Friday, June 4, 2010

Why every Windows user needs a Linux CD...

Even if you're a died-in-the-wool Windows supporter, you NEED to keep a copy of Linux around on a bootable CD. Here's why.

The other day, we experienced a power outage... brief, but it took down a couple of machines that I had yet to protect with a UPS (I know, I know... my bad, but I've only protected the machines with RAID drives in the past as they spend a lot of time checking the drives after a power failure).

In any event, a new Windows 7 desktop refused to boot after the power failure: the first Microsoft Windows splash screen displayed and then nothing except an ominous tock, tock, tock as it sat there doing nothing. I've heard that sound before on a machine that couldn't read the Master Boot Record (MBR - the very first part of the disk that the BIOS uses to start loading the operating system into memory). Fortunately, I had a recent backup of the system, but there was some work on the system that I had just completed, so I figured I'd use my Ubuntu Live CD to check out and save the few updated files (the idea of using Linux to save data on damaged Windows machines is not new: see here, and here for examples. Some of these articles are a little old and there's now even better support for Windows NTFS file systems)

Starting up Linux on your Windows machine is easy: insert your favorite Linux CD (I used Kubuntu 9.04) into the machine and restart the computer. You'll get an option to run Linux without installing it. The fun part is getting Linux to recognize your hard drive. Usually, it will be something like "mount -t NTFS /dev/sdb /media/windrive", but check out the references above for more details... that's not the point of this posting.

The amazing part is that -- once I loaded Linux and issued the mount command, there was a bit of a pause, Kubuntu recognized that the Master Boot Record was corrupted and then...

it automatically fixed the error!

Totally unexpected -- you could have knocked me over with a feather.  I shut down Linux, rebooted the machine and Windows promptly started up just fine and a week later continues to operate with no errors. Saved me my latest updates and a bunch of time not having to do a clean re-install of everything on that machine. Terrific!

Now why can't Microsoft do that?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why is a 2-year old Mac better than a new Windows 7 machine?

Because the Mac seamlessly and effortlessly connects to a wireless network while the Windows 7 Just Doesn't, even after repeated trouble-shooting.

I'm visiting family in Boston and they have a wireless network. A few days ago, I fire up my MacBook Pro (about 2.5 years old, now running Snow Leopard), go to the AirPort (WiFi) preferences, identify the network ID, enter the password and -- snap! -- I'm on the internet.

This morning, I decide it's time to do a few things with my new Dell laptop running Windows 7 and I figure that setting up the wireless connection won't be too hard... foolish assumption.

First off, I have to find the right place to get things done. Dell has a "helpful" piece of software -- the Dell ControlPoint Connection Manager -- that I guess is supposed to make my life easier. After poking around a bit, I see that it doesn't even recognize that there's a wireless network: it has options for wireless (even including trouble-shooting FAQs), but none of the options for wireless networks are active... they're all greyed out and therefore not available.

So off I go to the Control Panel, hoping against hope that Micro$oft has improved this since Windows XP. What I learn after almost an hour of fiddling is that they've added lots of fancy-schmancy displays and options, but it's still just as bad as ever.

The bottom line is that the house where I'm staying has an old wireless router which uses WEP encryption (that old encryption that is so easily broken it might as well be transmitting in clear text).  The good part about Windows 7 is that it know this is poor encryption, so they refuse to connect to the network, even though I've given it the proper credentials.  The bad part is that they do so without any explanation whatsoever.

I wind up running the network trouble-shooter. The good part is it helpfully responds with a link to explain "How do I change security settings or manually create a profile?" The bad part is that this supposedly helpful page says nothing about manually creating a profile, which is what I'm supposed to do.

As is the way of Windows, the critical information may well be there, but buried so deeply that -- if you don't already know what the answer is, you'll never find it. In this case, you have to know to click on the "Encryption methods for wireless networks". It looks like just more general information about WEP and why that's a Bad Thing, but way down at the bottom, there is a detailed step-by-step approach to manually creating a network profile and forcing the connection to occur. The bad part is the instructions are flawed: three quarters of the way through the sequence, when I'm supposed to get the critical option to manually connect to the network, the dialogue closes and I'm right back where I started: no connection.

