A Driving Instructor's Blog

Computers & Tech

1 2 3 16

WannaCry RansomwareEveryone must have heard about the problems this week with an unprecedented attack on Windows computer systems around the world. I understand that there are already reports of further cases as we head into the new week.

I’m not going to do an in-depth report, since you can find them all over the internet, and they’re written by people  much more knowledgeable on the subject than me. However, the one thing you MUST do is install any updates or patches as soon as possible.

Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7, and Windows Vista systems should already have been patched (back in March). If you haven’t done the patch, do it soon. Microsoft no longer officially supports Windows 8 or Windows XP (except by custom arrangements), though the NHS still uses it from what I have read. However, they have released an emergency patch for both Windows 8 and Windows XP that regular users can apply.

Just do it.

Share

I got a message on my 2016 Ford Focus TDCi Titanium centre console the other day telling me that it was due for an oil change. I wouldn’t have minded, except that it was only on 5,500 miles and service points are every 12,500 miles.

I spoke with the local dealer and they said just to bring it in so they could reset it. I wasn’t too pleased with that since visits to the dealer inevitably mean at least half a day in lost lesson time. Therefore, my first action after that was to buy an OBD II monitor tool so I could reset it myself. The tool worked fine, except that it didn’t find any faults and so there was nothing to reset – and the oil change warning remained stubbornly visible.

Then I did what I should have done in the first place and Googled it. It turns out Ford has a system which can be set to give an oil change warning at various points, so when it triggers it isn’t an actual fault and therefore doesn’t show up as one.

Resetting it turned out to be incredibly simple – though completely undocumented by Ford, of course. All you do is:

  1. Turn on the ignition (or push the start button with the clutch up)
  2. Press the brake and accelerator fully down for about 20-25 seconds

The display tells you when reset is complete, and the warning light goes out. From what I understand, this applies to all Focus models from MkII onwards.

How soon should I get my oil changed when the warning message comes on?

For a Focus, if your car is under the manufacturer’s warranty then I think they allow 1,000 miles on top of the normal service points at every 12,500 miles. After that your warranty might be affected.

Of course, if the oil change warning message appears before 12,500 miles then you can safely ignore it (or reset it, as explained above). It isn’t a sensor warning, just a timer based one.

If the oil warning dashboard light comes on, though, you mustn’t ignore it.

Share

Three Wise MonkeysThis is funny. You’ve probably come across the various ‘assistants’ which respond to your voice on today’s computers and smartphones. One of the biggest at the moment is Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, and it comes with the Amazon Echo – a device that personally I can’t see the point of, but it appears quite a few other people can.

The Echo is a smart speaker system which listens continuously and responds to your voice commands. It does apparently useful things like play music, create ‘to-do’ lists, sets alarms, and provide weather and travel information. The same stuff you can do with a few mouse clicks or thumb twiddles. Except that it costs about £150.

This story from America tells how a San Diego news station was reporting on how a six-year old child had cost her parents a lot of money by accidentally ordering things via the family’s Echo device. She apparently said “can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” and shortly a $160 dollhouse and 4 lbs of biscuits arrived in the post.

During the report, the reporter said “I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’.”

The first problem is that in order to trigger the Echo – specifically, Alexa, which is the assistant running on it – you have to address it by name – Alexa – and then it listens. The second problem is that it turns out voice-controlled online ordering is activated by default on the Echo account. The third problem is that anyone who is prepared to pay £150 for a small mono-speaker employing technology that tries to be human but isn’t is not going to be the sharpest blade in the knife drawer, and will not have changed any of the default settings.

So when the reporter uttered the words “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse”, Echo devices all over San Diego, which were also listening to the show, immediately ignored the grammatical tense and began ordering dollhouses for their owners. CW-6 News said “plenty” of viewers’ boxes had placed orders.

Which is another reason I don’t want one. Mind you, I did look into it a few months ago before I knew how much they cost.

