RemixOS: Honeymoon is over, Annulment granted

I tried, I really did, but I just can’t live with RemixOS.

At first, I was swayed by the beauty of it.  It’s so clean and neat and functional, and access to the Play Store means so many apps are available already.

But.  Try to set up printing.  Or certain other services.

Even when they work, you either (a) pay for them, or (b) look at ads.  Whereas, as a user of Ubuntu (or any other Linux distro, really) you get the same things for free with no ads.

The honeymoon is over, it seems.

The only thing I’ve found that it’s good for is a set-top box; the streaming apps for various video/TV services are really pretty nice, and having RemixOS on a computer connected to a TV set can be a good way to enjoy them.  But that’s it, the only use case that makes sense to me.

RemixOS Survival Guide, Part 1

RemixOS is a beautiful thing.  Android on a PC, simple and fast and pretty, and all those apps!

But while it’s a nice place to visit, it still takes a bit of work to live there.  So I’m going to document, here on my blog, the things I’ve done to make my “toy” computer someplace I could actually do business.

I’m going to start this in the middle, with something I learned later that it pays to know in the beginning.  Install the 32 bit version!  Even if you have a 64-bit-capable computer, your life will be easier (at least right now) in 32 bit land.  Apps that provide native Intel libraries often do not supply 64 bit versions… apps like PrintHand or Print Hammermill.

Let’s start with installing RemixOS on your computer.  If you, like me, want RemixOS to be the only OS on the computer, then start by either making a bootable USB flash drive containing your preferred edition (i.e. 32 bit, as I explained above) or burning the image to a DVD.  I had a problem with the computer I’m using for testing being unable to boot USB… turned out it won’t boot any USB flash drive.  So I did the burning option.

Rather than explain all of this myself, I’m going to chicken out and let someone else do it.  If you want to create a bootable USB drive on Windows, you want to start following the directions at this link.  When you get to step 5 and the menu appears (the GRUB boot menu, to be exact), press TAB to pause the boot and pick up the directions below.

If you are using a modern Linux distribution, install UNetbootin from your package manager and then run it.  Tell it you are putting an ISO on your flash drive, then point it at the one you downloaded.  Again, boot from it, and at the blue GRUB menu press TAB.

Okay, so, now you should be looking at the GRUB menu with a long string of garbage at the bottom.  That long string of garbage is the boot command string which tells Linux (the underlying kernel for Android) how to boot.  Without changing anything that is already there, add a space and then type in

INSTALL=1

at the end.  Press ENTER, and the RemixOS installation system will start up.

I’m assuming you want to use the entire hard drive for RemixOS.  If not, stop.  The instructions I’m about to give you will DESTROY the contents of your hard drive… if you have anything important on there, you need to back it up first.  No, I’m not going to explain how… Google for it.

If you are sure you are ready to erase that hard drive, well, here’s how you do it.  RemixOS will ask where you want to install it, and it will show you a list of the available partitions on all your hard drives.  You probably should start by choosing the option to change partitions, then choose your /dev/sda (the first hard drive).  When it asks if you want to use GPT, say no.  The next screen that comes up will be cfdisk, which will allow you to delete your partitions and create new ones.

After erasing your partitions, create a single partition for the entire hard drive, make it bootable, and then choose the Write option to save it.  Finally, choose Quit to move on.

RemixOS will ask about formatting the drive.  Choose ext3 or ext4 as the partition type (I’m not sure that it makes much difference which one you choose; ext4 is a bit better, technically).  You’ll be warned that you are going to erase the hard drive, but don’t kid yourself, you already did that in the last step.

The operating system will now install.  Walk away and let it work.

More later… look for Part 2, coming soon!

 

 

Installing SuperSU on Remix OS 2.0

I’ve been playing with Remix OS on a six-year-old Intel-based computer lately.  It has 2 GB of RAM (right now, but I do intend to put a bit more in it) and a 320 GB hard drive, and I have to say I haven’t been this excited about an operating system in a long time.  It is limited, certainly, but it is beautiful.

