iPhones have an issue with the 8.x update, and rollback has been sent out. Youch.
  • “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. My advice is to never apply an update to your devices (laptops, pc, phone, etc) in the first weeks of it’s release. Let somebody else be the tester and suffer any angst. This has happened to so many devices that only people with issues that are directly affected by the patch should try it.

Apple’s OSX might be affected by the Bash exploit

  • The exploit could affect a variety of Linux based operating systems, but the method of attack is very specific, so isn’t likely to affect most users; especially everyday end users. Don’t panic.
  • The potential for the exploit has been around for decades, and this is something to patch and not something to panic about. The sysadmins will know which systems are at risk and they’ll be stressed enough for everyone.
  • get the systems patched and buy yourself a coffee for being on the ball. Don’t buy into the hype.

Apple is still the device platform I use at home, and unless somebody releases a cost effective way to alter that and maintain the bread of easy in controlling the devices that won’t change soon. I’m locked in for now.

They need a weekend on a beach somewhere to chill, then return to work refreshed. Poor bastards.

A Twittertape machine

We were blathering at work this morning about a machine to take a twitter feed and print it out like the old ticker-tape devices used in for stock market prices before computers took over. And like most crazy thoughts somebody has already built it, The Twittertape Machine. I want one.twittertape machine

Some iOS7 thoughts

I’ve recently taken the plunge to update from IOS6 to IOS 7, and then 7.0.2 (or whatever the patch version was to fix the security hole). The experience of doing the update was kids stuff, and worked without issue. That is not to say that my experience from that point forward has been wonderful.

Instead I’m bemused by some of the choices the designers and product managers made.

Overall – I’ll adapt and accept it. Meh.

I’d probably be happy any phone or tablet device at this stage, as long as it has the apps I regular use:

  • phone, contacts, calendar, notes, etc
  • books and pdfs without DRM lock-in
  • multiple email account support
  • browser, video/youtube, podcasts, music, camera
  • social media apps
  • maps
  • rss, weather,
  • wow auth app, and logs app
  • flashlight, calc, timers,

I think a few users will be frustrated by change, but those users are typically frustrated by most changes in tech gear. I can accept the changes as attempts to improve and move forward. By comparison I think this update is leaps ahead of most Windows OS updates in presentation and design.

As much as it makes me sound like an Apple apologist – I still like the overall features.

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Trouble syncing google calendar to an iphone

I had a bit of trouble syncing my Google calendars (yes there are a few) with the iphone, and now that its working I thought it better to share the knowledge.

The problem I had was that my Google Calendar contained three separate sub-calendars, and two of them would sync, but the third would not. This mean that I could see all my data when I viewed the calendar on whatever browser, but opening the calendar on the setup iPhone was missing one.

The (TLDR) solution is to tell Google which devices it syncs from are meant to show which calendars. You do this by going to the two URLs and authorising the calendars individually.

To make the process even more odd, but logical behind the scenes the second URL is for syncing of mobile devices, and you need to authorise each sub-calendar on each device which may connect to it. This was the key step I was missing – i.e. I had setup sync for the browser, but not in the specific device and then for the sub-calendar.

Once I did that it worked fine. For a more verbose explanation and some side-detail continue reading below.


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