Atomic I/O letters column #142Originally published 2013, in PC & Tech Authority
(in which Atomic magazine is now a section)
Reprinted here June 24, 2013 Last modified 16-Jan-2015.
Evading the Lidless Flaming Eye of Google
Whenever you click on a Google link these days, you actually go to some huge Google URL that then redirects to the thing you thought you were clicking. Like, if you search for "pc authority" then hit number 1 will say it's "www.pcauthority.com.au", but redirects through "http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esr..." on and on for 192 characters.
I'd rather not tell Google about every single search link I click - I want to go there "direct". Is there some way to do this other than switching to Bing or Inktomi or something?
Man, I remember when Wired's "HotBot" was the big name in search.
For a while, Google used those large redirector URLs for some search results and not for others, but now they do seem to do it for everything. And going somewhere via the redirectors does indeed tell Google where you went. They're also annoying if you try to copy the URL without clicking it, because you'll copy the redirector URL, not the destination.
Since the displayed URL for each search result is, as you say, the actual destination, it's quite easy for a small particle of software to get around this. You can do it with a Greasemonkey script like "Google Anonymizer", or with a standalone browser extension. The Firefox add-on "Google/Yandex search link fix" does it, as does the "Undirect" extension for Google's own Chrome.
(Oh, and as far as alternative search engines go, duckduckgo.com is the only one that has an official policy of strong privacy protection and absolutely no filtering based on previous searches.)
I installed "PeerBlock" recently, and among the EIGHT HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILLION IP addresses it says it's blocking are some weird entries. Chunghwa Telecom, which Wikipedia tells me is "the largest telecommunications company in Taiwan", and some other foreign ISPs, and it also blocked "IPredator VPN", which is The Pirate Bay's own anonymous VPN service!
Is The Pirate Bay trying to hack me?!
There's no end to the dodgy characters who want to sleep on your P2P couch.
The purpose of PeerBlock and the IP-address lists on which it's based is to protect you from (some) hackers and malware and such, and also from governmental and business bodies who may accuse you, correctly or otherwise, of copyright infringement.
By their very nature, P2P file-sharing programs invite the world to connect to your computer. If you're not running P2P software and not part of a botnet or something, PeerBlock shouldn't have much to do, besides intercepting the occasional probe from distant malware which very probably wouldn't have achieved anything anyway.
Just because something's on one of the several lists you can tell PeerBlock to use, though, doesn't mean it's evil.
There is, for instance, the "Educational" list, which blocks a wide variety of university and college network address ranges. In those ranges can be found plenty of normal P2P-using end-users, online gamers, plain Web users and so on. (There's also an option to allow traffic on the standard HTTP ports while blocking everything else, so you can still see .edu Web sites.) Those ranges also, however, contain system administrators who cut all Internet access if they catch users of the college network breaking the law, and/or breaking only the network terms of service.
Likewise, there's plenty of perfectly valid traffic from foreign ISPs, but it cannot trivially be distinguished from foreign governmental bodies who also harshly punish P2P downloading, or political subversion. And then there are "honeypots", apparent P2P sharers who actually provide nothing but bad data, and/or record the IP addresses of people who contact them, for later legal harassment.
PeerBlock deliberately blocks much more stuff than it really needs to, to minimise the chance that it doesn't block something that's actually dangerous.
I work from home. I have a Reddit account. So I do not literally WORK from home, as much as I should.
I actually need Internet access in order to do my job, but I need to put metaphorical razorwire around Reddit and some other timesinks, at least until the working day is over.
Is there a better way to do this than buying some net nanny software or other and telling it to block almost everything?
There are several free ways to block certain sites but not others.
You could, for instance, edit your hosts file (just called "hosts" with no suffix, and in C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc by default for Windows) and add an entry that points to some nonexistent IP address, like 127.168.0.2, for www.reddit.com and anything else you want to block. The format's very simple - just address, then domain name, and your computer will attempt to go to that address for that name until you remove that entry or comment it out with a # at the start of the line.
