Thursday, May 31, 2007

Comments on David Pogue Article

David Pogue is not a computer nerd. I mean this neither as a compliment nor an insult, just a statement of fact. I mention it because when reviewing computer "things" his mind set is different from that of a computer nerd.

Mr. Pogue plays with toys and writes about it. This is certainly useful, as far as it goes. I read his columns and have learned things from them. But without an IT background, Mr. Pogue is limited in what he can add to the discussion above and beyond what is in front of him. That is, he can't put things into perspective. It's one thing to say what a device or service or software is, but quite another to say when/where/how to use it. (I can describe a scalpel, but you don't want me operating on your appendix).

With this in mind, let me try to put his article in today's New York Times, The Cartridge, Updated, Catches Up to Data, in perspective.

The article reviewed three removable cartridge devices that are fast and hold lots of data. In general he liked the devices but felt the cartridges were too expensive.

What he failed to mention is that each of these removable cartridge drives is a single point of failure. That is, if the drive itself dies, you lose access to all your data.

Experience tells us that computer backup devices have a limited shelf life. It is all but guaranteed that in a year or two none of the devices he wrote about will still be on the market. And, it goes without saying, that hardware breaks. So anyone planning on depending on these things, needs to buy two - one for now and one for the future when they can't be replaced.
In addition, the drives should be stored in different physical locations.

And if you are really going to depend on them, a case can be made that you need to buy three drives. In other words, you need to treat the backup hardware itself just like the data. Backup. Backup. Backup.

Switching focus to the cartridges, two of them have no track record. Mr. Pogue mentions the "click of death" that haunted previous backup devices from Iomega and notes that their current product, the Rev, seems to have stood the test of time. An excellent point and one that should make anyone wary of the two newer products.

If one of the newer products sounds appealing, let me suggest making a couple phone calls. DriveSavers and OnTrack are the companies of last resort when it comes to extracting data off hard disks. Call them to see if they will extract data from a Rev, GoVault or RDX cartridge. If not . . .

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Improving WiFi Reception: An Improved Answer

In the Wall Street Journal on May 17, 2007, Walter Mossberg answered a question about improving WiFi reception. I think his answer could be improved.

He starts with "A more powerful router might help..." I am reasonably familiar with WiFi wireless networks and the power ratings for routers are not a standard topic. Even finding the power rating for a router is probably going to be difficult. While a stronger signal should help reception, anyone reading this needs to be informed as to what constitutes a low, medium and high power ratings for routers.

He also says "You might look for a new router that features a technology called MIMO...".

While true, this is not really the point. The point is to get a pre-N or draft-N router. They all use MIMO, something a non-techie shouldn't need to know. There are many important facts about Pre and Draft N routers that he failed to point out such as: their effectiveness varies greatly, there have been at least five (by my count) generations of "early" N routers, to get the best performance you need to pair an early N router with a matching WiFi adapter and, unlike WiFi G, there is no interoperability between brands.

Then he says "There are also various boosters and repeaters that can be used, though some of these require more technical expertise to install than most folks have."

If it takes technical expertise then its not a suggestion for the audience Mossberg claims to serve. A much better suggestion, and one that does not take technical expertise, is to buy a better antenna and connect it to the existing router. There are omnidirectional antennas that transmit the signal in all directions and directional antentennas for use when you only need the better signal in a single direction. Also, this would serve a heads-up to anyone buying a new router - get one where the antennas can be removed and replaced by better antennas should the need arise.

Then there is what Mr. Mossberg did not say.

The first and easiest step is to change the channel. The G flavor of WiFi uses a single channel, numbered 1, 6 or 11 (I'm simplifying this a bit). If your neighbor has a strong signal on channel 6, for example, it will interfere with your network if you also use channel 6. Determine the channels used by the strongest signals near you, then configure your network to use a different channel. Windows XP does not display the channel used by WiFi G networks, but pretty much all other WiFi software does.

Finally, the router is not the only end of the network that can be improved, so too can the network adapter in the computer.

