Monday, January 13, 2014

How I Caught a Card Thief

Ever wonder how your card gets swiped?

It all started at the Burger King drive through near my house.  My son and I trekked out to get dinner.

Bear in mind that I'm a full-time paranoid - I watch what people do and I learn by observation.  We'd already had our cards stolen by different means - trusting a waiter at a cheap restaurant near a dodgy side of town - only to later be asked by our bank if we were trying to buy tires and a color TV at a Target in Texas.  And one other time it was some crap stuffed into an online order done at Sherries Berries.  Thank god our bank is good with this stuff 1st Bank of Colorado gets high marks for fraud detection and response.

The gal at the register had taken our order.  I drove to the window to pay, and once I handed her my credit card, I watched closely as she swiped it with her right hand, then the receipt printed on the printer next to the register, she got the receipt with her left hand, and then (my card in her right hand, now out of view), receipt in her left hand, she tediously read my order back to me to verify - like anything was going to change now that payment was processed.  The entire time she's doing this, my card is out of sight in her right hand, her right arm down at her side - and as she's reading my order to me, her right arm is moving a little.

Once she's done "verifying" my order, she hands me the receipt, with the card under - but facing her - and I think to myself - boy that was weird.

Then the kicker happened - she walked back towards the grill/fry station in order to get our order, and she whipped out her cell phone and sent a quick text message - and it was a quick one too because it looked like she typed only 3 digits and hit send.

That's when it clicked.  That bitch.

I then finished out the order, checked all the food - made sure we had the ketchup and straws (none of that dastardly catsup here!) and then I asked to speak with the manager, all smiles.

I then explained all this to her, and let me tell you - my son had no clue, and his eyes went wide as his brow went up - and that pretty much matched the expression on the face of the manager - the look of "oh shit" on the bitch-thief's face was however classic - I'd seen it before..


The last few times I'd seen this picture, I was speeding in the backwater areas of Princeton where I grew up - you learn to slow down fast out there or you slam into them.

Now, in case you're part of the uninitiated in the world of card theft, something you should know - that magnetic stripe on your cards holds a LOT of data.  It's also encoded in such a way that it can be recovered - the stripe has "error correction" in it to some extent.  But your PIN is not on that stripe.  Neither are the extra 3 digits on the back of the card next to your signature.  Those must be read.  As for stealing that magnetic stripe, there are things for sale in the world called magnetic stripe readers.  You can buy them on eBay here.


This technology is something else - one of these little things can record the contents of a card - all except those 3 digits on the back - and these cost between $150 and $300.  They're battery powered and can steal up to 2000 cards at a time.  They also are password protected, if caught, what the person has stolen may not be recoverable without getting their password from them.  Note that this particular unit is not much larger than a large cigarette lighter.

This gal did get hit. No skidmarks. No body damage to my car. I didn't stick around to see what the carcass looked like either, but I did see a fraud report on that corner the following week on my crimewatch app...

Cheers!  Be diligent folks!

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Domains for sale! PointSwitch.com, PointSwitch.net and PointSwitch.org

Anyone looking to build their ultimate .com might be interested to know that I've put some domains up for sale that I've been sitting on for some time.  Back in the day when I spent all my time working  at my security company, Cadamier.com, Craig and I worked on a project that built a packet mangling router and we decided that if we could get the thing funded, we'd call it PointSwitch - the name was open in all 3 domains, so I registered them - it made sense - only.. well lets just say that never happened - cool product idea though, just not the needed traction to turn it into something that could be sold.

So anyhow, anyone wanting to build themselves something using the name should take a look - I've posted the 3 domains on eBay and they're gonna go fast!

I figure the names could have use if you're building some kind of firewall or network gear, but then again, a point switch is something used in the railroading world - but then, it could have some kind of use for a social networking thing, or a political site, etc.

I've gotten a quick valuation on the domains from GoDaddy, and they're worth $591 for the .com and $224 each for the other two - but something tells me that their valuation doesn't take into account things like dictionary word combinations and phrasing - I'm sure that they'd give a better value to something far more gross just because it was one word in some obscure dictionary file..

To see the auctions, follow these links into eBay:

PointSwitch.com

PointSwitch.net

PointSwitch.org

Cheers!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Is Microsoft asleep at the wheel?


A Multi-Hat Geek

Some of you reading this might think that I'm not a fan of Microsoft - I've been called an Apple fanboy before, but for the longest time I was a big-time believer in Microsoft and the good that they do.

I'm a huge fan of Microsoft Office - lets face it, Microsoft Word is the gold standard for writing in this day and age, and there are plenty of contenders out there who want to take Microsoft's business away on that front, and good luck.  Apple's Pages is pretty good for the price, and the price is pretty good for their iWork package, but it doesn't quite replace Word in my eyes - it's more like a replacement for expensive layout software like Quark Express, but not a day-to-day problem solving application.

The same applies to Excel, Powerpoint, Visio and their other tools.  If it wasn't for Visio, I probably wouldn't have even setup a Boot Camp windows install and Windows 7 on my Mac at all.  It was nice getting Skyrim to run there (see my previous discussions).

The reality is this - at the office I'm a multi-hat geek that knows enough about everything to be really useful when weird things happen.  And this is because I'm not just an Apple fan, or the first in my office to have an iPad, or even the first to buy a Surface tablet.  I'm a fanboy of tech - an omnibus nerd of sorts.  I've had tablets, laptops, desktops, servers and I've built hardware as well.

But this is about Microsoft and the sad state they're in.


Dark Clouds in the Windows 8 Future?



