Monthly Archives: November 2011

Android and Carrier IQ: alarming claims, immediate questions

The claims of security expert Trevor Eckhart regarding data collection by Carrier IQ are among the most alarming of any I can recall in the IT industry. I dislike the way Facebook gets you to publish data about yourself almost without realising it, and the amount of personal data collected by Google, for example, but this is more worrying.

Eckhart says:

The very extensive list of Android security permissions granted to IQRD would raise anyone’s eyebrow, considering that it’s remotely controlled software, but some things such as reading contact data, Services that cost you money, reading/edit/sending sms, recording audio(?!??!?) and writing/changing wireless settings seem a bit excessive

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The only choice we have to “opt out” of this data collection is to root our devices because every part of the multi-headed CIQ application is embedded into low-level, locked regions of the phones.

So what does Carrier IQ gather? Eckhart lists webpages visited, location statistics, media statistics, SMS texts, keys pressed, apps opened and focused, and even text sent over SSL (HTTPS) in browser sessions that you thought were secure.

If these claims are correct, then nobody who deals in confidential information should use an Android mobile with this installed. Since most of us have online bank accounts or other secure logins that we use on our mobile, that makes an Android phone a risky proposition for almost anyone.

My immediate questions:

  • Which Android devices have this software installed?
  • How soon will the affected operators give us a way to remove or disable it?
  • How can a concerned user discover whether or not his mobile is leaking private information?

Finally, now is the time for rivals such as Apple, RIM, or Microsoft and its partners, to explain in plain English how their devices compare in terms of privacy. What data is gathered in the interests of:

the Carrier IQ solution gives you the unique ability to analyze in detail usage scenarios and fault conditions by type, location, application and network performance while providing you with a detailed insight into the mobile experience as delivered at the handset rather than simply the state of the network components carrying it.

as Carrier IQ puts it.

Fixing a Windows 7 blue screen with Driver Verifier

A recent annoyance was a blue screen when I was in the middle of typing a Word document. “Memory management” it said.

You might think faulty RAM, but I did not think so as I had tested it extensively with the excellent Memtest86. So what was causing it? And no, I do not regard Windows as an unstable operating system, not any more (not really since Windows 98 days).

I started troubleshooting. The first step is to install the Debugging Tools for Windows, if you have not already, run Windbg, and load the minidump which Windows usually creates when it crashes. Minidumps are saved in the /Windows/Minidump folder.

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It said VISTA_DRIVER_FAULT and identified the SearchProtocol process, but I was not convinced that this process was really to blame. My reasoning is that it is a Microsoft process that is running on most Windows boxes so unlikely to be badly broken.

I decided to look for a faulty driver. You can do this by running the Driver Verifier Manager, summoned by running verifier.exe (this lives in /Windows/System32 but you can start it from anywhere).

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This application enables a debugging mode in Windows that will scrutinise the drivers you specify for errors. This slows down Windows so it is not something you want to leave enabled, but it is great for finding problems.

I elected to check all drivers and continued. Reboot, and as expected, an immediate blue screen.

While Driver Verifier is enabled and causing a crash you can only boot into safe mode. However Windbg works OK in safe mode. I took a look at the new minidump. The process name this time was services.exe. That means any of the services could be at fault, so not all that illuminating.

I ran msconfig and disabled all non-Microsoft services. Restarted and verifier was happy. Now it was a matter of “hunt the service”.

Eventually I discovered through trial and error and hunch (it had to be a service which I had recently installed or updated) which service failed to verify. The guilty party: Intel Desktop Utilities. This application monitors sensors on an Intel motherboard for temperature and fan speed, and fires alerts if the readings go outside safe limits.

I uninstalled the desktop utilities. No more blue screens since.

I find it hard to believe that an Intel utility distributed with all its motherboards is causing Windows blue screens; on the other hand in my case it seems clear cut. And yes, I did have the latest version 3.2.0.038b “for Intel Desktop Boards with 5 or 6 Series chipsets.” My board is the DH67CL. I would be interested to know if others with same version can successfully boot with Driver Verifier enabled.