You might try a USB based WiFi adapter because it lets you move the adapter around to get the best signal without moving the computer. I forget the exact spec, but USB wires can be pretty long. Then too there are PCMCIA (a.k.a. PC Card) network adapters that have very large antennas.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Bad Dell Tech Support

A client, who had been dealing with Dell technical support, came to me with his Dell Inspiron 1150 laptop that no longer ran. The machine came with Windows XP SP1 and after installing Service Pack 2 it slowed down. Then while trying to download the post-SP2 patches it hung.

The first thing Dell had him do (in response to a different set of software problems) was restore the machine to its factory fresh state. There is a hidden copy of Windows on the hard disk for just this purpose and you invoke the recovery program with Control-F11 during system startup.

That worked, the machine was restored. But problems continued.

Next, Dell had him do a clean install of Windows from a Windows CD. This worked too, but the machine had no software on it other than Windows itself and only ran at 640x480 screen resolution.

He wanted the pre-installed software, so Dell tried to restore again to the factory fresh state. But the restore refused to run. Control-F11 no longer invoked the restore program. At this point he came to me.

The only real problem was the incompetence of Dell technical support.

Dell mistake number 1:

Restoring the machine to factory-fresh state requires a special Dell-specific Master Boot Record (the first thing run by the computer after the BIOS has done its job). It turns out that a clean installation of Windows XP updates the Master Boot Record and wipes out the fudges Dell put there. This breaks the Control-F11 feature. So Dell tech support told him to do something that made it impossible to later restore to factory-fresh state - and they didn't know this. When faced with the problem of not being able to restore the machine, Dell support said he must have wiped out the partition.

The story continues:

The main problem after the first recovery back to factory-fresh state was the machine running very slowly. Extremely slowly. This happened after installing Windows XP Service Pack 2 (again, the machine shipped with XP Service Pack 1).

After I restored the machine to factory-fresh state, I un-installed all the junky software that Dell pre-installs on their consumer machines. Then I installed Service Pack 2 and the machine slowed to a crawl. Using Process Explorer I could see the huge amount of cpu being used but there was no one culprit. I turned off all auto-started programs and all optional services to no effect. The "Explorer" process was using alot of cpu time.

Since no applications were running and cpu usage was still very high, it had to have been SP2 that caused the problem. I remembered that when SP2 came out some vendors created updates for their computers that had to be applied to make them SP2 compatible.

Long story short, installing the Dell updates for SP2 that applied to the Inspiron 1150 fixed the cpu usage problem. The machine ran ten times faster than it had been.

Dell mistake number 2:

Ignorance of the above. Dell created updates for SP2 for this machine and yet tech support never suggested installing them when faced with the problem of SP2 slowing down the machine.

Dell mistake number 3:

In searching for the relevant updates to this machine, I entered the service tag at Dell's support site and was presented with a long list of updated software and drivers. A very long list. Too long. It included driver updates for many hardware devices that this machine did not have. For example, there were updates for four or five different optical drives. It was up to me to research the actual hardware and find the appropriate updates.

Other computer vendors do a better job of this. They have software that handles the finding and installing of the correct driver updates. Even if writing software is too hard, how hard can it be to maintain a hardware inventory by service tag and only display the appropriate driver updates? Too hard for Dell it seems.

A huge thank-you goes to Dan Goodell for writing the DSRFIX program that zapped the MBR and made Control-F11 again invoke the recovery utility. It was a life saver. Dan has documented this in great detail. See his Inside the Dell PC Restore Partition. Thanks Dan.

You could consider Dell's lack of documentation about this and their not creating a similar program, their fourth mistake.
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Friday, May 4, 2007

Can't Trust Gmail - Too Many False Positives

I have had a Gmail email address for about two years (more or less). But, as they say in baseball, three strikes and you're out. I will never again give it out to any person or place that I actually want mail from. It's now a sacrificial lamb, used only for website registrations at sites I don't really want to receive mail from.


False positives. Three to be exact. As documented on my Computer Gripes site, Gmail has classified important legitimate email messages as spam three times.

