Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

Mapping the home network

October 1st, 2013 Comments off

With an extra access point and a variety of devices both wired and wireless, I finally took the time to map out the home network, capturing devices, connections, assigned IP addresses, etc. This should help plan changes more easily, as well as keep tabs on where the different storage devices are.

Here’s what it looks like as of September 2013: (click to see it large)

Home Network Diagram

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A digital certificate for dealing with government: eCPF

September 3rd, 2012 2 comments

Due to a new law finally kicking-in, I recently started having to present a monthly report in digital form, and those have to be digitally signed. The signatures required are both mine and that of my accountant, and the type of signature is what is known as an eCPF – you can think of it as an electronic Social Security Number. It is a cryptographic certificate which binds my name and CPF number together, and allows me to perform a great deal of interactions with the Revenue Service (Receita Federal, our IRS) which would otherwise require showing-up in person and presenting ID.

In order to get one, you have to select a certification authority accredited by the government, fill-up the appropriate forms and then schedule an appointment to show-up in person. In that appointment you have to present several documents, including your CPF card, photo ID and proof of address. Those documents are verified and copies are archived; next you sign a term responsibility for the certificate you are about to receive, and leave the place with a validation code and a password, which you use to go back to the original site where you scheduled the appointment and finish it up by installing the certificate. You also receive a revocation password, which is important because it allows you to immediately revoke the certificate, in case of any breach, without having to go through the steps of proving who you are in person.

As far as the media for the certificate goes, it can be obtained in purely electronic form (the a1 option, what I got) which is installed on the certificate store on your computer, or loaded in a smart card (the a3 option). For most users probably the smartcard is the better option, because it is safer – the private key never leaves your card, and can’t be compromised easily. It also won’t be lost if you re-install your computer and forget to make a copy of the certificate.

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Five terabytes and counting …

June 24th, 2012 Comments off

Last month I upgraded my notebook’s hard drive from its factory 300GB disk to a spacious 1TB one. In the process, the old disk was comissioned to another task, where space was getting a bit scarce, and as such there was a bit of disk drive shuffling at home. Taking time to plan this move allowed me to better appreciate the ammount of storage lying around, as I haven’t kept a proper tally up to this point. It is sligthly over 5 terabytes, and it breaks down as follows:

a hard drive with the top cover removed, by Flickr user walkn

size usage
2TB Media center (movies, music, ripped DVD ISOs, photo archive backup)
1TB Notebook’s hard drive
1TB USB External drive (on-site backups)
500GB TV (PVR, time shifting)
500GB Nintendo Wii (games, kids’ videos)
300GB SnakeOS NAS (torrent downloads, Wii backup)
160GB iPod Classic (connected to the receiver)
80GB Linux desktop
80GB External drive 1, currently unused
80GB External drive 2, currently unused

Space is mostly cheap nowadays, but it never ceases to wonder me; I can still remember the days when you used one disk to boot into your “disk operating system”, then swapped another disk to load your application. If you had a fancy computer, you’d have both an A: and B: drives, and would not need to swap disks nearly as much. And by disks, I mean 360K floppy disks. How things have changed in less than 20 years …

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Microsoft Office 2010 freezing midway during install (and uninstall)

May 30th, 2012 1 comment

The problem: MS Office installer freezing-up

Recent misfortune: a hardware upgrage triggered Microsoft Office into asking for re-activation; the automatic re-activation process failed and an attempt to perform it manually left the product in an un-usable state, as no Office application would start-up.

Freezing: Trying to repair the existing installation did not work; trying to use the original media to repair it did not work; trying to uninstall Office did not work either. All attempts to modify the installation were met with the same result: the program would start ok, appear to work, then after 2-5min just stop working; it would still receive keyboard and mouse input, but disk activity had stopped and no further progress would be made, even if left alone for hours. Trying to cancel would result in an ACK (“cancelling installation” or something similar), but likewise nothing would happen, requiring a reboot.

Performing a complete manual uninstall of all office components did not help either; after that and on a clean boot the installer would still stop working shortly after starting-up. This turned into a very puzzling problem indeed.

