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Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Friday, April 11, 2014

Refilling Ink-Jet Cartridges
Is It Really Worth It?

So. . . .  You're thinking about refilling your ink-jet cartridges?

In concept, the idea has merit.  Since you often have a perfectly good cartridge, all it's missing is the ink that used to be in it.  And it makes sense to replace the ink instead of the cartridge.  Or, as one refilling site put it, you wouldn't replace your car just because you ran out of gas.  Right?

One of the points that the cartridge refill sites love to make is that most, (if not all!), ink-jet manufacturers sell cartridges that are woefully short of ink.  To illustrate this point the folks at Printer Filling Station showed the result of a cartridge tear-down.  What these folks did was to take an OEM cartridge that was brand new, right out of the box in its sealed foil packaging, and open it up.  What they discovered was that it was actually less than half-full.

Photos courtesy of  http://www.printerfillingstation.com

And that's exactly where the printer manufacturers want it, because when you think about it, the printer manufacturers aren't selling the printer, they're selling the supplies because that's where the huge profits are.  And it's a virtual lead-pipe-cinch that if you have two printers manufactured by the same company, purchased at the same time in the same store. they will not use the same cartridge, unless they're the same model, or you're extremely lucky.  So, you need to stockpile multiple cartridge types if you have multiple printers.

Another kicker is that ink-jet cartridges have a very limited shelf-life, (like six months or so), even if the sealed package is not opened.  If you are smart enough to have spares on hand, and if you bought them more than six months ago, there's a good chance they won't work, or won't work properly.  And that's that.

That being said, this leaves you with the following choices:
  • Punt and Go Retro:
    Pen-and-ink, as well as pencil and paper still work, and it's a lot less expensive than any of the other choices.  Not to mention that typewriters can be had for a song at garage sales and flea-markets.

  • Abandon ink-jet technology:
    Laser printers are often more cost-effective on a per-page basis, and the supplies don't usually have the shelf-life problems of ink-jet cartridges.  Unfortunately a good laser printer is not cheap, and a cheap laser printer is often not very good.

  • Cave in and take your lumps:
    You buy the "Genuine" manufacturers cartridges, (that might be significantly under-filled), at hugely inflated prices.

  • Aftermarket Supplies:
    You can buy a "refurbished" cartridge for about half the price of buying one brand-new.  This is an attractive option for those who don't want to mess with refilling cartridges themselves, but don't like the idea of being taken to the cleaners by the ink-jet manufacturers.

  • Refill the cartridge yourself:
    You can refill the cartridges on your own and save huge amounts of money.

The last bullet-point brings us to the topic of this post:  Is it really worth it to do manual refills yourself?

Like everything else in life, there are two sides to this question, and depending on what your priorities are, refilling cartridges yourself may, or may not, be your cup of tea.  So, let's take a look at the pro's and con's of refilling.

The Good:
  • Cost:
    Refilling a cartridge can be significantly less expensive than buying a new one.
    • The folks at Printer Filling Station, sell a refill kit with a full set of inks, (three colors and black), for my HP OfficeJet 6500, right at $40 if you use the pigmented black ink, (which, IMHO, is the best choice), or $35 if you get the "regular" black ink.  Having bought the kit, you can get four, five, or maybe even six refills depending on the cartridge, and the size of the ink bottles you bought.
    • Here's a comparison of "Club" prices for "OEM" 920XL ink for my HP6500 printer:
      • Sam's Club:
        920XL Black two-pack: $61.98
        920XL Color three-pack, (one each of C, Y and M) $51.48
        Total:  $113.46
        ($82.47 based on 1/2 the double cartridge price for the black ink)
        See Search Results Here
      • BJ's:
        920XL Black two-pack: $57.99
        920XL Color three-pack, (one each of C, Y and M) $42.99
        Total:  $100.98
        ($71.99 based on 1/2 the double cartridge price for the black ink)
        See Search Results Here
      • Costco:
        920XL Black two-pack: $61.89
        920XL Color three-pack, (one each of C, Y and M) $41.89
        Total:  $103.87
        ($72.84 based on 1/2 the double cartridge price for the black ink)
        See Search Results Here

    • A comparison of non-club retailers for the same supplies:
      • Wall-Mart:
        920XL Black single cartridge pack: $34.48
        920XL Color cartridge single-packs, one each of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow at $15.98 each: $47.94
        Total:  $82.42
        See Search Results Here
      • Best Buy:
        920XL Black single cartridge pack: $34.99
        920XL Color cartridge single-packs, one each of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow at $15.99 each:  $47.97
        Total:  $82.95
        See Search Results Here
      • Staples:
        (They also have a combo pack, one 920XL black, and three standard 920 cartridges for the three colors for $58.89)
        920XL Black single cartridge pack: $34.99
        920XL Color cartridge single-packs, one each of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow at $15.99 each:  $47.97
        Total:  $82.96
        See Search Results Here

      • Newegg, Tiger Direct, and OfficeMax had identical pricing to Staples when I checked.

