Sunday, December 16, 2007

Us versus Them

I am troubled by the "us vs. them" attitude that seems to pervade forum discussions about DBA's and application developers. When you get right down to it, if it weren't for app devs, there would be nothing for the DBA's to do. Except perhaps to sit and stare at master, msdb, model and tempdb. On the other hand, without the DBA's even a well-written application will not perform to the customer requirements. And let's not forget about the network engineer - none of this stuff will work without the proper infrastructure.

Where does the end-user fit? They need an efficient application that meets their often-changing business needs. But in the absence of constant communication and cooperation between all of the IT groups, that goal will not be met.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Ham without Spam

I recently removed my public email address from my web site, due to the surge in spam from many sources. But the most annoying of all was the blank messages with no subject and no sender - neither my web host, ISP nor Outlook have any mechanism for flagging those messages as undesirable - without any visible content there's nothing to tell the filters to block. If that makes sense. Still haven't figured out the purpose of sending blank emails.

But the good news is that Microsoft Office Live, even the free version, provides for a web site & one of the pages is a fill-in-the-blanks "contact us" form. So I simply replaced the "mail to" links on my web site with a link to that fill-in form at Office Live. That way, you can still be contacted via the Internet but without exposing your email address to the creepy crawlers who screen-scrape & harvest them.

For the uninitiated, ham is the good email, which is the opposite of spam. Not sure who thought that one up, wasn't me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Scope Creep

This week I was instructed to halt further development on an Access program for batch processing of invoice payments, because the project was "way over budget." Invoice payments are normally entered via a web application, but the Access program provides an interface that allows the user a much faster method of data entry & also lets the user easily reconcile the batch payments to the bank deposits.

The original definition of the program was to handle only one specific type of invoice, and that took about 16 hours or development. Fine. But then the scope was expanded to include any type of invoice, and that entailed some complex business rules for handling any payment that included both types of invoice. That change required an additional 39 hours of development. When questioned about the status, I furnished a WAG that completing the amended project would require another 8 hours, mostly for testing, and that's when they put on the brakes.

No wonder that Dilbert is so popular.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Create web page as formatted VBA

The task:
Create an html page with VBA code with all the color-coding and indents that you see in the VBA IDE.

The purpose:
Within the VBA environment, the formatting makes it easier to work with your code, but if you copy and paste that code directly into an html document using Word or FrontPage, all the formatting is lost.

The solution:
1. From the VBA module, select all the text (Ctl-A) and copy to the clipboard
2. Open Visual Studio .NET, create a new VB Script file and paste the copied text
3. Copy and paste from the new VB Script file into a new Word document and save as .htm

The result:
The htm file looks just like it does when working within the IDE.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Access 2007 Bible redux

This is a follow-up to my previous comments about the Access 2007 Bible.

I started out by reading every word, but after the first three chapters the authors settle down into a complete course on using Access from the ground up. Great for those just starting out, but experienced developers will find about 1,000 pages of how to create database objects, beginning VBA programming, and the like. Except for the fact that much of those activities are now squirreled away somewhere on the ribbon, nothing substantial has changed in the database design process.

The only two notable additions are the Attachment data type, and the fact that you can now format a Memo field to use rich text.

After skimming those 1,000 pages of fluff one evening, I finally reached the chapter that prompted me to buy the book in the first place - how to program the ribbon. IMHO the authors fall short on this; they suggest using a supplied sample ribbon as a starting point, instead of creating one from scratch. They also suggest downloading the (free) Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition to work with the XML required for the ribbon.

As an aside, they totally exaggerate the complexity of working with custom menus and toolbars in older versions. I never found this to be a challenge; the Access GUI does a fine job without writing any code. The only downside I found was that you had to create macros & attach them to the toolbar buttons. I don't normally use macros.

I have yet to try working with custom ribbons. They tell me that there is no programmable object model for the ribbon but expect (spelled h-o-p-e) that there will be add-ins forthcoming to allow integrated ribbon programming. I sure hope they're right about that.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Click and Type in Word

Microsoft Word has offered the "click and type" feature for quite some time, but I recently decided to give it a try, and it is really quite useful.

I was preparing some user documentation with screen shots, using Alt-PrtScr to capture the active window and then paste into my Word document. I would then crop the image as necessary to better fit the printed page.

I had a section with dialog boxes displaying possible messages and/or warnings from my Access program, and I wanted to add a comment alongside each dialog box to explain why the message would appear, and the user action required for each.