So the first signs of trouble appeared when a coworker started playing around with a Windows 8 preview edition on his MacBook Pro in a VM (non-bootcamp).  The results were less than spectacular.  The Windows tiled interface was bulky and weird, and he had troubles finding things and navigating the interface. But then, he didn't have a touchscreen, so maybe he was lacking the hardware.  He did eventually figure his way around, but the ads in some apps seemed hokey at best, and then the seeming bulkiness of the entire tiled interface started to grate on him.

Windows 8 Surface RT: A New Hope


A few weeks later we headed out to the Windows store as it's not far from my office.  The new Surface RT was out, and I was hoping that I could find a replacement for the MacBook Air and the iPad 3 I was carrying around.  What I saw was truly interesting - I mean, the storage to me wasn't that big a deal - I don't lug around huge song libraries or 500 movies - all I wanted was something that provided me the tools I need, with the portability and connectivity I need to be the nerd I am.

What I was was interesting - the Surface RT definitely had the weight factor down, and the type keyboard appealed to me was well.  The battery life was also interesting as Apple has always owned that department from phones through laptops, and seeing Microsoft try to compete was a nice change.  I liked what I saw, I knew that their market and closed architecture was new to them, and I realized that it was very likely that the market wouldn't have the apps I needed yet.  When I pressed the Windows Key+R, it flipped to my favorite Windows OS screen - looking very Windows 7 like, and presented me with a run dialog - so I typed cmd and pressed enter - and I had my favorite DOS window.

Now, at this point, I have to say, my curiosity was peaked.  You see, I'm one of those Windows guys who lives on the command line - and my command line on my Windows desktops has full Linux utilities attached - I have stuff like putty aliased to ssh, as well as scp and sftp - plus I have the full unxutils package loaded as well, so I have Linux command-line tools like sed, awk, grep, nmap and so forth, all available for my sysop nerd needs.  Seeing this window on the Surface RT sold me right there.  So I typed regedit - and I realized, Surface RT might be a closed garden, but you can still get in there an poke around at a pretty low level.  Cool!

My Surface RT Debacle Begins


About a month later, I figured the bugs were out, and the finances were aligned as well - so I went out and bought a Surface RT 32gig with the type cover.  The weight was nice, and the speed was okay - but then things started to tarnish the cool new luster right away.  I had to download some major updates and the update process was slower than Apple's by a long shot - I don't know if I was downloading a new 12 gigs of software, or what, all I know was that it said "updating" and sat there, charging the whole time, cooking away, slower than molasses.

Hours later the system was done updating, and then I started poking around with the OS, hoping to delve into it's secrets.  Along the way, exploring the Windows "classic" screen on the Surface, I noted that a familiar icon in the lower corned was beckoning me - one of the Windows Security notices was up - so I tapped, and a dialog appear that said that my system hasn't been scanned yet.  So I clicked on the ok/next button, and Windows Defender ran and scanned the system.

Windows RT had to scan my new system?!??

Now, by this point I know solidly that Microsoft had locked down their environment entirely - I mean, I couldn't run software that didn't come from their store at all - I couldn't even run Java on it, and I found that somewhat disappointing, as that was my way around their empty online app store.

So, as I watched, over the course of the next 5 minutes, my experience was once again delayed by this thing scanning it's storage - just like it was some Wal-mart bought HP loaded with Wild-Tangent scumware, toolbars and spyware at the factory.  At this point I'd downloaded 2-3 apps from Microsoft, and was in the process of getting the mail client setup with all my gmail and office exchange stuff.

After the system-scanning episode, I carried this on the train to work for a few days, and I used it - or tried to.  It linked to my corporate network easier than I'd ever seen before - for this was impressive it used my user certificate and authenticated with it automatically.  This was nice, however, the mail client is a HUGE weakness on the Surface.

Surface RT EMail is a Joke!


For starters, getting the mail client setup wasn't too painful, however, it did seem to have some issues setting up one of my accounts - it didn't like the idea of my using a non-Google domain with GMail mail hosting.  This is something that Apple supported simply for years without headache.  I worked at it and managed to make it happy, but this was needlessly painful I think.

Being an active tablet user, I'm always conscious about my experience being hit by background tasks, so I exercise my new Windows 8 knowledge and easily go into the sidebar and kill all the stuff running.  This is kind of a bad habit however, but it's one that I learned long ago - less programs running on your tablet, phone or PC, means more machine paying attention to me, and not other crap.  This habit however led me to my next discovery.

That next I realized that Metro at some point later said I had messages waiting - so I tapped on the mail box and discovered just how slow the Surface RT mail client is.  Now, when you're on a tablet, you just launch mail - it's there in a jiffy and once it's displayed, you'll see that the client is now getting messages and refreshing itself.

The slowness I experienced was the mail client loading - and in the case of the Surface RT, the mail client is SLOW.  It takes a long time to load - more than 20 seconds in my case.  Something you need to leave running if you want to have a more Apple-like experience.  What they don't show in the Microsoft commercial is the person running and loading each program in the background, then jumping into them already loaded quickly from the tile interface.  So here's a marketing lie for certain, but hey, you can't sue them for that.

I then noted later that there's no indication that the mail client is working - no indication at all.  While riding the train to work with my wireless AP on, I saw nothing happening until 20 messages appeared in my inbox all at once.  This behavior was the same for both GMail and Exchange mailboxes.  Very sad really, as it had notified me that I had mail when it got online, but it had to load the mail client when I tapped on it and then it had to download the messages - it was like the tile interface uses the mail client authentication info to know what's going on, but there's no actual integration between it and the OS - the mail client still has to be manually loaded and has to be running in order to download messages.  Note that the mail client does not run all the time like it does on an iPad - you have to start it, then background it and forget it's running for a smooth consistent mail experience.  And even then, your other mobile devices will notify and display your messages before the surface can show them to you.