Sure... I've had some headaches with getting my Mac to work in development mode, but it's really nice to have at least one machine that Just Works when it comes to getting on the internet.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Two more backup failures...

So after the dismal failure of Acronis, I tried another backup solution: a product called Backup Maker from ASCOMP Software. It had gotten some nice reviews, so I figured I'd try the free version and see if it was worth the upgrade.

I set it up to run overnight, according to their instructions. Unfortunately, when I came in to the office this morning, I found a couple of warning messages from Backup Maker saying that it was unable to backup a couple of Norton files.

Too bad: backup software that's supposed to run unattended shouldn't be displaying messages and waiting for an operator to respond. Figuring that I might have made a setup error and assuming that the backup program was now running happily in the background, I decided to go check on what it was doing and make sure that the settings were correct.

Too bad again: Backup Maker had completely stopped, complaining that it didn't have enough space on the backup volume that I had pointed to and it hadn't done anything. This in spite of the fact that there was over 400 Gigabytes of free space on that volume!

I also tried out a product call Synchronicity (by Create Software) which can be found on SourceForge, a major repository of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS, to some). It didn't take me long to dump that one as well, The only way I could find to define backups was one folder at a time, rather than being able to select multiple directories from a file tree. And that was way too time-consuming. Maybe the option was buried in there somewhere, but I sure didn't want to take the time to find out. If new software isn't reasonably intuitive to me, I just drop it and move on.

So, two more backup programs byte the dust.

How hard can it be to write a backup program that just works?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How bad can it get...?

Well... pretty bad I must say.

The backups on my new Windows 7 machine fail about every 2nd or 3rd try. It refuses to make a backup to a local hard drive (moderately unreasonable, in my opinion: I should be able to put my backup data where I want to and then copy it off elsewhere, although something off the computer you're trying to backup is definitely the best solution), so I use a networked hard drive across my Gigabyte network. No other software has problems using this drive (a Western Digital WorldBook, a very nice little NAS (network attached storage) device with Gigabyte transfer rates and a Terabyte of storage at a nice price), but Win7 backup sure does. At midnight, it complains of a network error and shuts down the backup.

So I figured I'd have to try another backup program. I've used Acronis in the past, didn't particularly like it in Version 8, but there were several reviews that discussed it favorably and one that described how mightily it had improved.

So I figured I'd give it a whirl with a trial version... bad decision. It doesn't work and support isn't available

First off, it's a monster install: about 250Meg download and almost 500Meg to install - what in the heck are they doing with all that code?

Secondly, the company makes you jump through all kinds of hoops to get the download itself, what with filling out forms, getting a validation email, then more data, and finally the download.  In the process, they give you a trial serial number which I duly copied and installed in the trial software. The one tricky part -- which will be a killer for many users -- is that they require a modification to your firewall software to let port 9876 through... this may be the problem, even though I modified Norton Firewall service in what I thought was the required fashion. But making users edit firewall rules is pretty arcane stuff and Definitely Not Recommended.

Thirdly, I setup a download following their instructions: to their credit, there are lots of options. To their discredit, the backup completely failed to run.

Finally, I went to their website and was completely unable to get support. Why is that, you ask?  Well... they require that you register your product to receive support, but the registration page refuses to accept the trial registration key that they gave me. So: no registration, no support.

I'm guessing that it has to do with the firewall rules, but since Acronis doesn't provide an option to test the basic features and make sure that everything works as expected, there's no real way to tell this short of hauling out Wireshark or other network tools and I sure don't have the time to do that.

What a waste of time...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Linux Achilles Heel...

If there's one thing that's holding back wide-spread acceptance of Linux on the desktop, it's the lack of a consistent application installation approach: in my opinion, that's the Achilles Heel of Linux.

The problem is there are several different installation packages (called package management systems) for the different flavors (distributions) of Linux. There's the deb package manager called dpkg, apt (used with dpkg), rpm, yum (used with rpm), and others, and they definitely are not compatible. Not only that, you've got to be really careful (read that as "know some of the internals of Linux-land") or you'll get screwed like I just did.

I'm using Dropbox (great product; more on that on another post - the free version allows you up to 3Gig of storage which is perfect for me) on my machines (Mac OSx and various flavors of Windows) and wanted to add it to my Linux box. I head for the Dropbox site, find the Linux download section and see all kinds of Ubuntu downloads. Now I'm on Kubuntu and I don't see anything specifically saying Kubuntu, but they've got a download that matches my version (9.04) so I give it a whirl.