In the past, I would have created a one-row, two-column table to hold the image alongside the text; I tried the click-and-type to add a comment next to each image, and it works great.

If you are in a click-and-type-compatible area of the document, the cursor looks like a short vertical bar with several smaller horizontal bars to the right. Simply click where you want to start your text & start typing. Very slick. It also wraps the text automatically so you don't have to worry about that - the only limitation is that if your text extends below the bottom of the image, the placement of the image vs. text can get a bit messy, so the text needs to be brief for the best appearance.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Confused Updates

Microsoft Update seems to be confused lately. I have two machines that have never had Office 2003 installed; they are both running Office 2007 Enterprise Edition. One is running Server 2003, the other has Vista Business.

Both PC's had been previously running other OS's and Office's, but then I did what I call a bare-metal install; starting by reformatting the hard drive and then installing fresh OS and Office, so I'm certain that there are no Office 2003 components whatsoever.

However, Microsoft Update thinks that I need to install Office 2003 Service Pack 3. Makes me wonder if there is "a little something extra" in SP3 that MS wants to get installed regardless.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stealth Updates

Microsoft Update has recently evolved into a system of stealth updates, taking away the control of updating from the user. This is not a good thing.

I usually set my Automatic Updates for "download, but ask to install" and when the updates would be released, the Automatic Updates icon would appear in the system tray, alerting me that "something" was ready to install. I would then click the icon & run the "Custom" update option, since occasionally I would not want an update e.g. Office 2003 Service Pack 3, at least not until I've had a chance to review the details of the changes.

Nowadays, the icon will flash briefly but then disappear. Then, when you go to shut down the PC the "Shut Down" option is replaced by "Install Updates and then Shut Down" without revealing what exactly is about to happen to your machine.

The workaround is that you have to cancel the shutdown, then go to the Windows Update site, let it discover what updates are available, and then run the Custom install so you can select which updates you really want. Usually the so-called "Critical" and "Important" updates have already been downloaded, so you can immediately install those chosen updates. Typically in MS fashion, 9 times out of 10 you need to reboot for the changes to take effect, but you'll note that the normal Shut Down option is back on the list.

Another downside of this new "feature" is that it won't automatically get the "Optional" updates, so if you have developer software like SQL Server or Visual Studio, or if your system vendor has updates for their products, that can require an extra visit to Windows Update.

So much for Trustworthy Computing.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Power Surge

I thought I had a decent disaster recovery plan in place - a UPS on each PC, accessories like modems & routers plugged into surge suppressors, and I periodically copy my critical files to one or more other PC's on the network, and the extra-special stuff goes on thumb drives too.

However, last Tuesday about 3:00 AM there was a major electrical storm in the area. I lost my Internet connection; resetting the modem fixed that. But the storm shorted out one of my telephones (good-old POTS wired land-line) and also blew up my router. Worst of all, my main PC's NIC appeared to be damaged as well.

I managed to connect one PC direct to the cable modem, and after an hour on the phone with one of Cox's absolute best techs I've ever spoken with, I was back online with one PC. But he confirmed that the modem was not talking to the router, or vice-versa.

I had been using primarily LinkSys equipment, but I had tried NetGear at my Oregon office & it worked just fine with Comcast and their Motorola cable modem, so I selected the NetGear WGT624, a 4-port switch with a 802.11g wireless AP, about $65 with tax. Works like a champ.

Still had issues with the main PC. I even tried installing another NIC, a D-Link 530-TX, but the PC recognized it as a second instance of the built-in NIC. Tried running Add New Hardware, but Windows could not find it. Not sure exactly what fixed my problem, but I removed the D-Link, disabled the connection from Control Panel, disabled the NIC in Device Manager, powered up, powered down, danced around in a circle (just kidding) and at that point I suspected that I needed to reinstall the Windows networking components.

To test that theory, I pulled out my Ubuntu Linux 6.06 Live CD and figured that if I booted from that & Linux found the NIC & connected to the Net, that would confirm Windows' confusion. Just before I did that, I decided to try one more time - reenable the NIC, reenable the connection, reconnect the Ethernet cable & boot into Windows. JOY! It worked.

