Tuesday, June 28, 2016

UnderCover Anti-Theft App for the Mac Starts Acting Up: The Problem and Solutions

By the recommendation of my friend Eric Cheng (a photographer, techno genius, and now a drone genius) I bought the UnderCover App for my Macs several years ago.  It was one of the first anti-theft applications for the Mac.  I've been impressed with it. 

Their website is at:

From their site:

According to a recent FBI report, 97% of all stolen computers are never recovered. Many people we know have had their Macs stolen, often in 'safe' situations. That's why we developed Undercover: a unique theft-recovery application designed from the ground up for Mac OS X.

Undercover transmits location information from the stolen Mac. This information includes the coordinates from wireless location tracking, and the internal and external IP addresses, enabling the police to accurately trace the Mac's physical location, in collaboration with the Internet Service Provider.

I don't know how Undercover compares to other apps like Lookout or Prey.  I can tell you that it seems to work fine with my Macs,  unlike some free tracking apps that I've used (and paid for) which never seemed to work when I was testing them.   

Recently, however, on one of my Macs, I started getting notifications from Undercover every time I woke my Mac up from sleep.  It became incredibly annoying.  

I wrote them and (as always) very quickly received a reply:

Hi Norbert,

Thanks for reporting this! If the registration screen keeps popping up even after entering your account's details again, it's best to verify that Undercover has no problems uploading information to your account at undercoverHQ.com: has it recently submitted a location? (You can check that in the Info tab, under Status > "Located...ago".)

If that all looks OK, the easiest way to prevent the registration app from coming up again would be to remove it (this won't do any harm: you no longer need that app, as your Mac is registered just fine):

- Choose "Go To Folder" from the Finder's "Go" menu
- Enter the following path: /usr/local/uc/bin
- Remove the Undercover Registration app in this folder

Do not hesitate to contact me if you have further questions!

Kind regards,

For me, the last step worked.  Thanks, UnderCover. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Hot Tub and Spa Maintenance: Simple Ways to Keep Your Water Sparkling Clear

I bought a hot tub for the first time six years ago. I was apprehensive about how much maintenance it would need. Never fear, after five years of experience, I can say that hot tubs these days require surprisingly little maintenance and chemicals. Here's what I do to keep the water in my hot tub (spa) sparkling clear.

I have a fairly small, 275-gallon spa made by Sundance. I've had absolutely no problems with it, except in year three; I noticed a small, slow leak forming. I used the product Leak Seal by Leisure Time, and for once, this product actually worked. I have not had any more leaks for the past two years.

Perhaps the most important thing that I do is ask anyone using the hot tub to shower first.

If my water is clear, then I do the following:
1. Once or twice each week, add 2 oz. of shock (I use Leisure Time Renew Non-Chlorine Shock).
2. At the same time, I will add ½ oz. to 1 oz. of Clorox Bleach.
3. I will check the pH of the water, using Nature2 W29300 Spa Test Strips.

4. When the hot tub is filled for the first time, and for the first few months, I will include a Nature2 Spa Stick Mineral Sanitizer. To tell the truth, I don't know if this spa stick does anything, but my feeling is that it helps keep the water clear and helps keep the pH and other chemistry levels from bouncing around too much. I only use this spa stick for the first six months or so per water change.

5. If the pH levels, or other levels are off, I put in the proper chemicals. Most of the time, I won't have to add any chemicals other than the shock and chlorine for weeks and even months.
Usually, this is all I have to do for a couple of months. At some point every two or three months, the water starts getting cloudy or green more quickly. At this point, I will switch filters. I have four spa filters, both paper and polyethylene, which I rotate. When one filter is dirty, I will spray it off and let it dry. This goes into storage, and the next filter in line goes in the hot tub.

With the above procedures, I usually keep the water in the spa for a good two years before emptying the spa and refilling it. I empty and refill the spa when the water starts turning green or cloudy very quickly after being shocked – and after I've cleaned the filters, below.

Cleaning the filters is necessary but does not work that well. I just try to spray the outside of the filters with a garden hose and a hose attachment. All this does, really, is spray off some of the algae, hair, and skin particles. Most of the hair and dirt seems to be driven into the inside of the filter by the hose. I will try to spray the filter with a 50% bleach/50% water solution and then let it dry. Each filter will last 2-3 months before I have to rotate it – so I'll go through four filters every 9 months or so. Each filter can go into the hot tub twice with the above rinsing. After that, I've discovered that filters lose their effectiveness. I recently treated all my filters with Leisure Time Filter Clean, and this really worked well to clean the filters.