First, I add it to my apt source files, which entails editing a file called "/etc/apt/sources.list or equivalent" (note the 'equivalent' part -- I still don't know what that could be). However, I've learned how to edit my sources.list file so I go ahead and do that using sudo (setting myself up as super user). The Dropboxers have done a nice job of listing all the options for the various flavors of Ubuntu and Fedora, another Linux distribution. Notice that there's a certain degree of special knowledge required already.

Once I've done that, I try to find Dropbox as one of the applications and it's not there; I try several things and nothing works. (By the way, this is a common occurrence when I try to use apt on my machine).  I do some searching on the web and locate the information about how to use the deb package manager and run that command directly per the instructions. This takes several iterations because the Dropbox software has dependencies (i.e., other software packages that it needs to run) and those software packages have their own dependencies... I slog through this morass and get to a place where it lists a slew of dependencies and says to run it all with specific options and I do that (there's the Big Mistake).  Everything is reported as "fine" and the installer requests a reboot to finish the installation. No problem, I think.

However, when the reboot finishes my KDE interface (what comes with Kubuntu - a blue-tinged interface) is gone and replaced with the Gnome interface (what comes with Ubuntu - a red-tinged interface). Folks, believe me... this is a Big Deal and one that is likely to cause me many headaches in the future. No warning... just "Boom" and the hammer drops!

By contrast, the installation for both Windows and Mac was a complete cake-walk: download a file, run it, and done! (As an aside, notice all the Linux  terminology links I had to create just to talk about this subject!)

Now any Linux geek will likely proclaim: "You should have known better" -- and they may be right. But that only serves to prove my point: there's too much knowledge required to do a simple installation on a particular flavor of Linux to expect just anyone to be able to use the operating system productively.

Those same Linux supporters (I do count myself as one... I mean, I am running a Linux box because it gives me greater development capabilities beyond what I can find on Windows and even the Mac platform) may also point out that "Normal users won't be trying to install Dropbox on their machines" -- and they may be right. But the range of what "normal users" are trying and expecting these days is expanding greatly, so the Linux community had better get ready to deal with it.

As another example which most certainly applies to "Normal users", I cannot get the latest version of Firefox installed on my Linux box without resorting to source code compilation, and if anyone in the Linux crowd expects "normal users" to jump into that frying pan, they're just asking for more trouble. I know I won't try that route anytime soon.

I don't know what the answer is. I do know that's it's a complicated task because of all the different distributions there are and the amount of investment in what already works for certain groups.

I just wish it weren't so...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Nice solution to a Microsoft Outlook problem...

Nothing frustrates me more (well... only a few things :) than a software developer taking away an option and not providing a way to undo that change, particularly when it is or should be a user choice.

Case in point: Microsoft came late to the security party and when they finally realized that their software was riddled with security holes, they took a rather heavy-handed approach to "solving" the problem. As everyone knows, email allows attachments, which are a great thing for sending files of various kinds to your friends, co-workers, and clients. That's great, but the bad guys figured out ways to package malware into various file types, including such things as Microsoft Access databases (.mdb), web address files (.url), and even compressed files (.zip).

What did Microsoft do? They dropped in a security "fix" that completely disallowed these and many other potentially harmful file types. And the didn't provide a way to undo (either temporarily or permanently) these changes. Once you've installed the security "fix", those attachments are completely inaccessible to you through Outlook. To gain access to them, you have to have another email client handy and that's a real PITA.

Unfortunately, I occasionally get such files from clients or associates whom I trust and I need to be able to open them... Uh-uh. Microsoft knows better than me and won't let that happen.

Today that problem bit me again and I found a terrific resource on the web that allowed to me take care of that in a very intelligent manner.  A quick Google search turned up this page, which explained the situation nicely and then offered up a veritable smorgasbord of solutions. As always, there's a way to edit the Windows Registry , but that's not something you want to do regularly. If that is your cup of tea, see the section on the page titled ""Recent Outlook Versions". I started to do that and then happened to glance further down the page and found an even better solution. 