Now, everthing is back online except for my old Sony laptop with a PC Card Ethernet adapter - none of the lights are coming on, so I suspect that the card is toast. Luckily I have a wireless PC Card, I'll be trying that later on today.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Unwanted Bundles

There seems to be a trend that some software packages will bundle unwanted extras, without any opt-out options. Two recent examples:

Updating a Windows XP machine with Internet Explorer 7 bundled the Google Toolbar, with no option to reject it. The installer stated that "it can be uninstalled afterwards" which I did, but why subject the user to that extra step & wasted time?

Updating Yahoo Messenger bundled the Yahoo Toolbar, in that case with an option to reject it, however, upon reboot the Messenger service started automatically - I did not select that option, and it was not in the Startup group, so I had to regedit to remove that option.

There is enough stuff being installed as it is, I think software companies need to reevaluate their offerings and give control of their PC's back to the users who paid good money for them.

End of rant.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Access Bible, Chapter 3

I just finished the 3rd chapter of the Access 2007 Bible, and I'm surprised that somebody actually published it with so many bad ideas, good gosh. Chapter 3 speaks of "Bulletproofing" your database, but following their recommendations would certainly leave gaping holes in your protection.

After stumbling through a clumsy explanation of normalization, they start talking about how you might decide to use natural keys for table PK's, which is SUCH a bad idea. Before I go too far, let me be clear that I believe only in surrogate keys (Autonumber in Access, IDENTITY in SQL Server) .

Their first bad example is using Social Security Numbers. Aside from the obvious risk of identity theft and the potential legal exposure of using them, if you have any employees outside the US they won't have SSN numbers and your app will break. (The only place for SSN's is deep within the confines of HR, and they need to be encrypted.) The second suggestion - using employee ID numbers - is equally bad, because if you have an employee leave the company and then return, they might not be assigned the same ID number. In fact, as a consultant, I have a customer that assigns me a different C-number every time I come back in to do a project for them. The database would think I'm a different consultant for every project.

To be fair, they do endorse the use of Autonumbers for PK's but incorrectly state that a number can never be reused. The fact is that if a record is started but not saved, Access will not reuse that autonumber, but it is possible to insert that missing number using sql; the same holds true for SQL Server. Good thing to know if you're ever audited & they ask about that missing number.

Anyway, now that we have some wacky PK's, the authors talk about creating relationships between the tables that use outer joins, instead of inner joins. What?? The whole point of a relational database is that you create and enforce relationships. This is so disturbing to me, I have to stop writing now.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Vista Explorer tricks

The Windows Explorer in Vista leaves out two important features from previous versions:

The up-folder icon is missing from the toolbar. Somebody at MS got the great idea that they're going to copy the behavior of the Linux File Browser, where the folder hierarchy is spread out across the address bar, like

Computer ~ DRV1_VOL1 (C:) ~ Share ~ Sysinternals

and to go up one level, you need to click on the folder to the left of your current location. Fortunately, you can press Alt-Up Arrow to move up one level. Intuitive? I don't think so. And the Linux version also has the up-arrow icon on the toolbar. Intuitive? Yup.

The second, most irritating omission is that you can't easily resize column widths - there is no column sizer like prior Windows versions, or even Access or Excel for that matter. You can sort by a column, or drag columns into different orders, but the only resize options are Resize to Fit, for either the current column or all columns.

Here, you have to right-click on the gray title bar and select More... and at the Choose Details dialog, you select the column to be resized and then enter the number of pixels in the little box. How many pixels should it be? Your guess is a good as mine and YMMV, but using 1024x768 resolution, it seems that 166 gives a reasonably good view for file names. I give this feature a big zero for ease-of-use. Once again, the Linux File Browser has the same good old column resizer feature that users are accustomed to having.

After five years of development, you'd think they would have made things easier to use, instead of more difficult. It's sad that I even have to post these "tricks".

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Nowadays I'm a database guy, but over the years I've done countless software installs, hardware upgrades, and recently I built myself a server starting with an empty box, system board, cards, drives, and cables.

However, Friday afternoon I paid a quick visit to a customer and I was unexpectedly pulled in to a malware situation on one user's PC. It started with a radio playing in the background (?) and quickly escalated to numerous popup advertising windows in Internet Explorer.

I ran some of the Sysinternals utilities available from Microsoft, notably the AutoRuns and Process Explorer, and found numerous evil entries and killed the processes & deleted them from the registry using those tools. However, after a shut down / cold restart as soon as you opened an Internet Explorer window the popups resumed.