So I wanted to tinker with the power management, but for that I needed root access.  I installed Remix OS in “writable /system” mode, and so with a quick Ctrl-Alt-F1 I’m looking at a root prompt… but apps can’t access root that way.  For that you need something like SuperSU, which I run on my rooted tablet.

I’ll admit right now, if there is a way to boot into recovery mode on Remix OS, I haven’t found it yet.  But it turns out that, by hacking on some procedures for rooting other Android devices, you can still make this work.

First, download the current stable SuperSU zip file from here:

http://download.chainfire.eu/supersu-stable

Unzip it on your Remix OS device.  I just switched to the shell on the first VT and did it, but you can do it however you like.

From that first VT prompt, you’ll need to put the new su binary in place.  Assuming you unpacked the SuperSU file into a folder named SuperSU in the Downloads folder, you need to do this:

cd /system/xbin
mv su su.orig
cp /sdcard/Downloads/SuperSU/x64/su .
chmod 4751 su

NOTE that these instructions are for a 64 bit system.  For 32 bit, you need to substitute x86 for the x64 above see the EDIT section below.

Now switch back to the GUI (Ctrl-Alt-F7) and reboot the system.

Once the system has rebooted, open up your file manager and find the SuperSU folder (under Downloads, if you did it like I did).  Inside that folder you’ll find a folder named common, and inside that a file named Superuser.apk.  Double-click it to install.

After installing, start SuperSU.  It will tell you it needs to update; do that, and (with any luck) it will tell you it was successful, and that you should reboot again.  Do that, and again with any luck,  you are done!

Disclaimer:  This worked for me.  Your mileage may vary.

EDIT 6/9/2016 — I had trouble with apps that didn’t like the 64 bit RemixOS, so I scrubbed the system and installed the 32 bit version.  When I did, the instructions above did not work… the su binary doesn’t seem to be right for the system, but the su.pie file in the same x86 folder does.  So here are the updated commands to install on a 32 bit system:

cd /system/xbin
mv su su.orig
cp /sdcard/Downloads/SuperSU/x64/su.pie su
chmod 4751 su

Technical Support Scams

Lately I’m hearing from a lot of my customers about technical support scams.  These scams prey upon average users with limited technical knowledge, and can become pricey for the victims.

There are three different ways these scams may start:

The first way is by means of hijacking your web browser.  (Actually, it’s a remote website that is hijacked, but stay with me here.)  Say one day you are surfing around, looking for information about remote controlled cars or nursing homes or movies (or anything, really), and suddenly you have a scary message on your screen…  Windows Virus Warning! or 149 Viruses Detected or something like that.  The message warns that you should not shut down or restart the computer, and in large print there is a phone number that you are told to call for help.  So you pick up the phone and dial…

OR perhaps you are already having a problem with your computer.  Let’s say you have a Dell computer, and it’s not working right, so you do a search on the Internet for “Dell support.”  Right there at the top of the page of search results is one that says Dell Support followed by a phone number.  If you look carefully, it says “AD” next to the listing, but maybe you don’t notice, or the fact that it’s an advertisement doesn’t bother you (it should).  So once again, you pick up the phone and start dialing…

OR MAYBE you aren’t even at your computer, but your phone rings.  The guy (it’s usually a man) on the phone tells you he’s with Microsoft, or Norton, or some other famous technology company, and that they have determined that your computer is infected with something nasty…

All of the above situations end up the same way… you’re on the phone with someone who says he is a tech support specialist who wants to help you with your problem.  As you are reading this, you’ve probably figured out by now that he’s lying, but sadly in real life too many people are taken in this way.

From this point, the script is much the same, regardless of how you got here.  The tech tells you he needs you to give him access to your computer.  He guides you to his website, where he helps you download and run the remote control software.  Now he has control of your computer, and he begins a classic confidence game.  He shows you legitimate files in your computer’s file system or messages in the event viewer or other technical things that you don’t know how to interpret, and tells you that they are signs of a terrible infection (or less commonly, other technical problems with impressive-sounding names).  Fortunately, the tech can help you with this awful situation… you just have to pay him first.

Yes, of course, it’s about money.

