Sunday, December 27, 2009

When is good audio quality not enough...

When it's combined with poor mechanical quality, that's when.

A few months ago I bought a BlueAnt bluetooth headset (The Z9i model) on the recommendation of a friend who works at Radio Shack. After the purchase, I called my wife to get a quality check (she is very particular about call quality and immediately lets me know what she thinks about the sound) and she gave the BlueAnt a Thumbs Up.  Sounded good to me as well, so I used it for several months and was happy with it.

After only a few months, I learned that the mechanical design / implementation leaves a great deal to be desired and I've replaced the BlueAnt with a Motorola headset.  The problem with the BlueAnt is the mechanism they used to attach the ear loop to the headset. There's a little rubber "grommet" on the back of the headset and the end of the ear loop is inserted into that grommet. That was fine initially, but after only a few months of use, the rubber grommet expanded allowing the ear loop to rotate in the grommet so that the headset flip-flops on my ear. Not acceptable -- it feels as if the thing is going to fall off every time I lean to the side..

I tried applying a very low-tech fix: wrapping a small amount of scotch tape around the end of the ear loop.

That worked for a while, but when I had to add the second layer of tape because the grommet had expanded even more, I gave up.

Nice of BlueAnt to try new approaches, but this one sure didn't work. In spite of the great sound quality, this device gets a Thumbs Down rating.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Oh, you wonder where the disk space went...

Discovered this morning that my Vista machine (business accounting) which is a very low-use machine was generating an overly large backup (55Gig)... and it just seemed to keep growing and growing...

I did some digging and found that the c:/windows/system32/config/RegBack directory was over 7Gigs of space!

Looking at the files, it's clear that some process is regularly creating backups of the registry

and they just sit there, building up over time.

I know that disk space is cheap, but that's not the only resource involved with simply letting applications use as much disk space as they want. As the size of "stuff" on the disk grows, there's also a cost in other ways.
  1. The added time to transmit this stuff over the wire for backups increases. For example, even with a Gigabyte network installed, this takes time and eventually the window available for the backup is exceeded.
  2. The added cost of keeping copies of this stuff lying around, as in backup copies. The extra 7Gigs of space expands to roughly 21Gigs of space on my rotating disk backups.
  3. The added cost of purchasing and installing ever larger disks. My backup drives are beginning to reach capacity and this wasted space is definitely contributing to that.
  4. The added cost of computing cycles - and human wait time - when I need to find a file on my system. 
I wonder if these registry backups are ever used. And I'll bet that the programmers who put this together said to themselves: "Well, it's only a few Megs and disk space is cheap, so we'll just throw these out there in case we need them..." and didn't think about the fact that, over time, these 'few Megs' could turn into a real waste.

Nice idea to back things up automatically, but a little thought to the potential impact of such an approach and some automatic cleanup would definitely make for a better solution. Kinda makes you wish for a variation of the IBM System/360 Generation Data Groups where the operating system would keep a set number of files in a group, automatically re-numbering them as new ones were added.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Great little NAS box...

The 351UNE box from NDAS is a great little network-attached hard drive. It's fast (1Gig network speed), flexible (network, USB, and eSATA connectors), and easy to setup & use. It comes in a variety of sizes, and you can even buy it from local dealers without a HDrive and add your own (I got mine at Fry's for $60.

If you get one, make sure you get the updated drivers from their website (V3.71 as of this post: and click on "NDAS DRIVER for Windows"); the older drivers do not work so well.

Even better, their technical support was astounding: I was working on a Saturday installing a couple of drives for a client and couldn't get them to work (older drivers that came with the hardware). I sent an email to tech support, fully expecting to have to wait until Monday morning for a response. Within about 20 minutes, I got phone call (!) from their sales rep.  He apologized for not being a tech, but offered to do what he could. What he did was point me to the new drivers and - voila - everything was up and running.

Now that's a terrific combination: great product and even greater support...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Apple Time Machine Gotcha [FIXED]...

Well... for whatever reason, my Mac thought that it's system disk was a Time Machine backup disk. That's because there was a folder called


in the system drive's root directory (i.e., click on your system icon in Finder, then click on the system hard drive and look for "backups/backupdb" in that folder).

I found the solution at this site -- nice to see I wasn't the only one with this kind of problem -- and deleted backups/backupdb. Now my install of Snow Leopard is working just fine.