One item I flew by earlier was the loading times.  The Surface RT boots up and runs just like windows, however, based on the performance I see and the way it launches software, you'd think you were running the OS off a USB2 memory stick.  Run this, run that, it all works - but the tiles are the only thing that moves fast on it.  The rest of the machine is fairly sluggish until the software has loaded, run and backgrounded.

No Java Support.  It does support Flash though...?!

I did go into the Microsoft App Store and downloaded some apps to make this thing usable - Netflix and so forth, and it did okay.  It wasn't great - I mean, it played the videos okay, and I was able to load the meager storage with more easily enough from an external hard disk, and I was able to connect to network shares in my house and office okay, but still, it played nicely with all the base OS things - however, the lack of software for this thing just kills it.  If there was an SSH client for it, I might have even kept it - but then, the lack of Java support was killing me.  I needed Chrome.  I needed more.

When I brought it back, the folks at the store asked why, and I said "lack of java support" and they said, helpfully, "It runs flash!"

Am I so Apple-ified that this sounds backwards to me??  I guess so.  The entire world is moving away from Flash where they can, and Microsoft instead decides to drop support for the largest base of software out there (java) and went ahead to embrace Flash - the language responsible for the single largest library of Internet crap there is - from the Fish in a blender to all levels of silly animated videos.

Conclusion: Surface RT is a Fail



All in all, I found the Surface RT full of great potential, but fails to deliver on many fronts.  The email client is insufficient.  Their support of common authoring the platform will kill it.  The backwards compatibility with Flash is just wrong.  The inability to run any software not signed by Microsoft isn't a deal killer, but they have to have an app store first.  Somehow I think HP's tablet has more software available for it than the Surface RT has now.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg...


Microsoft will be releasing the Surface 8 Pro tablets soon - and they'll cost $899 for the small one without a keyboard.  Wow.  Microsoft fails again.  Perhaps this version will solve many of the issues they have in the other environment, however, this tablet is more than half and inch thick, weighs near 2 pounds, and does all the things a full size laptop does, just without a keyboard.

I mean, honestly folks, has Microsoft truly lost their way?

Right now Microsoft is so far behind in the battle for consumer computing that the only leg they have to stand on is keeping the segment that can't afford Macintosh computers - so instead of appealing to that market with products they can afford, they charge higher prices.  Don't they realize that flat taxes don't work because the poor people pay more of their money in taxes that way?  Don't they realize that 10% tax on the poorest Americans still provides billions more dollars in tax revenue to the government than a 20% tax on the rich?

Microsoft should be coming up with ways to make Windows appealing to the broad base, and not marketing it to a small segment.  Sure, the Walmart's of the world might well be the place where most PC's running Windows are sold, along with Amazon and Dell, but I honestly can't believe that their stores would be profitable without XBox's being sold there.


It gets worse...

I've just read that Microsoft is now planning on increasing their pricing for all their server products - note that the landscape for Microsoft licensing is a slippery slope folks - there are people's who's entire careers focus on Microsoft licensing - that's how complex it can be.  And server managers have no time to worry about this BS, so they have to trust that vendors know and license them correctly - wow that's getting weird.

If Microsoft seems to think that they can keep on going in the direction they're going, they are doomed.  They have sanctioned companies to sell their product, but have lost control over the packaging - thus providing folks like HP, Acer and others to pre-load their precious Windows OS with all kinds of clutter and market systems positively clogged with crap through mass-market outlets.

If I had control of Microsoft, I'd run things differently.  First thing, Windows 9 would be skipped - it would be the "long term supported" version of Windows 8 without the stupid tile interface.  Windows 9 would look like Windows 7, and be the last OS that business will want for years.  It will be completely compatible with everything that's out there now.  And it would be the last you'd see of "windows" with DLL's and registries, forever.

The next Windows after that would be Windows on top of Linux, but it would be a Windows base that makes Apple look bad.  It would be fast.  I would support everything that everyone else does.  It would have integrated protection that folks would never see.  It would not be compatible with any software that's out there now, but it wouldn't restrict developers from recompiling their software to run on the new platform.  They would however have to change all their API's because all the old stuff is just not pared down enough.  It would be Microsoft's Opus.  The MS OSX.

One way that Apple shed their baby fat..

Apple did an amazing thing when they moved from their old OS to OSX - this move is what re-energized them - this move is what put air under their wings for the first time in years.

I remember in 2003 when folks starting talking about Apple again, and how cool the new OS was.  I really didn't realize how big a deal it was until the summer of 2004 when I went to my first DefCon, and in the lobby of the Alexa Park Hotel, there were a hundred hacker-types there, mostly with Mac's, chopping away.  That was huge.

Microsoft needs to do bold things to get back into it's sweet spot as the king of desktop computers.  They have the ability to do this, but they need to shed the fat of their legacy OS, drop the wayside all the old apps that have overgrown like the monster Akira becomes - they must stop being the Cartman Trapper-Keeper they are now and find a way to slim down.

I remember when Windows typed OS's worked on computers that topped out at 16 megs of ram.  When those days were upon us, computers were fast.  If we could have the computing power of today, with OS's that are slim like that, computers would be really amazingly fast tools again, and not the bloaded, lumbering monsters they are is today.  I know that realistically this won't be possible, I mean, is there an H.264 video decoder or encoder that uses less than 1 meg of ram?  And there's no way possible that we'll be free of DRM any time soon.  Imagine how fast anti-virus software would be if it only had 500 signatures...

I just think that folks have forgotten about the real start of computing, and where it all came from.  OS's have overgrown, and Microsoft has taken us there.  Everyone is guilty though.  With billions of bytes of code running in our computers, is it possible for us to know everything that's going on?  I think not.

A revolution in the computing world will be coming.  It will have to.  The question is, who will bring it?

