Sony PRS-T1: Crashing E-books

Sony reader PRS-T1 by Hideya Hamano

Lately, my somewhat dated Sony PRS-T1 e-book reader has been crashing on newer ePub format e-books. I can read a few chapters, and then out of the blue, the device will stall, eventually booting me back to the device home screen. Resuming the e-book and trying to navigate past the crash point creates a reproducible issue.

In terms of buying a new e-book reader, I can’t really make a good case for it. Sure, the device is five years old, but in general, it still gets the job done. You may have noticed this trend, where technology and I are concerned. Why throw out a mostly usable though slightly imperfect piece of technology when you can fix it? Challenge accepted!

Long story short, I’ve since found a really simple way to get around the issue by converting the ePub file.

The Problem

It’s unclear to me if the crash relates to formatting in specific ePub files themselves, certain characters, book length or a result of newer versions of the ePub file format. This issue has really only come up in two e-book files over the past six months or so. A minor nuisance, but a nuisance never the less.

The Solution

I’ve talked about the Calibre e-book manager on my blog before. It serves a number of purposes including allowing you to transfer e-books to your reader.

A lesser used feature allows you to convert e-books directly in Calibre, by right clicking on a title and selecting “convert books”. You’ll end up with another copy of the ePub title, however, it will be reformatted by Calibre. Converted ePub files seems to fix this problem for me. Simply remove the old ePub file from your e-book reader and transfer over the new file created by Calibre. Much cheaper than buying a new e-book reader! The only caveat with all this is that your e-book file must be DRM free for conversion to work. The joys of technology.

Header image by Hideya Hamano – Sony Reader “PRS-T1” // CC by 2.0

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Cheap Laptops: Not Worth the Hassle

Buying a laptop that lasts over three years may mean spending a little more up front.

Matt Mets - Computer on Fire

A couple of years back, I was helping my parents choose a new laptop. Their one criterion was:

  • Sub $500 machine

Right there, you can see an issue. When making a large purchase, price should never be the sole determinant. There are other elements, such as reliability or speed that depending on your use case should be considered.

Needless to say, they picked up a random HP Pavilion something or other at Costco, and over the past two years, this machine has been more of a nuisance than anything else.

So far:

  • Failed battery, out of warranty, which no longer charges
  • Hard drive which is throwing errors when checked with Crystal Disk, also out of warranty

Ultimately, to save a couple hundred bucks on a computer they ended up paying more than that, in terms of cost of replacement parts and technical support time (even if they weren’t directly charged for the latter). They would have been much better served buying a higher end, more rugged machine. A Lenovo ThinkPad, or any business class laptop, really would have been much better purchases. When you put price over all else as your key purchasing determinant, your future self may be the one footing the bill. You pay less upfront, but over the long run, you’re no further ahead.

In replacement part costs, the HP Pavilion is now on par with my nine year old desktop. For a machine that is largely used for e-mail and browsing the internet, that is entirely unacceptable. If you use something daily, it might be worth considering spending more in that area. Be it shoes, a bed, a computer chair or even your laptop.

I’m not advocating consumerism, or hedonistic purchasing. Those are largely wasteful and don’t necessarily lead to increased long-term satisfaction. What I’m saying is, sometimes you have to spend a bit more to make sure you get your money’s worth.

Make your money work for you, don’t buy junk, and save the family computer technician a headache or two, or three!

Resources:

If you’re looking for a laptop, here are some useful resources:

Laptop Magazine’s Best Business Laptops

PC Magazine’s Best Business Laptops of 2017

The Wirecutter – What Laptop Should I Buy

Header image by Matt Mets – Computer on Fire // CC by 2.0

Build a Computer that Lasts: 9 Years Strong

Build a quality computer that can last you a decade. Do your research and spend your money where it matters most.

Taryn Domingos - Old School

In the age of disposable electronics, it is absolutely still possible to build a computer that you won’t have to replace every five years. I’m fairly money conscious, so making what I buy last is important. A dollar saved is a dollar earned and all that. I don’t enjoy buying things for the sake of buying things, only to have to replace them a few years later. Money earned is much better spent elsewhere, as much as I do enjoy playing with new toys. Be it my retired car, my computer, or even my bicycle that’s generally been my philosophy. Do your research, buy quality within reason, maintain it, and you’ll get your money’s worth. This is absolutely how my old car lasted nearly 18 years, despite Quebec’s salty roads and aggressive drivers.

Nine years ago, a few friends and I got together to assemble the very computer I still use daily when not working. I’ve had to replace only two components due to failure, including a hard drive and a power supply in nine years. It still runs just fine. How is a computer quite this old still useful for fairly intensive computing?

Key Areas to Focus your Money:

1) The CPU (processor): this piece can easily be replaced, though the likelihood that you’ll actually replace it is fairly low. Buy a proven performer that is well liked in the overclocking community, even if you never plan to overclock.