So how come my system disk thought it was a Time Machine disk? Who knows... just one of those TechBlech mysteries.

Apple Time Machine Gotcha [Part 2]...

Well... things are now getting more interesting (as in the old curse: 'May you live in interesting times").

I got a USB HDrive from my parts box, initialized it for Mac OS X, did a brand-new, full time Machine backup to the HDrive and thought I was ready to upgrade from Leopard to Snow Leopard.  Not so fast, my Mac says. When I try to install to the HDrive in the Mac, I get the message:

Mac OS X cannot be installed on "EDP24_HD". This disk is used for Time Machine backups.

Huh? This is the system disk we're talking about -- the one internal to the Mac itself. That's never supposed to be an option for a Time Machine backup.  Maybe it's the fault of the cloning process... or something. Some research is definitely needed here.

Apple Time Machine Gotcha...

In general, I've been loving my MacBook... it's small (easy to take to client meetings), has good battery life (unlike my Dell PC laptop), and easy to use (it's a Mac... right?).  I have particularly liked the way that Time Machine works automatically and invisibly: I've used it a time or two to reach back into the past and find a file that I deleted a while back and had forgotten about but suddenly needed. This approach works better than a few simple disk backups and is like the "10-Tape Rotation" scheme I used for years when I was backing up to separate tape volumes: I always had the recent stuff plus backups extending back in time for up to 3 months.

However, I just ran into a little "gotcha" when I was upgrading to a slightly newer machine.  Mac's also have this wonderful feature of being able to easily clone your hard drive. With a utility like SuperDuper!, you can also clone your machine onto another machine (on the same network). What's even better is that there is a free version of SuperDuper! which makes a complete clone of your machine onto the new machine (the paid versions offer you lots of options such which files/folders to exclude from the clone, thereby making things run faster).. very nice!

Of course, before I cloned the machine, I did a current backup onto my Time Machine drive, setup the cloning operation, and away we went. Took over 2 hours (I've heard that if you have large files on the machine being cloned, things take waaaay longer than if you don't: I had a pair of 2Gig compressed files so what was expected to take 20-30 minutes took much longer. But this is a minor whine, as everything else worked flawlessly on the clone).

However, Time Machine believes that this cloned machine is actually a new machine, and that's not good at all. It means that the new (cloned) machine no longer recognizes my Time Machine HDrive as the current backup drive and wants to start all over with a full backup. What that also means is t hat I can no longer go back to the files that are saved on my old Time Machine backup drive -- they are essentially gone.

I wonder if anyone else has had this experience; if so, do you know how to:
  1. avoid the problem in the future or 
  2. access the old Time Machine backup "just in case"
Hopefully I won't need those old files, but you never know... that's what backups are for. Too bad Apple doesn't have an obvious/easy way to work-around this...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

'Just browsing' ain't easy on the web...

It's time to start thinking about getting ready for the holiday season, and that means picking out the remaining gifts that I need for family and friends.

It reminded me of the time when I was consulting full-time at various client sites in downtown San Francisco. I'd step out for lunch and frequently walk around just to get some fresh air. Frequently, I'd be walking down the street, see an interesting store window and say to myself: "Hah! That book [or piece of jewelry or...] would be perfect for my friend." and I'd drop in to take a closer look and frequently purchase just the right thing.

Now that I'm working more out of my office, I don't get out that much, so those opportunities don't present themselves as much as they used to. Making a point of going to a store and walking around with the intent of finding gifts somehow never gives quite the same feeling of getting that 'perfect' thing.

My local Starbucks barrista mentioned that it was a bit of a challenge to get what you wanted on the internet and it suddenly struck me that she was absolutely right: the internet is great for finding something when you know what you want, but it's not so good for casually looking around... for just browsing.

Stores are an organized jumble of different products from different companies all arranged higglety-pigglety according to the store's and the vendor's needs, and you walk from one aisle to another and you can go through a complete category change. Leather briefcases yield to belts and those to accessories and on to underwear... it's almost like a walk thru "The Medici Effect" in real-time with a corresponding unconscious effect on one's thinking about what to get for whom.

I wonder when someone will figure out how to implement 'just browsing' on the web?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hard drive versatility at USB 3.0 speeds....