      • Micro Center did not stock the "genuine" HP 920xl inks when I checked them.  They did sell refilled cartridges for about half everyone else's OEM cartridge price.

      • Some suppliers also sell aftermarket cartridges, but I did not include that information here since I wanted to show the pricing for OEM cartridges.

    • Good sites also give you everything you need to refill your cartridges, as well as four bottles of ink - the three colored inks and a bottle of black.  They also give you the support you need to get you "over the hump" of refilling.

  • Ecological:
    I like the idea of replacing the ink, not the cartridge, since the cartridges themselves can often be re-used over and over and over again.  By simply replacing the ink, you keep a whole lot of cartridges out of the landfill.

The Bad:
  • It's time consuming.  Refilling a cartridge is not something you do in five minutes, or even fifteen minutes.  Especially if you're not experienced or, like me, you don't have the world's steadiest hands.

  • It's messy.  Some refill sites will tell you how clean, and easy, refilling is.  Don't you believe it!  When I refill cartridges, I have a big, thick towel to put on the desk, I wear a smock to protect my clothing, and I wear the crappiest, grungiest shirt and pair of pants I own.  And I don't wear good shoes.

  • It requires a bit of skill and patience.  Like I said before, this isn't a quick job.  If you want just "plug-and-play" you should go with refilled cartridges, or brand new.

  • Your printer might not want to use refilled cartridges.  Most printer manufacturers do NOT want to give up their ink-sale profits, so they program the printer's firmware to be really pissy and anal about cartridges and their replacements.
    • It is not uncommon for your printer to receive an "update" and afterward you discover that the refilled cartridges you have been using for years, stop working.
    • If the printer is totally anal about this, (there are some Epson and Canon models that do this), you can purchase a small electronic tool that resets the cartridges chip to read "full" again.
    • Other cartridges cannot be reset by reasonable means, but you can buy replacement "chips" that you use to replace the existing chip, allowing you to use the cartridge again.

The Ugly:
  • Printer manufacturers do not want you to refill your cartridges!  Why?  Consumables are a HUGE source of profits for the printer manufacturers.[1]
    • John Shane, a director at InfoTrends/CAP Ventures and an industry expert on the ink and toner market, had this to say about it on news.cnet.com
      The estimated retail value for cartridges used in HP inkjet machines in the United States in 2004 was about $6.3 billion, according to Shane. That's just more than half the $12 billion Shane estimates as the amount for all cartridges for all machines used for desktops last year.
    • This same blog posting has a number of user comments, most of which go something like this:
      I am convinced that HP is deliberately doing something to prevent the use of replacement cartridges. My HP Photosmart C4680 rejects replacement cartridges, even ones that go under their specs. I don't know if they're somehow installing something on my machine (especially during any updates) or software installations.
Assuming you have the patience to deal with all of this, then it is possible that refilling cartridges is right for you.

So, you want to take a try at refilling?  What's next?

Again, just like everything else, there are things you have to know before you just dive in.
  • Get GOOD supplies:
    There are a lot of refill sites, and there are a lot of refill kits available in stores, and most of them are pure junk.  The inks are total crap, the tools stink, and it's just a bad deal all around.
    • The solution is to do your homework, and find a refill site that sells good supplies, and gives you the information you need to make an informed choice.  One of the best I've seen, (and the one I use), is Printer Filling Station.  They're located within the US, (Georgia to be exact), so you don't have to wait for your stuff to come by Hong Kong Post.
    • These guys have the best ink I've seen - and I've seen a bunch.  (And I have the totally ruined shirts and pants to prove it!)
    • Their support is nothing less than amazing.  I had some troubles with some HP 920XL cartridges and Gordon, the "haid-man-boss" down there, was with me the whole way.  Making suggestions, shipping out replacement components; it was like I was dealing with a member of the family, not a merchant in a state hundreds of miles away.

  •  Make sure you have a clear and uncluttered work area that can get messy.
    • Despite your best efforts, you will have to deal with some ink going where it does not belong.
      • As a side note, Windex is an excellent solvent/cleaner for ink that goes awry.
    • Wear old clothes, or a smock/apron of some kind and - if you can deal with them - latex/nitrile gloves.
    • Keep rags or paper towels around for general cleanup.