Sometimes after the above weekly treatments, the water will turn cloudy or green quickly. If the water is green, this means that algae is somewhere in the system. I'll replace the filter (if the water is green, usually the filter shows algal growth), and I will add up to 1 oz. of Clorox bleach to the water. The bleach is basically the same as chlorine, and it kills algae cells. I will wipe down all corners and sides of the hot tub with a bleach solution (1 part bleach to 16 parts water); this kills algae growing on the sides of the hot tub.

Do NOT use more than one ounce of Clorox bleach or chlorinator – using more can damage the finish of your hot tub. For all the above, check with your spa manufacturer or retailer – they may recommend that you NEVER use chlorinator or Clorox bleach.

Once in a long while, the water in my hot tub has remained cloudy despite my best efforts. When this happens, using Leisure Time Bright and Clear works wonders. It clears the water right up.

About Spa Chemicals:

I mention Leisure Time products a great deal in this blog post. I am not a shill for this company – I have just found that their products work well for me.

You can buy all kinds of spa chemicals, but in my research online, I've discovered that many household chemicals can be used in place of “formal” spa chemicals, and they are much less expensive.

1. Chlorine bleach (Clorox) can be used instead of pool chlorinator.
2. To raise pH of water, use baking soda instead of buying a pool chemical called “alkalinity increaser.” Baking soda works just like the stuff that you can buy from Leisure Time is just baking soda, from what I understand. Here's what one forum poster wrote:
Use baking soda instead of Alkalinity Increaser: Alkalinity Increaser" can cost $3/lb. A 4lb bottle will cost $10-$12 dollars. This infuriates me because the ONLY ingredient is Sodium Bicarbonate--Baking soda. Just get Arm and Hammer Baking soda instead!!!

3. Raising alkalinity of your water also raises pH – it is difficult to just raise pH and not alkalinity. One Internet poster states the following:
To raise the pH you need sodium carbonate (soda ash). Buy it in bulk if you find you need it. I buy 50# bags for 13 dollars from my pool distributor.
I found soda ash on Amazon (used for tie dyed shirts) but I am hesitant to use it much, because it hardens into a hard concrete-like paste when I add water to it. I sure don't want this hardening on the pipes in my hot tub.

4. To lower the pH in my hot tub, I've used Leisure Time's Spa Down. It is so inexpensive that I have not looked into household alternatives.

5. For this hot tub, I have not been concerned about adding calcium – but another, older hot tub uses test strips that do measure hardness and calcium levels. I've therefore added Leisure Time Calcium to this tub. Here's a note on the Internet that I found:
Be sure to also make sure your hardness level is correct 250-400ppm. Otherwise the water will take it from the parts in your tub it can, namely the heating element and seal to your hot tubs pump. Of course it is the same chemical as we use in swimming pools so buy that larger cheaper package. Calcium Chloride.

Some more tips:
Most hot tubs these days can be switched from 110V to 220V for power for the pump and heating. I highly recommend that anyone with a hot tub hire an electrician so that the hot tub can be powered from 220V rather than 110V. First, make sure that the hot tub can be powered from 110V and 220V (it was simple to change this on our hot tub). Having the power outlet changed to 220V wherever your hot tub is located can be done, but it can cost $1500 or more to get this done.

When the hot tub was powered by 110V, it took a long time to heat up. It took about 1 hour per degree to warm up the hot tub on 110V. If I were filling the hot tub, it could take a good 24 to 48 hours for the water to heat to 100 degrees. With 220V, the hot tub water heats up far more quickly – about 6 degrees per hour. So with 220V, I can leave the hot tub on 96 degrees all day, then just turn it up to 103F about an hour or two before using the tub, and it will go up to 103F that evening. I can't do this with 110V.

Cleaning filters:
Soak your hot tub filter in a 3-gallon bucket of hot water. Add a quarter cup of chlorine bleach to kill any germs and to whiten your filter.
Thoroughly rinse the filter with a hose. Be sure to wash out all traces of chlorine bleach especially if you use an alternative spa treatment like Baquacil.

