Internet Crisis!

Over two and a half decades being a computer and internet enthusiast there have been times when a major problem has suddenly happened. Sometimes it was forgotten passwords, others it was losing decades of data etc. Yesterday I had one of those issues and although it may seem minor to non computer/internet geeks it was a major crisis for my son and I.

*Legal Disclaimer: My boys are over 13 years old and always have been.

Here is a bit of background. Everyone in my house has their own Google account and have for years. The main reason my boys do is I encourage them to take pictures and videos on their phones and like to have those pictures/videos upload automatically to Google Photos. I’m thinking in terms of decades and I think it would be awesome for them to be able to look back at not only pictures the adults have taken but their own pictures and videos as well. That media represents the world through their eyes and to me is absolute treasure.

Another reason I like them to have their own accounts is for the e-mail. That wasn’t important before the pandemic but it is now. I want my eldest to be able to read messages from his teacher and respond on his own. This is part of him learning his way around a computer. At a young age he should be able to work on the computer/internet better than even his own teachers and he has learned!

Finally, I want him to have access to Youtube under his own personal account. If he wants to learn something, whether it is gaming related or school related I want him to be able to go to Youtube, make lists, subscribe to channels etc. This is all part of learning his way around the internet and the internet is not only the future, it is here.

Side note: The schools set up accounts to be used for Google Classrooms etc but like most things school related come with a TON of restrictions that while they do protect they also inhibit learning. Schools form their policies and regulations with the lowest common denominator in mind. By this I mean troublesome kids and parents who like to sue and cause other issues. So accounts given by the school are completely locked down and allow for nothing outside of school or anything that could even remotely cause a problem or give parents something to complain about.

So here is what happened.

I thought about installing Google Fit on my son’s iPad and connecting Fitbit, Renpho, and maybe even our exercises on the Nintendo Switch if that were possible? I downloaded Google Fit onto my son’s iPad and in setting it up it asked for his age. I put in *an age* and all of a sudden it asked me to confirm said *age.* I did and it immediately switched to a child account and there was a message a parent would have to link to it our it would be deleted in 14 days.

*GASP!*

There are years of my son’s own pictures/videos in that account, 60 YouTube videos, an endless list of subscriptions, his main e-mail, location tracking showing the adventures we went on in Google Maps (great for teaching him geography!). So deleting the account and making a new was not an option.

I tried changing his birth date to over 13 but it asked for validation like a credit card. I didn’t want to do that in case there was a name check because if there was I’d just be digging myself further into a hole.

OK I thought, I’ll just connect my account and give him access to everything. Maybe it would be a benefit since I’d have more control over his account? Wrong! A child account only gets access to YouTube kids and cannot have their own YouTube channel! Wow, I had just stumbled into a way to make my child not like me very much and right before Christmas too!

Once our accounts were connected I installed the Google Family App on my phone and tried to change his birth date from there. Nope. All birth dates have to be younger than 13.

That gave me an idea. What if I put his birthday as tomorrow would that work? I was a bit nervous because Google says if they suspect a child is using an adult account it will be locked and deleted. I went ahead and set the birth date for the next day (today). This bothered me so much I woke up at 1:00 AM, couldn’t fall back asleep and went to see if it had auto updated. I turned on my son’s computer and was sad to see nothing had changed. So it was back into the forums and I learned that we should receive an e-mail from Google with instructions on how to remove the child restrictions if the child wished. Well, no e-mail and I wondered if we would ever get one especially since the birth date was changed the day before.

I was in a panic and even thought about going into chat with Google to see if they could help. I’m a Google One subscriber so get special attention. I had the page open but then thought better of it. The person in the chat wouldn’t be able to give any special favors and I again I might dig myself into an even deeper hole that I really couldn’t get out of.

So after another 20 minutes of absolute panic and reading the forums I found what I needed. It was the link that is in the e-mail Google sends to the parent and child a few days before turning 13. I clicked on the link and they system worked as intended. His age was now officially 13 in their systems and so he could take control of his own account.

WHEW!!!!!!!!