If you have gotten caught by this kind of scam, the first thing you need to do is to have your computer looked at by a real technician.  Someone you trust.  Remember, you let the bad guy have control of your computer.  You ran software you got from his website.  He could have done anything to your computer… installed spyware, for instance.  In my experience, I haven’t seen this happen very often; most of these guys are just in it for the cash payoff, and if they can’t get money out of you, they move on to the next victim.  But it does happen, and if you do anything more with your computer than watch Youtube, you really should have it looked at.

More importantly, if you have any of the experiences I’ve described above, be careful!  Never call a phone number just because it pops up on the screen!  If you get a phone call where the caller says your computer is infected, I recommend you say “Thanks!  I’ll get my computer looked at right away!” and then hang up the phone before he can say another word.  If you’re looking for technical support with your computer, be really sure that you have a good phone number before you call.  Better yet, call someone local for support, even if you have a big name brand computer.

The scammers are out there, and they’re always looking for someone to take advantage of.  Don’t be their next victim.

Hello World, Sort of, Part II: Talk Nerdy

In my previous post I talked about my time working on software for Knox and Shelby Counties in Missouri.  That was all historical, and probably not very interesting to anyone besides me.  In this installment I’m going to reminisce about the actual computers.

Knox County bought their computer first, and got a Radio Shack Model 16b running TRS-XENIX.  Shelby County followed, purchasing a Tandy Model 6000 computer, which was nothing more than a rebranded Radio Shack 16b (after all, Tandy owned Radio Shack).  I suspect the rebranding was intended to indicate that the 6000 was a more “upscale” computer, separating it from the TRS-DOS-based Radio Shack computers that were then popular in businesses (at least in my area).

The 16b/6000 was an oddball machine.  It resembled the other Radio Shack computers of the era, with 8″ floppy disc drives and large external hard drive boxes.  Here’s a copy of an original ad for the 16b:

radio-shack-16b

The dual processor architecture mentioned in the advertisement was one of the weird features.  The main processor was a Motorola 68000 running at 8 MHz, with a second Zilog Z80 processor that normally served to manage I/O devices.  I don’t know exactly what that means… that is, what I/O was directly managed by the Z80.  Was it all of it?  Or just some devices?  What I do know is that the 16b could boot TRS-DOS on the Z80, leaving the 68000 offline, or it could boot TRS-XENIX on the 68000 with the Z80 in that subordinate role.

TRS-XENIX was an interesting case.  Both computers I worked with came with the early version, based on AT&T Unix Version 7, and I (rather painfully) upgraded both to the later XENIX 3.0, which was based on AT&T Unix System III.  I don’t even recall what the changes were, but I remember liking the upgrade.

For those not “in the know,” let me boil it down.  AT&T/Bell could not sell software at that time (because of their monopoly status), so the Unix OS could only be bought from someone else who licensed it from AT&T.  No, that doesn’t make sense to me either.  They couldn’t sell it to you or me, but they could sell it to some company for resale.  Anyway, Microsoft licensed Unix from them, but because they couldn’t use the name “Unix” (why?), they called it XENIX.  Microsoft then licensed XENIX to Tandy, which rebranded it TRS-XENIX.  Wikipedia says that Tandy was at that time the largest (in terms of count of units sold) reseller of Unix.  I can believe it.

By the time XENIX 3.0 came out, the copyright headers in a lot of the scripts now included a new player:  SCO, the Santa Cruz Operation.  I see on Wikipedia that SCO and Microsoft worked together to create a XENIX for the Apple Lisa in 1984, and I assume that work fed back into the upgraded Tandy XENIX.

The two computers I worked on each had two remote serial terminals, DT-1 Data Terminals that appear to have been stripped-down early-model TRS-80 computers; they still had bays for floppy drives, for example.  I think Knox County’s computer had a pair of the 15 MB hard drives, while Shelby’s later model had a single 35 MB hard drive; my memory may be a bit faulty on the exact details, but I do know Knox had dual drives.  Both counties had LMP-2150 printers, which were rebranded Printronix printers which had astounding lifespans.  The buttons on the cover (which cover was apparently made for or by Tandy) were membranes, and they tended to break down over time, but the printer engine was bulletproof.  Also very loud.

