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Microsoft Surface Pro 4: Windows 10 recovery

I have been using my recently acquired Surface Pro 4 regularly for work for a couple of weeks now. My usual desktop applications like Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Office, web browsers, VPN connect, VNC, etc., have been quite responsive, and overall the Surface is an excellent tablet computer for office use.

While trying to run Windows update from my company IT based images, I did run into some issues over the couple of days.

The first one was something that happened when I installed some of the Windows 10 patches. After completing the installation, I noticed something right away. The Cortana search box was greyed out, and the Start Menu was broken. When I clicked on the Start Menu, an error window popped up and said something like “Your Start Menu is not working. We will try to fix it when you log in the next time.” Clicking “OK” would basically log me out, and when I logged back it, the Start Menu was still broken. Repeated logins, and even reboot did not fix it.

I then checked if I had any “restore points” before I installed the patches. There was one, and I restored my Surface to a state before I installed the patches. When I tried to reboot the machine after performing the restore, it failed right away and printed the error “Inaccessible Boot Device”. So restoring the PC to an earlier state made things worse!

Now it was time to explore solutions. After spending a couple of hours and reading several articles and blog posts at the Microsoft and other sites, I figured that I had to try and boot with Windows 10 boot image on a USB drive. With my Surface in a unbootable condition, I could create a boot USB disk only on some other Windows 10 computer. Luckily, I old Windows 10 laptop at home was still around, and I used it to create a Windows 10 USB boot disk.

I was able to boot the Surface with the USB disk. I explored the many options it provides for restoring the boot image. After some work, I figured that I had to be on my company network to download a required image. So I had to wait until the next morning to try this out at work.

With the image I downloaded, I was able to boot again, and this time I got the option to undo the restore I had done the previous night. I gave that a try and it worked!! I was able to boot Windows 10 on my Surface again. But the Start Menu and Cortana were still broken 🙁

After spending almost half a day to try and figure out how to fix the Start Menu, and trying some of the suggested fixes, I was still dealing with a Surface where everything except the Start Menu and Cortana was functional.

The next thing to see was if there were any further updates to Windows 10 that could potentially fix all this. Looking at the Software Center, I saw that the ‘1709’ release was available, and decided it was time to give it try. I downloaded the image and started the installation. It took about an hour overall, and once done I rebooted the Surface. This time everything including the Start Menu and Cortana were working!!

It looks like the patched I installed before the 1709 were somehow causing the Start Menu issues. With the 1709, everything is back in action, and I am back to using the Surface for all the various things I do with it for my work.

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Do you need to read books? Ask Bill Gates.

Do you read books? How many do you read in a year? What makes you an effective reader? Do you usually complete reading a book that you start?

Watch what Bill Gates has to say about reading

If you find it hard to read, or can’t find time to read, try listening to audio books. That worked well for me, and I have listened to over 60 books while driving to work, and some are so good that I listened to them several times.

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San Francisco Bay Area Amateur Radio Nets, Repeaters, and other Info

The silicon valley has a large number of Amateur Radio (Ham) enthusiasts and licensees, as well as Ham related activities and resources. Here are just a few of the most popular websites with lots of useful information. If you know of others, please do let me know by adding comments. I will try and keep this list as updated as possible.

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US Amateur Radio Bands, License Classes, and Band Allocation

Here is an easy to read mind map showing Amateur Radio Bands, and allocation based on license classes.

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Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 was one of the choices that I had to consider when I had to “refresh” my laptop as work at the lease on my previous one ended. I have so far been using the IBM/Lenovo laptops running various versions of Windows. I had stayed with Windows even though Apple Macbooks have been offered as choices for several years now, mainly because of some of the desktop applications that I have been using, which are easier to run under Windows.

This time, I had to decide between several models of Lenovo laptops running Windows 10, Apple Macbook Pro, and the newly-offered Microsoft Surface Pro 4. The Surface is being offered as part of a pilot program, which means it is experimental, and comes with little or no “official” IT support; most of the support available is from a user-group community within the company. The Surface looked like a good choice: it’s virtually a miniature laptop, can be used like a tablet, and has some nice free-hand drawing capabilities using the included pen. It runs Windows 10, and so for most practical purposes, it would be like using a laptop running the same OS.