For anyone who's had to copy/clone hard drives (something I occasionally have to deal with as an expert witness on a legal case), you know that it can be a pain. It's certainly not rocket science these days, but breaking open your system, finding an open bay with power, getting the right drive connectors, and then buttoning things back up can tedious, time-consuming work, not to mention backing everything out again when you're done. There are removable drives that have been available for some time, but they still have to be mounted in the correct housing...

Now there's a simple and fast solution: the SATA Quickport USB3.0 docking station from Sharkoon, a German company that focuses on various components and accessories. You plug in a naked SATA HDrive (either 2.5" or 3.5"), connect the USB and away you go at roughly 10 times the speed of a USB2.0 connection.

Everything USB reports that it should be available in about a week and sell for about $73.

Very nice!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For mature audiences only...

You would think that with all the baby boomers retiring that companies could figure out how to solve some of the problems of the older generation. Often they solve one problem but introduce another one.

Case in point:

My friend's father lives on the East Coast in a retirement home. His dad is doing fairly well, but has some disabilities associated with his age. In particular, he's hard of hearing and so can't enjoy his music.  My friend bought him a set of headphones which did a great job of solving the hearing problem: his dad really liked the sound quality and wanted to get them.

Unfortunately, the remote controller that came with the device (which is important for folks like his dad who no longer are as spry as they used to be) had control buttons so small that it was completely unusable.

When are designers going to look at the whole picture, rather than taking a myopic view and introducing more problems? Reminds me of what Geoffrey Moore called the whole product in his landmark book, "Crossing the Chasm" or the idea of empathic design.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

When is a nickname just a pain...

When it's a Microsoft Outlook nickname, that's when.

Outlook tries to be helpful. One of the ways it tries is by keeping track of the email addresses that it has seen. These are called 'nicknames' and they pop up when you're typing in an address so that you don't have to remember/type the whole thing. This can be very nice.

However, it doesn't work so well when you get an old email address in there and can't get it out. Then you may actually keep sending to the wrong email address repeatedly. That can be very un-nice.

This happened to me and there are three solution options that I've found: two of them not so nice and one quite nice.

The first two are from Microsoft:

1. You can select the unwanted nickname and delete it by pressing the {DEL} key.  Unfortunately, even though I did this multiple times, it kept coming back like the unwanted guest.
2. You can completely delete the nickname file (see this Microsoft Knowledge Base article). It works, but it's like bulldozing your house to get rid of a cockroach. I did find a reference to a Microsoft nickname utility file, but it only went through Outlook 2000, which is pretty old now.

The last option is from a software company called NirSoft.

3. Here you can download a neat little nickname utility program. Works like a champ and you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater like Microsoft's solution. NirSoft has a bunch of other very nice utilities - check them out! For example, they have a little command line utility - nircmd - to perform many little small tasks, including an option to empty the Recycle Bin: very handy when I do my backups.

Makes you wonder how these features get added without adequate support. Seems to me if you're going to add a feature, you should make the assumption that it may not work at some point and give the user a built-in, supported solution to remedy the problem.

All in all, I spent quite a bit of time trying to solve this problem, which it should have been an easy fix.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What just happened...? Part 2

Earlier, I reported that my scanner had gone haywire and I had to "fiddle" [technical term meaning "non-productive activity" -- see "fritter"] with the settings to get things to work.

Well... it's still acting strangely and I haven't (knowingly) changed anything -- not even the magical Windows elixir called Re-Boot).  Today when I went to scan a one page photograph (still using the Windows WIA driver), it kept scanning the same page over and over and over until I cancelled the scan. Yet, scanning as a document it worked just fine.

On a hunch, I went back and tried the TWAIN scanner and -- even more strangely -- it now works just fine.

Hey, Microsoft (and other product companies, as well): I don't want all those fancy new bloatware features of Windows or Office: I just want what is there to work reliably so that I can get my job done without having to "fiddle" my time away.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sign of the (computer) times...

Computer systems change... who knew?

This morning I went to my Starbucks for my usual morning wake-up.  When I presented my card for payment, the gal behind the register scanned the screen for a moment then called the barrista over asking: "Where did they put the new Gold Card button?"