Kate Bush fears the death of the album as an art form

In an interview on the BBC Today programme singer Kate Bush expresses her fears for the music industry:

… a lot of people in the industry are very depressed because record sales are very low, I think a lot of us fear the death of the album as an art form. And I love albums, I understand that people just want to listen to a track and put it on their iPod, and that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but why can’t that exist hand in hand with an album, they’re such different experiences? I mean a selection of songs, not just a song or a track. It’s just a completely different experience. I suppose the worst case scenario is that people would actually get to a point where they can’t afford to make what they want to make creatively. The industry is collapsing.

Is she right? When technology advances, not everything gets better. Music used to be expensive to distribute, now it can be done for almost nothing. There is not really any scarcity, and without scarcity, goods cannot command a price. Scarcity has to be imposed artificially, via DRM (Digital Rights Management), or trust basis, or inspecting data traffic.

There is still some money in digital music sales, of course, and still some money in CDs and other media too. The physical package is under obvious threat though, and good things will be lost: the cover artwork (which never fully recovered from the decline of the 12” LP record), the thrill of breaking the shrink-wrap on your new acquisition, and more crudely, the income this generated for the industry (though in most cases not so much for the artist).

That is the negative view though. The positive is that music has never been more available than it is today, and the barriers to a musician wanting to be heard have never been lower. Digital also enables new kinds of art, maybe multimedia packages, or releases where the user can create their own mixes, or interactive products which combine music with online experiences and interaction. The Who’s new Quadrophenia deluxe box is disappointing in terms of content, but its Q:Cloud site, which is unlocked by possession of the CD, has an amazing collection of material that goes beyond what would ever be printed and packed into a box. 

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Hassles with Intel RAID – Rapid Storage Technology

I have recently fitted a new Intel DH67CL motherboard and decided to use the on-board RAID controller to achieve resiliency against drive failure. I have four 1TB Sata drives, and chose to create two separate mirrors. This is not the most efficient form of RAID, but mirroring is the simplest and easiest for recovery, since if one drive fails you still have a complete copy ready to go on its mirror.

I thought this would be a smooth operation, especially since I have two pairs of identical drives. Everything was fine at first, but then I started to get system freezes. “Freeze” is not quite the right word; it was more an extreme slowdown. The mouse still moved but the Windows 7 64-bit GUI was unresponsive. I discovered that it was possible eventually to get a clean though time-consuming shutdown by summoning a command prompt and waiting patiently for it to appear, then typing shutdown /s. After reboot, everything was fine until next time, where next time was typically only a few hours.

I was suspicious of the RAM at first and removed 8GB of my 16GB. Then I discovered that others had reported problems with Intel RAID (also known as RST) when you have two separate arrays enabled. The symptoms sounded similar to mine:

When the second RAID array is enabled (tried both RAID1 and 0), Windows (Win 7 Ultimate 64bit) will freeze after 10+ minutes of use. This initially manifests itself as my internet “going out”. While I can open new tabs in the browser, I cannot connect. I can’t ping via CMD either. I can’t open Task Manager, but I can open Event Viewer (and nothing really is shown in there re: this). If I try to Log Off or Restart the PC via Start Menu, Windows hangs on the “Logging Off” or “Shutting Down” screen for at least 10 minutes, up to several hours (or indefinitely).

There is no solution given in the thread other than to remove one of the arrays.

The system is 100% stable when I remove the second RAID1.

says one user.

I broke both of the mirrors and used the system for a while; everything was fine. I found an updated driver on Intel’s site (version 10.8.0.1003, dated 17th October 2011) and decided to re-try the RAID. Now I had another problem though. Note that I was using the Windows management utility, not the embedded utility which you get to by pressing a special key during boot, since it is only with the Windows utility that you can preserve your data when creating a new array. My problem: I could not recreate the arrays.

Problem number one was that the drive on Sata port 0 disappeared when you tried to create an array. All four drives looked fine in the Status view:

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but when you went to create an array, only three drives appeared:

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Following a tip from the Intel community discussion board, I removed and reinstalled the RST utility, following which I also had to reinstate the updated driver. Now the drive reappeared, but I still could not recreate the arrays. I could start creating one, but got an “unknown error.” Looking in the event log, I could see errors reported by IAStorDataMgrSvc: FailedToClaimDisks and FailedVolumeSizeCheck. Curious, especially as I had used this very same utility to create the arrays before, with the same drives and without any issues.

