Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Day My Computer Caught Fire

I never intended for this blog to become "Will's Occasional Rants About Bad Customer Service." Honest. But in this case, I think the story is worth telling in detail. Tweeting it 140 characters at a time and/or a couple of technical message board posts aren't going to cover it.

Yesterday, my house nearly burned down. The fact that it didn't was due to nothing more than time. If two or three more hours had passed, our home would be a smoking cinder burying the remains of Maggie the bullmastiff.

Here's what happened. Around 4:30 on Tuesday morning, my wife and I both woke up to an acrid odor. It initially smelled like somebody had just struck several matches.

We got up and had a look around. There was no smoke in the air, and our first thought was that something was wrong with the furnace. We turned it off, and the odor seemed to fade (we realized later we'd just stopped it from being recirculated through the HVAC system after the fan was turned off).

I checked my office, across the hall from our bedroom, and noticed my computer had rebooted, which was odd, but nowhere near an indication of anything dangerous. It was stuck on the BIOS boot screen, which didn't surprise me; I'd never bothered to fix the boot drive settings, and it always did that on startup unless I held down the F12 key and told it which hard drive to boot from. Not noticing anything else unusual, I turned it off from the main switch on the front of the box and left the room.

By now it was too late to go back to sleep. My wife had started to get ready to go to work when, simultaneously, the smoke alarm and main house fire alarm both went off.

We still couldn't see any smoke yet, but the alarms were enough. My wife grabbed Maggie by her collar and hustled her out to one of our cars. I picked up the phone and dialed 911.

While I was waiting for the operator to pick up, I walked back into my office. Now the combustion smell was overwhelming, and I could see light coming from under my desk. When I walked around it, I saw flames shooting out of the case of my desktop computer, which was on the floor under the desk.

I dropped the phone and ran downstairs for a fire extinguisher. I'm pretty sure the only thing the operator ever heard me say was something unprintable. Fortunately our Ooma phone service had sent our address along with the call.

I grabbed the extinguisher from under the sink and pulled its safety tab out as I hurtled back up the stairs. Did you know the thing that looks like a trigger on some fire extinguishers is not actually a trigger? I didn't.

Turns out to make the thing work, you're supposed to mash on the lever on top top, not yank on what looks like a trigger. It felt like it took half an hour for me to figure that out, but it must have just been a few seconds. The extinguisher finally belched out its powder. A couple of blasts were enough to put out the fire. The room was now nearly filled with billowing smoke; maybe a minute or more of that and I wouldn't have been able to get back in to put out the fire. I opened a window and backed out the door.

The Cobb Fire Department arrived a few minutes later, checked out the scene, and confirmed the only damage was to the computer, the front of which was melted into plastic slag. They carried the computer out to the driveway, made another sweep of the house, declared all-clear and went back to the station.

Once the computer cooled off, I got my first good look at the damage.

From top to bottom, what you see there are the bay where the computer's data drive used to live (I pulled it out before this picture was taken; the bay was destroyed but I have some hopes the drive itself survived), two optical drives (both ruined), and below them, right at the point of the most intense destruction, the bay that had held a pair of sleds for 2.5" boot drives.

Now, here's what's unusual about that bottom bay: If you look closely, you can see the remains of a 2.5" hard drive, buried in the melted plastic just above the vestigial floppy drive. It's a Western Digital HGST Travelstar, model H2IK500852SP (HGST is the former Hitachi hard drive business that was bought out by Western Digital a few years ago). I bought that drive on Sunday, and installed it roughly twelve hours before the fire. On closer inspection of the sides and surrounding damage, it's clear that the fire started in that bottom bay, which at the time only held the new HGST drive. The motherboard and CPU (normally the hottest component in any computer) and power supply all appear to be undamaged.

How exactly the fire started, I couldn't tell you, not least because that hard drive is now solidly encased in post-fire slag. But based on the fact that the drive was installed on a removable sled similar to the one in the picture below, we know that the cable from the power supply was neither moved nor ever plugged directly into the hard drive itself.

That boot drive was, by far, the newest component in the computer. I hadn't opened the box up in months, and I feel safe in saying the power and data connectors to that drive bay hadn't been touched in years.

While manufacturers will tell you that it's impossible for a hard drive to start a fire (and indeed, the young guy I spoke to at HGST yesterday said just this) a quick search indicates that such fires, while certainly rare, are far from unheard-of. In a few minutes on Google, I found multiple user reports of fires starting from Western Digital drives: here, here, here and here.

