The Trouble With Automatic Updates

Most consumers are not going to remember to check for software updates periodically. So in the past I have recommended that my friends turn on automatic updates to everything they own that supports it. However in the last two months I have had to roll back two router firmware updates due to instability.

So the question then is if automatic updates causes problems for the consumer, what will their response be? Most will just complain but some will turn off automatic updates. The latter action then exposes the consumer to future vulnerabilities.

In the enterprise world system administrators test new updates on a small set of test hardware for signs of trouble before pushing it out to everyone. This extra step prevents bad updates from causing downtime for their organization. For the consumer there is no such person or procedure. We have to trust that the latest patches will not brick our phones or kill the router.

Is there a better solution for the consumer? Even Microsoft gets patches wrong from time to time so it’s difficult for manufacturers to make zero mistakes. A small delay then perhaps? Let the early adopters test things out before an update is pushed out to the masses? Hopefully someone will come up with a better solution.

Routers and Automatic Updates

Routers are like tiny computers. They have an operating system and software just like laptop or phone. They also have security problems. But how often do we update the software on our routers? For most of us the answer to that question is “never.”

Every major router manufacturer provides regular updates to patch security flaws. But not all routers automatically update themselves with these updates. Many still require the user to manually login, check for updates, and then install the updates.

This article for example shows routers from three popular brands being attacked, in addition to NAS, DVRs, and IP cameras. So the next time you shop for a router, find one that keeps itself up to date. And this goes for any other device connected to the internet. Most manufacturers don’t provide updates indefinitely. When the updates stop the devices should be disconnected from the network because they will very likely become vulnerable in the future.

Smart Watches

The problem with smart watches is that we end up paying for a device that only lasts a limited number of years. Take the Apple Watch for example. The cheapest version for the Series 3 Apple Watch right now is $329. After some years the battery will stop holding a charge and the software will stop getting updated. Good luck finding a smart watch with a replaceable battery.

For the same money I could buy a traditional watch from any number of brands with unique designs. What’s more is that traditional watches with replaceable batteries could last for decades. Some watches get passed down through generations. This won’t happen with smart watches the way they’re designed now. Because of their design and the pace of innovation our smart watches are destined for the landfill instead of the next generation.

What we’re really paying for is the latest convenience and distraction. In terms of design, most of these smart watches are quite boring compared to the likes of Diesel, Citizen, not to mention much cheaper brands. So the question is, how much is the latest disposable convenience worth to us?

Glitchy Keyboards? or Motherboards?

I never thought this would be a problem. My keyboard needed a better power supply. Yes, my keyboard. No, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

I have one of those backlit keyboards, a Corsair RGB K70. Before that I had a Max Keyboard X8 which also had the same problem. On my “old” PC, it would often boot with the keyboard frozen. The backlight would be on but none of the keys worked. The Corsair keyboard came with two USB plugs to help it draw more power but plugging both directly into the computer did not help. What did help was to connect the keyboard through a powered USB hub instead; one plug was enough. It needs to be a powered hub since power during boot was the problem. And bingo, no more boot problems.

It’s not that the keyboard draws a large amount of power. Once the machine booted it could careless how it was connected. But during boot the power was being interrupted by the motherboard enough that the keyboard itself couldn’t boot correctly. These were both programmable keyboards with their own firmware which includes a boot process. The powered USB hub provided consistent power and solved the problem.

On the Longevity and Stability of Windows Boxes

In college part of my job was a system administrator running a combination of Linux (Slackware) and Windows servers. What I learned back then is that if you only install what you need, Windows machines can be just stable as anything else. The uptime of my Windows servers was only limited by how often security patches were released. It’s the garbage that we install onto our Windows, OSX, Android… devices that make them less stable.

My home theater PC is due for an upgrade. It still works fine, but the processor and video card can barely keep up Amazon and other streaming services’ encoding as video codecs continuously grow in computational intensity. It’s still running the original install of Windows 7. Windows 10 removed Windows Media Center so I never upgraded. The primary hard drive currently has 69918 hours of power-on time under its belt; that’s almost 8 years. I got pretty lucky with the drives to be honest.

The only real physical maintenance I have done is remove one noisy fan and clean out the air filter once every couple of months. Moving parts tend to die first. Moving parts die faster when they’re clogged with dust. Dust also clog heatsinks eventually causing the CPU to overheat.

So that’s two recommendations for today:
1. Don’t install software that you don’t need.
2. Keep the dust out.

There are many more but I’ll save those for another post.

Why Not One Motor Per Wheel

One electric motor per wheel may sound like a nice idea but it is rarely used. The SLS AMG Electric Drive is the most memorable one in my mind. There are some trade off for this configuration that I haven’t seen mentioned very often. Mercedes advertises the vehicle with 552 kW (751 hp) total power (source), each motor outputting a quarter of that amount. However if we lose traction at one or more wheels, the total amount of power available to us is now a fraction of the total. There is no fancy LSD to transfer power left to right or forward to aft.

This situation gets worse for serious off road vehicles. While climbing a steep grade the front axle may have zero traction. With independent motors at each wheel we are now relying on half of the available power to get us up the hill. In a traditional 4×4 we would lock all of the diffs and the total engine power would get down to the ground to the tires that have traction. This is an unfair comparison of course. But if I were designing an electric 4×4 with independent motors at each wheel, each motor would need to be sized much larger than the equivalent vehicle with a single motor and locking diffs.

There are many advantages to having one motor per wheel. Improved torque vectoring, traction control, and packaging (arguable) are some of them. However the down side is that in some cases the total combined power needs to be much higher to match the equivalent conventional drivetrain with LSD or locking diffs.

2017-04 Android Apps Short List

This is a short list of lesser known apps I use that may make life a little easier.

Aquamail Pro: If you only use one email account then this is overkill. However if you juggle multiple accounts from multiple sources then this is one of the better solutions. IMAP folder support is excellent. TLS is supported in both directions with certificate pinning on the receive side. There are tons of customization options which can be overwhelming at times.

Flym: My primary method of keeping up with different sites is through feeds (RSS/Atom). Flym is open source and has served me well for several years now.

AntennaPod: My preferred method of keeping up with podcasts is again through feeds. AntennaPod is open source as well. One feature I use heavily is the variable playback speed. Some people speak slowly enough where 2x playback speed sounds normal.

Resilio Sync: Originally Bittorrent Sync, this app lets me sync files between devices without going through someone else’s servers. This is how I synchronize files between desktop, NAS, laptop, and phone. Don’t leave it running all the time though as there is a battery drain penalty. The open source alternative is Syncthing which I may try once it’s more stable.