Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Things you can do with technology today that you couldn't do yesterday

Air Traffic Control System Command Center from the FAA.

Airports America provides a searchable listing of every active airport in the United States.

Whether you're a pilot, tourist, or business traveler, you can use this comprehensive list of airports to plan out the fastest way to reach your destination.

djuggler's personal blog is Reality Me

XP SP2 and the SBS Diva

Susan the self styled SBS "Diva" is a Microsoft MVP.
She has been commenting on my previous entries about XP SP2 Installation and the Microsoft Action Pack.
She then wrote an article about installing XP SP2 addressed to me!

A number of emails have also gone back and forth and from these and the article I have plucked these gems.

98 is a joke dear and should be killed off.
I haven't BSOD'd an XP. (Blue Screen of Death)
Okay so maybe I'm a major control freak, but knowing that I can remotely patch, touch and control all my workstations just makes my day.
The only pain I had in upgrading to SP2 was two workstations that had digital video cards from nvidia. That's Nvidia not Windows at fault.

First my response is to thank Susan for the effort she is showing to help me and others get more secure, and the effort MS 'appears' to be making also.
My second and more lenghty response however is not a criticism of Susan but of a corporation that has created a monster.
The Windows OS family is widely recognised as being a major security disaster. MS is constantly filling in holes in the millions of lines of code and to be fair to them it is probably being developed faster than they can repair it. So the easy answer is to create a new version. This is 'head in the sand' mentality.

Susan the following anecdotal material is intended not as a whinge, but as constructive feedback from someone who makes a living using Microsoft products, and for that he is thankful, but who is constantly frustrated by those same products as will be seen below.

BSOD and system (in?)stability.
Dont's start me on BSOD - I had one PC the other night freeze (not an uncommon thing for XP. After restarting it went into a vxd blue screen restart cycle. After 4 attempts I gave up and went to bed.
In the morning I started it in safe mode and it started fine. I then restarted in normally and it is running fine. No I haven't flashed the bios with the latest firmware and yes the machine is over 3 years old. But it should still work. I don't know many people who would a) recognise a vxd error if they saw one, b) know how to start a machine in safe mode or c) flash the bios. For comparison 1 of my Linux servers is running on a Pentium 1 and the only problem I have ever had with it was a faulty system board battery. It has never had a bios flash upgrade, and it has never frozen or crashed once in the 2 years it has been running. My main server is a P4 and it has similar stability. By comparison out of 6 PC's I would see a BSOD once per 3 months each and crashes and sudden restarts probably once every couple of weeks (depending on how frequently they are used).

I am fairly proficient at building and maintaining computers of all makes shapes and sizes and regularly rebuild or upgrade pcs for friends, relatives etc. Most of them have no clue, and neither does most of the civilian population.

So while you and I can converse on roughly the same level regarding firewalls, blocking ports and levels of security most consumers (and I include my business clients here also) have no idea what the heck we are talking about.

Most people I know outside of computers haven't even heard of XP SP2, let alone know why they should upgrade. I am just happy to come back to their PC 6 months after cleaning it for them to see that they are still updating their virus signatures and regularly running Adaware. I saw a bloke today (brand new blog I helped him create) who I set up Adaware for 6 months ago - he has had IE infected with popups, and start page overrides. He is barely technologically aware. He has however been running Adaware faithfully but it doesn't get everything. I am going to shift him to Firefox because it is easier to manage security - simple truth - if it gets corrupted you can uninstall it and reinstall it - you can't do that with IE and he doesn't have the know how to even understand the registry let alone how to go about finding start page entries.

I guess you work for Microsoft. So you have probably got a good PC with plenty of RAM, techs available if you need help - great software, you probably upgrade PC's regularly and I guess you can fairly easily shift data and personal settings across. You understand the architecture of the operating system, how MS stores user settings and other data in weird and wonderful places (and then forgets to remove it when the programs are uninstalled!)