Possibly the most amazing thing to me now was what these things all cost.  Here are the prices I’ve been able to find for the bits and pieces I remember being installed at Knox (the actual price they paid probably varied).  I’ve added adjusted 2015 prices (the latest year I can find inflation info for).

Item Original Qty 2015 Total
TRS-80 Model 16b $4,999.00 1 $11,995.00
15 MB Hard Drive, each $2,495.00 2 $11,975.00
DT1 Data Terminal, each $699.00 2 $3,355.00
LMP-2150 Printer $3,995.00 1 $9,585.00
2015 Grand Total
$36,910.00

WOW.  And they let 18-year-old ME touch it.  What WERE they thinking?

The 16b probably had half a meg of RAM, and yet it managed to run a fully functional Unix system as well as application software.  (Oh, yeah, I didn’t add in the software price above… no idea how much that would have been.)

Man, that was a long time ago.

Hello World, Sort Of

My first paying job working with computers was with the Knox County, Missouri Assessor’s Office.  It so happened that, in 1983 when I was starting college, my next door neighbor was the county assessor.  He was someone I had always known, a local businessman before he ran for the office; his job, on the other hand, I knew nothing whatsoever about.

He called me up one night and asked me if I could “help out” with their computer.  This was during the reassessment (in fact, let’s capitalize that as “The Reassessment”).  I don’t really remember the whole history, but I can tell you that all the counties in Missouri were performing fresh assessments on all their real property.  It was a huge job, and the State Tax Commission was providing money to assist with computerization of the data.  It had never been done in most counties before that, so it was kind of a “Wild West” situation, with lots of people who knew a little about computers jumping in and trying to get something done.

I knew a little about computers.  It was my freshman year in college, and I had experience with Apple II computers running DOS 3.3.  That was about it, actually.  But I said sure, I’ll do what I can.  I spent a bunch of evenings in the office learning about their computer on my own before I ever talked about getting paid.  Still, they were probably nuts to let me do it.

But it seems the salesman who sold them the computer had done all the programming.  Is that alarming to you?  It should be… little as I knew, I still knew more than he did.

I had barely started working for Knox County when I was called by the assessor of Shelby County, who had the same computer, bought from the same guy, with almost but not quite the same software setup.  So I started working for Shelby County at almost the same time I did for Knox.

I spent 1984 just getting familiar with the programs the salesman had written (actually, the whole assessing-collecting system was put together on top of Profile 16+, the Tandy database software they had purchased with the computer) and writing or revising reports, screens, etc.  It took me until the end of that year to really understand what he had done wrong, and that all came back not to technology but to understanding (or not understanding) the offices.  I pitched a rewrite to both counties, and got the go-ahead to do it; it took me most of 1985 to get that done, working part-time while going to college.

I should mention that I was working for the Collector of Revenue in both counties as well as the Assessor.  Part of the issues with the software system the salesman wrote was that it didn’t adequately separate the two offices (in each county) so that each office could work with the data only half a year, and the Collector couldn’t keep unpaid (delinquent) taxes on the computer from year to year.  This was one of the first major changes I made.

The software remained in use in Knox County until 2012, thus getting about 27 years out of the rewritten system.  Seriously.  Shelby County bailed earlier, around 2008 if I recall correctly.  When the old computers got too old, they switched to a network of DOS PCs running filePro+, and I transplanted all the data from old to new.  When those computers got old, they got Windows XP computers and ran the program in DOS windows.  It was the advent of Windows 7 that finally spelled the end for the old program… though you can make DOS programs run on Windows 7, it’s not easy, and it really sucks trying to network them.  By that time the Shelby Co. Assessor had finally moved away from the old program, and the Knox Co. Assessor only used the personal property parts (having long before switched to a full appraisal system from another vendor) but the Collectors in both counties still used that old program.  I’m happy to say I wrote the replacement programs for both counties (though perhaps not surprisingly they aren’t quite the same program…)  It’s my hope that the new software will have the same “legs” as the old, giving decades of service before needing replacement again.

Wow, that’s a lot of writing.  I had planned to “talk nerdy” here, but I think that will wait for another post, in a few days perhaps.

A Personal Distinction

A question a customer asked me a few days ago reminded me that I have a point of personal distinction, albeit a very small one:  I was the very first student banned from the Knox County, Missouri High School computer lab.