Just as an experiment, I booted into Windows XP 64-bit, which I still have available using Windows multiboot. I installed the latest version of the Intel storage driver and utility, and tried to create a mirror. It worked instantly. I created the second mirror. That worked instantly too. Then I booted back into Windows 7 and checked out the RST utility. Everything looks fine.

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The further good news is that I have been running with this for a few days now, without any freezes.

Is it possible that the latest driver fixed a problem? There is no way of knowing, especially since Intel itself appears not to participate in these “community” discussions. I find that disappointing; community without vendor participation is never really satisfactory.

Postscript: Note that I am aware that Intel’s embedded RAID is not a true RAID controller; it is sometimes called “fakeraid” since the processing is done by the CPU. Using Intel RST is a convenience and cost-saving measure. An alternative is Windows RAID which works well in my experience, though there are two disadvantages:

1. Intel RAID performs slightly better in my tests.

2. Windows RAID requires converting your drives to Dynamic Disks. Not a big problem, but it is one more thing to overcome if you end up doing disaster recovery.

AVI announces ADM40 active floorstanding loudspeakers

The British hifi company AVI, based in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, has announced the ADM40 active floorstanding loudspeakers, promising that “Everything is new, different and improved” versus the successful ADM9 and ADM9T, reviewed here.

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Here is what we know about the ADM 40 (the hole in the above picture, by the way, will hold a status display). All subject to change, these are informal announcements on a forum:

  • Measure 90 x 21 x 30 HWD.
  • Three-way speaker system.
  • Two analogue inputs and four optical digital.
  • Stereo outputs for an optional sub-woofer. Without sub they are “-6dB at 45Hz”.
  • Remote with on/off and filter selection.
  • £3000 with Cherry or Walnut finish. Rosewood, Piano White or Black Lacquer £3750 delivered to the UK.

This price makes them more than two and half times more expensive than the ADM 9T. The challenge for AVI has been to make speakers that can reasonably be described as “full range” and which improve on what the smaller 9T already delivers. Three-way loudspeakers have theoretical advantages, because each drive handles a narrower range, but the design is more complex thanks to the crossover (of course this requires three amplifiers in an active system) and potential interactions between the different drives. Add a sub-woofer into the mix and the complexity increases. Large loudspeakers are hard to do well, but of course well worth it when successful.

Squeezebox server gets DLNA support: play FLAC on iPad

Logitech has released an update to its Squeezebox server, now called Logitech Media Server (LMS), and now at version 7.7.

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One of its new features is DLNA support. DLNA is a standard for serving and playing media across devices. Note though that although LMS is now a DLNA server, it does not transcode, so if for example you store music in FLAC format, a Sony PlayStation 3 will not be able to play it. Many other DLNA servers do support transcoding, so for example Illustrate’s Asset UPnP will stream FLAC as MP3 so that a PS3 will play it correctly.

This is still an interesting new feature for LMS, particularly as you can store images and videos as well as music.

One thing I have been gently investigating for some time is the best way to get a Squeezebox FLAC library playing on an Apple iPad or iPhone. I have had success with Asset UPnP but only with transcoding. After installing LMS 7.7 I tried the 8player lite DLNA client and was pleased with the results.

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I selected the Logitech Media Server and was soon enjoying music through the remarkable-considering-the-size iPad speaker:

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8player lite has a working free version or you can purchase for a modest price and get full features. There are some other DLNA clients you can try, but they do not all support FLAC. SmartStor Fusion works well with Asset PnP.

Asus Transformer Prime looks great – but I would rather have it with Windows 8

Asus has announced the Transformer Prime, a quad-core tablet which comes with a mobile dock. The tablet looks like this:

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but it docks with a keyboard to become more like a laptop:

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The dock includes a keyboard, USB port, SD card slot, and an additional battery. Asus claim a battery life of 18 hours for the tablet when docked, or 12 hours for the tablet alone.

Specs for the Transformer Prime include 32GB storage, 1GB RAM, micro HDMI port, front and rear facing cameras (the rear camera can take full 1080p HD video), light sensor and gyroscope, GPS, combined audio and mic-in jack, and of course wi-fi and Bluetooth.