In the "Tools" section, you'll find an Attachment Options link which offers an Outlook plug-in (or COM add-in) by Outlook MVP Ken Slovak. This does everything that Microsoft should have done. It installs quickly and easily, and adds a tab to your Outlook "Tools | Options" window.

There you can see all the file types that are disallowed, and allow them, individually (or all at once if you like to take risks). Even better, once you've downloaded a particular file that you were expecting, you can easily go back to this tab and disallow them again, so you don't accidentally allow the bad guys to get you.

Now that's intelligent design!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bad site! Bad site!

I recently switched to Norton Internet Security (NIS). I'd been using the free Comodo Personal Firewall and was reasonably happy with that, but ran into some issues and found community forum support to be too time-consuming. So I figured paying a bit might be worth a try. (And, I got one of those 3-user, 1-year packs essentially free from my local Fry's.) I looked at a couple of other packages but wasn't so happy with them, NIS got a PC Magazine Editor's Choice award so looked like a good deal.

My initial impressions of NIS were quite good: it installed cleanly, worked unobtrusively, and didn't seem to take much of a bite out of performance. But I'm beginning to wonder about Norton's support and about some of their design decisions. Here's the deal. provides much of my hosting and email, and their webmail service is at Unfortunately, NIS has decided in its infinite wisdom that is infected with a virus and therefore it refuses to allow access to the mailcluster server. I looked and looked and couldn't find a whitelist feature anywhere so I sent off an email to Norton technical support.

What I got wasn't much in the way of support. Oh... they told me how to get access to the website, but the solution was like taking a sledgehammer to put in a tack. Here's the technician's response:
Hello John,
Thank you for contacting Norton Support.
I understand from your message that you are unable to access a specific website as it is marked by Norton as a non-safe web.
I am glad to help you regarding this.
John, Norton has found that is infected by virus and this is the reason it has not given you the access.
If you still need to access the particular website please disable the firewall and go through.
Steps to disable the firewall in Norton Internet Security 2009.
1.Start Norton Internet Security.
2.In the Internet pane, if the Smart Firewall shows On, click the status indicator to turn it Off.
3.In the Protection Alert dialog box, select Until system restart from the drop-down menu.
4.Click OK.
I hope this resolves your concern.
Turn off my firewall until I restart the system?! How ridiculous is that... you would figure that Norton would be smart enough to: give a simple option for something like this instead of just throwing up their hands and saying: "Well, if you're going to access a Bad Site, then we'll expose your computer to any and all threats."

Oh... and the tech spelled my name wrong (it's "Jon", not "John"). I'm glad they were trained to use it twice as a "personal" touch.

Maybe I should have titled this post "Bad NIS! Bad NIS!".

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's a good thing it only cost $1.99...

I love my new iPhone. Finally I have a phone that's easy to use, synchronizes with my ACT! contact management system (thanks to Companion Link), has good speech recognition so I don't have to key in lots of data... In short, I am definitely a happy camper.

That doesn't mean, however, that all is hunky-dory. For example, the Apple Contacts feature works nicely, but doesn't have a search feature (Hello, Apple). Therefore, I have to tap those tiny letters to get to the section I want and then scroll frantically (I have over 6000 contacts in my address book: that might be another story, but I won't go into that here:).

Anyway, to get around this problem,  I bought Contact Find from the AppStore, thinking it would be the solution.

Wrong.  It loads exactly 786 of my contacts and then simply quits... not much utility there.  I sent a query to their tech support and after several days got a response back that I should reboot my iPhone and try it again.  I did that, but no dice - the same problem occurred.  Now my queries go unanswered so I have this useless app, since deleted.

Good thing it only cost $1.99...

Friday, January 15, 2010

Now that's easy money...

I've got to upgrade my main computer, a laptop. I've been happily buying Dell for many years so went to their site, loaded up a machine and got a final list price of just over $2000 with a $270 discount.  Seemed pretty reasonable.

Then I did a search for "Dell coupon" and quickly landed at the TechBargains site. What I found was a whole slew of Dell coupons, nicely organized into groups: coupons for Home/Home Office and coupons for Small Business (my category). There I found a coupon for the laptop I had selected - the E6500 - which gave me a 25% discount for a new total discount of $522.75, almost double what I had before.

Nice work, TechBargains! I'll definitely be seeing you again.