Sleeping at the Wheel


Right now, Microsoft has fallen asleep.  If XBox wasn't around, it would be a solid hibernation.  Steve Ballmer is asleep at the wheel.  He lives in fantasy land.  If he thinks he can take on Apple where they live with an expensive tablet that's just a slightly changed version of the same old Windows, he's sorely mistaken.  If he thinks that a tablet that's more than a centimeter thick is going to redefine the Windows market, or even revitalize it, he's even more sorely mistaken.  I can't believe he thinks people will pay more for what is obviously less.

Microsoft needs to find someone with a clue, someone at the bottom, someone who wins the lottery if they succeed, and then challenge them to do better than Apple - and actually put resources under their control.  And don't worry about killing their existing business when the product comes out.  Apple does this, although, they hide it.  The fact is, they already did it with their iPad development - they built the product that's killing their own laptop sales.  Microsoft can start from zero and try to take on Apple - but they have to really start from something new and fresh - and not just take a 30 year old OS and change a few DLL's and call it new.

What they need to do is develop a product that is something more, something less and something new.  Right now it's not happening, and their problem is in their guidance.  And it needs to be priced with a loss leader consideration as well - if they want market penetration they'll need it.

From an architecture standpoint, the idea that RAM and Flash are separate needs to be revisited.  The entire architecture of how we use computers can stand for an upgrade now.  Apple gets it, and others do too.  Why doesn't Microsoft?

Windows 7 is a stepping stone to greatness for Microsoft.  It's windows in all it's revered greatness.  It should be good for at least 2-3 more years.  Windows 8 has arrived too soon and Surface RT and Pro are the rocks that flip over when you step on them  Now Microsoft has fallen into the abyss.  The safety net of XBox, Windows Server products, Microsoft Office and Windows 7 can only support so many of their failures before it affects the company - and after highly notable failures like Windows Vista and Windows 8 and the Surfaces, I worry for future of Microsoft.



Sunday, September 02, 2012

3D Printing for Porsche Parts

So, you're looking down the throat of a Porsche project car - an old 944, and there's just one thing after another to repair on it - and the parts for these cars aren't cheap.

So you're tracking down the problems with the leaky windshield washer tank, disassemble all the stuff, and you find this little annoyance;


Either the previous owner, or some stupid devil, had taken a pair of pliers to remove the washer pump hoses - and destroyed the pump posts so that the pump cannot ever work again.

So then you start looking at parts online and you realize that this little fubar on the washer pump isn't another $20 thing to add to the shopping list - it's a $100 thing.  Hell.

And folks ask why I build a 3D printer - well, here's a good answer:

Step 1: Disassemble the 28 year old OEM pump:


Step 2: Go shopping and find the closest alternative - in this case, a GN styled pump intended for a 84-88 Camaro - $19.


Step 3: Eyeball the things together and start thinking about how to make the 3D printer do it's thing.



Step 4: Make some prototypes and refine your design.  Lather, rinse, repeat.


Step 5: Once prototyping is done, switch from PLA plastic to ABS (better for the harsh environment under the hood) and print a higher resolution (.2mm layers now) version of the refined adapter.


Step 6: Be proud that when (and not if) the Zombies attack, your maker hat will ensure that you survive long enough to write about it.
 

And here's the finished product - ready to go.


Cheers!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why I think Apple is winning over Microsoft

It's fascinating to me that so many folks think I'm a total Mac Fanboy at times, but they don't realize that I fought for years with a dear friend over why Microsoft owns the market, and will continue to do so.

The funny thing is, Apple right now is winning that fight, and they have almost zero support for the enterprise, very expensive workstations, and a popular and well supported ecosystem.  Microsoft has all these too, and it occurred to me today - and this is one where I'm going to solicit people's opinions too - because I'd like to hear what others think of this.

Here's my take on why Apple is winning:

1) Smart Packaging
2) Small Bites

Okay, so this will need some explaining of course, by packaging I mean, Apple controls the entire bundle - most PC manufacturers are limited by PC standards - the need to use industry standard interfaces, industry standard connectors, Etc.   They need to build the full package, they need it to be slick, but they never get past the need to be able to use common components.  Apple has deeply transcended this - stuff like the MacBook Air just isn't possible if you're using anything industry standard inside.

Now I did say MOST, but not all vendors have this limitation - the one vendor who has managed to avoid this is Sony.  I did say Smart Packaging though, and Sony has been everything other than smart in the industry.  And Sony has made some awesome packages, but not all of them are that good - some of them were pretty bad, and others, ill thought out.  Worse yet, Sony has a tendency to under-configure their stuff.

Case in point - when Windows XP came out, computers that could run it could run with less than 512k of RAM.  I have a neighbor who bought a Sony laptop, and it did well and lasted for years - but it had a hard limit of 512k of RAM.  It couldn't support any more than that - oops.  Sony does this time after time - it's nice that they aren't afraid to use custom connectors too - but even Apple concedes that the industry standard connectors should be on the outside - which is why most Mac's have SD card slots on them.  Sony's insistence on using their own memory stick format is ill conceived in this day and age, but then again, we're talking about Sony.  No surprise - they've had some potential, but failed to live up to it.  Perhaps its a cultural difference of some sort?

Packaging also includes drivers - and this is one place where most manufactures have utterly failed - HP fails here, Lenovo, ASUS, Sony and Dell - plus any others I missed all fail on the driver front.

The reason I say this is because I've installed an Apple Boot Camp partition, and I've seen how it should be done, and the basic truth as I see it is this:  Apple installed Windows is the best Windows ever.  And now even Microsoft has stepped in to start selling "premium" installs - where they kill off all the crap that came with your computer's new install, and just baseline you with sweet fast windows only.

That Microsoft had to step up for this was nice, but that it's a $99 charge for what should be basically a free option, is yet another mistake (but I haven't gotten there yet.)