The real star of the Transformer Prime though is NVIDIA’s new Tegra 3 SoC (System on a Chip).

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Tegra 3 includes a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU and a 12-core GeForce GPU, compared to its predecessor the dual-core Tegra 2 with its 8 core GPU. It also supports double the amount of RAM: 2GB rather than 1GB. Anand Lal Shimpi has a great overview here.

The Transformer Prime is set to arrive in the UK in early January with a recommended price of £499 inc VAT. It will run Android Ice Cream Sandwich.

Perhaps I have spent too much time with the Windows 8 preview over the last month, but I cannot help thinking that this would make an excellent Windows 8 tablet. I like the idea of the keyboard/dock which also forms protection for the tablet screen; with Windows and Office this might be the only device I need when travelling.

What will it take to make Windows Phone a success?

Microsoft made a splash in New York City yesterday with a giant Windows Phone in Herald Square.

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The idea I guess was to show how each “Live tile” is a window into a feature of the device, with a special emphasis on “people” – the way Windows Phone aggregates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Windows Live and more into a single feed and tile.

This is the kind of stunt you get when a huge corporation with a lot of money to spend is trying to muscle its way into a market.

Is it enough? It does feel as if Microsoft has managed the re-launch of Windows Phone better than its first effort around a year ago – the first devices went on sale in October 2010. The operating system has been tweaked, the new devices are more imaginative, and partner support seems better. I actually saw some window displays for Windows Phone in my local small town though they were gone a few days later.

It still feels as if Microsoft is fighting an uphill battle. There is not much wrong with the phones now, but what is the killer feature that will sell it alongside Android and iPhone? Personally I like the SharePoint integration, but Microsoft is still primarily going after consumers rather than business users.

There is also the matter of the tiles. They work well, but look at the photo above: are they beautiful? Not really; and it is unfortunate in some ways that all the Windows Phones look like this.

That said, I enjoyed my few minutes with an HTC Titan; it has an exceptionally large display and a great camera but does not feel too bulky, and I can see it doing well if the marketing is right. Nokia’s Lumia 800 looks good too.

Microsoft came late into this market though, persevering with its old Windows Mobile for too long, and it is not going to be easy to catch up.

How not to ship a hard drive

I ordered a hard drive from play.com and was taken aback by the way it was shipped to me – in a flimsy padded envelope with no additional protection.

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In case you are wondering how to ship a hard drive, this is the illustration from the Western Digital support site:

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which adds:

Place in sturdy cardboard box. Do not use chipboard, as it is not strong enough to withstand the rigors of transit. Please make sure the corrugated carton is free from defects and is structurally sound. Note: Returning a WD hard drive in an envelope, will void the warranty.

I protested and play.com offered to take the drive back but gave me no explanation for the incorrect packaging. Surprisingly the drive checks out OK, although hidden damage is a concern.

Something has changed for Windows Phone

When Windows Phone 7 launched last year, it was obvious that it could not succeed since it was all-but invisible to most people. In my local small town centre, which has several mobile phone shops, it was nowhere to be seen.

I went out to post a letter just now and was astonished to see this poster in the window of Phones4u:

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I went in and discovered only a dummy of the Radar and Titan on display. I asked to see a Titan and they got one out for me to see.

The Nokia Lumia 800 was also on display, this one a working model.

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The Titan has a gorgeous large screen, but while it is slightly bulky it is slim and does not feel heavy to hold. I put it alongside the Lumia; the Titan screen does look larger and better. Unfortunately I could not see the Lumia out of its clip. The Lumia does benefit from Nokia Drive (not working because no internet connection) and seems to be around £100 cheaper than the Titan. The Lumia also has the free British Airways app pre-installed.

I asked the assistant what she thought of Windows Phone and she said she had not tried it. I said I had an HTC Desire (true) and she seemed slightly puzzled about why I would want a Windows Phone though she thought it would be good for work because of Office.

Still, Microsoft’s device has visibility at last, though this seems to be more because of moves by Nokia and HTC than from Microsoft itself. If it can win the support and enthusiasm of some of those influential retail assistants we may see significant growth in market share.