Dan's Data letters #209

Publication date: 26-Feb-2012.
Last modified 28-Apr-2012.

 

17 megs a minute of... Scrabble?

After hours and hours of searching the web for answers I happened upon your site. I read "how not to e-mail you" and had a really good laugh and it made me forget how frustrated I feel that I can't get an answer to my computer question. I'm sorry if what I'm about to ask is completely lame or wrong or retarded but I don't know how else to word it.

We have a 40GB a month cap on our bandwidth. We are a small company and don't download movies or music or anything. I do however play an online Scrabble game called WordBiz (v1.8). I have been told that it would take minimal bandwidth to play and so I have been using it quite regularly. However since the change to our 40GB cap, GB upon GB is being used up within days and we can't account it for anything.

I'm suspecting someone might be using our account/knows our password but I just want to be sure in case it's me using up the bandwidth:

1. Could WordBiz use over 1GB a day if I used it for an hour? or
2. Could an other user of WordBiz perhaps somehow gain access to my PC and be uploading information without me knowing? If so is there a way of finding such a thing out?

Sorry I know there are 3 questions here but they are all so related to my plight! I have downloaded bandwidth programs that tell you how much you are using per hour and so on and what I can make out from it is that it uses very little but I could totally be reading it wrong. Please could you help me?

Stephanie

Answer:
No, WordBiz isn't using a gigabyte per hour. Well, in theory a game programmed sufficiently badly could, but this is on the level of building a house that falls down when a truck drives by. No popular game is like this.

Similarly, other WordBiz users almost certainly can't be messing with your computer. But your problem probably is the result of other people using your Internet connection, one way or another.

It could be some other valid user of your network, who is secretly downloading, and/or uploading, tons of data. (Many, if not most, ISPs count both downloads and uploads against your bandwidth allowance, these days.)

It could also be an unsecured wireless access point, or one with a bad password ("password", for instance...), or possibly an access point using the old, not-very-secure WEP encryption instead of the normal-today WPA. All of this stuff is quite easy to fix.

It could also, however, be malware on one or more of your computers. In the olden days it'd just be someone who accidentally shared their whole hard drive in Windows 98 with the entire Internet and ended up with their computer being used to serve porn to half of Europe. Today, it's usually someone who's got one or more viruses or "trojans" and made themselves part of a "botnet", which is now using their computer to, for instance, send vast amounts of dick-pill spam. Botnets use these infected "zombie" PCs to do all sorts of things, few of them legal. This does not necessarily make the computer behave any differently, from its owner's point of view; it may be flogging the hard drive a bit, but it won't necessarily be working very hard on its botnet duties.

Malware is a big pain to remove from Windows systems (the usual victims; stuff like this exists for Macs too, but it's much less of a problem). Many computer dealers will remove malware from your computer for a possibly-rip-off fee; doing it yourself is really only feasible if you're a pretty savvy user, or if you're willing to back up the data that matters to you and then reinstall completely from scratch, formatting the hard drive at the beginning.

Note that your computer is not necessarily the one that has the problem, unless of course it's the only one on the network (and some dude next door isn't leeching your Wi-Fi, as per the above). It's common for whole small businesses to be riddled with malware, but it doesn't necessarily spread by itself from computer to computer. You generally have to actually choose to run something - some BS pop-up ad says "oh no, you have a VIRUS, quick, click here and run this program to fix it!", and actually gives you the damn virus if you do what it says. Only people who do something like that get infected. But many of these tricks are pretty darn sophisticated these days, and you only have to make that one mistake to zombify your PC.

It may or may not help with your current problem, but Microsoft have a quite good, free antivirus package called Microsoft Security Essentials. I think it even works with Windows XP, as well as Vista and Windows 7.

(Some of the best-known antivirus packages, especially Norton, aren't actually very good. It can be difficult to persuade people that free antivirus software is better than Norton Antivirus, but it really is. The various Symantec/Norton utilities are famous for screwing up computers worse than many viruses.)

Also, check this out if you'd like a little light reading about what a pain it was for me, who is supposed to be good at this stuff, to deal a minor malware problem.

Note that that was more than five years ago; the SOBs responsible for this crap are quite a lot better at it now.

