Category Archives: Technology

How FastMail Failed Me

A few months ago I decided to move my life off Google. I felt uncomfortable using a company where their client is the advertiser and not me—I want to be the entity that the company worries about keeping happy.

I moved my calendars to Apple’s iCloud where it turned out to work much more smoothly for our Apple-centric family than when all the calendars were on Google Calendar. That transition was very easy and worked out great. (With Apple I am the direct client. iCloud may be free, but that’s not because they’re supported by advertising. Apple’s goal is to sell me more hardware, a goal they usually succeed at…)

Mail was a bigger issue. Apple’s iCloud was not a good solution in that case because I maintain a couple of different email accounts and use my own domains. Apple’s iCloud mail doesn’t support personal domains.

So I poked around a little and found FastMail recommended by a few different people. I was a little hesitant because they had been purchased recently by Opera as a backend for Opera Mail and many people seemed to be complaining. But a careful reading of all the complaints showed that the complaints seemed centered almost entirely around an updated web interface. I planned to primarily use Apple Mail and iOS Mail to connect, and thus proceeded ahead.

FastMail offers a free trial and after a brief time with my two accounts I ponied up my $80/year for two enhanced accounts. I was happy. FastMail offers many features and pretty good spam detection.

Then one day I couldn’t access my accounts. I waited a bit thinking there was just some burp on the backend, but my access did not come back. I did some testing and discovered all my email was bouncing! Thankfully, I am a technical guy and I knew how to change my domains’ MX records so that my email was directed back to my Google accounts for the time being. I “only” lost about 8 hours worth of mail by the time I got things redirected.

So what was up? I sent an email to FastMail support and they said this:

Your FastMail account was recently detected sending bulk/duplicative/spam emails. […] Consequently your account sending has been locked.

If you can ensure that you would not use your account for further bulk mails, we’ll be happy to unlock your account. If not, we suggest you look for another provider.

There are some serious problems with this:

  • They did not simply lock my account “sending”. I confirmed that my email was bouncing. I was actively losing mail while they had my account locked.
  • They did this with absolutely NO notification. I had to discover it on my own and send a query to FastMail about it. It took them 4 hours to respond to my query.
  • I have no idea what they “detected”. My accounts were secured with very good, random passwords. I had used the same email addresses on Google for years and never had a problem. Despite asking about exactly what was detected, I never got an answer from them. I am quite certain at this point that nothing was hacked.
  • They locked both my accounts. They were totally separate accounts, with no overlap whatsoever. It’s highly doubtful both individual accounts suddenly started demonstrating at the same time whatever problem they detected.

I responded immediately, summarizing the issues above and asking them to unlock my accounts. 12 hours later I received this from FastMail support:

The accounts seems to have been locked due to suspicion.

Could you please let me know exactly what you use the account “xxxxxxxx@fastmail.fm” for? What kind of emails do you send/receive in that account?

Again, I responded immediately and explained that they are purely personal accounts. I also expressed my severe disappointment about how this had been handled to this point, particularly since email was being rejected. If my accounts has simply been locked but were still at least receiving email and just preventing me from sending, that would have been quite a bit easier to swallow.

Almost two days later, and after I sent a second follow-up query, I finally got this response from FastMail support:

Your accounts have now been unlocked.

That’s it. Three days of totally broken email and I get no explanation for why it happened or assurances that it won’t happen again.

To their credit, they did refund my $80 (supposedly when they first locked the accounts) and told me they would not charge me again for the year, giving me free use for the year.

But at that point I was extremely reluctant to continue using them. Their support was slow to respond and the fact that I could potentially have been bouncing email for nearly 4 days is unacceptable. Despite liking some of the FastMail features (and having free use for a year), I vowed to drop them and move my email elsewhere.

During my down time I started looking at other services and decided to try PolarisMail. They are cheaper ($48 for my two accounts), offer more storage, and their support responses have been extremely fast and helpful. So far so good. They even have a special offer for FastMail users right now since they’ve found so many people jumping ship over to PolarisMail lately. They also specifically said in answer to a query from me that they would never block an account from receiving mail, and only block from sending if suspicious activity occurs, which is exactly what FastMail should have done in the first place.