Now for those of you who may not know, Starbucks has a Gold Card which gives you a 10% discount on all purchases (I'm a charter member due to the fact that I get many  lattes from Starbucks). The Gold Card has been out for roughly one year and it has always taken two swipes of the card to properly handle payment: the first swipe is to register the fact that you purchased something using the card and the second swipe is to actually collect payment, assuming that you've put money on the card. Ever since the Gold Card came out, there's been this little "dance" that we do: They swipe the first time and then ask me if there's money on the card to which I respond "yes" and then they swipe it a second time. I've gotten in the habit of handing them my card with the statement: "Yes and No", meaning "Yes there's money on the card and no receipt." Most everyone in any Starbucks store gets it pretty quickly and has some funny comment to make about how I must do this a lot -- part of the great ambiance that I like about Starbucks.

Anyway, I've always wondered why the two swipes and when they would change the system to fix this. Apparently they've now done this, because that's what her question was about. Together they look over the screen, touch a few buttons and can't immediately find what they're looking for. Comments like: "I think I heard that they fixed this..." Pretty soon they ring things up, and I walk out the door a happy camper... until I look at my receipt which shows no 10% discount.

This reminds me of countless such experiences I've had over the years. As a long-time manager/developer of business systems and processes, I cringe when the people who actually have to use the system aren't told about changes. A few years back, my local Lenscrafters went through such a change, and it was even more challenging than this one. Over the weekend, the store I went to had been upgraded from an old "green-screen" DOS-style application to a modern windows application. I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in to the store: it was usually organized and efficient with a small number of people waiting. This time there were a large number of obviously impatient people waiting around and clerks were huddled around the screens trying to get customers checked in. In one case, a sales assistant and the manager were trying to enter some data on a screen and getting error messages back -- they were unable to enter the basic parameters that they were taking for the customer's glasses.

Rather than being a "15-minute and out" process as was usually the case, it seemed to take 20,  30 minutes or more to get a single customer taken care of, thus the long frustrated lines.

When it was my turn, I asked about this. They showed me the screen: obviously some designer had decided to use all the Windows GUI (Graphical User Interface) widgets available and collect everything that they could possibly want -- the screen was filled to bursting with input fields, drop-downs, and even a slider or two as I recall. As I think back, the data checking was quite strong, as several inter-dependent fields had to be entered correctly (a good thing). However, as the employees told me, they had come in Monday morning and the old system had been swapped out and the new one installed -- with no warning or documentation or training (a bad thing).

They were apologetic, polite and supportive (good customer service to the extent that they could give it), but they were hamstrung by the new system and their lack of knowledge about it.

Which brings me back to this morning. When I walk back in and show them the receipt, they both go back to the register screen and start looking through the menus/options. While this is going on, one of them says: "They never tell us when they change things. Sometimes they'll change the entire layout on us."

On the one hand, as an IT professional, I'm rather critical of this: besides the customer impact, the employees are the ones who take the brunt of these sea changes: they don't have the right tools to do the job and they have to deal with angry/upset customers. And my gut-level response is to say: "How can they do this... This ain't no way to run a business."

On the other hand, as a business consultant/coach, I understand some of the tradeoffs that are a necessary part of business...
  1. How many people have to be trained?
  2. With a large temporary work-force, where do you most effectively spend your time, money, attention?
  3. How much time does it take to prepare adequate training, must less deliver it in the field?
  4. What's the cost of all this?
  5. When is "good enough" really Good Enough?
  6. How hard should the IT folks fight for what's "right"?
  7. How do we know what's "right" anyway?
The real question is: was this a planned-out strategy or a knee-jerk reaction; hopefully the former.

And above all, my hat's off to all those employees that have to deal with these situations.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Signup Catch-22 - Finis...

Well... that was more like it!  The reset password email arrived promptly, I entered my new password, and was finally able to login. Whew!

Now let's see if the actual service improves on the Signup process...

Signup Catch-22 - Part 3...

The saga continues: I'm getting the impression that SugarSync doesn't want me to sign up and start using their service.

I clicked on the "Activate your email address" and was taken to the proper page where they requested that I type in my password (set during the sign up process). I did so - several times. Each time there was about a 10-second delay (what's that all about?) and then they rejected it as an "invalid password". Now I know I typed it in correctly because I keep my passwords on 4MyPasswords [Disclosure: this is a site that I built and maintain] so it's not about forgetting my password.

What to do now? Well, they offer to reset your password... and of course they get you the new password by... you guessed it... emailing you a new one!