I then ran the RootKit revealer which takes a long, long time, but it did in fact find files that were "visible to the Windows API but not in the MFT" located in C:\ and also C:\WINDOWS\System32. I opened an Explorer window set to show all files including hidden & system files, but couldn't see them. Then I opened a command window (cmd) and tried Dir /ah, Dir /ar and so forth but they weren't visible there either. Aha! This must be a rootkit, I thought. Unfortunately, the RootKit Revealer has no delete options built-in, so I could see the bad stuff but couldn't reach it.

This PC is on a corporate network and is running Trend Micro anti-virus. We checked the activity log and discovered that Trend was reporting "successfully found ... but unable to repair or delete" the evil files. We also tried running the Update Now for the AV but without any improvement. A Trend Micro web search netted only two results, one from Europe and one from Australia, but no hard facts or solutions.

On Monday, we're going to try upgrading to IE7 to see if that is immune to the malware, or least capable of blocking the popups. If that doesn't do the trick, we'll try a System Restore - we've identified the date and approx time of the infection, so hopefully that will silence the demons.

The only good thing about this whole episode is that the user is still able to send and receive emails, and the malware is not propagated to the recipients.

That being said, I simply cannot understand the whole point of this malware epidemic that we all face today. What could possibly be the purpose of it? Is it just for a prank, are they getting paid for advertisers that are being displayed, or what? From studying this infection, the malware author obviously spent a lot of time creating this, with many interconnected files, and taking great effort to hide the activity from the OS.

I have purposely not disclosed the names of the various bad files, so as not to encourage the malware author.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

More Vista problems

I am running Vista Business on an older PC that "meets" the minimum requirements. But Vista does not meet my minimum requirements.

I have several computers on a LAN - a mix of Win 2000, XP, 2003, and Vista. Oh yes, and one more running Linux. I can use remote desktop to connect from & to another (except that I use RealVNC for the 2K machine, and RealVNC & SMB for the Linux box).

However, when I remote desktop into the Vista machine, if I attempt to actually do anything during the first minute or so, like open a file, I get the Vista BSOD telling me that some hardware or config change occurred and Windows was shut down to protect the computer. Then when I restart it, if I try to re-open that same file Vista tells me that "this file caused a problem" and do I really want to open it? Give me a break.

Let's wait for Service Pack 1. Or maybe 2.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Access 2007 Bible

I don't normally do book reviews, but the Access 2007 Bible is the first book that I've purchased from the Wiley "Bible" series and I have a few comments to share. Usually I select from the QUE "Special Edition Using", SAMS "Teach Yourself", Peachpit "Visual Quickstart", or O'Reilly "Definitive Guide" series, but this was the first one I found at the bookstore that discusses customizing the Ribbon. I often use custom toolbars in my apps, but the ribbon forces those into the Add-Ins tab which diminishes their usefulness.

Considering all the changes to the UI, I decided to start reading the 1400+ pager from the beginning. Already in Chapter 2, they talk about a "five step method" of design that does not make sense to me, and contradicts the normal design flow.

They begin with an overall system design, but step 2 speaks of report design. That does not compute. In my experience, reports are the last thing to develop, and in fact designing reports can be an ongoing task, quite literally for years, as users need to extract more and more information from the database. Step 3 by the way begins the actual table design.

When designing a database, there is a real need to know what type of reports the users will ultimately need, but those report requirements will grow and expand significantly as they study the original reports and continue to ask more questions of the data. Many of those new reports will involve combining, compiling, and manipulating data in various ways; none of which can be anticipated when designing the original database.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Future of Access

Microsoft's complete redesign of Access 2007 has reconfirmed their commitment to their flagship desktop database. No other product on the market has the same capabilities and user-accessibility. The rich object model, queries, forms, reports; all contribute to its popularity. In addition, VBA allows the Access professional to continue to develop complete solutions within a single program, without needing conversion to the .NET platform.

I remember working at a customer years ago on an Access 97 project, and the Corporate IT Director told me "you know, this is going to be the last version of Access from Microsoft." However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Access 2007 can be used with existing designs in the 2000 or 2002 formats, and still supports workgroup security which was eliminated from the 2007 version. Apparently the new 2007 format .accdb would have been too difficult to implement in the new XML data layout.