  • It is extremely important that you avoid cross-contamination of colors at all costs, since contaminated colors, even slightly contaminated colors, are essentially useless.
    • This is usually accomplished by the use of separate, clearly labeled syringes and needles for each color as well as black, and making sure that the syringes are thoroughly cleaned after use.
    • It is important to make sure that you do not press the syringe plunger all the way down into the barrel of the syringe after cleaning.  Since the plunger will stick, pulling it back about a half inch or so while it is still slightly damp gives you room to push back in the next time you want to use it, freeing the plunger up.  If it is pressed all the way in, it is often impossible to remove the plunger without the rubber tip coming completely off.

  • If you are going to be refilling your own cartridges - or buying "reconditioned" cartridges - it is absolutely essential that you do not allow any firmware or software update downloads to your printer.  Despite what the manufacturers say, these updates often have little to do with the "performance" or "quality" of your printer.  Rather they are periodic updates to the firmware so that it will recognize, and reject, refilled cartridges.[1]  HP's own web site says it succinctly:
    The HP Cartridge Authentication feature for HP printers helps protect you ["You"?  They mean their 6.3 billion dollar annual profits!!] by checking and verifying the authenticity of each cartridge installed in your printer. HP Cartridge Authentication comes standard with all HP inkjet printers and All-in-Ones.
  • It is also important to carefully read, and follow, the instructions provided by whomever supplies the refilling supplies.
Done carefully, with a certain amount of forethought, ink cartridge refilling can be a very economical way to stretch your printing supplies dollar.

What say ye?

Jim (J.R.)

[1]  There are a number of web-sites out there that discuss the practice of printer manufacturers deliberately "killing" replacement cartridges to force you to buy only the higher priced OEM consumables.

Rumors Circulate That Lexmark Firmware Update Locks Out Non-OEM Supplies

http://inkandtonerexperts.com/support/troubleshooting.php where they say:
Turn off auto updates - If you have your printer set up to do automatic updates from the printer manufacturer, you need to turn that function "off" or to "manual" instead of automatic. The reason this is important is because some manufacturers have been known to use this software upgrade as a tool to identify refilled cartridges in your printer and "kill" the cartridge(s).
HP says I can't use refilled ink

HP cracks down on cartridge refill industry

Firmware Updates Prevent You from Using Refilled Cartridges

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

QA Tech-Tips
Where Do We Go From Here?

Well Hello Again, Everybody!

This blog has come a long, long way since I initially started it here at Blogger.com back in December of 2009,  The 28th of December, 2009, if my dates are correct.  And even further back if you consider the original e-mail based version of QA Tech-Tips that was circulating well before that time.

Since then this blog has begun to attract attention, though the folks at Google have nothing to fear from me.  At least not yet.

QA Tech-Tips is even beginning to get quoted as a source.  Though I am tickled pink when Microsoft TechNet quotes my blog, (or links to one of my articles!); what really makes me happy is when I hear from someone in the QA or technical community telling me that they referenced one of my articles in a bug report!  Booyah!!

While this is gratifying, it is also tremendously humbling to know that readers actually listen, and are interested in what I have to say.  As Voltaire once said, "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility".

Though there may have been changes, (not the least of which is the improvement in my own writing skills!), I have tried to keep true to my original idea for the QA Tech-Tips blog; that is, present useful information about computers and software, as well as the Wild and Wooly things that can happen when you toss a computer and some code into the mix.  Not only present it, but present it in a way that is pertinent and useful down where "The Rubber Meets The Road", instead of some strange hair-ball theories masquerading as facts.

All that being said; both I, and this blog, have begun to outgrow Blogger.

First, there is the BIG issue of editorial control; especially over posted comments since Blogger won't let me edit a comment.

I am often torn between the Devil of throwing out a perfectly good comment because of something I consider inappropriate, or the Deep Blue Sea of allowing inappropriate content in blog replies.  I would greatly prefer to allow replies to stand, (though I might want to snip out the occasional self-serving hyperlink advertising something), instead of having to chuck the whole thing because I cannot edit out a #&%$#*&@!! or two.

Second, is my own desire to grow and improve the QA Tech-Tips experience.

There are things I would like to be able to do that Blogger does not support.  One of the most important improvements that I would like to make is the ability to break up longer posts into multiple pages.  Unfortunately, Blogger does not support multi-page articles in the way that other blogging environments do.

Not to mention a whole host of things that, though not fatal, are intensely annoying.  For example, I have to manually edit the article's underlying HTML code to force an underline on each and every hyperlink.  Doh!

I could go on and on with the things I'd like to see QA Tech-Tips do, that just can't be done here.

Now I want to make perfectly clear that I am eternally indebted to the folks here at Blogger.com, (and Google their parent), for allowing me to have a wonderful - and free! - blog here for years and years.  Were it not for them, it is very likely that the QA Tech-Tips blog would not be here at all today, let alone where it is after all this time.