If you use Gmail as webmail, this may not be a big deal to you. But I have Gmail auto-forward email to another account. Messages that Gmail classifies as SPAM, I never get. And since I don't use the Gmail website, I don't review the SPAM folder. And even if I did, it collects about 30 or more SPAM messages a day meaning that unless I review it often, it would be easy to lose a needle in this haystack of SPAM.


May 4, 2007. I purchased lobsters from The company sent three email messages as my order went through the various stages of fulfillment. Each message was classified as SPAM by Gmail. The price of the order was, to me, significant and I got quite a scare when I thought my order was lost (it was a gift that had to be delivered on time).

November 5, 2006. I was transferring a domain to the registrar As part of the transfer process they send an email message to the Administrative contact of the domain. Gmail flagged this message from DirectNic as SPAM. They are a reasonably large registrar, so they no doubt send a lot of legitimate emails every day.

October 2, 2006. I own a computer from a company called Velocity Micro. In the past I have communicated with the company using my Gmail account without incident. Recently however, Google started labeling all messages from as SPAM.

All three senders are very legitimate businesses. More legitimate than Gmail itself.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Debugging a wired Internet connection

Last updated: June 11, 2007
Most Internet connection problems occur using WiFi, but a wired Ethernet connection can also fail. These are some debugging steps to take when an Ethernet based Internet connection isn't working.

Some of this is techie, but I'm working on expanding the explanations of the various steps to make them usable and understandable to more people.

The assumption here is that the router and broadband modem are different physical devices, but the concepts are the same even if they are integrated into a single device.

Technical Background (Added May 6, 2007)

If you are not a techie, this section should provide enough background for you to understand the rest of the steps and procedures.

Computers on the Internet address each other by number. People, of course, address computers on the Internet by name. The "thing" that translates names (, into numbers is a huge system called DNS (Domain Name System). When you can't access a computer on the Internet by name, the problem may be network related, preventing you from in reaching the computer -or- the problem may be in the DNS system. Every request for a computer by name involves an under-the-covers call to the DNS system to translate the name into a number. These calls into the DNS system happen so quickly, you don't notice them.

Network computer nerds don't call the numbers assigned to computers on the Internet numbers, instead they/we use the term "IP address". Simply put, every computer on the Internet has a unique IP address.

Further confusing things for normal folk is the fact that IP addresses are not written like normal numbers. The format used is something like "". That is, there are four sets of numbers separated by periods instead of commas. IP addresses come up often when debugging Internet connection problems.

You can see the magic of IP addresses by using them to access a web site. For example, you can get to my web site with

To translate a domain name into an IP address your computer makes a request to a computer run by your ISP called a DNS server (a large organization may run their own DNS server computers). This is so important that the standard is to have two available DNS server computers, in case one breaks. I mention this because you must be able to talk to the DNS server of your ISP to reference anything on the Internet by name (referencing a computer by IP address does not involve DNS at all).

For a computer plugged directly into a broadband modem, make a note of the IP addresses of the two DNS servers provided by your ISP. In Windows XP: Control Panel -> Network connections -> Right click on the appropriate connection and get its status -> go to the Support tab -> Click on the Details button. While there also write down the IP address of the default gateway computer.

A computer on a LAN, plugged into a router may be configured to use the DNS servers of the ISP -or- it may be using the router as its DNS server. In the latter case, the router simply passes the DNS request on to the DNS server of your ISP and then passes the response (an IP address) back to you. If your computer(s) is using the DNS servers of your ISP fine. If the router is being used, then log into the internal website in the router and try to find the IP addresses of the DNS servers of your ISP. While there, also make a note of the IP address of the "Default Gateway" computer.

Terminology: Broadband modem refers to either a cable modem or a DSL modem.

Ahead of time

Planning for connection problems should go a long way to debugging them when they occur.

Make a cheat-sheet documenting the normal state of the lights both on the broadband modem and the router. That is, note which lights are normally on, off, blinking, green, orange, etc when things are working. Keep this on paper right next to the router so it can't get lost.

Have a list of some website IP addresses handy (feel free to use the one for above). There is a simple way to learn the IP address of a given website: open a DOS/command window and type "ping" without the quotes. The IP address is after "Reply from". The IP address of a website can change over time, so its best to have a few on hand.