IPhone Map Hierarchy

(Apple Maps = Google Maps) < GPS Apps like Navigon < Dedicated GPS device

I have done a lot of experimenting in this arena and am very happy with my TomTom 2535M.

That Verizon iPad May Suck More Than You Suspect

I’ve noticed that when I travel, my fancy Verizon Wireless LTE iPad has trouble getting a signal. I don’t travel often so I attributed this to bad luck. But the last time it happened I posted this on Twitter:

I got a reply from one of my followers that my PRL might be out of date, and fixing that when I got back in a Verizon zone would probably help things out. Later, when back home, I tried his suggestion and found that the PRL did not update. I queried him and he told me he’d double check things. A few days later he replied:

This guy seems to know what he’s talking about and frankly, that stinks. You want the good Verizon service? Sign up for a monthly plan, sucker. Unfortunately for me, our family has AT&T iPhones.


29 October 2013 update:

I still think they should make this more clear. I now have the AT&T Mobile Share plan, so I’ll be getting an AT&T iPad regardless.

Relics In The Basement

A couple guys I went to elementary school and college with are in town for a few days. These are the guys who I spent a lot of time with in a basement playing D&D instead of being a normal kid. Today we hung out together and ended up back at the same house (his parents still live there) where we spent most of our basement time.

There have not been a lot of changes made to this basement. The same couches that were there 30 years ago when we played D&D are still there. It’s really kind of fun to look around and see all the old stuff still sitting around. I knew this to be the case as we were headed down to the basement and I jokingly asked if his old TRS-80 Color Computer was still down there.

It was.

TRS-80 Color Computer

It’s there in the exact same spot from 30 years ago. It was not actually plugged in to the ancient tube TV sitting next to it or I would have turned it on. This is from the days when you got a really terrific, thick book with the computer about how to program it to do things. Many of us learned how to program with these TRS-80 Basic books.

For kicks, I opened the drawer under the computer. Of course, there were all the floppies and tapes that went along with it.

Color Computer Paraphernalia

The more I think about it, the more I want to go back and see how much still works.

Oh great, a new gadget to resist purchasing.

Today Amazon introduced the Kindle Paperwhite.

 

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

 

I have occasionally tinkered with the idea of getting a Kindle (just a low-end Kindle, not one of the fancy Amazon tablets), but have successfully resisted the pull, unlike with a certain other expensive device.[1. My 13″ Apple Macbook Air, which I don’t hesitate to call the best computer I’ve ever owned.  I’m just not sure I needed it, but I am finding it incredibly useful to have around. I took over a year to finally decide to plunk down my money, so I think I thought things out pretty hard.]  My wife has a previous generation Kindle, and I really like it.  It looks like a very pleasing way to sit around and read a novel. I resisted getting my own because I have a very nice Apple iPad that happily displays all my Kindle content with an extremely beautiful backlit screen, which is important because I do a great deal of my reading in bed. Now the new Kindle screen is even better than the previous Kindle, and backlit.  But $119 is high enough that I will, I believe, successfully resist its siren call and stick with using my iPad, even though it’s quite a bit heavier than one of these Kindles.  Mostly this is just gadget lust, a quality I’ve learned to recognize in myself.  I wouldn’t complain, however, if my wife decided that it would make a great present for me someday…

A Paranoid’s Guide To Backing Up

Backup. Backup. Backup.

We hear it all the time, and some of us actually do it. Some of us do it to the extreme. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

Here’s my process. It’s built around a Mac ecosystem, but the ideas are applicable to others, with different applications filling the roles. It might seem extreme, or paranoid. We’ll revisit that when you eventually lose some precious photos of your kids or that document you just worked 23 hours to perfect.