Keeping Your Hot Tub Cover New:
My vinyl hot tub cover is expensive, and I don't want to have to replace it often. Every two months I wash the hot tub cover with a soap solution (just dishwashing soap solution) and then I spray it with a product called 303 Aerospace spray protectant. This stuff supposedly protects the vinyl from getting aged too quickly by UV and sunrays. My cover is five years old and going strong, so I guess that this stuff works.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Using a VPN is a Great Idea, but Not With GMail, Ebay, and Especially Paypal

I've been using the Torguard Virtual Private Network service.  It's far easier and simpler to use than I thought it would be.  I simply paid ($12 per month or so; they often have 50% sales) an annual fee, downloaded a small software package to my Mac, and then I was on.  All my internet traffic, when the Torguard app is connected, goes through their servers. 

They have servers all over the world.  I usually use the Los Angeles server, but when I was in Australia, I used the Sydney server.

At one point, I could not get into my Amazon account from Australia -- Amazon kept redirecting me to their Australia storefront.  I was able to solve the problem by logging into Torguard's LA server from Australia -- thus "tricking" Amazon into thinking that I was logging in from the US, rather than Australia.

Here's the Torguard app for Macs.  The Los Angeles server is chosen. 
Here's the Torguard VPN app while it is running.  The Public IP address masks your real IP address. 

Why use a VPN?  There are several other reasons.  Here are some reasons from:

1.  Your ISP cannot know what you get up to on the internet
2.  You appear to access the internet from the IP address of the VPN server
3.  It is safe to use public WiFi hotspots because the internet connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted.

This is a huge reason to use VPNs.  If you are using public Wifi hotspots, then you will want to use a VPN. 

Note: All your data is being transmitted through your VPN's servers -- so an evil VPN could see your data.  This is a concern -- I use Torguard because they are well-known and have been recommended by several sources. Supposedly your data is encrypted through the process.  There is a web page that shows you how to make sure that your data is encrypted:

Here's a huge disadvantage to using a VPN that I've discovered.  If you are using a VPN and log into a GMail or Ebay account, then GMail, Ebay, and Paypal will know that you are using a VPN (they log your IP address and match it to known VPN sites).  Since many hackers use VPNs to cloak their identity, Ebay, Paypal, and GMail will immediately challenge your ability to log into your account

Just yesterday, when I logged into GMail to access my email account through Torguard, I was challenged by GMail.  I was asked to provide an access code that was texted to my cell phone.  If I was overseas, then I would not have access to my cell phone's texts, and I would not be able to log into my email account.  Fortunately, GMail will let you log in again if you are not using a VPN - you are not permanently blocked from your account.  In this case, I turned off my VPN, tried to log in using my hotel's wifi network, and I was not challenged.  Gmail told me that someone suspicious had tried to log in a few minutes ago and asked if that was me. 

PayPal treated the situation far more suspiciously and created a huge headache for me (and for all its users, which seems to be a recurring habit of PayPal).  When I tried to log into my Paypal account using a VPN, Paypal immediately SUSPENDED my account.  I was no longer able to log in, period.  I had to verify my identity in several ways, and finally had to wait until I got home to provide a billing statement, copy of my drivers license, and bank statement to prove that I was the owner of the account.  When I was challenged by Paypal, they first asked me to verify a code sent by text (which I could not do, as I was overseas).  Before that, however, they presented a few other ways to verify my identity, such as linking a bank account and credit card.  They ended up rejecting two or three credit cards and bank accounts.  It was frustrating in the extreme, and Paypal locked up several hundred dollars of funds for several weeks in this manner.  I am not a fan of Paypal, and you might want to read the accounts in the website www.PayPalsucks.com to learn about how Paypal treats its customers terribly. 

I will say that Paypal has become pretty much the only way for friends and acquaintances to send cash to each other.  I've recently tried alternatives, and I had a REALLY BAD experience with Google Payments/Wallet.  I will write about that experience in another post. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Review of Amcrest 720P Wireless IP Camera System IPM-721S

This is a review of the Amcrest 720P WiFi Wireless IP Security Surveillance Camera.

I have used half a dozen different Foscams, a couple of Android motion detection apps that will send alerts and images if motion is detected, and now this Amcrest. 

I like this camera, but I am surprised that no one has commented on features that do not work with this camera.  It was easy to set up using the QR code, and I am using it behind an AT&T U-verse modem/router combination -- and then a Netgear router.  Therefore I am happily surprised that I can view this camera's real-time image, and use pan and tilt settings, through the phone app and a web browser at their amcrestcloud.com website.  Barry from Amcrest tells me that this is due to P2P. 