I wonder how long this email will take...

Signup Catch-22 - Part 2...

Well...something finally started happening.

Sunday morning (9/6) I received a solicitous message from SugarSync that started with: "We noticed you have not yet downloaded the SugarSync Manager..." and ended with: "If you have any questions, please contact us at" Nice but totally useless under the circumstances. Obviously some automated system message.

Much more helpful would have been a message saying: "We noticed you have not yet activated your SugarSync account..." but I guess they assumed that part would work fine.

Also interesting were the time stamps: their message says it was sent "Sun 9/6/2009 7:17 AM" whereas my system shows it was received "Tue 9/8/2009 10:21 PM". There's obviously something going on with their email system because that's a huge discrepancy and one I haven't seen with all my other email.

Needless to say, I just noted and then ignored the message.

This morning at "Tue 9/9/2009 1:49AM"  I received my activation email -- it was sent on "Thu 9/3/2009 6:52 PM"(?!)  Wow! I could have gotten snail mail way quicker than that.

Furthermore, it was apparently a "canned" activation message -- almost certainly the one I had hoped to receive immediately after signing up... and I have yet to hear back from my email to Customer Support. Maybe I'll hear something in another few days after their email system grinds along.

Reminds me of some email fiascos companies experienced in the late 80's and early 90's when large-scale, high-volume email systems were just being deployed. But it's certainly not something that any company -- particularly a new generation, Web 2.0 company -- should be experiencing today.

More as and when their email system turns...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What just happened...?

Computers do the strangest things... I was working this morning and scanning some documents when I decided to make some adjustments to the scan settings: I just upped the resolution from 200 DPI to 240 DPI to get a little more clarity. Shouldn't be a problem, right? Wrong.  After that, my scanning application (PaperPort V10) stopped working and just complained with an "Unable to communicate with the device" error message.

I ran thru the tests and it worked just fine, but whenever I tried to make a scan for real, it failed.  There were a couple of settings that I was able to get working, but the original setting failed and most every other option just stopped working.

A reboot didn't help (the Windows sometimes miracle cure); stopping/restarting the scanner didn't help.  I was about ready to uninstall/reinstall the FAX/Printer driver when I looked at the scan driver options: there were two. One was for a TWAIN driver and one was for a WIA (Windows Image Acquisition) driver. When I switched to the WIA driver, everything was back to normal.

Total loss of productivity: roughly 30 minutes trouble-shooting... and it really isn't "fixed". I just lucked into a work-around.

We'll see what happens next, as I don't trust lucky fixes. At least Windows provided the solution in this case.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Signup Catch-22...

OR: How not to implement website sign-up.

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a large file. Rather than trying to do it via email, he used a new service -- SugarSync -- to forward the file to me. This is one of several "store and forward" file services, designed for people who want to exchange large files securely and don't have their own public-facing ftp or alternative download sites. Some of the alternative services that I've already used include Pando, and YouSendIt. They all seem to offer similar services: free accounts with low transfer rates; paid accounts with higher transfer rates; and free receipt of files.  They all require that you sign-up for the account: free or paid. Notification is often done via email, although Pando installs a small program that monitors your account.

I received the SugarSync notification email, clicked on the link, and signed up following their requirements. It was all pretty standard: you sign up, they send you a confirmation email, you click on the link embedded in the email to confirm that you actually requested this account, and you're good to go. Until you click on the link in the confirmation email, you've got an account but you can't use it.

All that went according to plan, but then I didn't receive the confirmation email. I went back to the site and they make it very easy to request another confirmation email and also suggest that you check your spam folders just in case. I did all that (several times, actualy) and still no confirmation email. After checking and re-checking that I had entered my email address correctly, I went to their website to get some help... and here's where the Catch-22 fired.
  1. I tried Support, but you must be an approved user to use the Support pages!
  2. I couldn't find an email address that I could use for requesting help; I tried and am still waiting for a response.
  3. I tried to follow the instructions associated with their entry about not receiving a confirmation email (see In this post, they instruct you to "Submit a Ticket" but, of course, you have to be logged in to perform this action, as they immediately re-route you to a login screen.
  4. I thought I would try their Discussion Forum (not something I usually like to do because of often poor response in these types of forums) and then found this complaint about lack of support, posted on August 25, 2009, and still with no 'official' response.
  5. And there's no phone number on the site.
Doesn't look too promising.