The issue, AKA: long story, short

To cut to the chase, the problem was with the system restore feature, which was in a corrupted state. My assumption was that when the Office installer was trying to setup a new restore point, the service was hanging. The solution? I just disabled system restore on the system drive (warning: this deletes all existing restore points on that drive) and re-ran the installer, which this time completed successfully. After that I re-enabled system restore, thou I’m yet to try any rollback to see if it is working properly or not this time around.

System Restore

Interesting tools, or, long story, well … long!

In the process of diagnosing this issue I ran into a few interesting tools, so let me enlist them here for the record …

Microsoft Fix it Solution Center

A variety of quick diagnostic and repair tools under a single umbrela:

I initially got there by following a link for a KB article on how to fix MSI software update registration corruption issues. And finally, there is also an online portal for the Fix it Solution center, although it apears to be still in beta mode (I haven’t used this one, can’t comment). Overall, the “Fix it” approach dit not indentify my problem with system restore, but it also caused no further harm, so it may be worth checking out.

Fix It

Clean boot

To troubleshoot problems with services and applications loaded at startup, or to otherwise perform a clean boot (clean, but not “safe mode”), there’s the excellent, tough hidden, system configuration utility, invoked by typing “msconfig” at the “Run…” dialog.

What you’ll want for a clean boot is to select either “Diagnostic startup” or “Selective startup”, and in the former uncheck at least startup items, but probably also system services. And you can also further tweak option in the other tabs, specially selectively disabling some services – a good starting point there is to hide all Microsoft services and then disable everything else. The last tab (tools) has handy shortcuts for several useful tools.

The interesting thing about a clean boot, and also how it differs from a a safe mode boot is that options configured in this applet remain in effect until you undo them, allowing one to stay in “clean” mode for a while, even going through reboot cycles – which is a norm when installing some software packages. To revert back to a normal boot mode, with all services enabled, just revert the changes made and reboot.

Clean Boot

That’s all folks.

Categories: musings Tags: , , ,

Borland Star Team – Failed to install the StarTeam SDK runtime

September 25th, 2011 2 comments

This is more of a "note to self" post, in case I ever have to do this again (God forbid!), but it might help some other poor soul, since there was not much useful info out in the interwebs …


As I was trying to install the 2008 R2 client for Borland Star Team, I kept getting the following error in the process, and the software would not work at all:

Warning: Failed to install the StarTeam SDK runtime which is mandatory for the operation of this program. (…)

I’ve tried everything I could think off, including running it in administrator mode, in all of the compatibility modes down to Windows 3.1 (actually, XP something), booting in Safe Mode, you name it. Nothing worked.

The solution

After giving up, a colleague of mine (thanks Beck!) suggested I’ve put a shortcut to the installer in the "Start-up Programs" folder and let it run immediately upon login. That seemed like an old superstition, but since science and medicine had failed me, I was rather open to suggestions. Turns out this worked: the installer completed without errors and the program was up and running in the end.

Apparently the StarTeam installer has issues with some Windows Service which is set for a delayed start; you either figure out what is the conflict and temporarily stop that service, or do the trick of running the installer as soon as possible from a fresh reboot.

I’m leaving this note here in case me or any of the two other StarTeam users ever need to perform a re-install ;-)

Categories: musings, software Tags:

Backup, continued

May 29th, 2011 Comments off

Lonely plant at beack, from flickr user larsomat

Lots of interesting feedback about my recent post commenting the differences between Mozy and Carbonite. For one, twitter user @heydan mentioned that the option to “backup files of this type (within folders)” is specific to the Windows version of Carbonite, and not available on the Mac client. I can’t verify that, but Mac users beware, as this is a serious limitation!

As an alternative to both Mozy and Carbonite, @anthonyrallo recommended CrashPlan, which advertises itself as being “trully unlimited”: no file limits, no throttling; and they are offering a 10% discount to users switching from Mozy. I can’t speak for this service, as I have had no experience with it yet, but pending reading some reviews, I plan to see how it behaves during the 30d trial period. As usual, I’ll post here any conclusions.

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The Little Differences

May 18th, 2011 Comments off

Vicent and Jules in Pulp Fiction as lego figures

Vincent: But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?

