Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dell and an Asian capacitor supplier faulted in many desktop hardware failures

There is a “disturbing behavior” story in the New York Times on June 29 about Dell as a computer manufacturer, by Ashlee Vance, “Suit over faulty computers highlights Dell’s decline”, link (web url) here.

The problems seem to relate to a capacitors, particularly those made by an Asian supplier named Nichicon, which leaked and damaged other components, particularly in desktops sold in large numbers to companies and universities. The problems became the most severe in 2004 and 2005.

Other manufacturers were affected, but to a much less extent than Dell.

According to the article, Dell employees were pressured to play down the truth about the problems and “emphasize uncertainty.” So much for the problems of the real world of work.

I have a Dell 8300 desktop purchased in September 2003. At the end of 2008, I had a failure that required a Geek Squad visit. In late 2009, the hard drive had to be replaced (after several months of the machine’s booting very slowly). But five-plus years without major repairs isn’t bad.

When I worked for ING, we used Dell desktops (mostly witn Windows NT then), and I recall a couple of problems with noisy CPU fans that had to be replaced.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Should ISP's and sofware and anti-virus companies hire freelance consumers to work and troubleshoot products at home

Should ISP’s or telecommunications companies, operating system vendors (Microsoft and Apple), and most of all anti-virus companies hire people as freelancers at home to test their products?

I wonder, since over the years I find myself heuristically troubleshooting various kinds of problems without working for the companies I have to call for service.

For example, I’ve done boot logging, and to get around problems with transferring large files, and seen instructions on running a PC with different operating systems with a variety of diagnostic tools.

It isn’t hard to imagine that a telecommunications provider wouldn’t be interested in clients skilled with networking and examining router logs.

I do wonder if a part-time home job market like this could evolve.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Recalling a 2003 interview with Primerica

Back in 2003 I was approached at a job fair in Minnesota to consider becoming an agent for Primerica, which has the slogan “buy term and invest the difference”, as at this “our story” link. (It's "Primerica", not "Primamerica".)

True, the sales pitch was getting people to convert from whole life to term, and the agent who presented it to me one April morning near I-494 in Bloomington was unsettled by the questions I kept asking, and became defensive as he said I wasn’t a good fit. (He had claimed there was a $40 trillion potential market to milk for commissions.) “We give you the words,” he said.  (That was an odd thing to see to a writer or author capable or originating the words.)  It sounds like the old dichotomy between “winning arguments” and “winning converts.”

I had actually gotten a call from them on Sept. 13, 2001, while I was still working for ING in I.T. (I would be laid off Dec. 13, keeping my job for 92 days after 9/11). I thought that was odd then.  Was it a sign of what was to come, a way for me to pay my dues after the purification? I think they mentioned affiliation with Citibank and said they were “expanding”, and odd time to do so.

So, yesterday, driving on Old Dominion Drive in McClean, VA, I see this truck, shown here. And here is a web link to back that sign up.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ashton Kutcher posts job at Katalyst on Twitter: a good example of where social media is taking the job market (even for techies?)

I saw a tweet from Ashton Kutcher (“aplusk”) about a position in his company Katalyst “Associate Creative Director”, Monster link. The job involves directing social media campaigns for all of the enterprise’s clients. The job is in LA.

I’ve noted on my blogs that in many businesses “personal social media” and “business social media” are merging, making “online reputation” an even more sensitive issue in the workplace. I don’t know if Ashton had all this in mind with the tweet, but the job posting certainly fits in to the ongoing discussion of online presence and the job market (as noted by workplace columnists like Tory Johnson on ABC).

(Oh, Asthon, as for one of your YouTube videos: the chest is an extension of the chin. Everything is optional. See my Movies blog June 6, 2010 )

Picture: Guess the City.  (It's not LA).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Backup and antivirus companies require a little savvy from customers to report problems

Well, I suppose in one’s post retirement career, tracking down software issues with security companies can be an avocation. In my case, I’ve had an issue with Webroot Backup, which in March persistently told me that I had selected more data than the backup limit.

So the project then is to set up a log file to send to the company, and that’s interesting. First, you enable bootlogging. You can do that by pressing F8 during a reboot (before Windows appears) and navigating down to the “Enable Boot Logging” option [web url] (reference here) .

Or you can go to Run (from Search on Vista, or add it to your menu) enter MSCONFIG, and go to the boot.ini tab, and check.

Afterwards you bring up the Home screen for Webroot, and then put it in debug logging mode by pressing shift-ctrl-Alt simultaneously (shift is not the same as space), and then “d” once. Then you try the backup and let the computer log the process.

My experiments produced a 30 Meg log file, even after Win-zip. What I found is that I could not upload it through the Webroot support site (it would give an “initiation error”). So I tried to attach it as a file to both gmail and aol and ran into 25 meg limits for attached files.