Time Machine

Time Machine

For Macs, using Time Machine is a no-brainer. You plug in a bare drive and it’s hard not to use it for backup. Time Machine copies everything from your internal drive to your Time Machine drive. Once an hour it copies all the latest changes. It’s simple and you don’t have to mess with it, a hallmark of any backup solution. If you have to restore your computer at some point, the Mac OS install process can copy your files from the Time Machine disk so that you shouldn’t lose more than an hour’s worth of work. Further, you can use Time Machine to pull off previous versions of any file; the version from an hour ago, a week ago, a month ago, etc. Very handy at times.

SuperDuper

SuperDuper

That’s pretty good, but the Paranoid Backup-er takes it further. You can’t boot from a Time Machine backup. So if your internal drive crashes and burns you have to go through a lengthy install process to get everything back to normal from your Time Machine drive. I personally want the ability to take my backup drive, plug it in, and keep going with as little downtime as possible. This is called “booting from a clone”. To get this ability I run a scheduled nightly backup (to a drive separate from my Time Machine drive) using SuperDuper. Every night an exact copy of my drive is made. It only takes a few minutes because only the things that changed that day have to be updated on the backup drive. Now if my internal drive fails I can simply boot off the SuperDuper backup and I’m back in business. If I have things set up so the SuperDuper backup is the same physical size as my internal drive, in many cases I can simply install the SuperDuper drive into my computer and I’m done (other than using Time Machine or Dropbox to get back the day’s work missing from the last nightly SuperDuper backup).

Dropbox

Dropbox

So what about immediate changes? SuperDuper only backs up once a day. Time Machine only backs up once an hour. Can we do better than that? Yes, and for this purpose I use Dropbox. Dropbox is designed for syncing files between computers. It syncs changes nearly immediately and does a pretty good job of it. And the best part is that they’ll give you at least a 2GB allowance for file syncing for free. (There are various ways to increase the free storage—mine has been bumped up to 7GB.) For my purposes I only use Dropbox for my non-media documents. So any document that’s not a picture, video, or music file is handled by Dropbox. Perhaps surprisingly, the total storage needed for these files is not very much and easily fits in the 2GB free allocation. If I create a spreadsheet, for example, I do it in a folder synced by Dropbox and the file ends up on all my other computers and on Dropbox’s servers (accessible via any Internet browser), with the most recent changes available everywhere nearly immediately. It’s terrific, especially if the free version covers your needs.

Offsite drives

Okay, so at this point I have everything backed up to at least 2 places. But what I don’t have is anything (outside of Dropbox) backed up anywhere outside of my house. A fire or theft would be devastating, or perhaps a particularly nasty computer virus that wipes out all attached drives. I can’t bear the thought of losing my precious, irreplaceable photos or videos. Thankfully, this is a pretty easy thing to manage if you’re using something like SuperDuper. Once a week I take my SuperDuper drives to work and swap them out for their clones that I store there. To make this process as easy as possible I make the drives true clones by setting their system drive IDs to identical values. Now with the worst case scenario I’ve lost no more than a week of material, and probably much less than that due to Dropbox.

Network backup

Crashplan

Now for the truly paranoid who have sufficient bandwidth on their Internet connection, there’s one more step that can be taken: Internet backup. For some this may not be a viable solution, but you’re probably just fine with all the stuff I already talked about. I’ve found that for Internet backup, Crashplan works well, at a decent price. It has two features that I love: unlimited backup and backup of external drives. It takes a while for the initial upload — like weeks or even months — even with a fast Internet connection. (They have an option to send you a hard drive to skip the massive initial upload over the Internet, but it’s kind of a pricy option.) Once you’ve got your initial backup set done, you probably won’t notice Crashplan working in the background after that. I use it almost exclusively for media — videos, photos, and music — with a sprinkling of a few other things here or there. A restore off the internet could take a while. That’s not really the point. For me, this is the last ditch option if everything else goes to hell. I expect I’ll never pull a file back down, but I take comfort in knowing it’s there. Paranoia can use all the comfort it can get.