Jules: What?

Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just – it’s just there it’s a little different.

When I decided to switch from Mozy to Carbonite as my backup provider, I knew some things would be different, and I even tried my best to spot the differences and deal with them appropriately. So far I have not come accross anything which would make me regret my decision, but there are a few “rough edges” which are worth pointing out for anyone considering a similar move. Stay with me …

To backup all files doesn’t actually mean *all* files

In Mozy, when you added a particular folder to a backup set, all files and folders within were backed-up, no worries; Carbonite, on the other hand, handles this a bit differently: there are certain file types which are not backed-up by default, even though the folder where they are stored shows-up as “green” (backup current) in the status. Things like movie files (avi, wmv, mpeg) and executables (exe, com) for example will not be backed-up.

But not to worry, there’s an easy workaround: to add a given file type to the list of what is backed-up by default, say AVI files, you just right-click on any one such file and select the context menu entry “Carbonite” in explorer; you’ll see the grayed message “Files of this type are not backed up”; just select “Properties” and in the “Details” group, check the option for “Back up files of this type” (you could also just back up that one file, but that’s not likely to be what you want done).

The description of this process is available in the Carbonite FAQ, under the topic [Windows] Backing Up Files That Are Excluded By Default.

Also, there’s a handy list of folders and file types which the default configuration will not back up listed under the topic [Windows] File Types Excluded from Backup. In the interest of documentation, I’ll reproduce the list of file extensions here: (I don’t care much for the folders, as I manage my backup folders manually, instead of accepting the default settings)






































































































































The downside to managing your own encryption keys

Every backup which leaves your machine and goes into storage “somewhere in the cloud” must only leave the premisses encrypted; both Mozy and Carbonite do this well. By default the key used to encrypt your backups will be managed by the service provider, so in the event that you need to restore data, all you have to do is login into the provider’s website and start the process. The downside being that in the event of a security breach at the provider, they have both your data as well as the key to decrypt it.

For the most paranoid among us the only acceptable option is to manage your own key. That means, there is no key stored at the service provider, and they have no way of decrypting your data, even if they wanted to, even if they were compelled by law enforcement. And the downside is that if you (the user) is sloppy in safekeeping your encryption key, you might one day discover that disaster had struck and you have no way to get back to your data.

With that caveat in mind, I’ll be quick to admit to being paranoid and managing my own keys. With Mozy that meant that when you restored data over the web, in bulk or one file at a time, you’d receive back encrypted files, and after downloading them you had to decrypt them using a utility supplied and your own personal encryption key. The trouble with carbonite is that it won’t allow you to download individual files or folders if your encryption key is not managed by the system. I’m contacting customer support regarding this issue and will post here any updates or workarounds.

Bandwidth throttling will bite you

Bandwidth doesn’t come cheap, and so everyone throttles it, that’s just the way it is; just because you’ve got a nice 10Mbps internet connection, don’t expect to be able to backup at anywhere near that speed. For a start, your home connection might be asynchronous, meaning you have different rates for download and upload – usually upload, which is what a domestic user does less, is a much lower speed than upload. For instance, a “normal” ADSL connection in this neck of woods is 3Mbps advertised, and if you read the fine print, it’s 3Mbps down, 1Mbps up, maximum.

Turtle, from flickr user r8r

That said, you won’t get the maximum upload speed for your connection either. Consider all the internet nodes between your house and the Carbonite servers and there’s lots of places for congestion to happen, and you’re bound to the slowest of the nodes. Now assuming that everything is OK in the network and there’s little congestion, you still have to content with all other Carbonite customers running backups at the same time, and that’s the throttling I’m interested here: a limitation on your maximum upload speed imposed by your backup provider.

The stated throttling policy by Carbonite is as follows:

  • The first 35GB of data can achieve upload speeds of up to 2 mbps (megabits per second).
  • Between 35GB – 200GB of data can have the upload speeds reach up to 512 kbps (kilobits per second).
  • 200GB or more of data can be uploaded at up to 100 kbps (kilobits per second).