I read several reviews, and followed the discussions in the user forum. I posted some questions that I had: how do I connect to two external monitors, how do the usual collaborative applications work, and so on. Not only did I get very prompt and helpful answers and tips, but also very encouraging stories from other users’ experiences.

So I decided to be a guinea pig and ordered the Surface for my replacement laptop. It arrived in a few days, along with the docking station to connect to external monitors. Over the Thanksgiving break, I decided to go to work one morning and set up my new work “laptop”. I followed the instructions from IT to set up the Surface while being on the company network, and it went quite smooth. I had my Surface up and running in about an hour. Then it was time to transfer all my “data” — emails, documents, etc. — from the cloud backup storage to my new device. That took a couple of hours, and here I am, two days later, typing away this post.

I have so far been really happy with the way it looks and feels. Logging in to my work account using my fingertips is really convenient. All the usual tools and applications — Microsoft Outlook, Office, VPN, web browsers, VNC — load and run quickly. The keyboard and the display are very pleasant to use. I am able to connect to my 24-inch TV monitor using a mini-DP to HDMI adapter. The audio and video are impressive. I have played with the Surface pen with some applications that come with it, and I can see how taking notes or drawing diagrams for discussions is going to be fun.

This is a review after only a couple of days of use, but I can say that so far, I have no regrets that I chose the Surface over Lenovo and Macbook this time.

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Lenovo Thinkpad “Fn” key mystery

On my company provided laptop that I use for work, I frequently use the Fn-“mute” and Fn-“Radio” button combinations, to turn on/off audio and the WiFi radio, respectively. They are so quick and convenient that any other way to do the same feels extremely cumbersome.

For some strange reason, I found that those key combinations were doing something else — weird stuff like bring up some Google Chrome options, and things like that. It was frustrating until I discovered how to fix that.

The Lenovo’s have the Fn-lock (FnLk) feature that can enable or disable the special Fn key functions. You just need to use Fn-Esc key combination to toggle the functions on or off. I was greatly relieved once I found that!

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Drupal as a Data Organizer on Your Personal Computer

Do you have have many bits and pieces of data on your computer that you would like to store in an easy-to-use, searchable database? Have you been using text files, URL bookmarks, Post-its, etc., to try and keep things handy? How about Microsoft Access, or other database applications?

I have to admit that I have used a combination of all those over the years. Yet, I end up spending a lot of time looking for things on my PC. I have been looking for some kind of simple database application where you can keep pieces of information related to my “work in progress” in a way that I can find things quickly.

A Content Management System (CMS) that you can easily install and customize might do the trick. I have tried using Drupal, one of the widely-used open-source CMS on a Windows PC as well as a MacBook and have been quite happy with it.

I agree it sounds complicated, and I admit, I thought so too. I had used Drupal to organize project documentation at work, and also to set up a web portal before. Drupal is a Swiss Army Knife among the CMS, and that’s what I liked most about it. It lets you create many types of ‘content’ – basic pages, articles, books, blogs, forums, and many other highly customized types. So if you just need a simple searchable Post-it application, you can just use the basic pages. If you are working on a research paper, the article content type might be your perfect drawing board. And there is book type if you are working on a book — you can build your book with chapters, etc. Blog type is great to create a personal journal on your PC. Forum is really a more specialized form of the blog, and it very handy to organize your content under different headings.

All the above types can have ‘tags’ which give you a very easy way to search. There is also the more advanced ‘taxonomy’ feature that Drupal is famous for.

So, if there is a simple way to install Drupal on your PC or your Mac, you could take advantage of all these great features and build your personal database that is literally at your fingertips.

Drupal is a web-based application, So you would need a web-server running. Apache is the most common option for this. Most CMS including Drupal store the content in a database. For that you could use MySql, or just use the Sqlite database that just stores everything in a file.

How easy or difficult is it to install an Apache server and MySql on a PC or Mac? Thankfully, there are some incredibly easy to use open-source packages that you can use: XAMPP for Windows, and MAMP for Mac are really simple to download and install. In a few minutes, you can have a web-server and if you prefer, a database server running on your PC.

One you get your web-server running, you can install Drupal in a few more minutes, and you have all power of a very versatile CMS on your personal computer!

I have setup Drupal on my Windows based work laptop, as well as my personal MacBook, and it has proved incredibly useful. In fact, the draft of this blog post was created as a forum post on Drupal on my MacBook. I wrote this in one sitting, but there are several other posts that I am working on, and they will all stay as work-in-progress posts on Drupal on my Mac. I am also writing some technical articles that I expect would take a few weeks to complete, and I am developing them on Drupal on my Mac as ‘articles’.