I think in this age of pandemic access without a bunch of restrictions is absolutely necessary. The reason those restrictions are in place is because of laws that say Google cannot track those younger than 13. Well, you need to have your data tracked to some extent to use the personalized services! For an internet nerd like me, I like to have my son take full advantage of Google services (our smart home even responds to him individually in his preferred Google voice) and not be so restricted. Furthermore, 12 is much too old for only access to Google Kids. And if your kid is a big gamer than Youtube is absolutely necessary! I think protecting the kid is a secondary thought to Google as the app isn’t very robust and like kid monitoring software everywhere causes a lot of headaches.

Now I do understand the benefits of monitoring software to restrict access and think I’m a huge outsider here. The masses aren’t very good with technology and the internet can be a dangerous place. Furthermore kids can easily get into trouble and especially on the internet. For me however, I can restrict on the router side which is much more simple and causes less headache. You install child monitoring software it can be very hard to get yourself out of it. It is like jail for both adult and kid! Do it on the server side and you’re able to open and close the gate completely. Not leave it open and try to protect each individual device, account and so on with headache causing crap.

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Computer Issues

I’ve lost count of all the computer issues I’ve had over the past three decades. They tend to pop up every two years or so, mostly due to the relentless assault of updates and upgrades. When computers break most people just lost all their data then went out and bought a new computer. The cloud is supposed to fix that but really is only now becoming more mainstream. As for me, I’m the only one I know who has all his data going back to when computers themselves first became mainstream. For me, that was 1992 with the Apple 2C.

I have always been fascinated with computers and it is this fascination that drives me to keep up to speed with the breakneck pace of technology. However, as I’m now 43 I just prefer for things to work, and am a little tired of always having to keep up to date on everything. I use my computer and data very heavily and in using it in such a way things can often break. Recently this has been making my home a “smart home” when updates can often break everything but today I just want to talk about my recent issue.

My PC is now seven years old. Over the past couple of years there was an issue where it wouldn’t turn on the monitor using DVI. I thought I had that fix half a year ago when I cleaned out all the dust in my graphics card. However, a couple of days ago my computer randomly froze then had trouble turning on the monitor. Two problems that are most likely related but give me such a headache that I actually kicked my computer.

And you know what? It started working again.

It took me three hours of messing with it to become frustrated enough to give it a big kick, which I’ve never done. By that time I had tried all the usual remedies big and small.

I had opened it up and blew out the dust. I wiped out the dust from inside the graphics card’s fan and heat sinks. I checked the cable connections. And finally I reset the entire PC. Even though I had done all of this the monitor still wasn’t receiving any signal and so in my frustration I kicked it. Now it works.

I still don’t know what is wrong with it. Given it now works after a kick it is most likely do to a loose connection I cannot see or perhaps a malign spirit whose control I’ve loosened over my system with a bit of violence.

In the past I had become so frustrated with this issue that I had seriously considered switching to Linux. That was two or three years ago when I thought it was a Windows problem as it kept freezing on me. Now I think it must be something with the graphics card. But why, why will it work flawlessly for one or two years then have one or both issues of not turning on the monitor and Windows randomly freezing?

This time I was not considering Linux but rather buying a new PC. I took a look at the prices and was surprised to see you can get a decent system for around $1,000. I was even more surprised when I checked my receipt for my current PC and realized it was only 6 years old but also that it cost approx $3,400 (with a monitor or two)!! That just seems criminal to me now and there are thoughts I might have been ripped off?

I bought my rig from Central Computer in San Francisco which has a good reputation which is demonstrated in the fact they’ve expanded to five stores over the past couple of years. I also had it custom made with top of the line hardware at the time. But still, looking at that price I’ve got sticker shock and am amazed it cost so much!

Remembering the price has made me pretty unhappy because for that much money I would hope the computer would be trouble free for at least a decade. Yes, I am a heavy user and put it through a lot but still, that is a lot of money!

Regardless my computer wasn’t working and a computer is a vital part of my life so I took a look at new systems. I was very tempted by Dell’s Alienware and HP’s Obleisk. Those both run just over $1,000 for the base model and it is certain I’d end up spending much more with the upgrades from base model. I saw a new trend with a mini computer connected to a big monitor. I like new but my issue is that I like to play games but am not a “gamer” on my PC. So I do want my games to look very sharp when I do play but I don’t need top of the line. I do however, need something more than those little mini computers can probably provide.