(This can also be used to block ad servers, nosey DRM nuisances, and anything else that irritates you. If something breaks because you blocked a domain, just remove the relevant line from the file. If you make a change but nothing happens, open a command prompt and type "ipconfig /flushdns". The hosts file isn't locked, either, so you can have "workhosts" and "playhosts" files, and just rename either to "hosts" and flush the DNS again when you want to change from work mode to non-work mode.)
If you'd rather not edit critical system files, there are several other options. The "LeechBlock" add-on for Firefox will do it, as will StayFocusd and Concentrate for Chrome, and the list goes on.
Interruptible Power Supply
I got a second-hand UPS for $10, and its batteries still seem pretty decent (it ran a desk fan for 25 minutes before conking out) but it doesn't power my PC. Everything seems fine, but if there's a 1 second blackout or I test it by pulling the plug out of the wall, it beeps once then dies, and my computer turns off. I remember in the dear departed Atomic you recently had one problem like this that was just a loose plug on the power cord, but that definitely isn't the case here.
What's the problem here?
The UPS can't output enough power to run your computer. The battery capacity has little to do with this; it determines how long a UPS can power a given load, but only slightly affects how large a load it can handle.
(There is a small real-world relationship between battery condition and UPS load capacity; clapped-out batteries may not be able to deliver as much current as they did when new.)
UPSes are rated in "volt-amps", VA, with one VA similar to but not quite the same as one watt. Get a cheap electricity meter and see what your computer draws. If the meter says it draws, say, 400 watts, then you need a UPS with a rating above 400VA. 500VA should do nicely.
To reduce the load on a UPS, try powering less gear from it (like, your computer, but not your monitor). You can also use software from the UPS manufacturer that lets most UPSes, via a serial or USB lead, tell the computer to shut down when the power goes out. Or in some cases do cleverer things, like shutting down Folding@home or anything else that uses a lot of CPU time.
Dropping CPU load to near-zero will with various modern CPUs cause the computer to automatically reduce its clock speed, thereby reducing power draw even more. Even if your UPS has enough grunt to run your computer with full CPU and graphics-card loads, reducing that load will let the UPS last through a longer blackout.
The Tell-Tale Ticking Thing
Some part of my computer is making a ticking sound, and I can't figure out what it is.
It's not something stuck in a fan. It's not any of the drives (I unplugged them all but the DVD writer and booted Ubuntu from a CD, the ticking continued). It's not the little "PC speaker". It's intermittent, too, sometimes stopping entirely, sometimes being louder, sometimes being softer. I even tried unplugging all of the cards, and the keyboard, and the mouse, and the network, and everything else except the power cord. Now the computer couldn't boot of course, but even before it gave the startup error beeps about that, IT STILL TICKED.
Nothing actually seems to be BROKEN, but this is driving me crazy. What on earth could it be?
Given that you've already eliminated every component except for the motherboard or power supply, then failing off-the-wall problems like a beetle stuck somewhere in the case, it has to be the motherboard or power supply.
One possible source of little ticking noises is an electrical arc striking between, say, the exposed copper of an abraded cable and the earthed chassis of the computer. It is very unlikely that a computer in this state would keep working well, though. A modern high-rated PSU can sometimes keep running even when it's surprisingly thoroughly shorted out, but the smell of PVC smoke being blown out the back of the computer would probably alert you to this problem.
A less extreme version of this problem could cause a ticking sound, though. Something inside or outside of the PSU could be sort of half-shorted, or the PSU could have damage that's reduced its output capacity, or just be legitimately running close to its maximum possible output. In these situations, solid-state components inside the PSU, like voltage regulators and transformers, can be changed slightly in dimensions by electromagnetic and heat effects, creating a ticking sound. (This is also why mains-frequency transformers hum. The small transformer in a PC PSU also hums, but it runs at a very high frequency, so you can't hear it.)
I think it's barely possible for the CPU-power regulators on the motherboard to do this, too, but the PSU is a more likely culprit, and easier to swap out. And, as I've said may times before, if it's important to you that your computer not be off-line even for a weekend, then you should have a spare PSU sitting on the shelf in case of emergencies anyway.
(Josh got back to me. Yes, it was the PSU.)