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Kickstarter Project: Crazy Circuits: LEGO™ Compatible Modular Electronics

Crazy Circuits: LEGO™ Compatible Modular Electronics

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Chevy Volt – What I Like About It

I decided to lease a Volt after having driven a Nissan LEAF for about 2 years. I could have leased another LEAF at a discount as a repeat customer, but the Volt had a strong case for me to consider.

The LEAF gave me 70-80 miles on a full charge, depending on the season; winter months lower battery range, and 70+ miles is what I could drive on a full charge on cold days. The Volt promises only about 40 miles on a full charge, but it can run on gas. When the battery runs low, the gasoline generator kicks in, and produces electricity that the car runs on. A full tank of gas is about 9.3 gallons, and the MPG is about 35-40 miles on the Volt. So with a fully charged battery, and  a full tank of gas, you get a range of about 370 miles or so, which is a pretty long distance to drive.

So if your typical daily commute is less than 40 miles, then you can drive on the battery through the week. On days when you need to drive more, you have the gas back up. And if you really want to go on a long day-trip, you can drive it like a regular gas car, and keep filling it up as you go. That’s a big advantage if you really want an electric car for most of your driving, but want to have the capability to go long distances without being limited by the battery range.

Besides that, the Volt is a lot sportier than the LEAF. It rides low, and feels a lot like a sports car. The handling is nimble, and it is fun to drive.

I have had the Volt for about 8 months now, and have really enjoyed it.

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Nissan LEAF Driving Modes – ECO, B/D

The Nissan LEAF  offers some driving to optimize for power, economy and degree of regenerative braking.  These selected by the driver using a combination of the economy mode, and the drive mode which is either ‘regular’ or braking’. What do they do, and how do they work with each other?

Having driven the 2014 Nissan LEAF for almost a year, here are some of my observations. How are these controls organized?

The economy or “ECO” mode is selected with a push-switch located on the steering wheel. Using this, you can put the car  in the ECO- , 0r the non-ECO-mode. As the name suggests, driving in the ECO mode optimizes for longer range at relatively lower power.

And then there is the drive mode where you can be in “B” or “D” (non-B or regular) mode.  What does this do? The regular mode is similar to the “D” mode in any car with an automatic transmission. The “B” mode enables higher regenerative braking efficiency, which can be useful to charge the battery while braking in stop-and-go traffic, or while driving downhill.

So, using these two independent controls, you could be driving the LEAF in one of four possible drive mode combination:

  1. Non-ECO Mode and D Mode combination
  2. Non-ECO Mode and B Mode combination
  3. ECO Mode and D Mode combination
  4. ECO Mode and B Mode combination

Let us try to analyze what each of these mode combinations offer, and see when these combinations would be a good choice.

 Non-ECO Mode and D Mode Combination

This is the combination in which you expect to get the highest torque from the motor. That is because both the ECO option and the higher braking option are deselected. So the motor would be able to perform at its highest power, and without any “extra” braking enabled. This is the combination that would typically be the most “fun-to-drive”. So if you are trying to quickly merge on to a freeway, pass a car, you would find it easier with this combination.

Non-ECO Mode and B Mode Combination

In the case, the motor would still perform with the highest torque, but since the enhanced braking mode is selected, it also means that whenever you take your foot off the accelerator, the car would tend to slow down due to the braking. If you are driving in stop-and-go traffic where you also need quick acceleration, this might be a good combination.

ECO Mode and D Mode Combination

This combination activates the ECO mode, while leaving the drive in D mode, which means that the motor operates in economy mode, and braking is at normal level. For fast driving in ECO mode, this would be a good combination. I use this mode when I am driving on freeways and fast city roads, when I don’t need any extra accelaration.

ECO Mode and B Mode Combination

This mode makes most sense in city road driving where you expect to drive at low speeds and also stop frequently at traffic lights and stop-signs. Since you will be using the brakes a lot in such driving conditions, using the LEAF’s enhanced braking mode helps in recovering some of the kinetic energy to recharge the battery due to regenerative braking. It will also reduce the amount of braking that you need to do, thereby minimizing kinetic energy wasted in regular braking, as well as wear-and-tear on the brake liners.

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