Unfortunately, I've seen this pattern in the past: someone gets a good idea and implements it on the web. They put up a nice app, reasonable functionality, positioned properly, and they start to get some traction. Unfortunately, they just don't have the right level of support to make it work. ALL software has bugs, no matter how good your developers are, or how good your testing is, or what development framework you use: there are ALWAYS bugs.

It's a huge mistake to either assume that there won't be many/any bugs or to not plan to actively support your users and fix those bugs.

Too bad... this is one service that I'm definitely writing off my list.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Form input time waster...

Why is it that often when you open up a page on which there is an input form, you have to manually move your cursor to the first field before you can actually start entering your data? I.e., you have to either TAB to the field or move the pointer and click in the field. When you consider all the forms that are on the web and all the people that use these forms, this is incredibly inconvenient and time-wasting.

For example, does place your cursor properly when prompted for a webmail or customer login, but not when you are working on the forms to manage your site. And, when I go to Amazon, I'd like to type in the name of the book I'm searching for, but first I have to click on the search box before I can start entering my text. The Office Depot shopping site does a nice job of putting your cursor into the "quantity" field when you go to a catalog page... just type in how many you want and move on.

I find this really irritating: if there's a form on a web page, it's a pretty safe bet that they want you to add some data into some of the fields...right? So why don't they start you off in the right place?

It's actually quite easy to do: it just takes a call to whatever command is available in the web development framework (it's called "setting the focus" to that field) when displaying the form and your user is ready to go. Once I realized this, I added this to my own 4MyPasswords site.

Why can't everyone do this? Sure would save a lot of time...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What kind of 'management' is this...?

Many of you already know about the program wmiprvse.exe -- it's a part of the Microsoft Windows Management Instrumentation feature. It's supposed to help your windows system run better, but it has a problem -- a big problem. It frequently starts sucking up 50% or more of the CPU, sometimes only briefly but sometimes for hours at a time. I know this from personal experience as well as from the many many postings there are on the web (here's one example) asking about how to fix this problem. I haven't found any satisfactory answers yet.

One post suggested this was because there was a bad network card on the network, but I have yet to find pointers on where to find the information that is being analyzed and how to find the errant network card... or whatever else is happening.

One problem with wmiprvse.exe is that you cannot simply terminate the process: if you do, say with Task Manager, then it immediately comes back and jumps right back up to the magic 50%+ CPU utilization. Even reboots aren't guaranteed to fix the problem and who wants to reboot their Windows machine and lose even more time?

Well, a few days back, I found a work-around. It's just a band-aid, I know, but I'm happy to be able to use it. The fix is to suspend the wmiprvse task. The way I do this is through the Process Explorer utility offered by the SysInternals folks -- this is just one of the many excellent programs that they offer (and in a nice little ironic twist, they're now owned by Microsoft so the problem and the solution are all in the family).

Once you have Process Explorer installed and you see that wmiprvse.exe is doing it's CPU-sucking thing, just find it on the Process Explorer list, right-click it, and select the Suspend option. The task stays in the system, but doesn't get any CPU cycles, unless you Resume the task.

At this point, I've had wmiprvse.exe suspended for over 3 days. Occasionally, I do a Resume and see it hit 50% and then just re-suspend. There aren't a bunch of error messages in the event log, so... no bad things seem to be happening to my system and I'm getting full use in spite of wmiprvse.

Thank you, SysInternals... nice stuff!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Thanks, Microsoft... NOT!

It seems as if the latest set of Windows XP updates don't work as well as one would like. I've already run into two time-consuming problems and I'm hoping it won't get worse now that Windows 7 is in manufacturing.

1) The first was an update (don't know which one) that reset many of my internet security settings. The result was that FireFox and IE both stopped downloading files and IE kept saying that my setup was insecure. It took me quite a while, but I finally figured it out: Go to "Control Panel | Internet Options | Internet" and click the "Custom Level" button. What I found was that the options under "Miscellaneous" had been reset to "Disable" instead of "Prompt" as they had been. Once I found and fixed that, I could download files again.