It was in my senior year, 1982-83, when the school first decided to have a computer class at all.  The class would be open to seniors only, at least in that first year, and would be a semester class.  I signed up for it and was placed in the second semester; I filled in that slot in the first semester with an art class of some sort.

The lab had two whole computers… a Radio Shack Model 4 (I think) and an Apple //e.  A friend told me that, were you to ask the teacher who was the head of the business department (not the actual teacher of the computer class), you could go into the lab during study hall and play with them.  It happened that I had 7th hour study hall, a time when there was no class in the room, and only one other student (a friend of mine) was interested in going to the lab, so there were enough computers to go around.

This was during the first semester, by the way; I hadn’t yet started the class, nor would I.  I was approached by the teacher as Christmas break was closing in, and told that, as there were a lot of students who still wanted to add the class, and I obviously knew a lot about computers, they would let me “test out” of the class to make my seat available for someone else.  I passed, got the half-credit, and took another art class to finish out the year.  So I was never actually in the computer class at all.

Anyway… another friend had an Apple ][+, and he had the technical manual for it, which he loaned to me.  I still have it, actually, which probably says something… never mind.  Studying that book, I learned a lot about the architecture of Apple II computers.  In particular I learned about using the built-in ROM monitor to enter code in assembly language.

I should mention at this point that neither computer had a disc drive of any sort.  There was a cassette tape player for the Apple, but I never had occasion to use it.  So if you turned either computer off and on again, any and all work you had done was gone forever.

On the Apple II computers, the standard AppleSoft BASIC prompt was a single square bracket ], and you couldn’t change it.  There was no “set PROMPT=” or PS1= or anything like that… it was a fixed feature of the ROM.  But actually, you could change it, if you did it in assembly language and hooked the input routine just right.  Once I found that out, I couldn’t resist, I had to do it just to see it work.

So I hand-coded the assembly language code on notebook paper, went into the classroom before classes began, and typed it into the ROM monitor; I used the unused 256 byte memory page at $0300 to contain it, so it would not be in the way of any BASIC code that might be entered during the day.  When I came back into the room during study hall, the last hour of the day, I found my altered prompt still in effect.  They had used the computer all day long with the modified prompt and apparently never noticed it.  Again, if they had turned it off and back on at any point during the day, my changes would have disappeared as if they had never been at all.

What did I change the prompt to?  My initials, followed by a carriage return and a square bracket.  Just about as clever as you’d expect from a high school student.  I was proud of it, and thought it was rather funny (really, it was just dumb), and I told the business teacher (the woman I had to get approval from to access the computers).  She was about as impressed as you’d think, but didn’t seem concerned, at least as far as I could tell.

A full week later she came to me and told me the administration had ordered me banned from the lab for “hacking.”

Seriously.

So as I say, I am officially the first person ever banned from the computer lab at Knox County High School.  I really feel the ban was about as stupid as my “hack” was… I got no hearing, never had the opportunity to point out to the administration (whoever it was who had banned me, I don’t even know if it was the principal or superintendent or who) that what I did neither affected the class nor had any lasting effect at all.

But it’s still a point of distinction for me.  For one brief moment I was an “outlaw.”

Pfft.

Toner In The Carpet (Oh No!)

Yesterday while evaluating a printing issue with a customer’s color Lexmark laser printer, I managed to drop the black developer unit on the floor.  It left a quarter-sized spot of purest blackness, then spread a gray cast over dinner-plate-sized area nearby when it bounced.  Ack.

I looked up the best ways to clean up that sort of mess and found several sites that recommended dry cleaning solvent, which I did not have, followed (if needed) by water with dish detergent added.  Messy procedures that would require me to go out and buy things.  I was pretty sure there was no place in the city of Edina to buy dry cleaning solvent anyway.

I apologized profusely to the secretary whose office I had just sullied; she acted cool about it, but that was no consolation to me as I was well aware of what I had done.  I called Lexmark to get replacements for the parts I had determined were bad, and as I stood there waiting for the tech to finish filling out forms (he was helpful, to be sure, but that sort of thing is never quick) I considered the mess I had made.

