Category Archives: News & Annoyances

The New Disk Utility in El Capitan

Two steps forward, one step back.  Often in computing it’s a way of life.

There are a lot of new features in El Capitan and its related hardware.  If you want to learn about them you can find hordes of information in them Interwebz.  But if you are thinking something might be amiss, you’ll have difficulty slogging through the praises to locate the deficiencies.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Apple and Macs.  Well, I dislike them only as much as I dislike all computers and operating systems.  Same thing.  It’s just that Mac fans, greater than any other group of technology adherents, have the awesomest rose-colored glasses.

If you gander at this article on the latest version of Disk Utility, you will find much praise.

It made sense that repairing permissions on files for which OS X knew precisely what settings should be in place could fix random faults…. Even so, from all reports, permissions repairs had little real effect for years—it just made us feel better.

So here at work we support more than 200 Macs.  I can assure you that at least some of the time Repair Permissions does actually fix permissions and thus fix issues facing real users.  Yes, that gives me all the feels; but it does that by actually fixing problems.  It is not praiseworthy to remove such functionality.

Have the new security measures introduced in El Capitan removed the need for future permissions repairs?  This remains to be seen.  Nonetheless, it was doing good work.  Whether that work is now unnecessary is yet an open question.

What about Disk Repair?

Select a drive or a partition and click First Aid, and a seemingly much-changed repair operation proceeds.

It doesn’t just seem different.  It works differently and in at least one scenario fails utterly to repair the disk (presumably the partition table).

I used dd to copy a drive from an ssd to a thumb-drive of smaller capacity.  After dd finished it’s copy operation I checked the drive in GParted which reported no partitions.  This was likely due to the partition table including a partition-end beyond the end of the drive.  This is expected.  Just need to repair the partition table.  The drive booted as expected; all the data was good.

I attached that drive to an El Capitan machine and discovered the new Disk Utility.  Being that all the usual repair options were missing I ran First Aid.  That completed successfully.  Nothing was changed: GParted still reported no partitions.

I then attached the drive to a Yosemite machine and ran the old Disk Repair.  This also completed successfully.  The difference of course is that when I checked again using GParted the partitions were listed correctly.

In short, the Disk Utility on Yosemite was able to make the necessary repairs while the new Disk Utility on El Capitan was not.

I don’t know that the new Disk Utility will be of any use to IT professionals.  I recommend you keep a bootable Yosemite around in case you have need for these useful tools.


Random Spamdom

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Here Cometh the Smart Toilet

I have made some crazy predictions in my time.  For years I was convinced the Republicans would elect the first minority president.  Go figure.  It was the Reagan years.  They seemed to be getting all the candidates right.  I apologize.

Regardless, you can see my willingness to put my neck out there and for some time I’ve been doing neck stretches.  I am now going to predict the Smart Toilet.  I know it sounds like a joke but hear me out on this one.

Our expulsions (piss, shit, and even vomit) carry a huge amount of information about our states of health.  You cannot even imagine.  Consider that our bodies consist of 10 foreign cells for every one of our cells and you begin to see just how vast the playing fields are in areas like nutrition and health.

Being healthy isn’t merely about keeping microbes out of our bodies.  It can’t be.  Our bodies are 10/11ths not ours.  Being healthy is about keeping that other 10/11ths content.  Well, at least as much as it is about keeping our 1/11th thriving.  (See this excellent TED talk for a discussion of bacterial presence in us and inter-bacterial communications.)

Our gut bacteria are particularly famous.  We believe (rightly or wrongly) that eating live-culture yogurt is good for that gut flora.  It has been tentatively demonstrated that introducing particular gut bacteria into peanut allergic individuals can cure that peanut allergy (see here as an example).

But what is in our piss and shit?

Sure.  Food.  Or rather ex-food.  Hopefully lots of fiber and probably some other indigestibles (I’m looking at you, corn).  But there is a whole lot more.  Our dead human cells; our dead bacterial cells (whether our symbiotes or our parasites); and a boatload of intercellular communications chemicals (seriously, go watch that TED talk above).

In short, your piss and shit are really a cornucopia of data points concerning the who, what, and why of your current state of health.  As we get better at detecting the tell-tale signs of diseases (from AIDS to zinc deficiency) through their chemical traces, the toilet becomes an obvious informational trajectory.

We visit the toilet a good dozen times a day (or more) and if it were capable of analyzing what passes through it and then pass that information to the cloud (the pCloud), the sky’s the limit.  You want a database of human excrement (effluenceDB)?  It’s coming.

A quick scan of your shit might reveal that you need more fiber or you are deficient in potassium or that you have breast cancer.  Early detection, I am told, is key to most if not all ailments.  You use your toilet every day.

