Sunday, August 20, 2017

Giving an old Mac a new lease of life

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This weekend, I upgraded my daughter's 2011 MacBook Air with a new SSD and battery and gave it a new lease on life. Although this computer is six years old, it still has no problem handling all the tasks she uses it for: web surfing, photos, Microsoft Office, music, YouTube and other related tasks. But after all this time, the 120G SSD is getting full and the battery only lasts about an hour on a full charge. The computer was also running a pretty old version of macOS - 10.7 ("Lion") was released in 2011 and hasn't seen an update since 2012. Because of this, several other key applications, including Firefox and Chrome were also old and out of date, and were in need of upgrades.

If this was a current-model Mac laptop, these upgrades would be impossible, since current models have glued the battery to the case and soldered the SSD to the motherboard, but Apple has not (yet) made these anti-repair changes to the MacBook Air series.

To upgrade the computer, I bought a 480G SSD upgrade kit and a replacement battery for it. Total cost was approximately $380. The kits include the special screwdrivers needed for installation and a USB enclosure for the old SSD (more on that later).

The first step before starting any major job like this is to make a full backup of the system. It's actually a good idea to make two full backups, just in case one fails, since you really don't want to have to explain why everything got trashed, should the upgrade go wrong. I had already purchased two external hard drives for my daughter to use in college (a 2TB portable drive and a 4TB desktop drive), so I used them to hold bootable full-system backups. After using Apple's Disk Utility to re-partition the drives for a GUID partition table and format each with the Mac OS Extended file system, I used Carbon Copy Cloner to copy the system's recovery partition to the external drives and make a full bootable backup of the system. After test-booting the computer from each of the backups (hold down the Option key while booting, then select the USB drive to boot from it), I was all set to upgrade the computer.

I don't have photos of the procedure (didn't think about it until I started writing this article), but if you require detailed instructions, iFixit has detailed repair guides for most Mac computers. For a 2011 11" MacBook Air, they have repair guides for both the battery and the SSD.

The procedure I followed to do both upgrades at once was:

  1. Whenever working inside of a computer, be careful about static electricity. Wear an ESD wrist strap if you have one. If you don't and you don't want to get one, work on a smooth (non-carpeted) surface and touch grounded metal (like a steel lamp or table leg) often while you are working. And never touch exposed circuitry on anything you handle while working.
  2. Remove the 10 screws from the back of the case. This requires a special pentalobe screwdriver. The upgrade kits I purchased include this screwdriver. When removing them, note that there are two long screws and eight small ones. Be careful to not mix them up later on when reassembling the computer.
  3. With the screws removed, the back case comes right off. Set it aside so it doesn't get damaged when you need it later.
  4. Locate the connector that attaches the battery to the motherboard. You can disconnect it with your fingers, but you will find it much easier if you use a plastic spudger Do not use any metal tools - they can damage the plastic connector. Do not use force - the connector should come off without much effort. If it seems too tight, look more closely. You want to disconnect the battery's connector from the motherboard's connector. You do not want to pry the motherboard's connector from the motherboard - if you do that, you will cause permanent damage and will probably have to buy a new computer.
  5. With the battery disconnected, remove the five Torx screws that hold it in place. The upgrade kit I bought included the screwdrivers. Please note that these screws come in three different lengths. Be careful to not mix them up.
    How to install the old SSD in an OWC Envoy enclosure

    Although you can simply discard the old SSD (if you do, I recommend destroying it, since it will likely contain data you would not want someone else to get), if it is still working, you may want to keep it around for use as an external USB drive. Other World Computing sells the Envoy enclosure for just this purpose. The replacement SSD kit I purchased includes this enclosure, and I used it.