It was dry toner, after all, finely powdered plastic.  A vacuum cleaner had already failed to remove it from the carpet, so the particles must have been entangled with the carpet fibers.  Was there still a way to remove it dry?

Then I considered the can of compressed gas (“duster”) I had brought in with me to clean the printer inside.  I sat down on the floor, phone pinned against my shoulder, and with one hand hovering curled behind the darkest spot I pointed the nozzle at the nearest edge and fired away.

A few sprays later, the toner was all (all!) out of the carpet; most was distributed on my guarding hand, which I cleaned up with a tissue.  Elated (as you might imagine) I moved on to the larger, paler mess and did the same thing.  I think I may have used up almost the whole can, but it was worth it.

So for anyone with a similar mess, before you get it wet, you might want to try my procedure.  I make no guarantees, but I promise you it worked for me.

Killing GWX (as in, I really don’t want Windows 10)

FOR THE NON-TECHNICAL:

So you’re happy with your Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 computer, and you just don’t want Windows 10 to install on it?  Got your fix right here.  Right-click the following link and choose Save Target As or Save Link As, then save it somewhere you can find it (in the Downloads folder or on your Desktop are good choices):

http://newcenturycomputers.net/user/KillGWX.reg

Now find the file where you downloaded it, and double-click it.  You will be asked up to four different times if you are really sure you want to run it… each question will be different, but in each case you need to go forward.  The last dialog will tell you the process is a success, and provide an OK button.

After you click the final OK, restart your computer in the normal way.  This should be enough to prevent Windows 10 from installing on your computer.  Note if you have msn.com as your home page, you will still see ads telling you that you should upgrade… just ignore them, or change to a different home page if it gets really annoying.

ORIGINAL POST:

I don’t use Windows myself, but I do sell and support computers that must run Windows.  Most of my customers are very fond of Windows 7, and even though its days are numbered they still want to keep using it.

When Microsoft pushed out the GWX update (KB 3035583, if you care), things became… annoying… for those people I just mentioned.  There’s no apparent way to turn that nonsense off.  The only solution I found in the early days was to kill the program, then change the privileges on the folder C:\Windows\System32\GWX and delete it.  So I went around doing just that.

And Microsoft re-issued the update, and they all came back.  Gah.

I searched again, and after extensive revisions of my Google search parameters I finally found a page on Charles Allen’s blog where he explained the secret.  But he gave the steps in the manual mode, and I’m too lazy for that.

So here’s a registry patch to do the job.

http://newcenturycomputers.net/user/KillGWX.reg

Mostly this is here so I can find it later… as usual for Notebook entries.

UPDATE:  In addition to the anti-GWX registry entry, I’ve become aware of the group policy option entitled “Turn off the Upgrade to the latest version of Windows.”  Even with GWX disabled by the aforementioned option, Windows Update may still offer Windows 10 as a “regular” Windows update (especially now that it is “Recommended” instead of merely “Optional”).  This new policy option just sets a registry entry, of course, and I’ve added that registry entry to my KillGWX.reg and uploaded it to the location above.

I found this information here:

Turn off the Upgrade to the latest version of Windows GPO

It’s been there for months, but it’s darned hard to find with an ordinary Google search; when I tried to find it again to post it here, I kept finding ways to block ALL Windows updates (not a good idea) rather than the specific upgrade block I was wanting.  So as usual, I’m posting it here so I can find it again.

Can’t Login to Netflix on Roku

So I wanted to watch Netflix on my new Roku stick, and I found myself looking at this message:

There was an error processing your request.

Following that was a paragraph stating that my (actually, my wife’s) account could not be found.  I picked up my Samsung tablet and opened Netflix… same account, no problem.  Checked on the computer… still good.  What the heck?

Several minutes of frustration searching Google turned up nothing, until I dropped Roku from the search and found the following info on a Samsung Smart TV forum:

Open the Netflix app and use the arrow buttons on your remote in the following sequence: UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, UP, UP, UP, UP.  It should take you to a menu.  Choose SIGN OUT and then sign back in again.

Surprise, surprise… this exact procedure worked on my Roku.  Same app, apparently.