Warning: bladder infection eminent

After a night of heavy drinking it might advise you to drink water (because it should see the water imbalance) and maybe make nutritional recommendations (because it should see vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well).

For crying out loud, we are using smart phones to detect parasitic worms (and HIV and heart attacks and monitor Parkinson’s).

Smartphone Microscope Diagnoses Parasitic Worm Infection

So, yeah, it sounds ridiculous, but the Smart Toilet is the shit!


What Exactly Do You Mean?

I have collected a few odd error messages and I thought I’d share them with you.  You seem odd and so you surely will relate.

Let’s start with this little gem from Facebook.

I'll Save but I Can't
I’ll Save but I Can’t

So, apparently I “have already saved the maximum number of computers” (whatever that entails), and yet here is asking whether I want to save this one or not.  Defaults to Save Browser no less.  No idea what it’s doing after I hit Continue (which is what I’ve been doing).  Very useful message, obviously.

Next we have an interesting warning from Windows 7.

Power Failure... Not!
Power Failure… Not!

Yeah, that was from a desktop machine.  Fascinating.  Glad I was at my work station.

Then we have this even more usefulless message here.

Get Out!
Get Out!

It’s like Amityville Horror only in a computer.  How special.

Finally, there is this obvious reference to a previous version of the application in this Help dialog for Microsoft Office 2013.

File Menus Are so 2003
File Menus Are so 2003

Yeah, ever since the Ribbon (gack!) the File menu was first hidden by default and now is fully deprecated (read: removed from the application).  Thanks for the help, Microsoft.

And speaking of thanks here we have a failed FTP connection relating to Firefox trying to report a bug or crash.

Thanks for the Snark!
Thanks for the Snark!

I do what I can.

Nothing too horrible but hopefully at least a little entertaining.


Bing Loves What Windows Media Player Does Not

When Bing first came out I noticed Microsoft was using Ogg-Vorbis video files as part of the Bing page background.  It makes for a cool effect without requiring the dying Flash or using a rarely useful proprietary format (like Windows Media Video).  Here is a code snippet from a Bing page.

## Code Snippet
# from Bing
video id="vid" onended=";" loop="" autobuffer="" preload="auto" oncontextmenu="return false" style="height: 768px; width: 1366px; left: 0px; visibility: visible; opacity: 1; top: -103px;" src="/az/hprichv/Chlorophyte_CorbisRM_791C869_069c_EN-US.ogv"/

You can see the .ogv reference at the end of this tag/snippet.  (See here if you are unfamiliar with Ogg.)

Now you may be thinking (as I was) “hey, this is good news for open sourced formats like Ogg and FLAC!”.  But you’d be only slightly right.

Surely this exposure bodes well for Ogg video as a format.  It gets some exposure and other developers may begin to embrace it thanks to that exposure.  However, if we dig a little deeper we find that Microsoft still hates the open source audio/video formats.

I downloaded an Ogg video file to test it against Windows Media Player (on Windows 7).  First, WMP doesn’t know what the file extension .ogv is supposed to be about.  I used Open With (because I have VLC installed but if I did not Windows would have no associated application or it might try to use Opera or another browser).  This is the first reaction of WMP:

WMP Remains Ignorant of .ogv
WMP Remains Ignorant of .ogv

But, hey, maybe WMP really does have the codec and is merely ignorant of the file extension.

WMP Fails on the Codec as Well
WMP Fails on the Codec as Well

Or not.

What does WMP have?  Moxie and self-confidence.  WMP has such faith in itself it has no idea it has failed on all counts here.

Ignorance Is Bliss
Ignorance Is Bliss

Play again?!  Thanks for playing.

We shall see what plans Microsoft has to expand this currently very limited love of open audio/video formats.  It would be a pleasant change to see them embrace FLAC and Ogg natively.  Then perhaps Apple will follow suit.


Biometrics and the Fifth Amendment

Well, unless you have been vacationing in the arctic with your wind-assisted sled you probably know that Apple is releasing a new iPhone and thet that iPhone includes an on-by-default biometric scanner for access (a fingerprint reader in lieu of a pass-code).  Wired just put out an interesting article on how biometrics might relate to our Fifth Amendment rights.

Apple’s Fingerprint ID May Mean You Can’t ‘Take the Fifth’

In a nutshell, if access is based upon something you know (a combination or a pass-phrase) then said access is protected under the Fifth Amendment; and if access is protected by something you possess (like a key or a fingerprint) it is not.

(Yes, I know: the distinction between a combination and a key is pretty murky in the digital realm.  Let’s set that aside for a moment.)

Let’s dig a little deeper into who this might actually effect, if Wired has things right.

I was talking to one of my co-workers, a real Mac guy, and one thing we agreed on was that the most likely candidates for using the biometrics of the new iPhone will be folks (like him) who are currently not using any lock on their phones.  This will of course increase the security for those users.

