Monthly Archives: November 2012

Windows 8/Server 2012 new interface – is this progress?

Jakob Nielsen nails my concerns with Windows 8, specifically that the paradigm doesn't work on PCs:

On a regular PC, Windows 8 is Mr. Hyde: a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity.

… (PCs) used to be Microsoft's core audience, and it has now thrown the old customer base under the bus by designing an operating system that removes a powerful PC's benefits in order to work better on smaller devices.

An example I'm finding trying to use Windows 2012 Server, which uses the same interface: the start menu isn't visible on the taskbar. You have to press the Windows key to get it. But this causes huge problems over Remote Desktop, which is how many servers are accessed. You have to specifically reconfigure Remote Desktop to do it, which then causes issues on your own desktop.

Windows Server 2012 - no Start button Windows Server 2012 - if you're lucky it will appear

The Start Menu does seem to appear if you mouse over the bottom left of RDP window, but I haven't yet worked out precisely what you need to do. Hover? Click? Swipe? It just seems to pop up semi-randomly. If there's a better way of doing it, it's certainly not obvious.

In my book, this is not a useability improvement.

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Upgrading Netgear Stora without data loss

Despite my expectations, I’ve managed to upgrade our NAS’s storage quickly, easily, and without losing a byte of data.

We have a Netgear Stora as our home NAS. We’ve been butting heads against the storage limit of the box, but I’ve always been careful not to populate the second drive bay; the last upgrade replaced the single 1Tb drive with a single 2TB drive – 2TB was the cost/storage sweetspot. However, a couple of years on and it’s still the sweetspot, the largest drive capacity is only 3TB (I suspect due to the Thailand floods of 2011 - we’ve been stalled at this capacity for a while… which is a little misleading, but I’m not paying $550 for a 4TB drive when I can have 3TB for $150) and it seemed like it was time to exploit the second drive bay.

Researching online shows that the default configuration for a Stora is RAID 1, which is… not the default I’d have chosen. What we want is a JBOD array. I didn’t recall changing the configuration the last time we did an upgrade, so it’s a safe bet that we were still a RAID 1 setup. The documentation is clear that converting from RAID 1 to JBOD or vice versa requires a format of the media, so step 1 was to ensure our backup of the backup was up-to-date; that took overnight to complete, even with the 2TB USB3 drive that we picked up for only $99 from Officeworks (how are they able to sell a drive and enclosure for the same price as a cut-price parts supplier sells the naked drive?)

If anyone can explain why I was getting over 70MB/s to my external USB3 hard drive when I started, and a few hours later when I went to bed I was getting under 30MB/s, I’d love to hear it. It was a steady decline in I/O rate and I’m at a loss to explain it.

Anyway, with the backup completed, and verified, it was time to bite the bullet. For step 2 I powered down the NAS, extracted the existing drive from the NAS and put it aside, took our lying-around-spare 2TB drive and shoved that in its place and then restored power. I fired up the (Windows-based) Stora management software and connected to the Stora and it announced that there was some weird drive mounted, and what storage configuration did I want? Having picked JBOD, it then proceeded to format the drive.

Once the formatting was done, I proceeded to step 3. I powered the Stora down, inserted the original drive in to the previously unused bay (the vertical orientation flipped relative to the other bay, which was surprising) and restored power. I fired up the (Windows-based) Stora management software and connected to the Stora and it announced that there was (again) some weird drive mounted, and what storage configuration did I want? Annoyed that it didn’t remember that I’d already picked JBOD, it then proceeded to format the drive, both as expected (per advice on the Internet) and as it had last time. There was a slow moving progress bar and everything.

Once that was all done, I got ready for step 4: restore the backup. I browsed to the mount, and discovered all the data was already there. Every last byte. The lying bastard of a thing had formatted nothing. The carefully prepared backup was not needed; I spent several long moments stunned, absolutely stunned.  I even ran a few checks to make sure I wasn’t being lied to, that the OS had cunningly cached the directory structure. But it was true; I could play media, read configuration files, the works. Free space was now reported as 2.2TB. I’d suspected there was a chance that this would work (JBOD shouldn’t require any special formatting, unlike RAID 0 and perhaps RAID 1), but still couldn’t believe it.

A technology upgrade worked, and contrary to advertised capabilities. Has this ever happened before?

Geeks rule the world

This warms the heart.

Here’s proof that geeks now rule the world: the USA election result shows the winner is the one with the better database. This fascinating article shows how the Obama campaign gathered and used demographic data — and how the Romney camp mis-stepped.

The Obama campaign had pulled off a trick political professionals normally fantasise about. Using some of the most sophisticated campaigning technology ever created, they reshaped the electorate to suit their candidate.

Victory for technology

summer 2012/13

Per today’s Melbourne Forecast, issued at 5:06 am EDT on Saturday 10 November 2012.