Share

This is a big story in the tech world. Samsung, which recently launched its Galaxy Note 7 phone in a blaze of publicity, has halted all sales.Galaxy Note 7

Many people will be aware that they had to do a recall after a number of devices caught fire or exploded either during or after charging. Samsung said that they’d traced the fault back to a faulty batch of batteries, and began replacing recalled devices with ones which were apparently safe to use. However, a number of these “safe” phones have also caught fire.

There were around 100 cases in America with the original version, and at least seven incidents have been reported so far with the replacement versions.

This is really going to hurt Samsung. It is quite likely that the Galaxy Note 7 will now never be (re)launched, which could cost them billions. They’ll lose around $10 billion in sales from the US alone. And that’s even before you consider the costs associated with the mass recalls – which are among the largest in history – and the damage to their reputation.

Anyone who bought one is advised to contact the place they got it from to initiate the return process.

Even before this latest announcement, Note 7s were gradually being banned from flights after at least two instances of smoking units on board causing flights to be abandoned.

Share

Just regarding that last post about Rosetta, and one of the images I have shown again here:ESA - 67P from 16km

If you get the full sized image here, in the black sky to the middle left there is a small white dot that might be a star, a data glitch, or just an aberration on the optics. But look what happens when you blow it up:The anomaly - expanded

It’s a disk shape with several lobes around it. Here’s what happens when you adjust the contrast:The anomaly - processed

Is that strange or what? I’d have never spotted it if I hadn’t seen the comments under that photo.

No one else seems to have picked up on a possible UFO in this latest Rosetta image.


There’s bound to be a logical explanation. On the list of possible logical explanations, it being a real out-of-this-world UFO comes in somewhere at around the gazillionth position.

Mind you, it doesn’t half look like that photo in Independence Day when they first detect the aliens approaching.


Actually, it is definitely some sort of exposure artefact. Every time a star appears in any Rosetta image you see some sort of streaking and those lobe-like structures. In another image from the final descent you can see multiple stars and they all show the same features.

Share

The Rosetta probe went into orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August 2014, after a 10-year journey which saw it travel more than 4 billion miles as it swung around Mars and Earth (three times) to pick up speed. Finally, a critical deceleration phase as it neared 67P slowed it from almost 800 metres per second to a more sedate 8 metres per second, after which orbit was established.

This in itself was an incredible feat, but there was more to come. In November 2014 Rosetta discharged a small lander, known as Philae, which landed on the comet’s surface. I suppose success is a relative term, since Philae’s system for attaching itself to the comet was – with hindsight – possibly a little too much the stuff of science fiction. The theory was based on the assumption that comets are merely big balls of ice with dirt mixed in, and Philae was equipped with explosive harpoons which were supposed to be fired into the surface on contact and hold it there while it used threaded feet to screw itself down. I don’t think anyone is 100% certain, but it was believed that the harpoons didn’t fire, and consequently Philae bounced back into space and landed again – this time in a location which was believed to be dark and shielded so that an erratic signal was received and the solar panels were unable to keep it powered up. Nevertheless, it did send back some photographic data before going silent for more than a year.Philae Found (ESA image)

It was believed that if Philae were to suddenly be exposed to sunlight again it would wake up, and that this might happen as the comet went around the Sun and the rotational axes shifted. This didn’t happen as planned, though a very brief signal indicating full functionality was detected before the Rosetta-Philae link was shutdown to conserve power in mid-2015. It wasn’t quite the end, because only a month or so ago Rosetta incredibly produced a picture (composite, above) which clearly showed Philae pretty much upside down and wedged under a rocky cliff.