But there is a site called “Yousendit”  (link) which, after free registration, allows you to send a file of up to 100 meg to youself, with a URL to email to the software company.

I suspect that the process is similar with most antivirus and most backup storage companies.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Making an old desktop go wireless

To finish the wireless network, I did put on the Netgear WNA3100 usb wireless adapter on my 2003 Dell desktop. It supports WPS (WiFi Protected Setup) and has a push button on the thumb-like adapter. You have to use a small harness to give it some physical distance from the desktop tower so you can reach it.

After loading the driver from the CD, you’re prompted to push the “Push ‘N’ Connect” button. Within 120 seconds, you have to push the WPS button on the router. The documentation says that there is an icon on the main router showing the button, but there isn’t. There are two tiny buttons on the side of the router, one “wireless on/off”, a toggle that will turn off Internet access altogether, and then the WPS. You have to hold the WPS button in hard about three seconds and wait about ten more seconds before the adapter picks up the signal. This time there is no log in or password.

Sites that return your IP address (like Lawrence Goetz, here ) will return the router IP address assigned dynamically one time by the ISP. Then each computer, under the Ethernet Adapter Wireless Network section under ipconfig /all at the command prompt, returns another IP address with the last digit incremented by one (from 2) in the order implemented (the router itself has suffix 1). In Windows XP it will say “IP” and in Vista it will as “Ipv4”.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

For novices, mandatory home wireless networks might be tricky

As people two generations younger than me lecture, you have to be curious and handy to survive in I.T. these days.

So it is, as I explained on the Network Neutrality blog this evening, Comcast (and probably other providers) wants everyone wanting to connect more than one computer (even one at a time) to high speed to learn to maintain a wireless network at home. That makes more sense for people living in McMansions than in Manhattan studio condos.

The directions, as I went over last week, leave some holes. It’s hard for technical writers to anticipate levels of external customer skill and how they will interpret directions in view of their current setup. The Netgear device ran into somewhat the same issues. The wired connection through the router will connect one computer in a “conventional way”, and you can go to any website, including the one Netgear gives you to set up your wireless network. (You don’t have to use the CD.)

Once you get started, however, Internet access outside the Netgear page remains blocked (from any browser) until you complete the wireless installation “completely”, even though it seems that the primary computer still uses the “wired” connection through the daisy chain of Ethernet cables. You need to know stuff about your ISP, whether you already have a user name, etc. Finally, you have your Internet connection again, but there are two “Apply” buttons on the final screen, and it isn’t clear which one must be pressed, and it doesn’t tell you that you have applied your changes. It does let you “test” the connection first.

If you go to another laptop (Dell Inspiron), I find that Verizon’s VZAccess Manager finds the wireless network that you named, but won’t accept the password unless it’s encrypted. But the regular windows wireless wizard does accept it, and it works.

Tonight, both machines prompted me then to install suddenly downloaded Microsoft updates (about 18 of them, including big ones for .NET). Both machines restarted and reconnected to the Internet properly. On a warm restart, VZAccess manager respects the connection already established.

I couldn’t get an external USB Wireless card to work on an older 2003 desktop yet (to connect it); that will wait until tomorrow.

Parents will need to learn wireless networking skills to monitor their kids, and work-at-home employees may have issues mixing work with personal over a network; people with employees in the home (like nannies) might have to provide wireless networking, too. They'll have to manage userids and passwords, like real companies.

Update: June 28

There was a brief power outage with a thunderstorm today. The modem and router came back up normally and worked properly about three minutes after the power came back, with no intervention on my part. But I probably should hook them into a UIP rather than just a surge protector.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Does association with a project failure besmerch one's career?

Brad Egeland has an entry on Tech Republic blogs today, “Three Tips for Rebounding from IT Project Failure”, with link here.  Of course, his piece is more associated with the situation of a consultant assigned to a client (or even a self-employed consultant), but it can also apply to a conventional salaried employee.

I was with a project, the Combined Medicare Project Consortium (of up to seven Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans) in Dallas from 1979-1981 that eventually failed because of turf fighting among the plans. I was working on the back end, surveillance and utilization review. I wanted to sell the concept of end-user-driven computing even in 1981, so that the plans would not have to agree on procedural details that very likely should vary from state to state.

I resigned shortly before the project failed in early 1982. But the whole episode did affect my career because I was not involved in programming and implementation and staying sharp, even according to the mainframe values of that era. I got a job with Chilton, whose mix was ADR Datacom DB/DC (in an Ahmdahl shop that emulated IBM MVS), something that would not stay in the mainstream (IBM led the job market with IMS and CICS in those days, with IMS gradually getting overtaken by DB2 by the 1990s). In fact, I went from January 1979 to September 1, 1985 without ever implementing anything. My career, however, would go on 16+ years after that “implementation Sunday”, back in the days of mainframe Assembler and DUO with UPSI.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Job offers may tend to be 30% less than just three years ago: is this lowballing?