Make a note of your DNS server IP addresses and the IP address of the TCP/IP default gateway. The default gateway is the machine between your ISP's internal network and the outside world and may be very handy in narrowing down the problem. Keep it on paper next to the router.

Write the routers IP address and the userid/password for the internal router website and keep it on paper next to the router.

Have an extra router and extra Ethernet cables.

Place an icon in the system tray (a.k.a. notification area, the bottom right corner of the screen, just to the left of the time) for your network connection(s). This tells you at a glance whether Windows thinks the network is connected or not. In Windows XP you do this with: Control Panel -> Network Connections -> Properties of the network connection. Turn on both the checkboxes at the bottom of the General tab (put an icon in notification area when connected and warn me about limited or no connectivity). If there is a red X over the network icon, Windows knows there is trouble. Hovering the mouse over the icon when all is well, provides some useful information.

Have two web browsers available. The only way to tell if your web browser is the source of the problem is to try and access websites using a different browser from the same copy of Windows. Needless to say, Firefox users already have two browsers. For IE users, I suggest the portable version of Firefox available from Portable applications don't have to be installed, thus minimizing their impact on the system. In other words, Windows doesn't know it's there. Portable applications exist totally in a single folder (making it easy to move them from computer to computer).

When it breaks

Start clean: turn everything off and leave it off for a minute. Then turn on the broadband modem and wait a minute for it to talk to the outside world. Then turn on the router and wait a minute for it to talk to the modem. Then turn on your computer.

Look at the lights on the broadband modem and router to see if they are normal. If the lights on the modem are not in their normal state, then call your ISP. Some ISPs will help with the router, some won't. The lights being wrong in the router only matter if the lights in the modem are normal.

Check the network icon in the system tray. If it has a red X over it, then Windows knows there is something wrong. Try disabling and then re-enabling the network connection.

Try unplugging and replugging all cables.

Try using a different port on the router.

Try using a different Ethernet cable.

Look at the the Ethernet wire at the point where it enters your computer. If it can talk to the router at all, there will be a light or two right next to the plastic connector. And when I say right next to, I mean a few molecules away from the plastic connector. If you see a blinking light then the hardware is working, at least at the lowest level, which is Ethernet.

Also try another computer connected to the router. This will tell you if the first computer is the problem or if the router is.

If the router appears to be the problem:
Try directly connecting to the broadband modem - after turning on your firewall program.
Try an alternate router

If Windows does not see a problem with your network connection, then turn off the firewall program that is running in Windows. Also shut down any anti-Spyware and anti-virus programs. In fact, shut down any and all programs that you can. The general idea is simplify, simplify, simplify until things work again.

Try to access the website inside the router (we saved the IP address of the router for just this reason). This should tell you which side of the router is the problem. If you can get to the website in the router, then you will be prompted for a userid/password. No need to actually log-in.

If you can get to the website in the router, then try accessing websites by their IP address. If websites work by IP address but not by name, then the DNS system is the problem. Your ISP should help with DNS problems, but one thing you can do is wipe out the temporary cache that Windows maintains for DNS. From a Command window (a.k.a. DOS prompt) enter this command: "ipconfig /flushdns". Then try accessing websites by name again.

Also, there are times when one type of Internet activity is blocked but others will work. To narrow down the problem, try email (using software on your computer, not a webpage), FTP, ping, tracert, etc. both by name and by IP address.

If you can get to the router but not the outside world, then log in to the website in the router and:
-Reboot the router.
-Turn off logging and UPnP and remote administration in the router.
-Make sure the firewall is on in the router.
-Update the router firmware.

You may be able to get out of the router, but not to the Internet at large. That is, you may be getting trapped in the internal network of your ISP. To see if that's the case, try ping and trace route to both your normal DNS servers (both of them) and the default gateway. Do this by IP address, not by name. If you can't get to these machines by IP address, the problem is not DNS and not the Internet. In this case, your ISP should be able to help as they are on the hook for access to their DNS server machines and their default gateway machine.