Likewise, I have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever recommending them to anyone who might want to "get their feet wet" in the Blogosphere without dropping a lot of coin, (or time for that matter), into getting a blog up and running.  They implement a lot of nice features as pre-built widgets - things like user registration, RSS feeds, or Captcha checking - for everyone to use without the pain and grief of having to code it all.

They also take care of the noisy and messy "System Administration" kind of things - like security-hardening my blog - so that I can spend time on my blog's content instead of laying awake nights worrying about getting hacked.

Nonetheless, I am beginning to think that it's high-time to loose the training-wheels and move QA Tech-Tips to the next level.

And to do that I have begun thinking about things like getting my own web host, deciding on what blogging software / platform I should use, along with all the hairy "SysAdmin" kind of things that go Bump In The Night when you strike out on your own.

'Guess I'm gonna be eatin' some Prime Filet of Fingernail while I figure this all out!

What say ye?

Jim (J.R.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

OOPS! - When disaster strikes
Recovering Lost Files (Part 3 of a series)

This article discusses a particularly painful issue:  You've deleted something you really didn't want to, and you need to recover it, come hell or high-water.  So what's a poor fool to do?

Hopefully, if you paid any attention at all to the second article of this series, you'll have a good backup of what you wanted.  If that's the case, you're golden.  All you need to do is go to your backup, grab the missing file(s), and you're back in business - no muss, no fuss, as the laundry detergent commercials used to say.

If the missing file is something you retrieved or downloaded from somewhere - perhaps from the Internet - you're still golden as you can simply go back and grab it again.  Again the famous jingle of those old laundry commercials wafts its golden strains through the air.  (And perhaps you will save that file off-line somewhere in case the site goes down or they loose the file.)

However, if you find yourself in the incredibly unlucky position of having just deleted an absolutely irreplaceable file, have no backups, and "failure is not an option". . . .

Though you may feel thoroughly screwed to the wall, it is possible that all is not lost.

The descriptions and comments in this article are aimed primarily at the Windows user, because files lost in a Windows-type filesystem are fairly easy to retrieve.  If you're not a Windows user, read on anyway.  Though it may be much more difficult for you to recover a lost file, the hints and tips in this article apply to you as much as they do anyone else.

There are a number of file recovery methods.  Here's a list starting from the easiest to the most difficult:

The Recycle Bin
A feature that has become popular in most every modern operating system is the "Recycle Bin", "Trash", or whatever your particular flavor of operating system calls it.  This is a special, hidden, area within the filesystem where deleted files are stored, just in case you decide you want them back.  So long as you didn't do a "permanent delete" or a delete that "bypasses the Recycle Bin", you can restore the lost file by simply going to the Recycle Bin / Trash, and restoring the file.

Auto-Save files
Assuming that you are working within some kind of formal environment - a word processor, a spreadsheet, a programming development environment, a database, etc. - these programs can, and often do, create timed automatic backups while you work.

The advantage of this feature is that the program itself periodically takes a snapshot of what you are doing, and saves it in a special file, located somewhere on your hard drive.

In other cases, some programs keep a "one revision back" backup.  When you finally save your work, the original file is renamed with a ".BAK" extension and the modified file is written out as a new file with the original file name.

Automatic file backup software
Many backup utilities, Acronis True Image among them, have a feature where earlier versions of files can be automatically preserved.  In the case of Acronis, you can allow the software to maintain a special hidden partition at the end of the drive where various important things - like file versions - can be stored away.

Shadow Copies
Windows Vista, Windows 7, (and maybe Windows 8?), have a feature called "Shadow Copies" where the operating system itself maintains a series of older versions of certain files.  Mac users will recognize the same idea in their "Time Machine" feature.

It is important to note that the "shadow copy" feature of Windows is usually NOT enabled by default, and depending on your system's configuration, you may have to modify your computer's partition structure to enable it.  (Ouch!)

Scattered "temp" files
Occasionally programs like Word, or Word Perfect, don't clean up behind themselves very well and, (sometimes), they leave scattered "temporary" snapshot files laying around; usually beginning with a tilde. (~)  It's a bit dicey, but if you're lucky you can recover enough of a file to recreate what was lost.

Undelete Utilities
If all else fails, there are special software utilities that can scan your drive for deleted files and attempt to recover them.

Undeleting a file

All "undelete" utilities depend on one simple fact:  Files that have been really and truly deleted are - in fact - not really and truly deleted.  The directory entry for that file is marked as "deleted" and all the logical blocks allocated to the file are reset to the "available for use" status in the file system's volume bitmap.  However, the actual data that has been written to the disk is NOT deleted - a fact that has lead to many a criminal's downfall.  Not to mention things like divorces, getting fired, or even identity theft.