You may recall the Gummy Bear problem as concerns fingerprint readers?

Check out this video on how to create your own fake fingerprints.

Honestly though, it is profoundly unlikely that most folks need worry themselves about someone hacking into their phones in this manner.  It’s a lot of effort, it requires physical contact, and (sorry) you’re just not worth it.

The classes who are less likely to use it are the security minded (like myself) who (whether with reason or without) want greater security; these folks are likely to use biometrics only if it can be combined with a memorizable user input.

For these folks this would return the usual Fifth Amendment protections which biometrics alone may not afford.

Have fun with that.


What Can You Do with an off-the-Shelf Android Phone?

Why not send it into space?  Who wouldn’t want a tiny satellite all their own?  You could do satellite stuff.

NASA got busy with this slightly crazy concept and did just that.  They bought three Nexus 1 Android phones, supersized the batteries, duct-taped on a radio transmitter, and put them in control of three CubeSats (10 cm cubes).

You can read the full story here.  There is some additional information here.


Have fun with that.


A Little Password Wisdom

I have tried in vain to convince innumerable persons to use real complex passwords.  It’s not easy.  Everyone thinks you have to use something like 8*cfi4*kn0> as your password.

Well, you could.  That would be complex.  But there are easier and more secure routes to securing your password.

The trouble is that if you use something that’s short (fewer than 8 or ten characters) or something you could find in a dictionary (like Brother or pianoWire) it’s really fucking easy to hack your password.  Easy, that is, for a computer to hack your password.

If you want to ensure your password is easy for a human to guess at, then use your birth date (or your relative’s) or your pet’s name or your kid’s name or…

However, consider this, if your password is this sentence it’s complex and easy to remember.  That last sentence is 92 characters long, has capital letters and lower case letters, and contains several symbols.  A password that complex might take millions of years for a computer to guess (I don’t feel like doing the math but it’s very big).

You could use a smaller sentence.  Use something you can remember and which is not a catch phrase from your favorite movie which you constantly quote (that takes us back to easy for humans to guess).

For an excellent illustration of this problem and solution set, please see this cartoon.

Password Stength from xkcd

For a lengthy and likely boring discussion on rainbow tables and hacking passwords read this post along with the comments section.

Regardless, don’t make it any easier for assholes to steal your soul on-line identity.


Tablet Schmablet: Unity, Gnome3, Windows 8, and Mountain Lion

As you probably are well aware, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have pretty much a) revolutionized and b) utterly dominated the tablet, smart-phone, and mobile arena for some time now.  They have managed to crush Palm (much sadness) and Blackberry (ha!) in their climb to the top.  Windows mobile doesn’t suck as badly as it has since its inception, but it is still struggling to keep up like a child following its parents through the mall as they shop for “a new suit for mommy so she looks like an executive”.

I suppose a three percent shift in market share means something if you spend your entire sixteen hour day pouring over balance sheets.

Anyway, with Google and Apple eating up so much of the mobile pie and making such a sticky gooey mess with their tablet effluence everyone else moves into ant mode at the picnic.  I would like to rant a bit about the three that interest me most out of the ant hill: Unity (from Canonical), Gnome3, and Windows 8.

What they all have in common, and what has annoyed me enough to scribble this out, is that they are all heavily geared toward the tablet and mobile markets.  This is great if you are planning to get a new tablet (or similar) with Ubuntu or Windows as the operating system.  They will likely make fair alternatives (in time) to those market-dominating contenders mentioned above.

The problems arise when you consider that these operating environments are also intended for use on desktops and laptops as well.

Don’t misunderstand, being able to use some of the technology which the handheld world has come to expect on your monitor will come in handy (eventually).  Some of these features may even become ubiquitous (eventually).  But—and this is a big but—they are not going to replace the productivity of using a standard keyboard and pointing device (mouse, trackpad, &c) in most situations (and especially not in the short term).

Apple, oddly enough, had things sorted slightly better on this front.  They built a unique operating system for (first) their phones and (then later) for their tablets.

Apple’s iOS may well have made good use of some similar back-end components (kernel?) but the GUI (the graphical user interface or that thing you see and use when you use the computer) was especially crafted specifically for the handheld devices which would carry it.  This was a solid move.  They did not splash a layer of tablet functions over their desktop operating system, and they did not replace the desktop environment (on their desktop machines) with a mobile-oriented GUI.

By contrast, each of these others (Windows 8, Unity, and Gnome3) have chosen for whatever reason to replace a perfectly functional and customizable GUI with an environment greatly limited by the assumption of the tablet as a platform and oddly limited too by maintaining certain desktop attributes (but in a crippled and almost patchy manner).