Most users I come across have no idea that important data used by their applications are stored in hidden files and folders. They may faithfully save their docs etc onto a cd or some other backup but when the time comes for a system upgrade or an OS upgrade it has traditionally been so painful (and for many 95 and 98 are recent memories not far distant and for a few still their current OS) that they don't want to upgrade again. I can't convince my parents to upgrade from Win 98 and they are on the internet unfirewalled. They do have a virus scanner but that's it. At least they are dialup so their exposure is limited.

Microsoft's biggest problem is itself. By constantly pushing out new versions and trying to force people into an upgrade path they have created a rod for their own back.

This has been obvious in the corporate market. Most of my major corporate clients (1000 seats plus) are happily staying on Office 2000 and either Windows 2000 or XP as client os. They are not planning on upgrading and in some cases are still rolling out XP and office 2000) I am talking major government departments and private enterprises.

As well as concentrating on new and better things Microsoft should focus on its existing core applications. Its OS and Office products. In my opinion it needs to make its existing applications work properly for 90% of people. Fix forward and backward compatability issues (especially with Word and Excel). Fix the security issues that people like Steve Gibson constantly raise. Get the OS stable and no more BSOD and I will be happier!

I hope this information can be passed on. I have consulted with a number of other people (both technical and non technical) as I write this fairly lengthy response.

The technical ones agreed with me completely, the non technical had no idea what I was talking about.
Thats the point I am trying to make!

Monday, November 29, 2004

IE hacked - again

One of the tech feeds i read regularly is The Register. I wont post the url just yet due to their comment below.

The Register wrote: "If you may have visited the Register between 6am and 12.30pm GMT on Saturday, Nov 20 using any Windows platform bar XP SP2 we strongly advise you to check your machine with up to date anti-virus software, to install SP2 if you are running Windows XP, and to strongly consider running an alternative browser, at least until Microsoft deals with the issue."

Sourced from the Computer Business Review Online.

Fortunately I read The REgister using RSS and my news aggregator so I have not been affected.

This hack was an exploit of a vulnerability in IE's implementation of Iframe, an HTML tag that allows one page to invisibly nest another page. The vulnerability came to light October 24, and Microsoft Corp has not yet issued a fix.

It was delivered to several websites including The Register by an advertising server company called Falk. Potentially thousands of PC's have been compromised and had a trojan downloaded.

Windows XP Service Pack 2 would have apparently stopped it.

DirectX 9c problems

I just bought Sacred.
Problem is I can't play it. I installed it and as part of the install it installed DirectX 9c, upgrading from my pervious version 8.
Either the game or the PC fails to initialise the DirectX application and terminates.

I have logged request for help with the Sacred Forums, and also followed the advice they have provided to others with the same issue.
I have downloaded the Microsoft version of DirectX 9c in case the version supplied on the CD was corrupt in some way. (As usual Microsoft were not very helpful. I found this page saying you can't remove DirectX)
I rolled my system back, uninstalled the game, installed DirectX 9c, reinstalled the game - no dice.
I have flashed my CD-ROM drive with the latest firmware upgrade, checked the device drivers are up to date, installed the latest video card drivers and still nothing.
I guess I have to wait for the forums to "maybe" help me.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Microsoft Action Pack

Wow what a deal this is!

I just subscribed to this service.
This gives me 10 licences for each of the following software packages (1 license for server and 10 client access licences for server products):

System Builder OEM Software - includes OEM Microsoft Windows XP SP2 Professional, OEM Office 2003 Small Business Edition, OEM Windows Small Business Server 2003 Premium, OEM Windows Media Center Edition and associated OPKits
Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 Enterprise SP1
Microsoft ISA Server 2004
Microsoft OneNote 2003
Microsoft Office Professional 2003 Re-release
Microsoft Windows XP SP2
Microsoft Business Contact Manager for Outlook 2003
Microsoft Business Solutions CRM Professional
Microsoft Live Communication Server 2003
Microsoft Mobile Information Server 2002 Enterprise Edition
Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003
Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003
Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003
Microsoft Office Project Professional 2003
Microsoft Office Project Server 2003
Microsoft Office Publisher 2003
Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003
Microsoft Office Visio Professional 2003
Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services Standard Edition
Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Service Pack 3a
Microsoft Virtual PC 2004
Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition
Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Web Edition
Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services Standard 2003
Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition
Microsoft Windows XP Professional Edition

There are many other benefits also with the subscription. Full list.