When I installed Boot Camp, it was smooth, fast, and complete - and Apple's drive disk, custom made for my Boot Camp install, installed with one click, ran and quit - and loaded drivers for everything that my Windows needed to know about - all my keyboard keys, video drivers, network and wifi drivers, Etc. all loaded instantly - and none of it stepped on Microsoft's control over the system.  I didn't have some Apple Wifi gui, or some other mystery meats hanging around - it was just what I needed, nothing more.

Now packaging doesn't stop there - Apple you see has one other thing they do that Microsoft does not - and that is that they include a ton of features with the OS that you don't get in Windows without going to 20 different third parties.  Apple basically hardens their OS so that most users don't need anti-virus - Microsoft has their Security Essentials too - but they don't roll it in, and it still appears as an add-on to the OS.  This needs to be built in.  Apple also includes a number of video enabled items, movie editing, music composition and editing, video chatting, and so on.  Microsoft has none of this.

Smart Packaging would help Microsoft a lot, but I seriously doubt that they've embraced any of this in Windows 8.  Should have made me the CEO I guess - I think I'd do better than Steve Balmer.

The next explanation is small bites.

This is easy - people paid for the computer already, in the case of Apple, so they own you.  Just because you paid the premium price for the thing doesn't mean you have to keep on paying.

Apple gets this, Microsoft does not.

Case in point: Apple charged $20 for their OS upgrade.  When I went from Snow Leopard to Lion, it was $20.  Not $20 per computer, it was $20 for all the machines I have.  And there's no license keys or activations in the OS either - Apple wants folks up to date - not calling in for support on versions that are years old.

The same carries true in the App Store as well.  When I buy an app on my iPad, I buy it once - and if it can run on my iPhone, then I can use it there too - no additional charge.  And my daughters iPad is on my account too, so she gets the app as well.  One price.

Apple's philosophy has been an interesting one - and they've definitely taken the higher path - update at all costs, support the latest and greatest, keep folks informed, don't let licensing become a burden.

This also holds true on their office products as well.  How much does MS Office cost?  Apple's Mail client is pretty darn good for free, and $30 for Word (er, Pages), $30 for Excel (er, Numbers) and $30 for Powerpoint (er, Keynote) is nice.  MS Office costs $200++ depending on who you are.  Apple discounts students only.

All in all, it's clear to me now - Apple doesn't want to grab your wallet and go to town leaving you eating ramen because you updated and downloaded a couple apps, they want you to keep coming back because it doesn't cost more than $5 to $10 to keep the users happen each visit - and when millions of folks keep coming back, and keep tossing what is the equivalent of spare change at them, well, it's hard not to start counting money in the billions.

And Apple's share of the market isn't even that big yet - imagine what happens when 50% of households own an Apple computer?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Skyrim on Macintosh - it can be done!


Skyrim on an iMac - It Works!
I’m a Mac user, but I’m more of a recent convert than an ages old fanboy.  Lets face it, fourteen years ago where Mac’s were related to relative obscurity and used by artists primarily, they really sucked.

Was is really that bad?  From the end user perspective, maybe not - but I always thought the way they loaded 5-10 screens full of icon extensions was hokey.  This was after the initial heyday of Apple, back when the SE20 was awesome.  Macs started out pretty cool, but grew tired until they got facelifted on Steve’s return.

From a network administrators perspective, supporting Mac’s on my networks was always annoying at best.  Novell and Microsoft both supported Mac’s, but it was not fun in any sense of being - the multiple name spaces, data and resource forks, the odd way shares were mapped, even the hokey support for Internet dialup.  All painful, but then again, Windows used to be pretty painful too.

I’ll just say that I’m glad Apple has done what they’ve done - I wouldn’t change much of their inner workings now.  I’d perhaps tweak a few things, but then again, they’re doing a pretty classy job right now.

Lets face some other realities - not every software maker has embraced the Mac as a great place to be.  Apple is still the most expensive computer in general - I mean, who’s really going to pay the money for a Sony computer, when the company can’t sell a PC that supports industry standards or that comes without tons of proprietary drivers and obscure proprietary bloatware.  If Sony could return to basics - just Windows without their lame additional “flavoring” - they might actually turn around their dying PC business.  But I digress.  My point is, Apple makes a good PC, but price-wise, its not cheap.  There are more expensive PC’s out there, but they’re not able to effectively replace the Mac.

Now I’ve had the argument with my family regarding the “Why would I go Mac?” thing - and until they get the clue that just about every add-on that you’d want comes built into the Mac and just works out of the box... well, unfortunately, they just don’t get it.  My family in my house gets it - and after I got Skyrim going, my son may even be coming around.  My daughter has already asked for her own Mac.  When more folks do get the clue, more people will move.  Maybe when Target and Walmart have their little Apple Stores inside..

So anyway, back to the point of my story - Skyrim is absolutely one of the most addictive games produced by Bethesda ever - and this coming from the company that created Fallout 3, Fallout 3 New Vegas, along with a host of other games.  The real star in their lineup right now is Skyrim, and it uses the same game engine as the fallout series.  This engine, when properly tuned, makes for games that have solid hours of playing times.

The one thing about Bethesda that cheeses me however is their complete and total lack of support for the world of Apple.

Apple users might recognize these games, but if they’re hardcore Apple users, they’ve probably never played them, or they’ve played them on their consoles - if they’re console gamer types.  Somehow I don’t think most hardcore Apple types would go X-Box, but some do - I know a few, but I think those guys are more the exception than the norm.  Frankly, I can’t stand playing on X-Boxes or on Playstation - the controllers just don’t work for me when I can precisely use a mouse to control myself in these games and the entire Valve/Steam lineup on my Mac.