So, what REALLY happens when Windows deletes a file?
When Windows deletes a file, what happens is something like this:
  • First, Windows finds all the pieces of the file.  That includes the file's directory entry, along with each and every part of the file itself.
  • Then Windows places a special "mark" on the directory entry that says this file has been deleted.  Because of this, the "deleted" file disappears from the folder it was in.
  • Finally, Windows goes to the system's volume bitmap and - for each and every part of the file - turns the corresponding bits OFF, indicating that these parts are "empty", and are available to be re-used.
It's just like an apartment when someone moves out.  The apartment itself doesn't disappear, it's just that the "landlord", (Windows), puts a big "FOR RENT" sign on the apartment's door.

If you can get back to the file quickly enough - before someone else moves in! - you can take down the big "FOR RENT" sign, set all the volume bitmap bits for that file back ON again, and VoilĂ !  Your file is back.

The problem is this:  Windows is constantly doing things with the hard drive; moving things around, updating important information, figuring out what goes where, and deciding where it wants to put the next piece of whatever it's doing.  Because of this, "empty apartments" don't stay empty for long, and some of the individual locations and pieces that belonged to your file can get recycled and re-used by other files.  If that happens before you get back to the "apartment" you just left, you're out of luck.  It's already taken and it just stinks being you.

If that's true, how do undelete utilities work?
Undelete utilities can use different methods to do their job, and one possible way is like this:
  • The undelete utility scans the disk until it finds a directory entry that has been marked as "deleted".
  • If the directory entry itself isn't corrupted, it attempts to traverse the entire file, end-to-end, using the file's metadata within the directory entry, as well as the "next" and "previous" links in each of the file's individual parts, to verify the integrity of the prospective file.
    • If the program can traverse the entire file end-to-end, and the resulting file data matches all the file metadata in the deleted directory entry, (size, etc.), then classify this file as "excellent".  At this point you have a pretty good chance of getting the entire file back.
    • If the program can apparently traverse the entire file end-to-end and it appears to be complete, but there are discrepancies between the resulting file and the file's metadata, then classify the file as "good".  At this point you have a pretty good chance of getting, (at least), part of the file back.  Maybe it's OK, maybe not, but it's at least an even-money bet.
    • If the program can only traverse part of the file because the file appears to have been overwritten at some point, (i.e. segment "x" points to segment "y", but segment "y" does not point back to "x"), then classify the file as "poor".  At this point you know for certain that the file has been damaged, but depending on what kind of file it is, and how much of the file the undelete utility can find, it might still be usable - at least in part.
    • If the program cannot traverse any portion of the file because the very first segment of the file has been overwritten, then classify the file as "unrecoverable".  At this point you can pretty much throw in the towel unless you want to use the more advanced, (and chancy), features of the program.  Your ability to recover even part of the file is now in the hands of God, and the cleverness of the utility's programmer.
  • Then, go to the next directory entry marked as "deleted" and repeat all of the above; continuing until all "deleted" directory entries have been examined and classified.
  • Once everything it can find has been found and classified, you get the opportunity to select what you want to try and recover.

Even if the file is classified as "excellent", there is still a very real possibility that the file will be borked when you try to recover it.  Why?  Because Windows is still working with the disk even while YOU are trying to undelete something.  Not only is this possible, it's not all that uncommon either.  Like I said before, "undeleting" a file is a dicey proposition at best.

But what if all that effort doesn't work, and my file is still missing?
Many undelete utilities also include a special "advanced", "deep", "full", or "exhaustive" scan mode for finding files that the easier methods miss.  This is based, (at least in part), on the fact that files of a particular type have distinctive characteristics unique to that type of file.  For example, JPEG picture files begin and end with sequences of bytes that are specific and unique to JPEGs.

The advanced scan mode, (using the JPEG file type we mentioned above as an example), scans the entire drive, one tiny piece at a time, looking for the distinctive characteristics of a JPEG file.  If it finds the specific characteristic that indicates what might be the beginning of a JPEG file, it tries to follow the trail all the way to the end of that file.  Likewise, if it finds the other unique characteristic first, (indicating the possible end of a JPEG file), it tries to follow that trail back to its beginning.  And it's very likely to be a false scent.  If it is, you start all over again, continuing your search, one tiny piece at a time.  Again, and again, and again.

When you're doing this kind of microscopically detailed search, you've entered the wild, woolly, and wonderful world of "forensic analysis", and it is not unusual for some random sector to contain what appears to be the "magic bytes" for a particular file type.  Or, maybe you have found a JPEG file, but it's one that hasn't been deleted!  Because of all the random factors that can be encountered, searches of this kind can be very time consuming.  As in days, (or even longer!), depending on how much experience you have doing this kind of stuff, and the size of the hard drive you're searching.