I picked up an Intel Q6600 which was well liked in the enthusiast community (released back in 2007). It wasn’t the cheapest option, but it still performs well today and I see no reason to upgrade. Last generation games still work just fine. Good old patient gaming I guess.

2) The motherboard: spend a little more on a quality motherboard. Don’t skimp here – this is not something you want to have to replace. Buy a quality, name brand, well reviewed motherboard that meets your needs. Do not buy the lowest cost option, unless you fancy the idea of gutting your computer to replace this eventually. I never wanted to deal with this possibility, did a ton of research, and got a motherboard that was about $50 bucks more expensive than other options. Divide that across nine years, and yeah, it was totally worth it. Rest in peace, ABIT, may my motherboard continue well beyond the end of your company. These days, this probably means looking at a board produced by Asus, Gigabyte or MSI.

3) The power supply: yes, my power supply absolutely failed spectacularly with an audible pop. However, when it went, it didn’t damage any other components in my machine. A quality power supply is an investment in the other bits of your machine and can help prevent them from premature failure or damage.

Closing Thoughts

The rest of the bits, such as memory or videocard are arguably less important to strategize over. I got a mid-range graphics card that I eventually replaced when a co-worker was selling his “old” card a few years ago. I paid $20 bucks to upgrade my mid-range graphics card to something far more modern and far more powerful. I paid about $100 for an SSD (Solid State Drive) which improved the overall feel of the machine. At those prices, why not?

Occasionally, I get the upgrade bug, but reason takes over. I’ve spent under $250 in replacement parts over the last nine years, for bits which actually broke down, which I think is pretty decent (under $28 bucks a year). I definitely haven’t had to spend $1,200 Canadian to assemble a brand new machine, harvesting old computer parts like something out of Frankenstein. I think that’s great value for my money.

Buy quality, do your research and spend your money where it matters most.

Useful Resources:

PC Part Picker Canada: Great resource when researching computer components, includes user ratings and pricing on parts, as well as suggested builds.

Reddit’s Build a PC Subreddit: Great place to see what other people are building, read feedback on suggested builds and get some advice.

Header image by Taryn Domingos – Old School / CC by 2.0

Computer Won’t Boot Post Blackout? Try this.

Things to try, if following a power failure, your computer will no longer start normally.

aAdy Satria Herzegovina - Lego Computer

With the frigid temperatures in Canada’s prairies, and increased power grid demands, we’ve been experiencing power outages which last between five to fifteen minutes. One such blackout knocked my computer offline, and subsequently prevented it from booting up. It would power on, the fans would whir, but the computer would hang at the BIOS screen, without the customary beep. Effectively, the light was on, but nobody was home.

At first I celebrated, somewhat strangely I suppose, given I’ve been looking for an excuse to replace my eight year old machine (an Intel Q6600 from prehistoric times). However, frugality soon took over and I decided to try and fix it. I did build the thing after all, so I figured, why the heck not? It took about two rather frustrating hours to get running again, that I’ll never get back. C’est la vie. However, if I consider that I saved 600 – 800 bucks, by not having to buy a whole new machine, I suppose that was time well spent. My hourly pay is definitely not that high.

I managed to fix the issues through a combination of investigation and voodoo. Well, it felt like voodoo to me. Here’s what I did:

1) Unplug the computer from the wall, and turn the power supply to the off position. My goal was effectively to discharge the motherboard capacitors, incase there was any weird buildup. How’s that for  a scientific explanation?

2) Reset the CMOS (BIOS data). In my case, the power outage had actually corrupted the BIOS data, which loads prior to your computer booting into an operating system. I did this by opening the case and removing the CMOS battery (it looks like a large watch battery). I waited a couple of seconds, then replaced it.

How did I know to try this? My computer has a fancy motherboard LED indicator which shows you boot and error codes. I cross referenced the code it was throwing against the manual, which mentioned CMOS/BIOS issues. A shame ABIT no longer makes motherboards.

After doing all this, I put the computer back together and tried powering it on. This introduced another issue, where the computer was no longer outputting video. I was able to fix this issue doing the following:

1) The ram dance: Basically, unsocket your ram, remove any dust in the sockets, and replace your ram. Usually this involves actually moving ram to other sockets, but in this case, given I had a known working ram configuration, I skipped that bit.

2) Disconnect and reconnect connections from the power supply to the motherboard. Clear out the dust in the sockets and replace the cables. I can’t explain why this would make a difference, but this was the last step I took before things magically started working again. More voodoo.

3) If the above fails, try booting with less devices connected to the power supply. Try booting with only your C drive connected to a power source, for instance. This can help rule out specific hardware failure, interfering with the boot process.

Finally, you will need to reset your BIOS settings to whatever you had configured before the outage. Taking out the CMOS battery will effectively lose all your boot settings. So much for replacing my eight year old machine!