Even with the release of the free versions of SQL Server 2005 Express, Access will continue to be the best choice for single-user and small-group applications.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Lost product keys - found

Here's my problem - I have two CD's of Office 2003 Pro, one is installed on my desktop & the other on my laptop, but I lost track of which CD was installed on which PC.

There is a great program, Belarc Advisor that is free for home use, that can list out every ProductID and 25-letter code for all of your installed software, and not just the MS products. It also does a quick assessment of your various installed updates, security status of user accounts, and so forth.

In a matter of minutes, I found out which CD matches which PC, so now if I decide to re-run the install to add / remove Office components there won't be any issues.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Always ask before opening

I was trying to automate a WinZip file download via Internet Explorer, and un-checked the "Always ask before opening this file" but the file opens in the Temporary Internet Files folder, which is not what I wanted.

The solution is to open Windows Explorer and then click Tools ~ Folder Options ~ File Types and then scroll down to the ZIP extension, click on it and then click Advanced.

At the "Edit File Type" dialog box, click the "Confirm open after download" checkbox; then click OK and then Close to return to the Windows Explorer window.

As it turns out, I actually had to do this twice to fix the problem - the box was checked, imagine that. So I un-checked it, closed out, then returned to that dialog and checked it again. Now, IE will display the expected Open / Save / Cancel dialog when clicking on a WinZip.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Norton AV uninstall - a better way

This is a follow-up to my prior post about uninstalling Norton AV.

My previous approach for my ThinkPad was to simply go into Add/Remove Programs in Control Panel, but apparently that was the reason for the 16-bit snafu.

Norton provides its own uninstall program via the Start Menu, and when I used that method on my HP desktop, it did not create the 16-bit problem that I encountered on the ThinkPad.

After the uninstall, I found that I still had to go into Add/Remove Programs to remove the Norton WMI Update and the Live Update components, but after doing that I did not have any further issues.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Norton AV uninstall breaks 16-bit apps

I decided not to renew my Norton Anti-Virus for my ThinkPad, so I uninstalled it from Control Panel and replaced it with the AVG 7.5 Free Edition. I had already tried AVG on my Vista test PC, and felt quite comfortable with it.

Unfortunately, I discovered that the Norton uninstall left a fragment behind in the registry - when I would launch a 16-bit program I got a message about the 16-bit subsystem not being able to initialize S32EVNT1.DLL and had two buttons: Close and Ignore. But if I clicked Ignore the 16-bit app worked just fine.

I Google'd about and found lots of similar complaints, but no real solutions - only that a VDD entry in the registry was calling for a Symantec file that no longer existed. Luckily I have another XP Pro computer that still has Norton AV, so I found the bad entry at:


Name: VDD
Data: C:\PROGRA~1\Symantec\S32EVNT1.DLL

...all I had to do was right-click on VDD, click Modify, and erase the entry. Problem solved.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Lab logs and weblogs

My first job out of college was in the Engineering Dept. at Hammond Organ Company in Chicago. The founder, Laurens Hammond was an incredible genius, who invented the tone wheel generator that was responsible for the Hammond Sound that powered the famous B-3 organ. Other diverse inventions included the synchronous electric motor (that kept constant speed regardless of the AC line voltage, making an electric clock that kept perfect time) and a device that would automatically deal playing cards (OK, so that one didn't catch on).

He held numerous patents, and everybody in engineering was required to keep a "lab log" which was serialized, dated, and then archived, to document our daily work just in case something special came out of us. During my six years there, four of my circuit designs went through the patent disclosure process.

I like to use my blogs in a similar fashion - not that I'm inventing anything, but simply to record things I run into & how I deal with them. I hope that the reader finds that useful.

Nowadays it's so easy to just tell somebody to "Google" something, but after the first couple of 1,000 hits you realize how vast the Internet really is. It's like going to the public library and just walking up & down every aisle until you find what you're looking for.

I'm hoping that my posts will help others find their way through today's technology.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

FoxIt Reader for PDF's is updated

The remarkably fast, efficient FoxIt Reader for PDF files has been updated to version 2.0. The file size has grown from about 3 to 4 Megs, but is still half the size of Adobe's Acrobat Reader.

The new version includes support for interactive fill-in forms. However, that feature requires another little update for JavaScript support, but FoxIt tells you that & directs you to the proper site to install the 30-second update. This new version even has an option to highlight the fill-in fields, making fill-in forms easier to use than ever.