I think it's a clear indicator of the basically civilised and peaceful nature of the human race that the people who make malware almost never get murdered.

 

Care and feeding of an electrical brick

I want to know how to charge the battery from a Tripp-Lite UPS. On the side of battery it says:

BB Battery HR9-12 (12V, 36W/CELL 15 MIN.) sealed maintenance-free rechargeable battery HIGH RATE

How do you charge these damn things without blowing them up? I do have a car charger whose lowest setting is 2 amp. If I need to buy a trickle charger again I will, but the first one didn't work.

Lora

Answer:
A car battery charger will kill a small sealed-lead-acid (SLA) battery like the one you've got there. Two amps isn't actually too much for the start of a charge cycle for a battery like the one you've got, but cheap car battery chargers stick with the same current until they reckon the battery is full, which is usually way too late for a small battery.

(This means that you actually can, in a pinch, use such a charger with small batteries - you just have to manually disconnect the battery a while before the charger thinks it's full. Connecting a voltmeter across the battery terminals will let you do this quite precisely. It's obviously not an elegant solution, though - much better to get a charger that actually suits the battery.)

The battery you're looking at is the standard small-size SLA "brick", usually specified at 7-point-something amp-hours. The version you have has an 8Ah spec (PDF datasheet), which may be honest. Either way, it's a small battery by lead-acid standards, and the SLA "gel cell" design, in which the electrolyte is a jelly instead of a liquid like it is in a car battery, also restricts charging speed (because bubbles of hydrogen get stuck next to the plates of the battery, and can't just float up to the surface of the electrolyte).

Anyway, what you need is a standalone SLA charger. If overnight charging is OK, you can get a simple little plugpack charger; there are numerous fast-charger options too, though the 2.4-amp maximum charge rate for this battery means that anything faster than about four hours (from flat) will probably hurt the battery. I'd keep the charge current down to only one amp, max, if I were you.

Note also that lead-acid batteries in general don't like being run all the way flat; it's much better to top the battery up whenever it's convenient than to wait for it to be empty, because then "sulfation" may damage the battery severely within hours. Recharging a not-quite-empty battery will, of course, take less time.

Here's an example of a cheap plugpack lead-acid charger. That ought to half-fill your battery in about 10 hours, with a nice gentle charge that'll maximise battery life.

Here's a fancier unit that'll charge faster, but without hurting the battery. (That one apparently has "screw terminals" - I hope it comes with CABLES you can connect to those terminals, so you don't have to buy/make your own!)

Those are both US products that you obviously shouldn't buy if you live in some other country, but you get the idea. You can spend hundreds of dollars on really fancy lead-acid chargers, but a $US25 charger should do the job for you.

 

A hundred horsepower of electricity

This guy, Mate Rimac, is a friend of a friend, and he's built this little electric car.

The page on his website that talks about his previous car, the e-M3, says that the charging time is only 20 minutes "If the source can deliver 220V/350Amp".

Where the hell can you find a source that can deliver 220 volts at 350 amps!? That's 77 kilowatts. Even one of these can still only deliver 30 amps through each 3-phase 240-volt circuit. You can't even plug it into your suburb's distribution sub-station, as long distances use high voltage and low current.

Am I missing something obvious? Is there really any such power source available?

Mathew

Answer:
You're never going to get that hefty an electricity supply connected to residential premises, but commercial/industrial power connections can go way higher than that. Many aluminium smelters have their own nearby power plant, but plenty of factories need a huge amount of electrical power, and they get it from the same grid as everyone else.

The highest-rated electric-vehicle charging stations I've heard of are 50kW, which is pretty close to this quote (and they're meant to be able to 50kW-charge at least a couple of cars at once). If battery-electric cars are to become a real thing, fast-charge stations like this are pretty much essential. There are probably considerable electricity-company limitations on where such a station can be situated, but there are limitations on where you can build a petrol station too. (Not least because the tanks underneath invariably, sooner or later, leak.)

 

Duelling wireless

My workmate Kathy has a 7 year old Uniden cordless phone that lives near a new Apple wireless hard drive. The hard drive uses Wi-Fi to talk to the computer (we think). Whenever it's in use (i.e. once an hour as Time Machine won't let you change the frequency), the person on the other end of the cordless phone gets interference, but Kathy doesn't hear it. Her husband just rang her from home and it was doing it. The voice breaks up cleanly, without a static sound. Can this be fixed?