I had a look and was close to pulling the trigger. However, after kicking my PC and having it working I realized it is still a very powerful PC and so long as it actually turns on and doesn’t freeze I have no need for a new computer. I could also have the same level of enjoyment by just changing up my desktop and rearranging my workspace. Furthermore, new tech can often be disappointing. The advertisements get you all excited thinking you’ll be wielding three times the power and beauty as before but I’ve often been underwhelmed when upgrading my tech. Instead of now having the power and beauty of the God’s as the advertisement promised I find I’ve just gone from a slow machine to something that no longer lags and looks only slightly prettier. This is especially the case for mobile phones.

And so, having reset my PC I already had a fresh desktop and the next step was to straighten up my computer desk. I had too much on and around my computer, it was dusty and I could use better cable management. Aside from two monitors I had: an external WD drive, a Dell Laptop docker, Alexa, a retro Genesis system, a speaker and two mice. One mouse was for PC use and the other is for when I plugged my work laptop into the docker in order to have three monitors. I put the Genesis, docker, mouse and external drive in the drawer of the desk. It had a hole in the back for the wires. I use a TV as a third monitor and from that moved the antenna to our living room TV and Chromecast to the gym TV. As for the antenna, I had recently returned our cable box to Comcast during a recent renegotiation. Comcast will always hike up your rate by about $30 every year once your plan expires and so you must call them to haggle it back down. This time around I decided we really don’t need the cable box as my wife can watch the news through the app meaning we only need the internet connection. So I increased our top download speed to 200 mbs/sec and got rid of cable. Now we don’t plan on watching TV but if I have an antenna I might as well hook it up. The reception in the game room was terrible anyway.

As for Chromecast I never used it on the game room TV and was trying to solve a “smart home” problem with our gym TV. I can get Google to turn the TV off but it always tells me the TV “isn’t available” when trying to turn it on. I looked in the forums and this seems to be a common problem. I thought that by perhaps hooking up Chromecast it would sync better with Google and perhaps help turn it on? Well, that didn’t work and is now a bit redundant as I have the TV connected through Samsung Smart Things anyway and the TV has YouTube etc built in so I really don’t need Chromecast.

As I was typing that last paragraph I thought the problem might be that Chromcast should be plugged into the HDMI ARC port. I understand that is for audio but why not give it a try. Well, I looked and Chromecast is already plugged into that port so no luck.

The time is now 7:33 AM and I started this post at around 2:45 AM. It is not that I’m an extremely slow writer but rather I got the idea to reset Windows on the extremely old computer I use for my youngest. He rarely uses it preferring his iPad but I want to have him get used to a keyboard, windows and getting around a PC. Being so old it was so slow it bordered on being unusable but at the same time he isn’t ready for a brand new laptop. The only things he would use that PC for are Minecraft and Roblox as well as talking with friends on Discord. Doing the reset and setting things up again took a lot of time. I also did some more maintenance on Kai’s computer as well as my own. So here we are, almost 8:00 AM, time has flown by and my peaceful morning over. I am glad I’ve gotten all the computer projects done, updated, fixed, organized etcetera. Perhaps now I can relax for a bit?

New Server!!

Today is a wonderful day!

After a decade of using the low end, entry model 212J Synology NAS I’ve finally splurged and gotten a state of the art server. I bought the 212J about a decade ago because I had always wanted to host my own blogs and thus not have to pay some company to host them for me. As I knew nothing about running a server, or even if I could do it I went with the cheapest option. Over the past decade I’ve taught myself and have come to rely on it as my blogs are not only a very important part of my life they are in-fact a recorded history of it. This is such a treasure to me and it was all hosted on a cheap server that could have failed at any moment.