    To install the old SSD in the Envoy:

    1. Open the Envoy (it consists of two aluminum case halves) and remove the plastic packet with its two mounting screws
    2. Attach the old SSD to the Envoy's circuit board
    3. Place the SSD (now attached to the Envoy's board) in the lower half of the case. It can only fit one way (with the micro-USB3 connector passing through a hole in the side of the case.
    4. Put the top cover on the Envoy and secure it shut with the two screws. Use the longer screw for the thicker part of the case and the shorter screw for the thinner part of the case
    The Envoy includes two self-adhesive rubber feet to go on the bottom. Peel them from the backing and place them on the case. There are indentations where they belong, but I noticed that these indentations are where the screws go. Since I may want to re-open the Envoy in the future (e.g. to put in a different SSD after upgrading another computer), I attached the feet next to these indentations, leaving the screws exposed.

    And you're done. Attach the included USB cable to the Envoy and use it like any other USB storage device.

  6. Remove the old battery and set it aside.
  7. Locate the SSD. It is held in place by one Torx screw. Remove it and set it aside. Slide the SSD from its socket by sliding it horizontally. You can lift it a little, but try not to - you don't want to accidentally damage the socket.
  8. If you bought an enclosure for the old SSD, now is a good time to install it. (See sidebar)
  9. Install the new SSD. Taking care to avoid ESD damage, remove it from its packaging. Gently press it into its socket until it is firmly seated. If it doesn't fit easily, note the orientation of the connector. It is not symmetric and will not fit if the SSD is upside-down. Once the SSD is seated, secure it using the Torx screw you set aside when removing the old SSD
  10. Place the new battery in the computer. It is on a plastic frame that will align with the five screw-holes in the case. Make sure its connector is over the motherboard's battery connector. If it isn't, then you have the battery upside-down. Secure it to the case with the five Torx screws you set aside when removing the original battery. Be careful to use the correct screws - there are three different sizes and you will cause damage if you put them in the wrong place. Do not over-tighten the screws or you can strip the aluminum base.
  11. Snap the battery's connector to the motherboard's battery connector. Look closely to make sure all the pins align correctly and then press firmly until you hear it snap into place.
  12. Put the cover back on the computer and secure it with the ten pentalobe screws you removed when opening the computer. Be careful to use the correct screws - there are two different sizes and you will cause damage if you put them in the wrong place. Do not over-tighten the screws or you can strip the aluminum base
At this point, the hardware upgrade is complete. It's now time to copy the system software onto the new (and currently blank) SSD and install necessary upgrades.

To copy everything to the new SSD, boot from one of the backups. I used the old SSD (mounted in its USB enclosure) because it is much faster than the hard drives I used for backups. Attach the backup drive, hold the Option key while booting and select the external drive to boot from it. The boot sequence will take longer than you're used to - this is inevitable because USB 2.0 (what the Mac Book Air has) is much slower than the internal SSD interface and hard drives (if you booted from a hard drive backup) are much slower than SSDs

When the system has booted (from the external drive), use Disk Utility to partition and format the new SSD. As with the backup drives, use a GUID partition table and format the partition using Mac OS Extended format.

Now, clone the external drive to the internal one. Use the same software used when making the backup. Using Carbon Copy Cloner, I first copied the recovery partition to the new SSD, then cloned everything else to the main partition.

Once everything has been successfully cloned, shutdown the computer, disconnect the USB drive, and boot from the (new) internal SSD. It should just work at this point. After booting, go to the Startup Disk system preference to select the internal SSD, because the old value will be invalid (pointing to the no-longer-present SSD), causing the system to boot more slowly than necessary.

And now it's time to upgrade the software. This part actually made me more nervous than the hardware replacement because I was going to be jumping forward five macOS releases, going from 10.7 ("Lion") to 10.12 ("Sierra" - the current version). Fortunately, everything went smoothly. Launch the App Store and click on the Upgrade tab. There is a giant ad at the top of the window requesting an upgrade to Sierra, including an "Upgrade" button. Click it.