For me, this dilemma has been plaguing me for a while - because I do have a pretty decent PC in my house, and I now have more than just a few Macs as well.  Our household has a plethora of Apple hardware here.  When I replaced my desktop PC with a Mac 2 years ago, I got the cheapest of the iMac line of the time - $1199.  My wife did this as well as her 4 year old PC was starting to have issues.

We went to BestBuy, stood around waiting for the sales mans glance (he was mid-explanation to a potential buyer) and I just pointed to the machine he was demoing and I said “can we get two of these please?”  The people seeing the demo were stunned, the sales-guy excused himself and immediately got us rolling.

As we walked out the front door, heads turned - some kind of foreign convention was going on, and people were just shocked to see us walking out the door with $2500 of stuff in nice Apple-white boxes with built in handles.  That or perhaps by going Apple we’d separated ourselves from the people around us so much that they appeared to be foreigners.  Either way, we were happy - and haven’t looked back... much.

Now in my wife’s case is special - she’s got work stuff on her PC and we needed some way for her Mac to virtualize her old setup (Windows Vista running Quickbooks) and the best approach was for us to simply move her desktop PC, which was on it’s last legs, into a VM on her new Mac.  We did just that, and it worked great.  The end result was, and is, that she’s running Parallels with her old Vista PC as a VM, running quickbooks.  Upgrading her to 8gb was $50 - for $75 I managed to upgrade us both to 8gb.

I had no real need for running a full VM for the longest time, however, my Piratefish VM’s and test beds did need a home, and so I knocked around various options - but those VM’s never replaced my PC desktop, which is located at another desk in my office.  When it came to playing games like Skyrim, or New Vegas, it was just normal for me to sit at the other desk, and play the games from there, however, this was a serious inconvenience for me as the good computer monitor is the huge Mac on my desk, and I have to even switch chairs when I’m playing on the PC, plus the good speakers are on my Mac, Etc. Etc.

I suffered my way through a few games this way, including my first play-through of Skyrim, and I’ve been considering a second play-through when a colleague mentioned that there’s support in Parallels to run Windows Bootcamp.  Now until this point, I knew full well about boot camp, but I hadn’t run it yet.  This was however, the last straw, so I immediately went to Amazon and ordered Parallels.

Yesterday, snail mail finally brought me my Parallels 7.  I’d been resisting getting this for a while, having run other more ghetto VM solutions on my Mac for a while.  My wife lives on Parallels on her Mac, so I was able to sell this as part support, part need, part fun.

I had resisted bootcamp for some time because I can’t stand the idea of dual booting any PC - that reason being primarily the annoying updates.  Apple has updates, Microsoft has more updates, and then there’s freaking Adobe, and tons of other updates - and if I have a “gaming partition” added to my desktop, then it’s a guarantee that I’ll be having to reboot and wait an hour after ever 10-14 days of not playing games on it - because it’ll want to update, do scans, and perform other annoying housekeeping stuff that won’t happen when it’s not running - with bootcamp it’s an “either, or” thing - no in-between.

Setting up bootcamp isn’t annoying at all - it could have been far more complicated than it was, however, Apple seems to have a penchant for making good windows software.  Bootcamp makes it easy enough though, and using it’s instructions was easy enough, and the tools were easily able to re-partition my drive once I cleared up enough space for the Windows side of my Mac.

Once I’d cleared up some space, I started digging, and I realized that there was no way the 64bit Windows 7 VM I already had was going to run as my Bootcamp partition - however, I was able to-reinstall Windows as my bootcamp partition and go from there - the limitation being disk space.  To alleviate this, a nice little network share and drive mapping, connects my PC (which runs my Minecraft server) and my Mac together.  So my PC side has only a little local storage, but can still access the tons of crap in my old gaming PC.

The install was smooth as butter - sure, some reboots afterwards - like any computer it needs to update itself and so forth, then I had to load the Apple drivers disk - and I’ll note that the Apple drivers that are added are about the smoothest driver updates I’ve ever seen in Windows land.

Here’s one to nod I have to give Apple on this - Apple apparently knows how to make driver installers for Windows better than most PC manufacturers - I mean, if you’ve ever re-installed a modern Windows PC to a clean state without all the bloatware that comes in the land of OEM, then you know that you’ve got to go out and grab drivers from everywhere - even on Dell’s website you’ve got to download some 20 different packages and then HOPE that you got the right ones.

Once my iMac rebooted as a Windows PC, it immediately was seeing my wireless network, asking me what network (home, office, public) I was connected to, Etc.  And I hadn’t even installed any of Apple’s drivers yet - and once I installed the Apple drivers, it just got better.

Now if one asks, just how good is your iMac when it’s booting in bootcamp as a full-blown Windows PC, well, let mw tell you - all I’ve added to my setup was two additional programs (Winrar and DaemonTools Lite), and I’ve installed Apple’s drivers.  That’s it.

I then asked Windows to figure out my performance rating, and wow.  Just wow.  I got a 5.9 and my lowest score was the SATA2 7200rpm 500mb hard disk my system came with!



I had figured my RAM, which being iMac RAM, in the form of laptop style SODIMMs, would rate lowest, second to my processor, which is only a Core-i3 - I mean, my wifes MacBook and my Air have Core-i5’s and Core-i7’s are supposed to be total hotness in Intel land.  As it turns out, the Core-i3 rated a 6.9 and the memory rated as a 7.0!!

I immediately wanted to see what results I get, so I setup Skyrim right away.

Playing Skyrim in full Windows mode is decent - my iMac screen is huge, and the video card isn’t an insane super-powered NVidia, so running full resolution with auto-detected settings and no tuning was playable, but not great.  Skyrim decided I should run in high-quality mode, though, not with giant textures.  The end result was that it had overstepped on the filtering and anti-aliasing a little - the images were great, but the frame rate suffered a bit, making combat jumpy.  I then tweaked the settings in the other direction, turning off all the filters, but keeping the screen resolution high - the end result is playable, however, there’s a kind of buzzy jumpiness to the playability of the game.