To avoid this scenario in the future, I’m going to spend the big money and buy an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). It seems worth the piece of mind, when using your computer on a somewhat unpredictable power system. With a UPS, I can safely power down the machine, instead of letting it forcefully turn off. No more worrying that a power outage may fry my computer hardware. It’s a much cheaper solution then replacing bits that are damaged due to power surges or voltage drops.

Header image by Ady Satria Herzegovina // CC0

Taking Charge: Online Security and Privacy

Securing your web browsing, managing your online passwords, securing your data and using two-factor authentication are key to a secure online experience.

Krysten Newby - Secrity

Why Should I Care?

Advertisers constantly gather information about the sites you browse, services you use and even places you visit while you’re walking around with your phone. They do this for a number of reasons including providing a more personalized experience, say, showing you advertisements that are relevant to your interests. We unconsciously trade our personal information for more comfortable service experiences.Some of this may be fairly benign, but on some level, having anonymous companies gathering large volumes of data about you to create a consumer profile can be concerning. Further, this information is bought and sold, without you giving explicit approval or control over what is included. For this reason, taking an interest in your online security and privacy is important.

Aside from advertisers, you also have to be aware that there are people who will try to steal or take advantage of your personal information. For instance, if you use the same password for both your Gmail account and your Amazon account, which you really shouldn’t, and someone gets hold of your Gmail password, they can suddenly start placing Amazon orders under your identity. If you post that you’re going for vacation, publicly to Facebook, what’s to stop someone from unlawfully entering your residence while you’re out of town?

There are a number of things you can do to start taking control of your online identity. Securing your web browser is a great first step. Proper password practices and controlling what you store and share online, through internet services should be the next place to look.

Securing Your Web Browsing

1) Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN): This will mask your Internet (IP) address and encrypt traffic between you and your VPN host. To the outside world, it will look like any traffic requests are coming from your VPN host, instead of your computer. Why do this? Number one for me: online privacy. Companies like Google and Facebook connect all sorts of information about what you do online and can in many cases link it back to your IP address and browser fingerprint. Why let them gather all this information on you? TorrentFreak is a good place to research the right VPN for you. As an aside, you can also use VPNs to get around geographical blocks for certain services, though sites like Netflix went on a tear, blocking VPNs a while back for this very reason. A caveat with all this is that VPNs will add overhead to your internet connection, likely slowing things down, so you won’t necessarily want to leave them running all the time.

2) Secure your web browser: Update Chrome/Firefox/Microsoft Edge. After that, install plug-ins such as Ghostery, uBlock Origin (for Chrome, for Firefox) and HTTPS Everywhere to limit how easily advertising companies can collect information n on your browsing habits and secure your browsing. Also, by keeping your browser up-to-date, you mitigate known vulnerabilities, keeping you and your information safer.

3) Use data silos: Sites like Facebook will not only track what you do on their site, but track activity in all other tabs in the browser running Facebook. Why let them gather information on you? By using a browser, say FireFox exclusively for Facebook, and another browser like Chrome for your other browsing, you limit what Facebook can collect. Way back when, I used to use a program called Sandboxie that would effectively limit applications from modifying / interfering with my host operating system. If you’re concerned about malware, in e-mail attachments for instance, running your e-mail client in a sandbox can help mitigate damage.

Maintain Your Passwords

1) Site specific passwords: Use site / service unique passwords, and further, if you can, use a different log-in name than your e-mail address for any sites you use. The benefit of this is that, should one of your sites be compromised, the rest of your online identity won’t fall like a house of cards. Having site specific passwords can be a pain if you’re managing this bit manually, which I wouldn’t. Check out services like LastPass, which will not only manage your passwords, but back them up securely, make them available across all your devices and even generate extremely complex passwords for the sites you use. This will dramatically decrease the probability of having all your accounts compromised, should one of your sites get hacked.

2) Update your more sensitive site passwords regularly. Sites like your e-mail account and banking site should have their passwords changed periodically. Should your password become compromised at some point, by updating your password, the potential harm caused can be minimized.

Floating Through the Cloud

Ah jargon. I’ll not rant about the term, but basically, if you’re storing content online, make sure it doesn’t have sensitive personal information. If you wouldn’t leave tax documents sitting out in the open at the office, I wouldn’t leave tax documents unencrypted on someone else’s server. As such, be aware of what information you’re placing online. I use a no longer supported application called TrueCrypt (7.1a), which encrypts my more sensitive information, prior to uploading it. This application is no longer supported, however. VeraCrypt might be worth checking out, as an alternative.

Social Media Management

Share the minimum amount of personal information possible. If I’m going on vacation, I’ll only post about it afterwards. No reason to send thieves to my door. Be cognizant of what you’re sharing and always ask yourself, should this be online? Things like your Social Insurance Number, home address, and yes even your telephone number should not be easily publicly accessible. It’s much easier to mindlessly overshare than it is to permanently remove this information after the fact.