2) The second was the disabling/breaking of scanners. I've had all-in-one printer/faxes for quite some time and use them heavily through PaperPort. All of a sudden, it stopped working: the error message said the scanners weren't setup, even though they previously had been. It wasn't a PaperPort problem as two other machines with the same setup but wihtout PaperPort also couldn't scan documents, even using the vanilla Windows software. No amount of fiddling fixed the problem -- the only thing I could do was completely uninstall the printer/fax software and re-install from scratch. At least that did the trick.

Not a very productive few days, as the problems had to be analyzed, and then 3 machines had to be fixed. I don't scan on my Vista machine, but I'll bet they didn't have a problem.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

More GREAT customer service...

Recently I purchased a new Brother color printer (Model# HL-4040CDN). I've wanted a color duplexing printer for some time now so that I can print some of my marketing collateral, but they've always been too expensive. Well... this one was on sale (brand new) at Office Depot for $225.00 and I just couldn't pass it up: competing models from HP were in the $500 and up range. Every thing went fine with the setup until I went to print booklets using Fineprint, an awesome print utility that I've been using for years and wrote up some time back.

Imagine my surprise when the booklets came out wrong! Fineprint has a great little feature that allows you to easily print two-sided (duplex) documents even if the printer doesn't support it automatically. It runs through a series of tests, gets information from you, and then controls the printing so that you put the pages back in for the second side in just the right way - very nice! With automatic duplexing printers, they figure out how to set the duplex parameters on-the-fly so that everything works out fine.

Not on this Brother, however: no matter what I did, the pages always "flipped" in only one way that worked some of the time and not others (without getting into too much of the gory details, pages can be flipped on the long edge or the short edge, which makes a difference for portrait or landscape mode). I worked with fineprint support (they're great) and Brother support and finally realized that the Brother printer was not accepting dynamic printer commands to change the page flipping parameters: the current driver allowed you to manually change them, but that's certainly not what I expect from a modern printer with automatic duplexing.

When Brother tech support told me that it was working "as designed" and that I'd just have to manually change the settings, that was the last straw. I wrote a letter to the President of Brother USA, explained the situation and pointed out how unacceptable this was.

A few days later, I received a call from an customer service advisor in the President's office and was assigned to a technical advisor. We started working together to describe the situation so that the developers could understand what was going on.

To make a not-so-long story shorter, I now have a new version of the printer driver which properly handles all the automatic duplexing features that I expected from this printer.

Now that's what I call service! Thank you Brother.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

GREAT Customer Service... Priceless!

I recently checked in with Timebridge, a relatively new scheduling app that I had previously signed up with and forgotten about. I found that I had two accounts, setup under two different email addresses. I wanted to cancel one account and add that email address as an alternate to the account I was keeping, and -- as usual these days -- there was no way to cancel online: I had to send an email. I used their generic form to request assistance, and resigned myself to the usual delays or complete non-response that I've experienced in the past.

You can imagine my surprise when I got a response within 30 minutes! Not only that, but it was actually an intelligent response, not some canned "We got your email, now sit back and wait..." mumbo-jumbo that you usually get. The fellow (Lior) actually gave me the option of deleting the unwanted account or consolidating it into the one I was keeping. Now that's help! I said 'consolidate' and within another 60 minutes it was done: I had one account with two email addresses.

BTW, Timebridge is a great little scheduling app which (in its free incarnation) let's you contact folks, offer them meeting alternatives, and gives you back information as to who accepted which dates/times. Very helpful for teams that don't work together on a Novell Groupwise or Microsoft Exchange server. The paid versions offer web conferencing and conference calling services.

Highly recommended!

Friday, June 12, 2009

When is "Support" not support?

When it's Canonical support for Ubuntu, that's when. Hard to believe, but it's true.

I've been doing some development using Linux & Ruby on Rails and needed an occasional helping hand with Linux sysadmin duties. Who better than the folks who created the distro that I'm using.

Well... first of all, it took forever to get someone to respond to my email queries as to what would be covered with the support agreement. It took over two weeks to get the answers I wanted (at one point, I had been waiting several days and the sales person finally contacted me and said "We're out all this week so it'll have to be next week" (!) I should have known if they had problems taking my money that they might have problems providing support.

But I really wanted the support so I persisted. Finally, I put together a long email list of applications and services that I would need help with and the sales guy emailed back: "No problem". The list included Apache, Mongrel, and several other apps. I pointed out that I wouldn't need help with the internals of Ruby on Rails, but really wanted sysadmin help (installation, upgrade, initialization... standard stuff like that).