Once I got that environment stabilized, I then booted back into Mac mode and installed Parallels 7 for my Mac, and told it to make my Bootcamp into a VM.  Now when this happens, there’s definitely some finagling going on in the background - I mean, from the Windows perspective, the RAM changes, disk-IO changes, all sorts of drivers are introduced, Etc.  Turns out this is normal, and is such a change to the system base that the system has to re-activate with Microsoft.  Parallels default Windows 7 settings gave my VM only 1gb of ram, which is a fairly extreme change, so no surprise there.  I then reconfigured it to have 2.5gb of ram, as I could afford it.

So once things were stabilized with the latest and greatest of everything updated, I then decided to try one last thing - run Skyrim in my Windows VM, while running in Mac OS-X.  I had absolutely no hope of this working mind you - I tried installing New Vegas in my VMware VM with no luck, but this was a shot in the dark.  It started, I then started toying with reducing the screen resolution and leaving minimal filtering on - that should result in a playable nice looking setup if I’m lucky.

Not only did Skyrim run in my Bootcamp PC as a VM, it ran well.  I did nerf down the graphics and textures a bit, but after an hour of playing, I’m not just convinced, but actually quite pleased.  It’s playable, fast enough to battle with dragons and get the frame rates I need, and best of all, I’m not even running in bootcamp mode.

I had to run the Windows 7 rating once again in VM mode - and the results were not surprising - I’ve dropped to a 5.5, with RAM taking a huge hit and graphics taking a hit as well.  Funny thing, my disk performance went up for some reason as a VM - its a lie.




I can play Skyrim on my Mac - and I can do it from a bootcamp Windows 7 64bit running in a VM.  You should too.

Cheers!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

So just what is this phone cache thing anyway?

Being the nerd that I am, I'm often confronted with questions from the family - not news really, but just pretty much par for the course for anyone who "does computers" for a living.

The most recent question from a family member was this:

"Many of my phone apps have a "clear cache" tab. What happens when you do this? Does it decrease the storage amount on my phone? I get a low storage amount notice on my phone."

As this has no simple answer, I figured I'd write it up properly for all to share.

What is cache?

Cache, in this context, is just a chunk of memory storage in your computer.  The purpose of all kinds of cache is to make things run faster.  There are different kinds of cache.  In this case, the cache in your smartphone is used simply to display things faster instead of having to go out to the network and download them again.

For example - most every time you visit your computers home page, you are confronted with the logo on that page - be it Google, or Yahoo, AOL, Etc.  Now that logo doesn't change too often in most cases - and that logo took your phone or computer a few seconds to go out and download and then display it.  This same speedup applies to the map app, and the weather app, and so forth.

Where is it used, and network loads...

Now if you're at your desktop computer and you're connected via wireless to the Internet using a fast ISP, the few seconds it takes to load that logo doesn't matter.  Still though, your computer has massive amounts of storage and caches TONS of files.

Now on your smartphone, even with the latest LTE networks and all that jazz, it STILL will take a few seconds to download that image - and as it almost never changes, there's no good reason to download it EVERY TIME you visit the page.  This extra network load can cost a cellular company MILLIONS of dollars and it's a TOTAL WASTE of the company's bandwidth to re-download a logo for each and every smartphone out there.  Also, many carriers will charge you for using up your data in your plan too - and they LOVE to charge us.

So instead of wasting your time and money and your cellular carriers' money and bandwidth every time you hit the page, your phone keeps a copy of that image in it's cache.  Any program on your smartphone that talks to the Internet - that includes the "weather app", reading your mail, updating your calendar, Etc. can all have their own local cache of files that they need to download and display.  Using this cache makes your phone look faster because it doesn't have to take a few seconds to show you the logo, or the weather conditions, or whatever - because the pretty picture is already there in the cache - and all it needs to do is go out and make sure it should show you the right one.

The Network Data Plan and Cache Clearing

One other thing - many Android users do not have a grandfathered unlimited AT&T data plan like I have, or they're not on Cricket (remember, I work for them and we do unlimited everything on our phones - data, minutes, texting) - but for those of you who are on Verizon, or a newer AT&T data plan, Sprint or T-Mobile - then you're paying a pricey premium for every Internet bit you get - and are getting charged for going over planned data.

Now in reality, most users won't get near the 4gb limit on their data plans - I mean, I've gotten close - 3.8 gigs - but that's me watching Archer on Netflix, over wireless, in traffic, on my iPhone - this is common during the colder months where my commute can become an hour at 15mph.  (Yes, I'm one of THOSE people who watch TV and drive...) but the fact is, most folks don't have a 4 gig plan or use Cricket - they have a 2 gig plan - or maybe less - and going over could mean a $10, $20 or $50 overcharge surprise in your next bill.

Also, clearing your cache will not always speed things up - I mean, if you clear the cache in the Map app, then yes, the camera might run faster afterwards because it can use all that map space for pictures - but clearing the Map app cache will make the Map app slower - because the maps it already has locally stored will have to be re-downloaded over the wireless data plan again.


So what about those Low Storage notices on my phone?

First, a word about storage...

Smartphones and desktop computers have a lot in common - they both are computers, they both have RAM and they both have non-volatile storage.

Non-Volatile Storage is the term that refers to where your data is kept.  If you use a PC at home, then there's a hard disk that stores your programs and files and such.  If you use a newer computer, like say a MacBook Air, then your hard disk might have been replaced with a flash disk.  In these cases, when the computer is off, the hard disk or flash "disk" are keeping your data safe.