The 212J was faithful although with updates threw some major fits in the past 10 years which could have destroyed my blogs. The most recent tantrum was in the past update where my CPU shot to 99% usage and made the NAS almost completely unusable. This was scary but with patience and a lot of tinkering I was able to figure it out. It was this however which convinced me to finally splurge for a new NAS as well as learn all the things I needed to know to ensure I had it set up like a pro and not an amateur. I had stumbled my way through a decade in getting it to work and had not realized that I was on the edge of a cliff once step away from seriously damaging my blogs.

In technical terms I did not understand RAID nor how to have a perfect backup of the blogs. I used SHR without data protection in the storage. I learned that the pros will always RAID configurations which means the data is always written immediately and simultaneously to two disks in case one fails. Then the other disk will immediately keep the data available until the bad disk is replaced. As I didn’t understand RAID or SHR I only had my blogs on one disk.

Now I did have backups of my blogs but they were not sufficient. I had simply exported the blog from WordPress as well as the content folder which kept the pictures. What I didn’t understand is I also needed a backup of the SQL database because it is that database that lets the blog know which posts to put that media in! Yes, I would still have my writing, and I would still have the pictures, but the blog wouldn’t know which pictures go with which posts. I had tried backing up my SQL before but would always get a timeout because of my slow server and there was a setting or two that was not correct.

With my new 920+ on the way I spent a week studying how RAID and SHR works, and consulted websites on how to ensure everything was set up perfectly. I owe a debt of gratitude to mariushosting.com for creating a site which easily explains everything along with pictures! Often websites will get directly into Terminal commands for the complicated things and the Terminal is pretty much only for the pros. Now I have WordPress in Raid 1 which is two drives mirroring each other all the time.

Simply getting a new blog is not why I’m pleased with myself however. I had been stressing for weeks over being able to transfer my blogs and actually getting them to work on the new server. Mind you I had spent a decade tinkering and often getting stuck for months and even over a year in the beginning. But all that tinkering as well as this past weeks study paid off. I was able to transfer everything over in about 6 hours. It took that long because I did get stuck a few times which I’ll explain. Warning, technical WordPress, SQL stuff ahead!

First I downloaded everything and was even able to download my SQL databases. I preferred to transfer manually as I was somewhat familiar with it, plugins rarely work perfectly for big projects like this and the amount of pictures was immense. I tried it myself at first, but kept getting an error that WordPress couldn’t connect to the database. That kept me stuck for a while but then I realized I shouldn’t be trying to do it with Maria 10 as I had used Maria 5 before. I had tried upgrading to Maria 10 before but could never get it to work. When I finally just used Maria 5 it worked. I’ll come back to this.

The next place I got stuck was in making a secure connection. I didn’t want Google telling visitors my site was un-secure and even worse stopping them with a warning to not proceed! I had transferred the certificates correctly and after a while realized I just needed to assign the right certificate to the right blog. That is to say not all blogs on one site’s certificate.

So I was able to get it working with Maria 5 but I was determined to get Maria 10 to work. The forums all told me it must be something to do with the settings in the WordPress config file but my database, user name and password were all correct. After much searching I was finally able to find the answer. It was like finding a nugget of gold after hours of coming up with nothing but dirt. The problem was that Maria 5 uses “localhost” in the db_host line. The forums were telling me to put in the actual internal IP which didn’t work. The nugget of gold was to put in “localhost” followed by a string I didn’t understand but it made Maria 10 work! I was overjoyed.

Since I’ve decided to dedicate two drives under Raid 1 to WordPress I needed more drives for everything else. I spent a little more and have two 1 TB drives arriving today. Then I’ll be able to install Note, Surveillance Station and also take a peak at all the other applications I’ve been thus far unable to use due to the limitations of my 212J

Today is a good day!

Data Catastrophe Close Call

I almost had a data catastrophe last week which is worthy of its own post. It all comes down to not being able to remember a password and this is the second time this year I’ve almost had a catastrophe like this.

The first time was when I woke up in the middle of the night, couldn’t fall immediately back to sleep and decided to check my phone. I saw that it was due for an update so without thinking when ahead with it. Now with a system update you’re required to put in you pin instead of a bio-metric after restart. I had not considered this and there is something about the night which changes your mindset and thoughts come in a bit differently than they do in the day. I have put in my pin to unlock my phone thousands of times but I kept getting it wrong!