Total cost was A$699 including GST for a 1 year subscription.

How to subscribe.
Go to the Microsoft Action Pack Subscription site and enrol. Do not select the option to enrol as a Microsoft Partner (prominently displayed on most of the pages) as this is not the same thing and requires you to be a Microsoft Certified Professional.

Definitive Installation guide to Windows XP SP2

Well at least that's what Charlie Russel says. He has written a column for Microsoft (he is a Microsoft MVP for Tablet PC) in which he says he is "pulling all the answers together in one place."

The obvious stuff is there like removing spyware, backing up data and turning off virus protection.

He reviews the basic system requirements, and then runs through the installation process.

For a network installation he provides the tip of copying the installation file to the local pc hard drive to run rather than running off a network share. He goes on to say you can copy the file to cd for your own use but you can't share it with anybody. You can order it from MS and you can share that one however.

The column is devoid of troubleshooting and support. It lists a number of forums from which you can maybe obtain help, but if you, like me, have ever tried to use these to gain assistance then you would probably prefer to repeatedly jam your finger in the car door then attempt to use them again. However he does offer a link to the Windows XP SP2 Support Center that purportedly provides no-charge support for SP2 related issues by e-mail, chat, or telephone.

I give this column a 2.5/10 for usefulness a 0/10 for technical assistance and a 1/10 for support and troubleshooting.

I am still not prepared to go through the pain of updating to SP2 on my 6 Windows PCs.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Intel Processor Information

Intel have been making changes to the way they name their chips for some time now.
Processor information and nomenclature are explained on these two pages.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Mozilla Firefox

What a cool browser this is.
More and more of the world is starting to use it and more and more techies are declaring its coolness.
I personally love how you can use the extensions idea to individually customise the browser to yourself.
Some of the particular extensions I enjoy to use are:
Session Saver allows multiple saved sessions to be created - each containing lists of tabs that you want to be able to reopen when you start firefox or require them. - this has to be the coolest extension!
Tab Preferences Tabbed browsing is one of the coolest things about firefix. This extension allows for some greater customisation and control of how firefox works when links are clicked.
Image Zoomer Allows zooming in/out of images from the context menu.

Adding extensions is a piece of cake. Simply click the install link and then install. Some extensions are installed on the fly, others require the browser to be restarted.
Uninstallation is a breeze also. The main reason is because the software is designed to allow these addons to be used.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


Great stuff I have come across and bookmarked. Most (but not all) are courtesy of Scobleizer.

Gaping Void has a lot of good stuff regarding web marketing.
Build your own wall projector - cheap! From Tom's Hardware Guide
Matt's Blog - Domino, Lotus Notes, Windows and Linux tech stuff
Digitally Imported - Streaming electronic dance music
Scott Gu's Blog - MSDN tech
Blog Business Summit - Name says it all
Seward Street - Character Animation
Ten by Ten - 100 Words and Pictures that Define the Time
Down the Avenue - Bringing Passion to Business, Technology & Life
Anita Borg - Encouraging women in IT
Halley's Comment - Cool webchik commenting on technology from her well-informed perspective
Konfabulator Konfabulator is a JavaScript runtime engine for Windows and Mac OS X that lets you run little files called Widgets that can do pretty much whatever you want them to. Widgets can be alarm clocks, calculators, can tell you your WiFi signal strength, will fetch the latest stock quotes for your preferred symbols, and even give your current local weather.
Major Nelson - HALO 2 unofficial xBox live blog
SplaTT's Blog - another Aussie tech site - and he notes that $9M worth of Halo 2 sold in the first week in Oz
Mirra - Personal and small business server backup systems. These look pretty cool - maybe I can convince the "office manager" that I "need" one.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Groklaw wins TechWeb Network Best Independent Tech Blog Readers Choice Awards

Groklaw has won the inaugural TechWeb Network Best Independent Tech Blog Readers Choice Awards.