Again, this kind of failure is extremely rare. Hundreds of millions of hard drives operate 24/7 for years on end without getting so much as overly hot to the touch, much less catching fire. Google's massive data centers, using thousands of drives at a time, operate day in and day out at well above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and Google wouldn't do that if they were worried about hard drive fires. I've owned dozens of drives personally and probably handled thousands of them during my career as an engineer, and this was (lucky me) the first time I'd ever heard of--much less nearly been scorched by--a flaming hard drive.

But in this case, that's what appears to have happened.

I'm sorry (but not terribly surprised) to say that neither Western Digital nor their HGST subsidiary were quick to express concern when I contacted them yesterday. As noted above, a young HGST support rep (not meaning to be ageist here, but I'm pretty sure I have t-shirts older than the kid who answered my call) read off what I assume is the lawyer-crafted script that's to be used in case of any call reporting physical damage ("our drives are built to a specification to meet a requirement. The problem had to be in the environment"). I was reminded briefly of this guy from "Titanic":

I get it: no company is going to admit any kind of liability based on a phone call and/or a few Tweets. But honestly, I'm not all that concerned about my loss here, and least of all any warranty issues with that HGST drive. A $50 hard drive is close to the smallest of my worries, and the few hundred bucks worth of trashed hardware won't break me.

What concerns me is the thought of what would have happened if my wife and I hadn't woken up thanks to a bad smell. What worries me is what would have happened if I hadn't ambled into my office just in time to see the fire before the smoke became unbearable.

What kept me up for most of the last night was thinking about how lucky we were that this happened at 4:30 instead of a couple of hours later, when we'd have been on the road to work, and Maggie would have been locked inside an inferno.

That, my friends at Western Digital and HGST, is why I am not letting this drop, and why you ought to be taking this situation a lot more seriously today.

UPDATE (21 Feb, Thursday): Just got off the phone with a Global Service Operations Manager from HGST, who I'm happy to say was far more concerned about the incident than anybody else from either HGST or Western Digital proper that I've talked to so far. He'd seen the blog post and pictures, and seems to be at least as gobsmacked as anyone else at the level of the damage. They want to get the remains of the drive for analysis, and as that's exactly what I want to happen as well, I take this as a good sign.

He offered to replace the drive... I had to decline. "Don't take this personally, but at this point I really don't want another one of your hard drives in my house." Granted, not the most rational decision in the world given how unlikely it is this would happen once, much less twice, but at this point I think I'm going to stick with it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Monopolies Suck: Comcast

The wife and I recently moved one 'burb over to Marietta (northwest metro Atlanta). Along the way, I made what turned out to be the colossally-bad decision to sign up for Comcast cable TV. Here's a rundown on what's happened since:

June 28: The initial install, including wiring an outlet for the basement (along the way, the installer refused to run a wire to the upstairs office where internet service was desired, as a result the cable modem is now in the wrong room). The installer’s drill battery ran out of juice halfway through the job. Instead of mounting cable for the basement outlet above ground, he dug out a shallow trench by the foundation and buried half of it, including a connector, with no insulation. He also tried to give me a DVR so old it didn’t even have an HDMI port. Made excuses about getting to work late that morning and being stuck with “whatever was left” on the shelf. I refused the ancient DVR, and rescheduled completion of the install for July 1. The installer left trash and parts all over the yard and basement, and incidentally showed up with one minute to spare in the "two-hour window."

July 1: The most pleasant experience of the entire fiasco. Two techs arrived on time and installed DVRs with no hassles. Unfortunately one of them left with one of my remotes in his pouch, and neither of them bothered to check the existing splitter, lines, or grounds. This would be significant later.

August 7: All service dropped out.

August 8: Service call, tech showed up fifteen minutes after expiration of the "two-hour window." He replaced a splitter, replaced the ground block, and ran new ground wire to electrical box (previous ground was wired to a plastic water pipe--nice). You would have thought all that would have been done during at least one of the prior installation visits. Tech replaced an old DVR in living room with a newer model (Motorola DCX3400), which worked for 24 hours. Unfortunately…

August 9: … all HDMI ports on my Pioneer VSX-921 receiver failed the next day. A little research revealed that the Motorola DCX3400 DVR has well-known deficiencies with implementation of the HDCP handshake, and has been known to “brick” customer hardware. After much thrashing with Comcast customer no-service (including a Comcast no-show for a service call that I left work to wait for--another fine example of the "two hour window"), the local service manager, offered a $400 service credit in lieu of filing an insurance claim to pay for the destroyed receiver. I reluctantly agreed.

