New Technology and the Loss of Mythical Creatures

Last night, NPR ran a story during the Marketplace show discussing the pending release of the Blackberry 10 devices today. The opening line, delivered by a 29-year-old Berkeley, California resident:

“I think it’s totally antiquated, obsolete and I wonder why they even still exist,” Sturges said at lunch in Berkeley, Calif.

Something about that statement struck me as a bit off.

Antequated? Obsolete? First world problems. Considering how much tech is packed into even an old-model Blackberry, with all of the revolutions in communications and coding theory, in operating systems practice, in battery chemistry, in miniaturization: it’s an incredibly ignorant thing to say. Turing would have been thrilled to have a Blackberry at Bletchley Park.

The way I tend to think about corporations and about certain product lines is through the lense of mythology. That is, products and brands tend to create a story about themselves, which they naturally also want to perpetuate and propagate. Every groundbreaking product has some kind of creation myth and, often, terminal phase. The people who work on that technology want it to make a difference and want to be respected.

Companies don’t just lay down and die, nor should they. (Well, with the exception of political campaign-dominating, market-distorting oil companies.) Nokia, RIM, and countless other companies were hugely important in the communications revolution that we take for granted today, and it strikes me as mildly disrespectful to talk about them disparagingly. That they can’t currently compete is unfortunate. But you want to hope for recovery, mutation, and adaptation. You want the underdog to make the long shot. You want the myth to keep going. Or at least you should. Because really, we are all of us a very long shot.

To some extent, humans are a long-running form of technology: we are descended from the strongest, most evolutionarily adaptable and vicious line of our progenitors. We want the myth of our existence, on a personal and group level, to outlive us. I could imagine a Homo sapien saying the same thing about his less-evolved evolutionary counterparts. And I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be a Homo neanderthalensis on the receiving end of obsolescence.

Somehow that opening statement above reminds me of the point that Louis C. K. made about phones, airplanes, and wireless internet on those airplanes:

People take the pace of change for granted way too quickly, once something becomes ubiquitous, we tend to forget that it wasn’t always that way. It’s a privilege that technology is evolving this fast and it’s unfortunate that chasing the new shiny has us forgetting that the old shiny was once much more hallowed than it is now. These things should have their respect, before they eventually head off to pasture.

eBay Seller Bait and Switch Maneuvers

So here’s a little story about eBay, inspired by my recent attempts to buy a used laptop, from a (likely, highly unreputable) seller. I will name names.

I spent a good part of Sunday this week trolling eBay, searching for the best deal on a used laptop for some upcoming programming projects I have in mind. After researching and researching, digging up Thinkpad Personal Systems Reference books, and all sorts of other Manufacturer parts specs, I bid on a Dell from a user named “terbusinesses“.

The bid was on item 200884952022, which was initially a Buy It Now auction with a $350 starting bid and a $400 Buy It Now option. So, at 12:26pm Central Time, I bid $350. And I received a confirmation notice from eBay that I was the High Bidder. It looked like this:

Confirmation e-mail from eBay, that I opened the bidding on item 200884952022.
Confirmation e-mail from eBay, that I opened the bidding on item 200884952022.

For those in the know, once a bid has been placed on a Buy It Now auction, the actual option to Buy It Now goes away, the auction becomes a normal highest-bidder-wins type of auction.

A few hours later, I’m browsing eBay, and notice that “terbusinesses” has listed the identical item that I’m bidding on under a second auction, item 200886900878, which is the same sort of Buy It Now auction with a $350 starting bid with a $400 Buy It Now option. I don’t have a screenshot of this, but I know what I saw.

A few hours later, I get an e-mail: “eBay Bid Cancellation Notice – Item 200884952022 : DELL LATITUDE E6420 LAPTOP MOUSE, 4GB, CORE i5 WIN 7 INTEL HD 2.5 GHZ 320 GB HDD”. It looks like this:

The notice eBay sent me after the buyer rigged a second auction with the same item.
The notice eBay sent me after the buyer rigged a second auction with the same item.

That’s interesting, I think.

So somehow, this seller/scammer is hooking people into Buy It Now deals, and cancelling previous in-progress auctions. I’m not sure how this works on eBay’s side, because I don’t believe it should be possible to prematurely end a normal in-progress auction. And it certainly shouldn’t be legit to list the same item twice, then accept only the auction result that you want. In any case, this certainly doesn’t do much to build my confidence that the platform is fair, if this is a widespread thing.

The stupid bullshit reason that eBay gives when I look at the original item I bid on is: “This listing was ended by the seller because the item is no longer available.”, which is crazy. Tell me that at 12pm today there were “2” of the same item being sold by someone, and now there are none?