Don't confuse RAM with storage - the RAM in a computer determines how much work the computer can do at one time - the more RAM, the more it can juggle smoothly.  Computers without enough RAM can't do as much - and when things get bad, they start swapping RAM with storage - and then your computer starts working really slowly.  And putting programs and data from RAM into a spinning disk takes lots of time..

Now Smartphones don't have spinning hard disks - they do have flash memory though - and flash memory is fast, and depending on the device, it can be very abundant, depending on your device and how it's setup.

Second, lets talk about how strorage is used on phones..

Users of iPhones will only very rarely see messages like the ones you are getting off your droid - this is because iPhones come with 8gigs, 16gigs, 32gigs or 64gigs of flash storage built into them.  It all depends on how much you pay for the phone.  When users of these devices dock their phones, the iTunes program works with them, backs the phone up, and permits folks to control what programs are installed, and what pictures are taking space, what songs are stored in it, and movies, and so forth.

On other smartphones - like android phones, storage isn't so simply handled as it is in the Apple products  - there's no "droid-tunes app" to help organize the storage in your droids.

Fortunately android-based smartphones come with an additional memory slot in them, but only come with a tiny amount of memory in the phone itself.  Newer, bigger droids - like the Huawei Mercury from Cricket (an awesome droid if I don't say so myself) comes with 4gigs of storage - and this is common among all the high-end android phones out there from other carriers - you can expect to pay upwards of $150+ for phones with this kind of built in flash storage.

The earlier generation of android phones come with even less storage built in - my original Huawei Ascend only came with 1.2 gigs of usable storage.  Now this sounds like a lot, but once you start syncing your email, browsing the web, running the weather app, and otherwise using the phone and installing additional apps, this 1.2 gigs of usable storage fills up fast - and don't take any photos...

The pictures are a huge deficit to these phones - note that all the photos you take will pour into this little space as well - and with the high-end cameras these phones have - you only get 40-80 pictures at 8 megapixels and then you'll be getting these messages too!

Fortunately, Google saw this limitation in their design, and all droids come with one or more memory slots.  Using this memory slot is recommended as you can put programs, data, pictures, music and even movies into a nice little memory card - and once that's done, you'll be all set.

I would recommend finding out what kind of memory your phone uses for this - most (maybe all) take something called MicroSD memory - and many phones actually come with MicroSD memory cards - but usually those cards are tiny - sometimes as small as 1 gig - and that's not much given the amount of data these smartphones use and create.

Getting more memory for your phone...

On Amazon I was able to find a 16gb MicroSD HC card - plenty large enough for most users to store hours of music, hundreds of photos, 5000 books and probably as many apps for only $13.

Not all phones can use a card that big - it's important to look up your phones specs and find out how much it can handle before shopping for upgrades.  If you've got an older android phone, you might find out that it can't handle more than 8 gigs of additional flash memory - and that would be unpleasant if you bought a 16 gig card that you couldn't use.

Just do some google searches on your phones model with the word "specs" in the search - and somewhere you'll find out what the maximum additional memory is.

Now it's just not as simple as plugging the memory in either - if your phone doesn't already have additional memory then you can simply run down the Best Buy, grab some and stuff it into the phone - and then many programs will see the open space and take advantage of it.

The tricky part comes in when you already have a small memory stick in your phone - because you'll have to back up the contents of that memory stick on your computer, then swap the memory cards, then re-upload all the old data (if you want it).

Many apps might then need to be told where to put their files - and if told to use the SD card, they'll store commonly used stuff there - and the phone will run faster, be happier, Etc.

Not all memory cards are the same - and yes, there are some REALLY cheap memory cards out there - but just because the memory card is cheap and large, that doesn't make it better.  Remember the first time someone (like me) said that you need to upgrade the memory in your computer?  Well, this flash memory stuff isn't all the same either - flash memory comes in different "classes" as well - so when you're buying that 8gb or 16gb memory card, be sure to look for things that indicate the speed of the flash memory itself.  Remember that flash memory in your phone is stuff that you'll be using - so you want it to be fast.

Flash memory "classes" are numbered for the speed of the memory - Class 2, Class 4, Class 6, Class 10, Etc.  The higher "class" a flash memory is, the more expensive it will be - and the faster it will be.  Note that not all phones will be able to go as fast as the fastest class memory out there - so if you paid and extra $40 for that Class 10 SDHC 32gb card (if you phone can handle it at all) don't be disappointed if your phone doesn't appear any faster.  When you upgrade your phone next and move that huge memory card over, the next phone might be able to get more out of it.

For most of us out there, Class 6 performs well enough, and most of the tech out there will use it just fine - and the price point is just right.  If you're seriously into photography, the Class 10 will be worth it in time saved - but this class of memory is overkill for probably all the phones out there right now.

Cleaning up your phone's storage

Now this is an area that I'm not experienced enough in with Androids - either the apps themselves, or perhaps the OS, determines where best to store things - and given the variety of phones out there, it might be different per phone, or different on different versions of the Android OS.

In any case, once you have the space available, using it is the next step.  The first thing I'd recommend you do is start my looking at where your photos live, and getting them out of the phones memory - and then focus on the music if you have that on there.  Those two alone should free up enough space to make sure that nothing complains.

On Android phones, go into the menu, choose Settings, Applications - then you can tell the phone where applications should live.  By moving applications into the SD card, you remove them from your phones built-in memory and make the phone faster.

Ideally, commonly used applications should live in the phones memory - like your mail client and web browser.  The phone's own OS might prevent you moving of these apps as well - some apps just can't live on the SD card because the phone would break if you docked or unplugged the card.

If an app supports the ability to use SD card memory for itself, the options to utilize the SD card will be found in this menu as well.

It's not as elegant as Apple's solution to the problem, but the Android memory management scheme does work, once you know where it lives.

Cheers!