Axxx

Answer:
Yes, this can be a real problem. Wi-Fi uses the 2.4GHz band, and so do some cordless phones, Bluetooth devices and various other things like microwave ovens, though radio-frequency leakage from a microwave oven should be negligible. (If your wireless network dies whenever you use the microwave, it's time to get a new microwave.)

The problem may be solvable by just telling the Wi-Fi devices to use a different channel, which'll shift the frequency a bit. Usually this means changing one setting on an access point; if this is an official Apple Time Capsule™ drive we're talking about here, then it's actually a full access point as well as a storage device. Perhaps there's something you need to change on the computer as well - this could be the case if the network were "ad hoc", between two computers, with no access point - but I doubt it.

Relocating the phone base station and the Wi-Fi devices (again, usually just the access point) can also cure these problems.

Note also that the Time Capsule has Ethernet ports on it as well; I presume you can just plug it in with a normal network cable and disable wireless altogether, if you've no other use for Wi-Fi. This should give faster file transfers, not that that matters for little incremental backups. There are also now dual-band 802.11n devices that can operate in the 5GHz band as well as 2.4GHz; the Time Capsule supports this, so you wouldn't have to replace it if you hoisted your network out of 2.4GHz altogether.

Sometimes, though, the only solution to a problem like this is to get a new cordless phone that uses a different frequency. This may also be necessary if the problem is that cordless phone doesn't actually use 2.4GHz at all, but is unusually susceptible to interference.

 

Vintage home theatre

I remember many years ago reading your responses to Laserdisc questions and I remembered that you were somewhat of an aficionado. I picked up recently a Pioneer "CLD-S360" CD, CDV, LD player from the side of the curb. The unit doesn't look like it's been used much. The manufacturing date is November 1993, and a quick look at the unit tells me it was one of the higher end models. It has a Voltage Selector switch on the back (110V, 120-127V, 220V, 240V) and a myriad of outputs on the back, including TOSLINK digital out (which probably means it supports some iteration of Dolby).

I want to test the thing, but I don't have any laserdiscs. I did a quick search for CDV format which turned up surprisingly little information. Since CDV was a CD-based format, would it be possible for me to burn a 5 minute video to a CD and play it on my LD Player?

Moishe

Answer:
Nope. CD Video had the same analogue video encoding as full-sized laserdiscs - just a lot less of it. I'd be very surprised if any normal CD/DVD burner could write it.

I think you're just going to have to save an eBay search and hope you can get The Princess Bride or 2001 for a reasonable price, so you won't have to watch Star Trek V or Xanadu.

 

Knives and stabbing weapons

I notice in the cat photo in this mouse mat review...

...that you have three (visible) swiss army knives on your desk.

I only have one on my desk, however there is another one in the drawer.

It just gave me the thought that your house must be nearing some sort of gadgety critical mass.

Keith

Answer:
I actually have dozens of Swiss Army knives in my office.

They're all from the period when

1: The US TSA was confiscating about a trillion pocket-knives a day...
2: ...and then selling them by the pound...
3: ...but few people knew this.

The people who didn't know about this were, I presume, more likely to get their pointy-things confiscated by the TSA. And then the pointy-things that made it to eBay often sold for very low prices, perhaps also because not many people knew they were there, or just because there were so very many of them.

So I bought a bunch of cheap pocket-knives - many Victorinox/Wengers (though not many of the really spiffy ones), plus various other multitools and a few folding knives, not to mention a few grab-bags with five good knives and five awful Chinese copies in them. And then I spent a while cleaning and sharpening and oiling the good ones, an activity I find soothing, because the knives talk to me and tell me what I must do.

Then I added most of them to my Present Pile, to eventually be given to someone.

There are still lots of confiscated knives on eBay (check out this seller, for instance; they're here on eBay Australia and here on eBay UK), but since about 2007 the supply has constricted and demand has risen, which has eliminated all of the big bargains.

If you want to ask me a question, feel free - but please read this and this first.

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