MarketWatch has an article (reprinted on Yahoo! finance) about “low-ball salary offers”, link here.  Offers are often 30% less than two or three years ago. A job that was in the 40000-50000 range is now 28000-38000.

However, I’ve taken pay cuts before to stay competitive and remain stable. In 1981, I left a project that was falling apart (at $35000) and joined Chilton (now Experian) for $28000 in Dallas, and had 6-1/2 stable years. In 1990, I took a lateral move, from one $40000 job to another. In both cases, considerable salary inflation occurred afterwards over the years. At my “layoff” at the end of 2001, I was making about $72000.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Dell XPS (mine) laptop looses keyboard, requires hard reboot; is this a known problem?

I had a bizarre problem with my Dell XPS laptop today. Yesterday, I had installed the hooks to a new Cisco-Comcast cable modem, everything working (see yesterday’s post).

Today, I let it go to sleep a couple hours. During a thunderstorm, I pull out the power and let it run down on the battery to about 30%. There are no close lightning strikes, and after the storm I plug it back in to power. I go back to work on a Word document and find that the keyboard doesn’t respond.

Everything else works. The Internet connection is fine. The touchpad works (although it’s always goofy and overly sensitive). You can click on things and start programs, but you can’t type anything in. You can’t even use the delete or insert keys.

I check the keyboard on the control panel. Windows Vista says that the device is working properly.

I try a restart and it doesn’t fix it. A cold boot (taking the time to pull out the power cord for some seconds in between and putting it back in) does fix it.

Now, to be complete, I did run Webroot spysweeper scan before the cold boot, but all it found was spy cookies, no “real viruses.”

The XPS keyboard is a bit fragile. Untrimmed fingernails can dig under the keys and cause them to come loose. The “e” key is already loose.

I found a reference on the web to another Dell laptop (C610) that sometimes dropped the keyboard use and required a “hard shutdown” here.

Update: Best Buy says that this is a known intermittent problem with Windows Vista and some laptop manufacturers: the keyboard can get disconnected during hibernation and require a cold boot. Windows 7 may fix it.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Comcast's DIY modem and router changes (home user): A Canterbury Tale, perhaps

Well, welcome to the world of DIY installations of cable Internet equipment changes.

Recently, my high speed cable connection started slowing and stalling, and a Comcast technician did get most of those problems to go away by replacing outdoor splitters, which admittedly could have been degraded by the February snowstorms which had covered them.

But I was told that the Netgear all-in-one router-modem was at “end of life” and no longer supported. At any time, the item could stop working, because software changes are being made to the network for newer equipment and it might not always be downward compatible. So Comcast ships separate modem and wireless router. (Wired routing is no longer supported; I guess the assumption is most customers have big houses to move their laptops around in.)

The shipment included a Cisco 2100 modem, and a separate wireless Netgear router, that is not to be opened until the modem Internet connectivity works. The directions in the booklet say to connect in the commonsense matter, but to use the CD to establish your connectivity software and establish your Comcast email account. I wonder, why do I need to establish the email account; I already have one.

So what actually happens when you connect the modem is that Windows Vista first goes through its routine to recognize it (pretty straightforward), and then, if you skip the CD and go to Mozilla (or any browser) something interesting happens. True, you don’t need the CD if you already have Comcast Internet (common sense). Comcast intervenes on top of the home page (Google for Mozilla) and inserts its own Comcast Activation website url. It prompts you to turn off your anti-virus software and firewall (not a good idea). I leave it on, and neither Windows firewall nor Webroot Spysweeper anti-virus objected. It goes through the Install wizard (after “run”) and “I accept” license business (I don’t recall that earlier Comcast modems required this). Then when you go into Mozilla again it gets a system error and tells you to call the 800 support number.

Well, after about twenty minutes, Mozilla works on all websites (they have to change the settings on the account), so I try Google chrome. My site navigates fine because it has no cookies or special stuff; but I got to Google blogs (my blogs linked there), and it intercepts with the Activate. So somehow Blogger is “different” – or Comcast is looking for cookies that most commercial sites and providers like Google and Facebook use, and overlays them. I try Internet Explorer and the same happens.

So as I exit, it tells me to reboot the machine. The restart takes unusually long, because Vista seems to have to run a lot of extra stuff after a modem install. But finally it comes up and everything works.

There’s one other thing. Cisco has a CD, too, and it warns you about how to use the modem with a USB instead of Ethernet cable. I don’t know why you would want to.

Tomorrow I’ll play with the wireless router. But this is a lot of customer time to accommodate a Comcast “system upgrade”. I do have to say that the connection seems “faster”.

Nobody thought of writing up the documentation as to what to do if you were an existing customer with existing email and a wired router. That’s just systems analysis.

Update: June 4:  Comcast at Best Buy says that all this relates to Comcast's decision to switch all its land broadband to cable modems. More will appear soon on the Network Neutrality blog.