But for future reference, if you do make the error of signing up for Comcast, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU ALLOW A MOTOROLA DCX3400 DVR IN YOUR HOME. IT MAY WELL DESTROY YOUR PROPERTY. It is simply unconscionable for Comcast to be putting that kind of garbage gear out there, with not even a hint of a warning.

August 18: After that fiasco, I removed the Comcast DVR from the living room and bought a Tivo Premeire (not only are Comcast’s DVRs destructive, they appear to have been programmed in the mid-1990’s; it's a terrible device with lousy software). I called the local Comcast store twice to check on their stock of Cable Cards, and was assured they had “plenty.” Went to the store, after a 30-minute wait was issued a Cable Card and told it would be “the one you need” for a Tivo. Upon getting home, I found out the card I’d been given was a single stream card that does NOT work with a Tivo. By now the Comcast store had closed for the day.

August 19: Took the faulty card back to the Comcast store. Waited another half-hour, only to be told “we ain’t got that” in terms of an multiple-stream M-Card, which is required for a Tivo. Why I’d been given the wrong card in the first place, no one could answer. I was told an M-Card might be available by the end of the week.

August 23: Picked up an M-Card after another long wait.

August 29: This was when I discovered that multiple HD channels, including ESPN HD, are not available on the downstairs connection. This was not well-received on the first day of football season. Went through the usual “sending signals” script with customer no-service, to no avail. Research indicates the error message (S0a00) is due to inadequate wiring. That’s funny, I could have sworn my wiring had been (a) just installed for that outlet in June, and (b) just re-checked by another tech in July. Given that Comcast charges $60 for a service call (something I found out by checking my billing online--not one single Comcast employee has ever mentioned this charge at any point during my brief time as a customer), I refused the “offer” of yet another service call--which presumably I would have been charged another $60 for.

Enough is enough. Expensive service is NOT worth this level of hassle and incompetence. I absolutely refuse to wait around hours for a “service call” that may never arrive. Today their "executive customer service" rep couldn't even commit to a time certain for a repair stop.

That's it. "Service" that's expensive, unreliable, and even outright destructive is not worth this much hassle. Comcast, you're fired.

UPDATE: After I finally got some time this evening, I located the problem. There were two sets of splitters coming off the main line. One was needed; it feeds the cable modem and both TVs. The other, upstream of that splitter, fed a coax in the kitchen that we don't use. I bypassed that splitter with an inline adapter, and bang, everything works now.

Not one of the three sets of techs who've been to my house bothered to ask whether we were using the line coming out of the superfluous splitter. Not one of them bothered to check the signal level at the basement TV (the lack of signal, thanks to the double set of splitters, was the problem there). The last tech actually replaced the unneeded splitter, without ever asking whether we actually use the extra line it's in there for (we don't).

Pathetic. But at least I have ESPN back for the weekend. I think I'll still fire Comcast; the aggravation of another couple of months like this will take years off my life...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

John Pavlus Is Full Of It

Couldn't help shaking my head when I read this ludicrous post from John Pavlus (no, I've never heard of him, either) at MIT Technology Review after it was linked by Instapundit. As I told Glenn in an email, pretty much every single charge Pavlus makes here is factually incorrect:
Think Windows 8 is a usability nightmare? Two pilots of the infamously expensive F-22 fighter jet recently went on 60 Minutes to describe how this “phenomenal, phenomenal machine” poisons its pilots’ air supply in the course of normal flight.
Pavlus plays it sneaky here, hiding behind verbal statements on an old episode of "60 Minutes" (and we all know how dedicated to accuracy that show is) instead of informing his readers that the hypoxia incidents on F-22 were later found to have nothing to do with the aircraft (so much for 'poisoning its pilots'), but rather to a faulty valve on g-suit vests that aren't even unique to the Raptor (they were designed for the generation-older F-15 and F-16s).

But wait, there's more:
But the plane is also smart enough to land itself with no help from its passed-out pilot. This is UX design by way of Brazil: the human interface is so bad that it actively tries to kill you the entire time you’re using it, and so good that it can deliver your comatose body back to safety with no help from you at all.
I just spent twelve years working on F-22 (my last day on the job was last week; I've left the program to go to work on Army Aviation systems for a different company, and will be divesting the last remnants of my Lockheed Martin stock within the next few days), and I can state categorically that this is one hundred percent Bravo Sierra. There is no automatic landing system on the Raptor. Never has been. No F-22 can 'land itself.' That has never happened, and it's not even possible. That level of automatic pilot isn't in the system.