If we assume that you're lucky enough to find what you believe are all the pieces of a particular file, the undelete utility assumes that you've found a complete file of that type and classifies the file as potentially recoverable.

If the file is not complete, but at least some of it is present, it classifies the found file as either "good" or "poor" depending on what, and how much, of the file has been found.

And, in some cases, the file is just gone; never to be seen again.  And that's that.

Once all that is done, if you decide to recover the file(s) that were found, the utility recovers, (or creates if necessary), the file's directory entry and marks all the file's pieces as "occupied" in the system's volume bitmap.

How to improve your chances for recovering a file or files

If you've gotten this far, and are seriously contemplating going the "undelete" path, there are things you can do that will dramatically improve your chances of getting your data back.
  • Preparation:
    Prior to needing them, get one or more undelete utilities that do not require installation, (this is important!), and save them somewhere you can get your greasy mitts on them in a hurry. (A thumb-drive, an external hard drive, a CD or whatever are all good choices.)
    • If you have the skill, time, and want to really cover your butt, you might want to consider creating a Bart PE rescue disk, (or something similar), with the undelete software included.  If you don't have the requisite skill, you might want to beg a more technical friend or colleague, pretty, pretty, pretty-please, to make one for you.  It's a really great idea.
  • Have more than one "gun" and plenty of ammo:
    Different undelete programs work in different ways, so just because program "A" doesn't find your file, does not mean that program "B" can't.
    • When you collect your undelete utility(s), get more than one.  Professional forensic analysts often use many different programs to examine a disk to increase their chances of getting what they want.
    • Consider investing in a combination of freeware, shareware, and possibly even payware programs.
    • If you're smart/lucky enough to have something like a Bart PE disk, put all the utilities you've collected on it so that they are all available when you need them.
  • Protection: 
    If you accidentally delete something important, it is absolutely crucial that the disk be taken off-line quickly!  You'll want to do this as rapidly as possible to prevent the sectors used by your deleted file from being overwritten.
    • If possible, shut-down the system, (if it's the system drive), or un-mount it quickly, (if it's a external or data-drive), to reduce the possibility of it being corrupted.
  • Investigation: 
    If at all possible
    , you'll want to take the drive and mount it externally on another system, or load an external operating system. (like a Bart PE disk for Windows.)
    • Mount the drive read only if possible to prevent data corruption.
    • Use the external system or CD's software, (if you prepared a Bart PE disk), to search for the files.
    • If you are using an advanced recovery method, and you know what kind of file you're looking for, (a JPEG for example), have the recovery utility search for only that type of file, (assuming that this type of file is defined in the utility's dictionary).  This will speed up the search process considerably, and will result in a much better chance of getting complete files.
  • Execution: 
    If you find your missing files, try to restore them to another disk drive, (like a thumb-drive), if your undelete utility supports that option.
  • Prayer: 
    I'm not including this just to be funny or sarcastic.  As you can see, undeleting something is a very iffy proposition at it's best, and a successful undelete depends just as much on luck as it does on skill.
  • Appreciation:
    Everyone likes appreciation, and the poor sod of a software writer likes it even more.  Especially since the only communication he's likely to get from his users are complaints!
    • In all seriousness, if the utility is shareware and it just saved your butt bigtime, dig out the Benjamins and buy the license.  It's the least you can do.
    • If it's freeware - and there's a "donate" option, cough up the dough.  At the very least buy him a six-pack of his favorite brew.  Or, absent that feature, send him an e-mail telling him how much you appreciate his skill and thoughtfulness.

Linux/Mac Users:

If you're dealing with a Linux/Unix/Mac type operating system, there's a really good possibility that you may just be plain-ole' hozed if you don't have something like "Time Machine" turned on.

Unix type systems have unique kinds of file systems, file deletion methods, and aggressive i-node recovery paradigms that they often use. (i-nodes contain the file descriptors, and all the pointers and metadata for a particular file or files.)  Because of their design, it may be almost completely impossible to recover files deleted on a 'nix system without resorting to extremely advanced techniques that are, (usually), beyond the ability and experience of even the most advanced system administrators.


With any luck I have, (hopefully), scared you s**tless about the prospect of loosing important files or data.  And if I have done so, please, please, pretty-please consider using backups as a recovery strategy instead of "a wing and a prayer".  OK?

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hot Smokin' Weapon! Award for October 2013
The Raspberry Pi

Yep.  It's time for yet another Hot Smokin' Weapon award - and this month's winner is the Raspberry Foundation's pocket-sized computer, the Raspberry Pi.

Recently I was able to get my hot little hands on a Raspberry Pi board.  Built and designed in the land of British pubs and lousy beer, they're available here in the U.S. for about $35 each.  For another five or ten dollars, you can get it complete with an SD card pre-programmed with a boot loader and five or six Linux distributions to play with.