At this point, the Sierra installer downloads (about 5GB, which took about 35 minutes to download over a 25Mbps cable modem). Once downloaded, the installer starts to run. It will ask you to click a button to begin installation and then ask for an administrator password. Provide this information. The system will reboot and installation will continue. It will take a while (over an hour), but you can't just ignore it, because there are two or three times where you will have to click a button to continue. When finished, the system will boot up to a Sierra login screen (or the account you have configured for auto-login, if you have configured that). When you log in, you will be asked for your Apple ID and password for setting up iCloud, and if you want to set up Siri. You can skip both steps, if you wish. Please note that every user on the computer will be presented the same setup windows the first time he logs in after the upgrade.

But you're not quite done yet. Go back to the App Store's Updates tab and look for more updates. In my case, there were several. There were two application updates (iPhoto and iMovie), a Thunderbolt firmware update, and updates for iTunes and updates for printer drivers. You may have to reboot as a part of some of these installations. Repeat this process until no more updates are available. (For some reason, the Thunderbolt firmware update needed to be installed twice before the App Store stopped asking me to upgrade it.)

With macOS fully upgraded, the next step is to update applications. I used the auto-update features of Firefox and Chrome to bring them to the current versions. I had to repeat the process multiple times for Firefox - it won't jump all the way from version 22 to 55.0.2.

Finally, I updated Microsoft Office. After launching an Office application (I used Word, but any one will do), I was asked to re-authorize the installation. I assume this is because the new SSD causes its hardware ID to change. Fortunately, I retained by license key from the original installation. I typed in the key, Office accepted it, and the applications launched properly. I then used the Microsoft auto-update tool (select "Check For Updates" from the Help menu) to download and install all available updates, repeating as necessary until there are no more updates to install.

And software installation is done. The only remaining task is to calibrate the new battery. Although Apple doesn't consider this necessary for modern Macs, the battery's manufacturer explicitly requests (as a part of its installation instructions) that this be done, so I did. I followed the link included with the battery and followed the documented procedure.

And now it's all good to go. My daughter's computer now has four time its original storage and a brand new battery and is all ready for use when she goes off to college next week.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Washington Free Beacon: U.S. Navy Tests World’s First Laser Weapons System

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U.S. Navy Tests World’s First Laser Weapons System
By: Jack Heretik,

The U.S. Navy recently tested the world's first-ever active laser weapons system, which is now deployed and ready for war.

The Laser Weapons System, or LaWS, is now deployed aboard the USS Ponce amphibious transport ship, where CNN was able to witness the system destroy a drone in flight and moving targets on the Persian Gulf.
...
Its cost per use is also quite impressive for such a revolutionary new weapon: approximately $1 per shot. The $40 million system requires electrical power and a three-man team.

The LaWS is also extremely accurate. The system can target a single component of an enemy target, such as a boat's engine, and make it catch fire so that the entire vessel does not have to be destroyed and the Navy can avoid collateral damage.

Wow. This is a game-changer weapon.

Sci-fi stories have been describing beam weapons for over 50 years and now we have a real one deployed and in use by the US Navy.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Windows 10 disables ATA Secure Erase

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h/t MacInTouch

For those who aren't seriously into computer technology, there are technological issues with erasing an SSD.

With a hard drive, you can use all kinds of standard disk-erase utilities to write zeros to every block. If you're paranoid about leaving magnetic after-images, there are various algorithms for writing various patterns designed to obscure any magnetic residue of old files. They take a long time, but are generally considered secure enough for all but the most sensitive data (which should only be "erased" via physical destruction of the drive.)

With an SSD, however, erasure by overwriting new data is not effective. Tehnologies like wear leveling, garbage collection and TRIM make it difficult or impossible to know if data has truly been erased. Writing zeros to a logical block of data does not necessarily overwrite the flash memory containing the old data - it is more likely that the flash memory will be marked as "garbage" for collection (which will truly erase it) at some non-deterministic time in the future. That time might be quickly, or it might not be for days or even months, depending on the SSD controller's algorithm and the drive's usage pattern.