Hardware

I suspect there’s still a question you’re asking. It’s probably, “Jeepers, Steve, have you ever actually lost any data?” No, I haven’t, but that’s not the question I was hoping for. Instead I was thinking you might ask, “Jeepers, Steve, doesn’t this take a boatload of drives?” Well, yes. But drives are (relatively) cheap and my paranoia about losing something is great.

In our house I have one computer, a Mac Mini, that is always running and acts as the house server. Hooked to it is one big drive that supports Time Machine for two household computers. Each of the computers also individually has a drive hooked up similar in size to the internal boot drive, which is used for SuperDuper. So if you’re keeping count, that’s n + 1 drives, where n is the number of computers. Except since I keep offsite SuperDuper clones, it’s actually 2n + 1.

Further, we have one very large drive that we use primarily for media. As of now, I have no problem keeping all our movies, music, and photographs on one big drive. This is true even though I’ve started ripping some of our DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. Since this drive is used as an archive, I don’t feel the need to use Time Machine with it for versioning and hourly backups. I use SuperDuper to clone it nightly, plus that content is primarily what gets backed up by Crashplan. So now we’re at 2n + 1 + 2 backup drives, which in our case equals 7 backup drives.

7 drives, just for backup. Seem excessive? I don’t think so. I feel very, very secure about not losing data. I will never have to look my wife in the eye after her hard drive crashes and say, “I’m sorry,I think it’s all gone.” That peace of mind is well worth it.

So, 7 drives, but 3 are always rotated weekly into offsite storage in a drawer where I work. That leave 3 drives hooked to the Mac Mini and 1 drive hooked to my wife’s computer. I don’t think that’s so bad. Another nice aspect of this is that USB drives are plenty fast enough for this purpose. SuperDuper does all its work at night, so a USB connection works fine. The Time Machine drive might benefit from something faster, but frankly I’ve never had a problem with it over USB. Someday maybe Apple will support USB3 and that will really solve the problem of fast connections to cheap storage.

I recently thought long and hard about some kind of fault-tolerant multi-drive system like a Drobo. I came to the conclusion that it was costly, overkill, and hard to back up. It’s overkill because I already have an extremely fault tolerant system with everything I’ve outlined above. If any drive dies, I have multiple places where that data has been replicated. And I say a Drobo would be hard to back up, while others would say it doesn’t need backing up because it’s fault tolerant. Fault tolerant doesn’t help if your house burns down, or a virus wipes out your system. I still couldn’t sleep unless I had a clone of that data somewhere, and it would have to be offsite for real security. Now I would be looking at buying 2 or 3 Drobos plus the drives to put in them, and that cost is a tremendous jump over basic big drives. My conclusion is that a Drobo-like system is pointless for backup. (There are other reasons you might want a Drobo, but I’m not going to get into that here. I don’t think basic backup or archive storage is a good reason.) Even if my media storage needs grew to the point where a single big drive couldn’t handle it, I’d still just get another set of big drives and split things between them. Even so, it would be cheaper and safer than a Drobo-like system.

I use a basic external drive for Time Machine. I like the Seagate GoFlex Drives because the interface can be changed (for a price) to support USB3, FireWire, or even Thunderbolt. For my SuperDuper drives I’ve been very happy using a drive dock:

Drive Dock

I buy cheap, bare drives with no enclosure and simply slip them into the dock. Once a week when I swap them with the offsite drive I pop out the current and pop in the replacement. Very fast, very easy. Anything encouraging ease of use for backups is worthwhile. I transport the offsite drives in drive cases like this one:

Drive Case

Conclusion

This may all seem excessive, but I don’t think it is. Losing data is a big deal. Maintaining thorough backups once the backup sytem is in place is also extremely easy. That’s important for anyone to ensure backups continue, but especially for someone like me who has precious little time to mess with anything. (This blog post, for example, was written in many 10-minute snatches today while dealing with kids and other family needs.) When — not if — a drive fails, I want to deal with it as efficiently as possible and keep everyone happy. This system I have in place allows that and virtually guarantees I will never lose data. I win.