Forecast for the rest of Saturday
         Max 20 Partly cloudy.
Sunday 11 November
  Min  8 Max 26 Sunny.
Monday 12 November
  Min 17 Max 23 Shower or two developing.
Tuesday 13 November
  Min 11 Max 20 Partly cloudy.
Wednesday 14 November
  Min  8 Max 22 Partly cloudy.
Thursday 15 November
  Min 10 Max 22 Partly cloudy.
Friday 16 November
  Min 12 Max 22 Shower or two.

As such, I now declare it to be summertime (7 days in a row forecast to be 20+ degrees), and as such am shutting down the gas heater and opening up the cooling vents.

Converting .ts (DVB) to other formats (in Windows)

I’m always on the lookout for a better method of converting DVB (.ts) video streams to more useable formats.

This seems to do a decent job: Free Video Converter

– just beware of the installation questions; if you accept the defaults, it’ll install an unwanted toolbar, a doubtful driver optimiser, and an unneeded (in my case) plug-in for Firefox and Chrome.

Anybody got other suggestions, including for OSX?

Internet privacy: hard work, but doable

Ever since I came across browser fingerprinting, it’s been very hard to ignore that little voice in my head that tells me they’re out to get you. I routinely rock the Internet with JavaScript and Flash disabled thanks to NoScript and the similar NotScripts on Chrome, and have, in the past, been satisfied that these precautions were enough to stop the bad people on the Internet. If my browser was dumb, it couldn’t hurt me.

I routinely leave cookies enabled because they don’t present a system security threat. There are cross-site supercookies, but they’re implemented outside of the HTML cookie world — they’re done with Flash and JavaScript, so not so much of  a problem with my configuration.  In the future I’ll be disabling third-party cookies.

Disabling third party cookies doesn’t do much good with browser fingerprinting.  I hadn’t realised how unique my browsers are. So Firefox gets FireGloves, which will work even for pages where I’ve enabled JavaScript et al. FireGloves changes HTTP request headers so that instead of my systems actual values, the most generic values found in the Internet are used instead; it can also cycle through them randomly.

Because of the interminable delay in page redirection on my grossly underspec’d netbook, I’ve added Don’t track me Google (which Chrome will download but then leads you to believe it won’t let you install, but if you click *->Tools->Extensions, then drag from the download bar onto the Extensions list will install just fine).

Because the Australian government seems increasingly intent to read my mail, I’ve gotten quite interested in preventing them doing so. Encrypted communications provide private browsing — what goes back and forth is a secret, but not who are having the conversation. The EFF’s HTTPS Everywhere (which works on Firefox, and kinda on Chrome) enforces a preference for SSL communications where available. However, in the real-world parallel to the electronic, that ensures that instead of my ISP being able to see me walk around the streets and then into glass-walled buildings, the buildings now become opaque. They still know what buildings I’ve walked into. The government wants to know what buildings I’ve walked into because… ummm… the building which has bomb-making instructions… we can prove… ummm… something. But now we’re safe! The ineptitude of the government’s censorship plans leaves me with no desire to allow random ISP and government employees to rifle through whatever-it-is-I-do-on-the-Internet whenever they feel like it.

As such, the next step is to start using an anonymising network; initially I2P seemed to be just the ticket.  I2P is an unofficial top level domain, and under it you can find — amongst other things — eepsites, anonymously hosted web sites. Problem is, they serve HTML, and the pages could refer you off the .i2p TLD thus exposing your IP address (they might do this via a web-bug or something as innocuous as externally hosted CSS file). I2P is primarily a darknet, not an anonymising proxy; it’s an internet that doesn’t play by the same rules, and the effect is that no-one on it can identify anyone else on it (with some demonstrated exceptions). The I2P network seems to be populated by scary people and paranoid people. By far the biggest problem is that I2P doesn’t work very well for surfing the Internet, due to it’s limited out-bound connection (outproxy) to the wider Internet.  Given the http://i2p.to proxy allows viewing this darknet from outside, there’s not much point running I2P unless you want to anonymously publish information.

So while I2P isn’t enough on it’s own to hide your identify online, it isn’t really enough anyway. I don’t want to wander the darknet, I want to be out in the light of the Internet using my Cloak of Invisibility.  This is where the only (non-VPN) game in town comes in, along with all its demonstrated weaknesses: Tor.  The Tor network is accessed via the TorButton plugin.

When using TorButton, to minimize your risk profile you can’t run random crap on your browser — you’ve got to just browse. As such, the Tor developers recommend you use TorButton with a bunch of other tools (many of which I’ve already mentioned), which are all helpfully bundled up into the Tor Browser bundle, a secured version of FireFox — not a plugin — that uses the Tor network.  They’re also very down on embedded environments like Flash, Sliverlight, Quicktime, RealPlayer… you get the idea.  In addition, those datafiles that carry active content — .DOC and .PDF — scare the willies out of them, and they want you to only open them once you’re disconnected from the Tor network.

In fact, they go so far as to recommend Tails running inside a VM, which means all your traffic goes via Tor.  That seems to be the optimal solution.