Mind you, this "garbage" data is not accessible using any software-accessible interface (SATA, SCSI, USB, etc.) The only way to read garbage data is to install special firmware into the SSD controller or to physically remove the chips. But both options are possible for someone willing to pay a data recovery company or some other similarly capable forensics lab.

Which is where the ATA secure erase command comes into play. The ATA specification (at the heart of all ATA and SATA devices) includes a command for explicitly and securely erasing a device. When supported on an SSD, it performs a flash-level erase on every single block, ensuring that no data will be available to recover.

And now, with this background material in mind, the linked MacInTouch posting now make sense. It would appear that the act of installing Windows 8 or 10 on an SSD involves writing some data to the drive that disables the secure erase command. Why they do this may be an interesting topic for discussion, but doesn't really matter if you've got a retired drive that you want to erase.

To get around this problem, you need to get a copy of the SSD manufacturer's drive utility. You can use this utility to reset the SSD's firmware, which will re-enable the secure erase command. Unfortunately, in order for this to work, you need the drive's PSID code - this is a secure ID designed to prevent malware from bypassing security features. Fortunately, most SSDs print the PSID on the drive's label. Unfortunately, if your label is removed or damaged, you may not be able to read it and there is usually no other way to get this number.

I suppose the important lesson here is that when you install a new SSD into a computer, photograph the cover to make a record of the PSID number. If you are concerned that a hacker might get this image, print a few copies and store them in a secure location (like a file cabinet) and then erase the image file.

If all this seems like too much, there's another alternative - use whole-drive disk encryption before you copy any data to the SSD. Later on, when it's time to retire the SSD, blow away the decryption key. A simple drive-erase (without decrypting it) will do it just fine. Or if you want to make it even simpler, change the drive's password to a long string of gibberish characters (30-50 characters should do nicely) and promptly forget what they are. Anybody who gets the drive in the future will not be able to access the data without this string, and it is highly unlikely that they will ever be able to provide it. Of course, you can also delete all the files and empty-trash before changing the string, to provide an additional level of protection.

Finally, you might want to encrypt the drive anyway. This way you will be protected in case the drive controller fails, since you won't be able to perform any kind of secure erase operation at that point, but your encrypted data will not be recoverable through forensic analysis without the decryption key.

Monday, July 17, 2017

MIT: Tinfoil hats make it easier for the government to scan your brain

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Study on the effect of tinfoil hats on blocking mind control satellites

In February 2005, some CSAIL graduate students "Published" a paper on the effect of tinfoil hats on blocking mind control satellites. They measured the attenuation of radio signals as a function of frequency and determined that certain frequencies which are reserved for government use are actually amplified by the tinfoil hats. Clearly the government must have started the tinfoil hat craze so it could more effectively spy on its citizens.

A full account of this experiment can be found here

Yes, this is a joke.

The interesting (and not necessarily funny) part is that one of the bands that are amplified (2.6GHz) is used by cell phones. If you are worried about cell phone radiation causing brain tumors, then you should probably avoid wearing any aluminum foil headgear.

Friday, July 14, 2017

War on "Medicad"?

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h/t Washington Free Beacon.

Apparently one of the "cost-effective ways for us to continue access to health care" is to slash by 50% spending on use of the letter "i" in promotional materials.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Washington Free Beacon: New York Times Falls for Parody North Korea Twitter Account

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New York Times Falls for Parody North Korea Twitter Account
BY: Alex Griswold.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that a statement from a parody North Korea Twitter account was an actual statement from the North Korean government.

The Times story on a joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea noted that "the North Korean government belittled the joint exercise as ‘demonstrating near total ignorance of ballistic science.'"

But that statement came from the parody @DPRK_News account, in what was evidently a satirical tweet.

I know this isn't the first time, and it won't be the last, but it seems significant to me. If the Times can't be bothered to fact-check something as trivial as this (to make sure a tweet claiming to be from the North Korean government actually is from them) then how can they be trusted with any other "facts" they report?