After three or four tries I sat up and started to panic. I went to my computer but did not record my latest pin in my password database! OK, so then I really started to panic. I remembered messaging my pin to my wife once so she could unlock it and take pictures of me doing something. I woke her up, we checked through her messages from me but it was not in there.

Disappointed and scared I went back to my computer and looked up what to do if a pin had been forgotten. Other than resetting your phone the only other trick was doing a remote unlock through Google. I tried this but did not have that setting turned on in my phone!!! Normally I would have but I believe there was a security override since I also use the phone from work and there may be some software that doesn’t let me turn that setting on since work e-mail is also on the phone.

Anyway, after 10 wrong passwords my phone was going to erase all the data and I only had three tries left. That would have been horrid to me not because I didn’t have an old backup but because it literally takes about a week to set everything up the way I like it. I’d have to log into everything again, change a million settings and I also use authenticator apps for many two step verifications and that would have been lost as well! So yes I was extremely panicked.

Anticlimax here but I got it on my second to last try. I then wrote that pass code down in a number of places.

But that was the lesser of the two possible catastrophes, an even worse one happened on Friday. It follows the same pattern regarding a password. I’ve learned that with main passwords used everyday I eventually don’t think about them, my fingers just automatically put them in. However, if I have a “brain hiccup” and miss one little piece of that password then I’ll be in trouble. I’ll be in trouble because my fingers will make the same mistake and I’ll then start thinking about it. Once I think about the password I’ll realize I really cannot visualize it I just have to let my motor memory do its work. But as the motor memory makes more mistakes those mistakes start to override the correct password!

The only solution is to go take a break, do something else and try not to think about it. I’ve found this is impossible because I’m petrified of losing all my data!

What happened last week is that I had another virtual happy hour with old friends I haven’t seen in many years. I had too much wine and when I went to open the file which contains all my data I kept getting the password wrong! All of my data is in a VeraCrypt container. Everything. Is. In. There! And as for backups those are all in VeraCrypt containers too! OK, no problem, I had too much wine, I’ll remember it in the morning.

Morning comes and my mind is very hazy. I go to the computer and type in the password. Wrong. I try again. Wrong. I tried twenty more times and all were wrong. However, unlike my phone the data there is no program which will automatically erase my data based on a number of failed attempts.

I was only a little concerned at this point because I remember I had given that password to my wife and let her know it was extremely important. I had put it in her password manager myself. Well guess what. Never rely on a wife as a password backup. She has a ton of passwords in her password keeper but not the one I had given her. I was a bit shocked to tell you the truth. Give a wife a super important password, it will eventually get lost as it slips out of mind as time goes by.

Now I was panicking. The more mistakes I made the more I started second guessing myself. I was terrified because that is 26 years worth of data in there. That data is a record of my life! And needless to say it contains my password program which of course contains all my passwords.

All of my data, gone, in a blink because I couldn’t remember the correct password!

Again, an anticlimax. I calmed my mind, I tried different combinations of upper versus lowercase letters and after about 80 failed tries I got it to open.

The experience scared me so much I have now adopted the old school method of writing it down on paper and hiding it in a secure location. I have also given it to my wife (again!) and told her to keep it as though her life depended on it. I told her that this is what she would need if I die and showed her how to get into my computer and use VeraCrypt. I don’t want her snooping either so gave her the warning to only use in case of emergencies because if she presses a wrong button when using VeraCrypt then it would erase everything. This is true but what I didn’t mention are all the backups I also have.

However, I have also ordered another external drive and have decided to keep a copy of a backup that is not encrypted. I got a little scared reading the forums where a few commenters said VeraCrypt messed up and their data got lost. VeraCrypt has worked perfectly for me for years and I’m sure those commentors just weren’t smart enough to use VeraCrypt but it still spooked me. That data is my life and I would be absolutely devastated if it ever was lost. So the last fail-safe I think I need is to create an un-encrypted backup. I have three other backups one of which is in Ohio in case the house were to burn down. But I had not considered forgetting my password or if VeraCrypt should suddenly go bonkers. As of Friday when I receive my 2TB external I’ll have all my bases covered.