What eBay says when someone bait and switches an auction on you.
What eBay says when someone bait and switches an auction on you.

OS X User Account Control Popup: “finish_installation” wants to make changes.

Playing with my Mac this evening, the following system popup appeared, while I’m browsing around the web:

“finish_installation wants to make changes. Type an administrator's name and password to allow this.”

I’m always a bit suspicious, esp. if it shows up when I’m wandering around the web in Chrome. I assume nothing can get out of the sandbox, but who knows? I’ve already disabled the Java plugin, and nondescript programs asking me to type in my admin password always make me pause.

Various Google searches return non-helpful results, since it splits “finish” and “installation”, and, again doesn’t do order-dependent or phrase searches. And since most of the phrase is pretty non-unique, the results aren’t great.

But, I did manage to find this post on MacRumors.

Turns out the “finish_installation” is part of Sparkle, which is that handy-dandy autoupdate framework. But it’s not helpful when you don’t know which app is requesting the update, and/or if this app is legit.

So open up Activity Monitor, and Inspect the finish_installation process, which will tell you what you want to know.

Digging up info on the finish_installation process.
Digging up info on the finish_installation process.

In this case, the app to be updated is the Amazon Cloud Drive program, which is legit.

Shows us where this executable is being called from.
Shows us where this executable is being called from.

Old Machine Resurrection

So I spent the past evening and a few hours today playing Mr. Fixit with my sister-in-law’s old college laptop. This one set some new records in terms of things that Ccleaner and Defraggler found and cleaned up: 2.2GB worth of junk files! 12000 fragmented files, 90000 fragments, 40% total fragmentation on a 32 GB partition! Gigabytes worth of Windows Hotfix uninstallers and System Restore Points well past their expiration date. No wonder it was running so slow.

The system was a labyrinth of old Toshiba support utilities running at startup, unnecessary Windows services, auto-update background programs waiting for new versions of programs last updated in 2006, and other myriad performance-sapping programs. When I started the optimization, there were 70 processes running at a fresh boot (and swapping constantly to virtual memory); when I finished, there were a reasonable 30 processes running. Then came the inevitable bump from Windows XP SP2 to SP3, and the countless security updates (104 needed right after SP3 came online), and then the security update updates.

There were other problems to be surmounted, such as a broken keyboard with some of the numbers and control keys not working (2, 8, 9, 0, alt, w, r, s, x; there’s a pattern here) and a broken trackpad + pointing stick. Those stupid eraser-shaped trackpoint controllers were all the rage since the Thinkpad, but they always seemed to have hardware problems in later life. I know this because I have a Dell on which I had to physically disconnect the trackpoint to fix the identical problem. In these cases, the trackpoint controller sends a flood of incorrect signals (via the PS/2 interrupt), causing the mouse to either move continuously to one side of the screen or the other. In Windows, you can’t disable the PS/2 controller and you can’t permanently remove it either. In Linux, I had to disable the i8042 Programmable Interrupt Controller (PIC) using “i8042.noaux=1”, or the X server would seem to get stuck while loading. This all made the initial work a bit difficult, until I managed to disable the trackpoint completely in the BIOS settings.

But, once all the optimizations are in place and the system is thoroughly scrubbed, it’s actually a fine little machine. The surprising thing is the solid pieces of tech that were built into this machine from 2005. It’s got Gigabit ethernet, a PCIe 16x-lane Nvidia graphics card, an Intel Pro Wireless 2915abg miniPCI card, and SATA 1.0 connecting the hard disk. Spending about $100 on extra parts (SSD, 2GB DDR2 RAM, new USB keyboard and mouse) today would probably give the machine another 5 years of useful surfing life and would let it run Windows 8 or Linux actually pretty well. The great thing is that even the bargain-bin SSDs would fully saturate this thing’s SATA link nowadays. And with 1GB DDR2 SO-DIMMs going for $5 a pop used, upgrading is almost an afterthought. Alas, it’s not my laptop.

As a measure of thoroughness, I’d been trying to scan the system using a variety of Linux-based antivirus rescue CDs. The first one up is BitDefender, available here:

Unfortunately, the BitDefender rescue disk’s root mount has too little space to store the necessary antivirus definition updates, and it throws the following error dialog:

The aufs entry below is the filesystem that is completely used up.

To try to fix this, I set a symbolic link up that points to the USB stick’s storage space, which is mounted under /cdrom, then try moving the existing definitions over:

But it seems like this isn’t working either.

On this rescue CD, only root can write to the /cdrom mount, so I tried to update the AV definitions using a file, which BitDefender provides here:

But this hangs the system somehow as well and doesn’t actually seem to write to the flash drive. Maybe I can try putting the definitions on one of the mounted hard disks and pointing the symbolic link there.