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

$70 hackintosh outperforms new laptop

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Snazzy Labs builds a $70 hackintosh—or, as he calls it, crapintosh—computer for those who want a super tight budget PC build. Can a $70 hackintosh be any good? Can a cheap hackintosh outbench a MacBook Pro? Do Apple's iMac, MacBook Pro, and Mac Pro blow this 5-year-old computer into outer space or does the hackintosh give it a run for its money?

Fascinating. Scrounge used parts (government surplus, Craigslist, etc.) to assemble a PC for $70, hack macOS 10.12 "Sierra" onto it and find that it outperforms Apple's low-end laptops and is surprisingly good at just about everything other than high-end gaming.

Now, clearly, the pricing is not realistic. Used and surplus equipment is cheap because the seller's goal is to get rid of it, not to make a profit. And it is sold as-is with no warranty, support or anything else. A company like Apple selling new equipment with the same specs would have to charge a lot more, but it is still a fascinating experiment nonetheless.

Actually, it sounds like a fun hobby project for me if I can clear out some space in my office :-)

Friday, June 30, 2017

JapanSauce: Japan’s Cute Barricades

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Japan’s Cute Barricades
May 24, 2016

Japan is known for having many cute and cool things, but I was still surprised to learn that Japanese construction sites are now being guarded by Hello Kitty.

Click through to the main article to see lots of other cute Japanese safety barriers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Circa: Did the FBI retaliate against Michael Flynn by launching Russia probe?

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Did the FBI retaliate against Michael Flynn by launching Russia probe?
by John Solomon and Sara Carter

...
The FBI launched a criminal probe against former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn two years after the retired Army general roiled the bureau’s leadership by intervening on behalf of a decorated counterterrorism agent who accused now-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and other top officials of sexual discrimination, according to documents and interviews.

Flynn’s intervention on behalf of Supervisory Special Agent Robyn Gritz was highly unusual, and included a letter in 2014 on his official Pentagon stationary, a public interview in 2015 supporting Gritz’s case and an offer to testify on her behalf. His offer put him as a hostile witness in a case against McCabe, who was soaring through the bureau’s leadership ranks.

The FBI sought to block Flynn’s support for the agent, asking a federal administrative law judge in May 2014 to keep Flynn and others from becoming a witness in her Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) case, memos obtained by Circa show. Two years later, the FBI opened its inquiry of Flynn.

The EEOC case, which is still pending, was serious enough to require McCabe to submit to a sworn statement to investigators, the documents show.

The deputy director’s testimony provided some of the strongest evidence in the case of possible retaliation, because he admitted the FBI opened an internal investigation into Gritz’s personal conduct after learning the agent “had filed or intended to file” a sex discrimination complaint against her supervisors.

McCabe eventually became the bureau’s No. 2 executive and emerged as a central player in the FBI’s Russia election tampering investigation, putting him in a position to impact the criminal inquiry against Flynn.

Three FBI employees told Circa they personally witnessed McCabe make disparaging remarks about Flynn before and during the time the retired Army general emerged as a figure in the Russia case.
...

So now the truth starts to come out. The FBI director (formerly deputy director) was accused of sexual discrimination. Flynn wrote a memo supporting the accusation. The FBI retaliated by initiating investigations against both and by filing bogus criminal charges against Flynn.

And that's about it. Everything else we've been told for the past six months is just political grandstanding. Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Washington Free Beacon: Joy Behar Doesn’t Want Trump to Be Impeached Until Her Book Comes Out

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Joy Behar Doesn’t Want Trump to Be Impeached Until Her Book Comes Out
BY: Jack Heretik

...
Behar, who criticizes Trump and Republicans daily, has been vocally opposed to Trump and has wanted him to be impeached since he entered office.

"I don't want him to get impeached until after my book comes out," Behar said...

Always good to know that the TV personalities that shape American political thought have their priorities straight. Right, wrong, good, evil are all less important than cashing in on a book deal.