I have not been able to get through the U-verse modem/router to control any other IP camera remotely.  I don't even know if U-Verse has forward-facing IP addresses to allow this.  I used to have Comcast service and could indeed control my cameras from outside my local network -- this was using a cable modem and my own router, no company combo router with another router added to the mix. 

However, several important features do not seem to be working with the Amcrest camera.  Here are a few:

(I sent an email to Amcrest Tech Support, but they did not reply for over a day.  Mario Romero finally replied but in the meantime, I called and reached "Barry" in tech support.  I've posted both of their replies."

1.  Turning off the camera in amcrestcloud.com does not work at all.  If the power to the camera is on, the camera is always on. 

Answer from Mario Romero in tech support:
The turn off feature refers to Global motion detection on the Cloud service and not the camera physically being turned off. We are working with our cloud to have it rephrased in manner to help alleviate confusion.

Barry in tech support said that this does not work, period. 

2.  Turning schedules on or off in amcrestcloud.com does not work; setting schedules have no effect on either starting or stopping motion detection.  It seems to be always on.

Answer from Mario Romero in tech support:
There was glitch that has been corrected recently affecting schedules. How recent did you attempt the scheduling portion on the cloud.

I tested this again, and it still does not work as I expected.  I was always getting motion detection alerts (emails) even if the schedule was turned off.  I suspect that if you schedule the camera to be OFF during a period of time, this only turns off the video recording to the cloud.  You will still receive motion alerts via email.  This is OK with me but I wish that their cloud site made this clearer.  At some point, Gmail might label all these motion alerts as spam and maybe even blacklist the emails, so this is a concern. 

3. You cannot set motion detection on or off using the web remotely or the camera app.  You can only set motion detection on or off if you are using your local home network. 

Answer from Mario Romero in tech support:
The smartphone has the ability to do it also, but there is a glitch where it will turn off the motion detection scheduling currently. I would reccomend to use the local web UI or the cloud service to change the setting. There is a way also to have the local web ui available remotely but may involve port forwarding on your router/ modem.

4.  The camera seems to go to B&W depending on low light level.  I have not tested this extensively, but it sometimes gives me a B&W picture, and sometimes the picture is in color.

Answer from Mario Romero in tech support:
This does occur depending on lighting  in a room. The IR lights(Night Vision) are designed to kick in when lighting is at a certain point. you are able to disable the the night vision through the cloud,app, and local web UI and re-enable when you like also. If you have ever heard a clicking sound, it because the night vision is kicking in/out.

5.  I have set the camera up to send emails to a gmail address.  For some reason, Gmail interprets all email alerts from this camera as coming at some time 16 or so hours before the actual time.  The time stamp within the email is correct, and is what I've set the time for in the camera setting (Pacific Standard Time).  However, the Amcrest is evidently sending emails with an "email time stamp" that is way off. 

Here's an example from one recent email alert:
Gmail says that the email was sent at: May 29 (8 days ago)
But the email body contains an image and the following information: Alarm Start Time(D/M/Y H:M:S): 30/05/2016 05:18:05

The email body has the correct time. 

Answer from Mario Romero in tech support:
the time stamp of the camera can be looked at and verified. I have seen this occur also, and a soft reset helped the situation. Please unplug the camera from power for 5 seconds, then plug it back in.  (Norb's note -- this has never worked, I've tried it several times). 

But Barry said that this was a known bug, they are working on it.

In summary, this Amcrest IP camera works well and is easy to set up.  I was able to view it remotely using the camera app and my web browser at the amcrestcloud.com site.  However, there are some features that don't work -- and should work -- such as turning the camera on and off; motion detection on and off; and correct time stamps accompanying emails.

A few more notes:
1.  The video recording to the cloud is nice, but any videos are deleted from their cloud site after 4 hours.  This makes the video recordings useless.  It's a pretty smart way for Amcrest to convert users to paid users, where the video recordings are stored on the cloud for a longer period. 
As one reviewer on Amazon states:
It is only 4 hours of clock time, not recording time. It's enough for you to evaluate if you want to subscribe. If you want to catch a burglar, it would only have your recording if he came in the last 4 hours.

2.  The only way to turn off motion detection on the camera -- and to avoid getting a constant stream of motion alerts flooding your mailbox -- is to physically turn off the power to the camera.  You cannot turn the camera or the motion alerts off using the cloud site or the phone app. 

Amcrest tech support 888.212.7538
their website states that email is the best way to reach tech support, but I found that calling was far better, and quicker.