The top ten were:
10: VarLinux
9: smallbiztechnology.com
8: The Enterprise System Spectator
7: Longhorn Blogs
6: jkOnTheRun
5: Daily Dose of Excel
4: Slashdot
3: Cracktalk
2: Alice and Bill
1: Groklaw

I of course was already reading the Daily Dose of Excel - and as J-Walk so eloquently puts it he is "Just Slightly Less Popular Than Slashdot…"

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Free Antivirus Solutions

Stopping viruses from infecting your machine is incredibly important. A virus can make your machine unusable and worse it can use your machine as a launching pad to attack people you know by sending them email with the virus as an attachment. When your friend opens the attachment, which appears to have come from you, they will get the virus.

Running a machine without active virus software is careless. Many companies are now offering their antivirus software for free for home use. Avast offers a free download and is comparable to paid versions of Symantec's Norton Antivirus and McAfee Antivirus. MicroWorld now offers a free toolkit utility which is supposed to "Inform users of any background illegal sniffers or tools like spywares, adware, keylogger etc. running in memory." and check for viruses (I think). I have not yet downloaded and reviewed MicroWorld's toolkit utility.

When trying to learn about a virus, find a removal tool, or get manual removal instructions, turn to The Symantec Antivirus Research Center. Their encyclopedia is invaluable!

Many companies offer free scans online. These online scans only check when you request a virus scan. You should not rely on an online scan to keep your machine clean, an active program like the ones mentioned above is necessary, but instead occasionly use a free online scan to make sure your current active solution isn't missing anything. Free scans include but are not limited to:

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Trillian as an Instant Messaging client

Does anybody out there use Trillian?
I would like to know how you find it.
It purports to be able to incorporate ICQ, MSN, YAHOO and AOL messenger clients into the one application.
I have one friend I know of who is using it and it does seem to have some limitations. I can't seem to send files to him using the MSN interface. I haven't got round to installing it myself yet - though I have downloaded it and bookmarked the web site.
So - votes please - good, bad or indifferent?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Windows XP SP2 causes of problems

Microsoft has provided a list of the possible causes for problems with installation on the Windows XP SP2.

The two free tools I use to protect my PCs against spyware (apart from plain commonsense and not installing everything I come across) are Ad-Aware SE and Spybot Search & Destroy
Both products are also availbe for download for free from Downloads

A warning: Ad-Aware will only be effective if you update its database. Currently the latest free version is 1.05.

You should also update your anti-virus definitions and do a full system scan, and just in case, run another check with one of the free web virus scanners, such as HouseCall.

Once you complete that you should disable System Restore and reboot, delete all your temp files and Internet Temp files, turn System Restore back on and create a new Restore point, disable your virus protection, unplug everything except your monitor, keyboard and mouse, say a couple of precautionary prayers, and install SP2.

(I would also recommend backing up ALL important data)

I still haven't installed XP SP2 yet - I got 6 PC's to do and I just can't be bothered with the effort that may be required to fix it if it goes wrong.
However if you have a single PC and connect directly to the internet then I would recommend you upgrade after taking these precautions.

Friday, November 12, 2004


I have held off on reporting on this til I could see just where it is going.
I thought it may have been a flash in the internet pan. It still may be, but some of the big guys don't reckon.
Robin Good and Scobleizer, are constantly posting articles and news about podcasting.

What is podcasting? Wikipedia has a definition and iPodder, the home of podcasting also explains.