So today I'm authorized and I make my first call: for some reason, I can't get my Mongrel servers to start up at boot time and I want help configuring Apache so that it all works nicely. I get a fellow on the phone pretty quickly (that's good), start to describe my issue and as soon as I say "Apache", he says: "You have desktop support; that's a server issue!". I explain that my requirements have all been documented and approved in detail; he checks his log (the emails are all there - that's good) and informs me that's a mistake and he doesn't support that.

By now I'm pretty sure that this isn't going to work for me, so I try to simplify the whole thing and ask: "OK, how can I just get my Mongrel startup script to run when the system boots?" Rather than answering that he checks his notes a bit, and comes back with the question: "How did you install this? From a separate script or from the Ubuntu standard package?" I start to explain that this was some time ago and I believe I installed from a script, but he interrupts to state: "Did you install this from the Ubuntu package source or not? That's a 'yes' or 'no' question." Things are obviously going downhill at this point, but I still really want the answer to my simple question so I just say "No; not from the Ubuntu script".

Next question from the 'support' tech: "What version of Kubuntu are you on?" I respond: "Kubuntu Hardy". He says: "So I presume you're on Hardy for the LTS (Long Term Support) option?" I start to say: "Well... I'm there because my last ugprade didn't go well and I could use some help upgrading to Jaunty..." but he interrupts again and says: "That's a 'yes' or 'no' question!"

At this point, I'm done and I want a full refund, so I say: "Maybe we'd better escalate this so that I can just cancel this service!" And... you guessed it... he's the only person there and he (of course) can't cancel the service. He can only make a note and tell me to expect a call from London on Monday.

I get the call and they cancel my service with no problems... that's good.

So! How good is Canonical support? That's a 'yes' or 'no' question, folks, and the answer for me is 'no'.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Great little image editor...

I've been using Paint.Net for several months now and don't know how I got along without it (actually, I do know: poorly). It's fast, easy to use, reliable, and it fits my communication style.

What I like to do when communicating with folks is include a portion of a screen shot and highlight the area that I'm discussing. This can be circling a field on a form or shading the area. Some products are too big and bulky for this (read "PhotoShop" or "Gimp", for example, both of which I use) and some don't have the simple drawing tools (read the Microsoft built-in tools or most of the basic image editors available).

Get Paint.Net at I think you'll enjoy it!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

When is a trial not a trial?

Today I'm looking for an outliner. You know, a simple application that I can make quick & dirty outlines with, possibly with notes attached to each outline level. I'm willing to buy one if it works for me, so I go on the lookout for a trial so I can take it out for a spin before I plunk down my money.

One of the products I download and start to use is Action Outline. It's a 2-pane outliner (meaning that the outline is on the left and the notes associated with each outline item are on the right. It's got quick & easy commands for inserting, deleting, moving items and very quickly I start to think: "Maybe this is the one?".

And then it happens. I add an outline item and get the message:

"Only 7 sub-items allowed in evaluation mode!"

They have a 30-day evaluation period, but that's not enough for them -- they cripple the product so that you can't really test it. This is similar to other products which don't allow you to print more than a few items or more than one page in evaluation mode, for example.

I have a policy designed to avoid wasting my time/money: if a product is crippleware, I don't test it or use it... it immediately goes into the trashbin. Maybe the developers are afraid that real testing might lead to problems, so all they want to do is whet my appetite and get me to buy the thing on blind faith? NOT.

Note to Product Developers: if you want me to evaluate your product, then make the whole thing available so that I can actually evaluate it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What was Microsoft think... Oops; wrong question.

Now here is a real catch-22, perpetrated by our good friends, the Microsoft Outlook development team.

As a security move, Microsoft changed Outlook sometime back to not allow recipients of an attached MS Access file (something.mdb) to even see the file, let alone save it or open it. If you get one of these files in Outlook, it's there, taking up space, but it might as well be in Timbuktu for all the good it does you.

So what happens when you try to open that email in another, smarter email reader? All you get is a lone "winmail.dat" file -- that Microsoft proprietary format which they used for "rich format" emails. Completely unusable.

In other words, don't ever use Outlook to email an Access MDB file -- it just doesn't work. Obviously someone wasn't thinking when they made this change... or they just didn't care. Take your pick.