I don’t have a real plan for laying this out so I’m just going to jump in and throw down.

First of all, two of them have hidden the power button.  In Gnome3 you can get to it by depressing the ALT key while looking in the personal menu (the Suspend option changes to Power Off while depressed).  In Windows 8 you’ll want to hit Windows-i to get a fly-out menu from the right side of the screen which contains a familiar power icon; however, if you want to log out you’ll want to hit the Windows key (only) and click on your user icon (which will then give you a logout option).  This all makes some sense if you assume you are using a device which suspends rather than powers-off (like a tablet).  Otherwise it’s just a pain in the ass.

Of course there are enthusiasts for this path in the Windows-fan camp.  I found this article praising the hybridization of the Windows phone OS and the Windows desktop OS.  I just can’t agree less.  I do think some cross-trading in technological innovations should occur between the two disparate platforms, but a full merge isn’t even feasible let alone desirable.  I predict a backlash from all regular desktop users and any mobile (laptop) user lacking a touch screen.  Even some of those users who have touch screens are going to be put off by some of the difficulties imposed by the assumptions mentioned here.

At the same time I found this very critical article discussing the upcoming Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8).  This author finds, as do I, that the merging of desktop and mobile technologies is going in the wrong direction.

That author also (perhaps unwittingly) raises the philosophical question of who is following whom.  The irony that the innovator who separated iOS from OS is now seemingly following the pack and merging these systems has not been lost.

The answer does seem to be that everyone (Canonical, Gnome, Microsoft, and even Apple of today) are all following Apple (of a little while ago).  In short there was a quick spurt in innovation and it has subsided.  Now everyone (including the former innovator) is chasing the status quo.  Hardly inspiring.

In Windows 8, Gnome3, and Unity a press of the Super (or Windows) key will now evoke a full screen, large-buttoned environment.  No more Windows menu (in Windows) and no more of the trio of menus in Gnome.  Your entire screen is filled with large icon-like (buttonish) filler.  If you simply begin typing, your icon choices are rapidly narrowed (hopefully toward that which you seek).  The specifics of how each of these three works are slightly different but this base is the same: hit one key, start typing, then click an icon/button or hit Enter.

I suppose it could be argued that this is an attempt at hybridization.  Of course what this means is that you need to type and then click large (on-screen) buttons.  You don’t have to touch the button on-screen, but if that’s not the design aesthetic then they don’t need to be huge button-like icons.  How do you type on your mobile device?  On-screen of course.  Mish-mash mess.

Windows 8 takes the matter even further by making this new area slide-able; when you have filled this area with buttons you merely slide the area to the left to reveal more buttons.  This is a finger gesture (a swipe) and also not well suited to a desktop environment.

For Windows 8 many of these features can be seen currently in action in their new phone operating system.  It works well in that environment, and I have little to complain about these systems within this context.  My beef, as if it were not abundantly clear, is merely that these systems of interaction are best suited to mobile environments and have little functional crossover to a standard desktop environment (and only slightly better functional crossover to something like a standard laptop).

For Microsoft this is pretty typical: they bring out a real stinker OS every other release then fix it with the following release.  The fact that Gnome and Canonical (and Apple) are all doing the same thing baffles me.  Of course there are those who will argue that the fact they are all doing the same thing is evidence of my delusion.  Only time will tell, but my guess is they will all start back-tracking as soon as the consumers who drive their respective markets begin their unique response cycles.

For Apple and Microsoft that time is yet to come.  For Gnome and Unity we should see some proper grumbling (and it’s there if you choose to search) and hopefully some appropriate responses before too long.

So there it is, my predictions etched in stone.  We’ll see how it fairs in history.


Surveyor of the Foistest

You may recall how annoying I found the alleged update of iTunes called Safari.  You may also have been amused by my railing against the equally alleged update to Windows called Silverlight.  Microsoft has delivered a new alleged update called Bing Desktop.  It’s craptacular.

It will appear at the bottom of your list of updates.  You will want to avoid checking that box if it’s not and you will want to uncheck it if it is.  You don’t want a large Bing-enabled search box in the middle of your desktop.  It’s just not worth it.

I was highly entertained by the Google search results when I went to look up Bing Desktop to discover what it was and why it was among my most recent updates.

Google Bing Desktop Results
Google Bing Desktop Results

These are the top five search results using “bing desktop”.  You will note that three of them are from Microsoft.  First I clicked on the Bing result and recognized it as pure marketing.  I went back and chose the Digital Trends link.

What I found incredibly funny (laughing out loud funny; neither ironic nor lol) was that the marketing tag was “Brings Beauty and Convenience” while the actual news article calls the software “So lame it’s practically spamware”.

So, yes: don’t bother.  Actively avoid it; you don’t need it.

Have fun.