In the end, Philae didn’t actually achieve much – if you don’t count actually touching down very nearly safely on something travelling at 34,000 miles an hour around 300 million miles away as an achievement in itself! It nearly worked – nearly, but not quite. It didn’t drill and analyse samples as was originally intended. And personally, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that comets are not the big snowballs they’ve always been reckoned to be and are somewhat harder – such that when Philae’s harpoons fired, instead of penetrating as the theory said they should, they bounced off and the thrust pushed Philae back into space before the weak gravity pulled it back down and dumped it in a crevice (I’m just surmising, OK?) I mean, does this look like a “dirty snowball”?ESA - 67P from 16km

Rosetta has sent back many thousands of high resolution images showing incredible detail. It has also detected chemicals which arguably lend weight to a theory (panspermia) which was put forward in its most commonly understood form by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe in the 1970s, and given some support by Stephen Hawking in 2009. Again, speaking personally, it has not showed that 67P is anything like what comets have always been described as being.

As Comet 67P passed around the Sun in 2015 and began to move away into space it was always known that it would eventually be too far away for Rosetta to remain powered and operational. They could have hibernated it until 67P came back again in about 7 years’ time, but the chances of Rosetta successfully coming out of hibernation were slim (it was not designed to withstand such conditions and the risk was great). The decision was made to land Rosetta on 67P instead – more or less a low-speed crash landing.ESA - 67P from 51m above surface

Well, that happened today, and the image above was captured just 20 metres above 67P (that’s just slightly less than the distance you need to be able to read a car number plate from for your driving test). Apparently, the comet is so far away now that the data transfer rate is only about the same as it was on the Internet when we used to rely on dial-up modems. The width of the surface shown in the image is about 2.5m – two or three adult paces.

This is Rosetta’s final image.

Rosetta’s signal was lost at 11:19 GMT.

Share

Apologies for being offline for a while this evening. I had been trying to convert the site to HTTPS and lost access to the control panel.Futurama's Broken Robots

I make regular backups, and had a bit of a scare when the latest one wouldn’t restore (more specifically, I couldn’t import the old MySQL database into the new one). Anyway, after a bit of fiddling I finally managed it.

Sorry about that.

Share

You’ve got to love Apple sometimes (and I mean that in a jocular sense). They’ve just released the iPhone 7, which has had the fortunate (for Samsung) effect of shifting attention away from the saga of the exploding Galaxy Note 7s. However, keen to innovate everything to death as always, they have caused a bit of a stir by removing the headphone jack.Apple AirPods

To be fair to Apple, the problems being suggested aren’t as bad as they’re being made out to be in the media. The iPhone 7 is supplied with a set of wired earphones (or “EarPods”) which connect to the Lightning port, a Lightning to USB cable, and a Lightning to 3.5mm stereo jack adapter (so you can use your existing earphones). The Lightning socket is an Apple invention dating back to 2012. All the media stories I’ve read have missed these details, and have suggested Apple is forcing people to buy its premium AirPod earphones.

Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, has come out with probably the most arrogant and typically Apple statement imaginable, and described the decision to lose the 3.5mm jack as “courageous”. The tech world seems to be split on this – well, when I say “split”, it’s more like a small piece torn off the corner – with the vast majority seeing it as a cynical attempt to make money and a doomed venture based on poor logic.

From the money perspective, people don’t have to buy AirPods and, as I’ve already said (but no one else seems to be), the iPhone 7 can still output to 3.5mm jack earphones and headphones using the supplied adapter. Apple’s gear has always been overpriced, and at £159 AirPods are no exception. But even if the whole Apple fanboi user base bought them, I couldn’t see it making much difference to Apple’s bottom line – not when you consider that a new iPhone 7 is going to set you back £600 or £700 depending on the model. So yes, it is somewhat cynical, but nowhere near as much as it would have been if users had had no choice but to buy AirPods. The real problem is all to do with Apple’s logic on this matter.Star Trek's Lt Uhura