Facts like these are, of course, irrelevant to Pavlus, who lards up the rest of his post with anti-military and pro-gun-control rantings that he tenuously relates to the state of commercial operating systems. Apparently there wasn't a way to note that Windows 8 sucks without indulging your ideological prejudices... and certainly not if you happen to be a "journalist" like John Pavlus.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Google Heiress In North Korea

This is excellent (really, I'm not being sarcastic), it’s an account by Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie of her recent trip to North Korea with her Google-boss dad and a mixed bag of American tech people and politicians. It's marvelous; my only complaint is that she doesn’t make fun of Bill Richardson. A sample:
Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference. I can't think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They're hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it. And the opacity of the country's inner workings--down to the basics of its economy--further serves to reinforce the state's control. The best description we could come up with: it's like The Truman Show, at country scale.
Seriously: read the whole thing.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When You Wish Upon A Death Star

An exciting new future featuring the continuation of the Star Wars movie saga was announced on October 30th, as the Walt Disney Company enters an agreement to acquire Lucasfilm Ltd from George Lucas. Backed by the global reach and brand stewardship strengths of Disney, the future of Star Wars is now under the direction of acclaimed film producer and studio executive Kathleen Kennedy, Co-Chairman of Lucasfilm. Kennedy and Disney plan a slate of new Star Wars feature films, beginning with the long-awaited Star Wars: Episode VII, targeted for release in 2015, followed by Episodes VIII and IX. Additional feature films are expected to continue the saga and grow the franchise well into the future.
Twitter just exploded yesterday afternoon when that announcement was made.  I thought it had to be a put-on when I saw the first blurb from Reuters, but it's the real thing.

Jonah Goldberg had what I suspect is a representative take at NRO, starting with fear (which, as we know, is the path to the Dark Side) and eventually rolling into guarded optimism.  I tend to agree, and although as Jim Geraghty noted, we're talking about the same studio that recently gave the world the lovely flop known as John Carter, Disney usually knows what they're doing.

Better still, Disney employs Brad Bird, who would be hands-down the best choice to write and direct the now on-again Star Wars sequels, the long gestation of which George Lucas has finally re-admitted, after a couple of decades of denying that he'd ever had any such thing in mind.

After seeing his prior work in The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, I'd probably buy a ticket to watch Bird reading his grocery list.  There's no serious question that Bird can write rings around Lucas, and his live-action debut in the last Mission: Impossible movie showed he's got the action movie chops as a director. Hopefully Lucasfilm's new Mouse overlords are smart enough to put him in charge of their new Empire.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

So, Let Me Get This Straight

The overwhelming political objective of the Democratic Party since the 1930’s has been to get as many people as possible enrolled in one government program or another, at least in part to guarantee their votes in subsequent elections: “Tax and tax, spend and spend, and elect and elect.” 

And now it’s somehow a scandal when a Republican notes that they succeeded, to the tune of nearly half the country?

Am I missing something?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Aunt Dee

Connie Dee Brown, of Albertville, Alabama, died on Saturday, July 28, 2012, in Birmingham after a brief illness, two months shy of her 97th birthday.

Connie was born on Sept. 19, 1915, in Hustleville, the daughter of Arnold Chambers and Ola Johnson Chambers. She was the eldest and longest-surviving of three sisters. She graduated from Albertville High School in 1935, and afterwards ran her own beauty shop in Albertville.

Connie married Roy Rodger Brown in 1957, and together they operated Roy’s Restaurant in Albertville for many years. Upon Roy’s retirement from the Bryant Line Furniture Company, Connie and Roy began many happy years as the most famed anglers in north Alabama, including spending every day one entire year fishing on their beloved Lake Guntersville. Roy Brown passed away on Oct. 9, 1997, after 40 years of happy marriage.

Connie was an active member of First United Methodist Church of Albertville and the Fairview United Methodist Church in Hustleville, leading Sunday School classes and church events too numerous to count. She was an avid Rook player, never missing weekly games with her close friends to the end of her life.

She was a steady and loving anchor of her family, providing care for her sisters and brothers-in-law in their own latter days.

 Connie was preceded in death by her husband, Roy; her sister, Ruby Jo Weir; brother-in-law, Joyce Weir; sister, Bernell Chambers Lowery and brother-in-law, Brelen A. Lowery; and her niece, Lynda Lowery Collier. She is survived by her niece, Lauren Elizabeth Lowery; great-nephew, William B. Collier III; great-niece, Killy Collier Mingus; and great-great-nephews, Collier and Matthew Mingus.

Aunt Dee’s family wishes to thank her many dear friends and neighbors for their aid and kindness during her long life, with particular thanks to Margie King for her devotion and care.

A graveside service at Memory Hill Cemetery in Albertville was held on Tuesday, July 31, at 11 a.m.