Here's what a Raspberry Pi, Model B, looks like in real-life.  Notice its size relative to the full-size SD card next to it.  The Raspberry Pi people refer to it as a "credit card" sized computer.  The red board on the right is the PI's GPIO breakout board that you can use to control external circuitry.

The layout illustration was taken from the Raspberry Pi web-site located at http://www.raspberrypi.org/faqs

And here's the layout, (minus the two flex connectors).  The difference between the Model A, and B, is that the A version does not have the LAN port, has only half the onboard memory, and has only one USB slot instead of the two on the model B.  Since, IMHO, the extra USB port and the LAN capabilities are important to me, I purchased the model B, and I am basing my review on that particular version.

This is the Ethernet / USB end of the board.  You can see the full-sized HDMI connector on the left just above the Ethernet jack, (with the brown tape on it), as well as the yellow RCA composite video connector and a blue "headphone" jack for analog audio if you are not using the HDMI connector.  Or, if you have connected it like me using a HDMI - DVI adapter plug, you need the aux audio connector for audio.

Here's a view from the other end.  In this view you can see the two flex-cable connectors, (marked with red arrows), and the GPIO header on the left, marked with the green arrow.  The bottom flex connector is for use with the Pi's camera module and the flex connector on the upper right is rumored to be for an LCD display module.  The GPIO connector attaches to the GPIO breakout board using a standard 26 conductor ribbon cable and connectors.

The big square chip just above the lower red arrow is the brains of the beast.  It is a Broadcom "System on a chip" that contains everything on the board, except the connectors, voltage regulator, decoupling capacitors, isolation resistors, and the status LEDs.  The rest is in the chip - the ARM processor, the GPU, the Ethernet and USB controllers, and God only knows what else.

Here's a full-size SD card, the Raspberry Pi, and the GPIO breakout board shown next to a 12" ruler to give you a sense of scale.

This picture has the Raspberry Pi next to a plastic case you can buy for it.  It has cutouts for all the connectors, the GPIO breakout board's ribbon cable, and a slot to put a SD card, (face down) at the back.  Since, (obviously!), the Pi is a live circuit board, putting it in some kind of a case is a smart move to prevent accidental short-circuits from ruining it.

Now, let's insert a pre-loaded SD card, and fire the beastie up!

Note that the Raspberry Pi has no onboard BIOS of any kind, so there must be a SD card, with software loaded, before the thing will do anything at all.  Especially since the SD card is the system's "hard drive" so to speak.

You can load software on the Pi in one of several ways:
  • If you are a total masochist, (or need special capabilities not available any other way), you can dig up the specs, an ARM assembler/compiler, and write "bare metal" code for the thing.  There's a whole forum at the Raspberry Pi site devoted to just that kind of insanity.  Since I've done that kind of thing before, (and no, I've never claimed to be sane), it sounds rather interesting.  I'm planning to go wander around there, just as soon as I work up the nerve and get a couple of minutes to spare.

  • You can spool a byte-for-byte image of various distro's directly onto the SD card.  Note that these images are bit-images, just like an ISO file for a CD, so they have to be written as a bit-image using special raw byte transfer software like "dd" in Linux.  There are several software image writers for Windows, and you can use them as well.

  • Even though spooling a bit-image onto your SD card isn't really that difficult, it is a bit tricky, so the developers of the Raspberry Pi created a special boot-loader called NOOBS.  (New Out Of Box Software)  And yes, the pun is deliberate, since it is primarily intended for those of us who are not Certified Raspberry Engineers; to help us get up, running and productive with a minimum of grief.

Here's an image of the initial screen you see when NOOBS version 1.3.0 boots for the first time.

The first thing you notice is the list of distributions you can load, ranging from the very capable Raspbian re-spin of Debian Linux, all the way to the more esoteric RISC OS, while not for beginners, it's a full-blown re-spin of IBM's RISC operating system.  It's funky, but fast.  Unlike a Linux distribution, this thing boots all the way to it's GUI in less time than it takes your hand to move away from the power connector you just plugged in.  Like I said, it's a bit wonky if you're not familiar with RISC systems, but its scary fast!

If you're looking carefully, you will notice a number of selection icons across the top of the dialog window.  And yes, Virginia, that round thing that looks like a globe is the icon that launches the loaders built-in web browser.

Yep, you heard me right, the OS loader selection screen has a built-in web browser that can be used to surf the web in case you need any supporting information to get you started.  And to make things better, the browser's home page is set to link directly to the Raspberry Pi help forum.  And it's not just a crufty text-based browser either.  It's the Real Deal.  So far, the only things it doesn't do is allow you to download something, (though I might be wrong here), and play Flash video.  Oh, in case you wondered, it does fully support PDF files, and they can be viewed directly within the browser itself.