You see, not that long ago, if a pair of headphones slipped off your head there was a good chance they’d shatter a coffee table or injure the Labrador. This would have been true whether they were wired or wireless, because they were bloody big things with proper speaker coils inside them. They may also have contained a couple of Duracells, and wired types would have sported a cable strong enough to hold down an elephant. More recently, though, technology has improved significantly and headphones – especially earphones – have become so small that the cotton-thin wires used to connect them to equipment provides additional functionality as a location device and a tether to stop them from falling into toilets or down drains. If an earbud were to fall out – which they frequently do – it would simply dangle around your neck until you shoved it back in your ear, and if you dropped the whole shebang as you ran across a field, the bright red or white cable would be visible from 100m or more. Take the wire away, though, and you’ve got two small things each the size of a broad bean which you’ll probably never see again. This is essentially what Apple has created with AirPods.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the physically small size means a similarly physically small power source. Weighing in against that, AirPods contain what Apple refers to as a microprocessor, and this is needed to collect data from built-in optical sensors, accelerometers, and microphones, and to provide the functionality above and beyond just playing music. In fact, AirPods come across as being the aural equivalent of Google Glass. Without the dangle-round-your-neck safety feature, these delicate electronic units are likely to find themselves coming into contact with hard floors from heights of up to 2 metres if they slip out – possibly with a little extra momentum (not to mention dirt and water) thrown in if the wearer is a jogger. Apple claims a 5-hour talk time, which in real world English probably equates to 3-4 hours – and this is with factory-fresh batteries. After a few dozen charge/discharge cycles this will likely deteriorate to 1.5-2.5 hours. Knowing how the typical iPhone user uses earphones (i.e. 18 hours a day, 365 days a year), most will start to experience a substantial reduction in talk time within a few months. Naturally, in something so small, there isn’t a slide compartment where you can replace batteries, so when the battery dies so does the AirPod. And they cost £159, remember.

Quite simply, wired earphones are about as perfect as you can get as far as the basic design goes. The wire is important, and getting rid of it is therefore a major change which requires a major shift in battery technology to work out properly. And let’s not forget that AirPods are typically Apple – designed to be seen. They are released in October, and I predict AirPod related muggings will start around the same time.

I stress once more that iPhone 7 buyers will still have the (for Apple) rather inelegant as standard option of plugging in normal earphones or headphones via an adapter cable. AirPods, though, have all the hallmarks of being too far ahead of their time – just like how the first mobile phones had to be connected to batteries the size of briefcases, or how current electric cars have extremely limited mileage range per charge. Until they can go a full day on a single charge – and until someone finds a way of making them stay put – users are likely to become disillusioned very quickly.

Just watch how many people lose them.

Share

I originally wrote this about a year ago, but it has been a popular story recently and is due an update.


I upgraded to Windows 10 last year, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. The only drawback to Microsoft’s “free upgrade” was that you didn’t get an installation disk (though you can make your own), and it was just that: an upgrade. Hard disk internal view

I have been building my own computers for the last 15 years or so, and I like them running in tip-top condition. Windows has always suffered from what is known as “OS decay” (also called “software rot” and “Windows rot”). The simple fact is that ALL software is liable to degrade over time, and it isn’t just a Windows issue, and what happens is that all the juggling of files, upgrading, installing and uninstalling, software bugs, crashes, and so on, can cause a lot of small changes on a computer. Over time these may accumulate to such a level that the system becomes slow or unstable, and the only sensible way around it is to format your hard drive and do an absolutely clean install of Windows, followed by all your other drivers and software. Absolutely the last thing you want to be doing is upgrading a system which is already in bad shape unless you are completely sure nothing from the previous version gets carried over. But that’s what you had to do with Windows 10 in order to take up the free offer.

I’ve done clean installs so many times on my own machines (and those of others, including over the phone when I worked in tech support) that I can usually do a format and have a clean machine running in a few hours. I have all my software’s installation files saved along with my software keys, which I just cut and paste as and when I need them. It sounds easy, but even when it’s your own system it is still a bloody nuisance. You lose anything you haven’t backed up, and no matter how careful you are there’s always something you forget. I’ve never been 100% happy with doing it this way. It’s a right pain in the arse.

In the past I’ve toyed with using disk imaging software. The idea behind this is that you can effectively take a snapshot of your hard drive – with Windows and all your software on it – save it, and then copy it back on to your disk at some point in the future if you need to. You end up with a system which is in exactly the same condition it was in when you took the snapshot.