Don't have an iPod (like me) but do have a Windows Media device (like me)?
Then Jake Ludington can hep you use that instead.

Even Creative Commons has got in on the act with the technology of embedding metadata (including copyright) into media files.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Google cheat sheet, Lightning, BrainJar and Insaniquarium

Cheat sheet full of hints and tips for making Google work better.

We are right into our thunderstom season with almost daily storms and thunder.
Heres a resource page full of tips to lightning information.
We also use the Bureau of Meterology Radar to check the storms progress as they head to our house.

BrainJar is an awesome resource for web programmers. Thanks Doug for the tipoff.

Finally for some (addictive) relaxation check out PopCaps latest game Insaniquarium

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Windows Media Player (WM) plugins

I found this great site for anybody using the new version of Windows Media Payer Version 10 called WMPlugins.com
It is full of awesome skins and other plugins.
Importantly they also have an RSS feed for those who want to get news of additions to the plugins site via their aggregator.
Check it out!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Decision Trees

Almost all languages have the opportunity to program decisions with an if-then-else statement. Generally you have variable, say foo, which equals something, in our case 17, and then you compare the variable to something and if its true one action happens or if its false another action happens. For our examples, we will use SpyCode instead of a real programming language.

foo = 17;
if ( foo equals 18 ) then
    --- Do this ---
    --- Do that ---

Most if statements also accommodate an elseif clause:

foo = 17;
if ( foo equals 18 ) then
    Print "You are old enough to vote in the US."
elseif ( foo equals 17 ) then
    Print "Please register. You can vote next year in the US."
    Print "Some irrelevant text."

As a quality assurance engineer, it turns my stomach to see repeated elseif clauses in an if-then-else statement. It is even worse to see nested if-then-else statements. The code quickly deteriorates into an untestable state.

Fortunately, most languages accommodate a case statement.

switch ( foo ) {
   case "18":
      Print "You are old enough to vote in the US."
   case "17":
      Print "Please register. You can vote next year in the US."
      Print "Some irrelevant text."

Whenever possible a switch-case statement should be used instead of an if statement! The execution time is always faster and the code is always more testable.

One of my favorite white board discussions is on Cyclomatic Complexity. A case statement always has a cyclomatic complexity of 1 meaning that there is only one path through the code. An if statement automatically creates two paths through the code.

If the code had a single IF statement there would be two paths through the code, one path where the IF statement is evaluated as TRUE and one path where the IF statement is evaluated as FALSE. (thefreedictionary.com)

Adding elseif conditions to the if-then-else statement rapidly increases the number of potential paths (and the number of test cases) through the code. Remember, when testing an if condition it is not sufficient to create a test case for foo = 18. You must test the boundaries of 18 (17 and 19 if dealing with integers) as well as the unexpected (foo is undefined, foo is not a number, foo is negative) whereas a case statement the testcases are very specific. But testing is a whole subject unto itself . For that matter McCabe's Cyclomatic Complexity is also.

In summary, avoid if-then-else statements and use switch-case statements.

iPods - do you use one?

I don't have an iPod - I know that is strangely ungeeklike of me, but then I never was much of an Apple fan despite cutting my programming teeth on an Apple IIe using basic.

Bleeding Edge writes that the iPod is the king of the MP3 mountain and in excellent prose explains why.

What do you use for an MP3 Player? or do you prefer the WMA format?

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

RealVNC for remote desktop sharing

I use RealVNC on my local network for remote control of the other PC's I have also successfully used it over the internet taking control of my brother's laptop while he is in the Ukraine to sort out email issues.
Robin Good has a review of some new VNC software.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Linux on your USB key

I just found a website thanks to linuxquestions.org that reviews micro linix installations. Small enough in fact to be installed on a USB key.
Distros reviewed include:
Damn Small Linux
Feather Linux
Flash Puppy

The author has written a good review of each distro and there's a good comment thread to support it.
Also mentioned for French users is Shinux