In case you really need to get down-and-dirty, ALT-F2 brings you to a text based login screen - the user is "root" and the password is "raspberry" - where you can do pretty much everything you could do in a "normal" text based startup - or a terminal window - in Linux.

Here's a closer look at the distro selection screen showing the various distributions you can install.  Oh, and by the way, the check-boxes are there for a reason.  A new feature in NOOBS 1.3.0 is the ability to install more than one distribution at a time - limited only by the space on your SD card.  And just to make sure you don't goof up, the area down at the bottom, labeled "Disk space" shows you both how much space you have to play with, and the total space needed for the selections you've made.  If you select more than can fit - the total space number becomes a bold-faced red to warn you. I don't know if it prevents you from trying - I did not try it - but it is a thoughtful touch.

If you install Raspian, you see this configuration screen at first-boot where you can set a whole bunch of useful and important parameters - like your localization settings since everything defaults to settings appropriate for Great Britain.  Unless you live there, you will have to set the system locale to one appropriate for you, your time zone, and your region's particular keyboard-map.  Note that the locale settings also set the default language for the system, as run.  And yes, they have support for just about every weird character set and language out there.  I didn't try Arabic or Hindi, but they do a darn good job with Russian.

Once you're done, the system reboots and - if you have selected the option to boot directly to the GUI - you are presented with the Raspian desktop.

Of course, the background image is the Raspberry Pi logo, in living color, larger than life.  Once you get tired of looking at that - which doesn't take long - you can substitute any image your little heart desires.

The desktop manager is LXDE, one of the "lightweight" desktop managers.  Though it might be "lightweight" desktop in size, it's a fooler since it's most definitely not lightweight in capabilities.  If you can do it in Gnome or KDE, chances are you can do it here too.  Though you won't see all the "eye candy" that's in the larger desktops, (Face it, do you REALLY need bouncing desktop icons that spin and change colors?), it does a very competent job of doing what it does, being a desktop that lets you get work done.

Since the original design philosophy of the Pi was to use it as a teaching tool, it comes pre-loaded with a couple of programming environments:  Scratch for the rank beginner who has never even thought of programming in his life, as well as Python, the "official" programming language of the Raspberry Pi in Raspian.

In case you're curious, Scratch is a very elementary programming language - not unlike the "turtle graphic" languages that were in vogue during the '90's, and it works a lot like a Lego building set.  Each kind of statement, conditional, expression, or whatever has a particular shape.  Syntax is taken care of by how the shapes fit.  If they fit, it will work.

Another part of the language is a large catalog of "sprites" - graphical images that can be placed in the primary display area known as the "stage".  Depending on the steps you put together, you can make the sprite do any number of things on the stage.  You can put more than one sprite on the stage, change their position or direction of travel, and detect if they touch each other, or touch one of the stage's side walls.

I played with it for about 30 minutes or so, and I was able to get the main sprite - a cat - to walk around the stage, changing color as he walked.

Oh!  I almost forgot to mention; what happens if you get heartily tired of the distro(s) you originally picked and want to do something different?

Every time the system boots, you get about five seconds of this - a way to abort the boot and return to the original NOOBS loader screen.

The good news:  If you've gotten so tired of Raspian that you are about to scream, you can swap it out for any of the other distributions.

The bad news:  Making new distribution selection(s) on the NOOBS loader screen is a destructive process.  Any settings, files, and God Knows What Else you may have created are lost and gone forever, oh my darling Clementine. That is, unless you had the foresight to plug in a thumb-drive and copy your settings and files off the system before selecting a new distribution set.

The bottom line:

Though originally conceived as a teaching tool, the Raspberry Pi is a competent system in it's own right.

You can use it as a self-contained media center connected to your huge screen HDMI TV / Display - a job that it totally KICKS ASS at, making my larger computers with wicked nasty video cards look like pikers by comparison.

You can use it as a miniature, (in size only, not in capabilities), RISC "mainframe" system with multiple users logged in at the same time.

With a suitable distro installed - like Raspian - you can use it as a full-fledged workstation.  So much so that there are a multitude of forum threads devoted to people who have decided to toss their big, noisy, power-hungry beasts and just use the Raspberry as their main computer system.  And if you're like me, and won't miss the dancing bears, roving eyeballs, and bouncing icons, you will feel right at home sitting in front of your cigarette-case sized computer, kicking ass and taking names, right up there with the Big Dogs.

Don't take my word for it.  Go out and get one - they're dirt-cheap by comparison - and give the beast a spin.  Just be careful.  It might be love at first sight!

Read all about it at http://www.raspberrypi.org

What say ye?

Jim (JR)