Advanced: Two-Factor Authentication

Passwords can be compromised and to combat this, some services allow an added level of security through what’s called two-factor or multi-factor authentication. The idea behind this is simple: to login to an account, you will need two bits of information. You need something you know, such as your account password, and something you have, which can be your cell phone to either generate a second secure code for log-in, or receive a securely generated code to log-in. This helps prevent unwanted access to your account, given the “something you have” piece, is presumably something only you have access to. Many services like Google’s gmail, Steam and Dropbox all support this level of security. It does add a bit of overhead, but adds additional confidence that only you can access your account.

Summary

By taking some of these steps, you can limit some of the information that is gathered about you and increase security of your information. The most onerous of these moves would be switching to a password manager and switching all your passwords, though in the long run it’s absolutely worth the hassle. Always be aware of what you’re sharing online and really consider whether you should be posting it online.

Header image by Krysten Newby // CC BY 2.0

Thoughts on Evernote in the News

Evernote has been in the news recently, having rightly ruffled some feathers, for updating their company privacy policy saying the following:

1) They may use your data to test and improve their product through machine learning algorithms

2) Employees may access your data

They’ve also, more recently, taken a step back issuing an apology in a FastCompany article. The claim is that this information was only going to be used towards product improvement. This, while very likely true, is troubling for a few reasons:

1) Your data, on Evernote’s servers is likely stored in the clear (unencrypted), which is how employees and algorithms can parse it. If you have sensitive information, it isn’t magically excluded or protected. Hopefully you aren’t storing tax documentation in the clear over there?

2) Evernote does not place you, the customer, and your privacy first and foremost. Their priority, quite clearly as expressed through their actions, seems to be product improvement with the customer second.

So, they may backtrack and completely reverse this decision, however they’ve made their philosophy pretty clear. Even if you’re a paying customer of the product, really, you’re not foremost on their list of priorities. They will leverage content that you trust them with, as they see fit, to improve their product, and ultimately their bottom line.

Between this, and their rather bothersome change to their basic plan of adding a two device limit to their application, I see many good reasons to consider an alternative like Microsoft OneNote. I like the idea of supporting the little guy, when it comes to business, but the little guy has to have reasonable business practices when it comes to handling my information.

This really is a shame – they have a vastly superior product, from a User Interface perspective, and I’d hate to leave them.

Use an Old Wireless Router to Connect Multiple Media Devices

Cat sleeping on Gigabit Switch

A couple of months ago, we moved across the country and encountered a new and exciting networking challenge: our old Nintendo Wii had trouble connecting to the wireless signal provided by our new modem/router combination device. Also, our Steam Link buffered a bit, while streaming games over wireless to the TV. I looked up how to best deal with this: I could create an Access Point with our spare wireless router, or I could turn my old router into what is called a Media Bridge. Learning how to set-up a Media Bridge, given I had no idea how it worked at the start, seemed worth investigating. Also, there was no guarantee creating an Access Point would sort out my Wii issue.

The differences between these two networking modes are as follows:

1) Access Point Mode: Your second networking device, such as an old router, connects to your primary router via a network cable, and re-transmits the wireless signal, boosting it in another area of your house. This can be useful if you have a larger house, or a house where the wireless signal isn’t great. This of course means, you need some way of connecting a network cable between the devices, which can prove problematic if you’re living in a rental and can’t drill holes to run network cables everywhere.

2) Media Bridge Mode: Your second networking device, such as an old router, connects to your primary router over wireless. The wireless signal is not re-transmitted or boosted. Your media bridge router, effectively works as a wired switch, where you can plug things in via network cable, such as my old Wii or a Steam Link which may be sitting next to your TV. This removes the heavy lifting of dealing with network traffic from your media devices. Further, if your devices are old enough to not support wireless connection, this gets around that problem entirely. This has the added benefit of providing a more stable wired connection, which can reduce buffering and increase performance.

In order to set this up, I had to connect to my secondary router, and switch the mode from Router to Media Bridge, telling it which wireless network it was to bridge. Not all routers will support this out of the box – they specifically have to support Media Bridge mode. Some router firmware, such as DD-WRT will add this capability, if your router is supported by it. On my Asus AC RT-66U, this was as involved as logging into the router, going to the administration page, changing the device mode to Wireless Bridge and telling it which wireless network to bridge.

This was a fairly straightforward, cost effective solution, given I had an old router sitting around. If that weren’t the case, other options, such as power line adaptors, which create a network using your home power lines can also similarly solve this issue. Though of course, there is a cost for going that route.

Happy networking!

Header image by Michael Himbeault – Gigabit Switches Make Excellent Pillows // CC BY 2.0