Mozy, on the other hand, apparently don’t throttle it’s backups, and I can attest as a user with a backup set in the order of just under 100GB that Mozy was much faster to upload the same set of data. This throttling is actually my biggest gripe with Carbonite thus far.

Categories: musings, software Tags: ,

Carbonite has won the great backup wars of 2011

March 15th, 2011 Comments off

A while ago I mentioned that I was looking for an alternative to Mozy for backing-up my files. As it turns out, I’ve decided to purchase Carbonite to fulfill the role. Three arguments won me over, in no particular order:

  • Simplicity of installation and usage
  • Feature set
  • Price

As far as installation and usage, it is very concise. No overly complicated settings, yet it allows you to change the defaults where it matters. Once setup it “just works” and it doesn’t require a whole lot of on-going monitoring.

In terms of features, one important thing is that it allows you to use your own encryption key for the contents, which was a “high want” in my list; there’s one caveat to that, which is that you *must* store this key (along with your Carbonite login credentials) in multiple locations so that it is available in the event of a disaster: without the key your backup is useless.

In the crossroads between feature set and ease of use, managing what you backup and what you don’t is handled directly in Windows Explorer, via a new Carbonite entry added to the context menu for file and folders. This is a departure from the model I was used to with Mozy, in which there was a specific UI for handling your backup sets (in a sense is is a welcome departure, as the Mozy UI was slow to the point of being frustrating to use). In Carbonite you just right-click on a folder in Windows Explorer and select “Carbonite -> Back this up”.

Because of the integration with Windows Explorer, the current backup status of anything is right in your face, shown as little overlay icons placed on folders and files:

Files on Windows Explorer showing Carbonite status as overlays

And the infocenter UI, which shows the current status of the application, is also a “no frills” dialog, showing you just what’s going on at the moment, without too much noise data:

Carbonite options dialog

And finally, as far as price is concerned, it is “just right”: Mozy used to cost me (before the price hike-up) around $4.50/mo for unlimited backups. After the changes announced my monthly payment would jump to $8.45, on a yearly subscription, and I’d only have room to grow my current dataset another 40% before having to change the plan again. Carbonite on the other will cost me $3.61/mo for unlimited backup, over a three year subscription. Sweet!

Categories: musings, review Tags: ,

Mozy is changing, and why do I care?

February 3rd, 2011 1 comment

Hard disk deconstruction, by user alangley on, original URL

A while ago when I discussed my backup strategy, I’ve made a recommendation for using Mozy as cloud backup provider. While I still recommend it, Mozy just recently announced a change in the pricing structure which for me would mean much more expensive backups (I have just under 100GB being backed-up right now, and growing at the rate of 1-2GB/month).

What’s the alternative? I haven’t decided yet, and will make sure I post the findings here, as well as in the original article. Right at this point I’m inclined to go for either JungleDisk (a front-end for Amazon’s cloud storage service) or Carbonite; I have about 1 month to make a decision, one way or another, so stay tuned for an update :)

Meanwhile, has an article suggesting some alternatives, and the comments thread has some more information worth checking-out.

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A Tour through the Visualization Zoo

November 11th, 2010 Comments off

Data visualization is a fascinating subject: different representations can enormously enhance or completely hide crucial information from a dataset. In this mindset, there’s an excellent article from the ACM Queue entitled A Tour through the Visualization Zoo (pdf|html), which gives a nice round-up of a variety of different visualization techniques. This is pure geek pr0n if you ask me ;-)

A peer discussion on this article led to some interesting pointers, which some might have seen before. Specially:

Fernanda Viegas, formerly at IBM and now at Google: take a look at the projects page for examples of her work; one of the most interesting she’s been involved is, IMHO, many eyes, a platform for exploratory and collaborative visualization.

Hans Rosling, the creator of Gapminder a tool which offers a new approach to viewing time series with a focus on trend spotting. If you haven’t seen it before, a good place to start are his TED presentations, which are both relevant and eye-catching (as usual, wrt TED). There’s also a more focused look at his style on Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen, though the focus there is in learning from his presentation style.

VisualizationZoo, figure 2D


Manyeyes samples


Gapminder demo

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