For some years I’ve used Paragon software for creating backup images of my Windows installations. On paper, Paragon’s program is very good, but in all honesty it is the absolute pits when it comes to doing an actual restore. It isn’t user friendly at all, which is why I’ve tended to go for clean installs. But with Windows 10 being an upgrade rather than a standalone install, I decided that I really did need a proper disk imaging system once and for all.Macrium Reflect

After a bit of research, I found Macrium Reflect. It is available as a free version, and installs in a few seconds. I can’t believe I mucked about with Paragon for so long. I have since upgraded to the paid version.

When you first run Reflect it nags you to create bootable rescue disk (the paid version also allows you to create a bootable USB stick), which you need in order to restore an image. Creating the disk is very simple, and once you’ve done it you’re free to create your main image.

I’ve cut some details here which were in the original. Basically, after I backed up all my important stuff I ran the Windows 10 upgrade in order to activate my free licence. Then I did a clean install and created an image of that. Then I installed my software and created another image. I’ve been using Windows 10 happily since that time.

Recently, due to my participation in the Windows Insider Program, I decided I wanted a clean install. I backed up my files again – this time it was quicker because I save everything to separate hard drives – and ran the Macrium restore. It took about 5 minutes and I had a fully operational clean install. All I had to do was install software I’d bought since, create another image for next time with this included, and that was it.

I’d recommend Macrium Reflect to anyone who wants to create a safe backup of their system. Just remember that you need somewhere to store your image files. My system has 8TB of storage across seven HDDs, but if you only have single HDD you’re going to need at least 20GB free space to create an image .

Share

The media loves to redefine the meanings of words and phrases. For example, the term “tech-savvy” used to mean the person to whom it was applied had an in-depth knowledge of the technology in question. These days, it just applies to anyone who can turn their mobile phone off and then on again without breaking it.Hey, stupid

This BBC story reports that nearly a quarter of net fraud victims in the UK last year were “tech-savvy mobile and social media users”. Erm, how does being a “mobile user” make you tech-savvy? A typical mobile user is likely to be someone who gets stuck in a cave or is arrested after stealing a boat because they were desperate to catch Pidgey or Vulpix in the middle of the night. And you only need one look at a typical Facebook user’s page to realise how wide the gulf between “stupid” and “savvy” really is, pretty much binning the concept of a “social media user” being savvy about anything, let alone technology.

It’s also funny how the media deems that someone who plasters their entire life across LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and who uses passwords that are the names of their boyfriends, girlfriends, or pets is somehow savvy when it comes to technology.

The article says:

…Be wary of publishing any identifying information about yourself – either in your profile or in your posts – such as phone numbers, pictures of your home, workplace or school, your address or birthday

I’ve been using the Internet since the early 90s – not long after the first dial-up services became available, in fact. In all that time, I have not used my real name or identity in any context other than through e-commerce sites. I use pseudonyms and false personas everywhere else. I have not uploaded a single photo of me, ever. All my passwords are strong, with many being randomly generated and very long. I use hardware and software firewalls (personally, and on this blog), strong antivirus software, and I never click on email attachments unless I have manually scanned them first. And I build and repair PCs and other electronic gadgetry as the need arises.

So I consider it a bit offensive to be lumped in with the kind of people referred to by this comment:

Cifas said Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn had become a “hunting ground” for identity thieves.

You see, that’s the issue. This “net fraud” basically refers to hacked social media accounts or people with social media accounts who are simply too stupid to hide their identity, choosing instead to reveal secrets of such intimacy they span the entire range running from latest STD caught in a casual liaison, through date of next boob job and collagen lip injections, to bank account details including card PIN. And these are the ones who are apparently “tech-savvy”.

Being able to sign into Facebook doesn’t make you a techie. “Creating” a Facebook page doesn’t make you a techie.

Share
1 2 3 16