To install, all you need to do it download & unzip the file into a folder. You might need to remind Windows and Internet Explorer to use it as the default "Open With" for PDF files - just right-click on a PDF file, select Open With, Choose program, and then select or browse to the .exe and check the box "always use this program" and you're done.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Vista - house of cards?

The May 2007 issue of PC World Magazine describes more issues with Vista security, this time it is IMHO the worst possible type of insecurity - the Malware engine that drives Windows Defender can choke on a specially-crafted PDF file, and hand over control of your system to the bad guys. So MS security makes your PC less secure.

So much for Trustworthy Computing.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Vista + Linux = no-go

After attempting to install Ubuntu Linux in a dual-boot with Vista, apparently the GRUB loader spoiled the Vista boot record. I could boot into Linux, but Vista only presented the progress bar and a black screen. I Googled that problem, but the solutions (using ntfsprogs and ntfsfix) did not do the trick for me; still too much of a Linux newbie I suppose.

Back to square one - I decided that I would repeat my install sequence: Win 2000, then SP4, then the Vista upgrade. Unfortunately 2000 would not install - the partition table was corrupted on the disk. Luckily the Western Digital "Data Lifeguard" software repaired the partition table & I was able to proceed. Whew!

I did learn that Vista has it's own disk partitioner, and provision for adding other OS's to the boot menu. But that's for another day.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Vista and Disk Defrag

I'm preparing my Vista test PC to install Ubuntu Linux in a dual-boot configuration. According to my copy of Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks they recommend doing a disk defrag before re-sizing the hard disk partions to accommodate Linux.

From the (Windows Classic) Start menu, I clicked Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter, and to my surprise the disk defrag was set by default as a scheduled process. No wonder the disk would spin uncontrollably at times. I turned that rascal off.

I proceeded to run the disk defrag (last auto-run 3 days ago, but you know how Windows can be) so I let it run through to completion. The last repair I made to this PC was replacing the disk with a 160 GB (smallest I could find in the stores) so I ordered a pizza and went off to watch some TV. More to follow...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Future of EMail

My first experience with email was using Compuserve back in the mid-90's, when it was pretty much a dial-up world. Their email client was quite versatile - you could view the mail messages pending in your inbox, and then choose to download them (or not) which really saved precious bandwidth back then.

Today, the future of email is rather bleak. My Web site displays my public email address, which is routed from my Web host thru my ISP, then to Yahoo mail, then arrives in my Outlook 2003 inbox (with Junk Mail filtering enabled). After all those layers of filtering, my "ham to spam" ratio is still about 1:10. Not taking into account the 50-60 messages per day that Yahoo's excellent bulk mail filter screens out.

Something certainly has to be done, otherwise email will no longer be useable in business settings. Of course, you can use a whitelist to allow only known contacts through, however if you're growing your business & you want people to be able to message you, they'll wind up in the spam bucket. I wonder what happened to the MS initiative "Sender ID" which was supposed to work similarly to Caller ID for the telephone.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hasta la Vista

My Vista test PC had been having trouble finding the hard disk for the last few weeks. The first attempt at bootup would yield a white-on-black DOS-looking screen with the message "Operating System Not Found" but I had suspected the CMOS battery was weak - the 2nd or 3rd attempt would always boot into Windows. Not yesterday, though.

I booted with my Ubuntu Linux Live CD to verify that the PC was still operational, but when I tried to run gparted it could not find any hard disks. Hmmm. I ran to the store for a CR 2032 battery, a couple of bucks, replaced that with great effort (the battery was located half-way under the floppy cage) but alas that was not the problem.

I google'd Operating System Not Found and found many with similar problems, and they all spoke of hard disk failure - not disk controller failure which I had feared. After a quick trip to Circuit City, installed a new Western Digital 160GB drive - now the BIOS recognizes there is a hard drive. Step one.

My MS Action Pack subscription includes a Vista Business - Upgrade - so I installed Windows 2000, then SP4, and then was able to install the Vista upgrade. Once again, it did not like my NIC but I already had an XP driver which worked just fine. Step Two.

I was lucky that my test PC's BIOS supports logical-block addressing (LBA). I mention that because I had attempted to install a 60GB drive in another older PC but ran into the so-called 32GB boundary, above which LBA is the only paradigm that works.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Hacking Vista

It seems that every time I turn around, there is yet another article about turning off this feature, or that feature, in the new MS Vista.

I am "guilty" of that myself, having followed virtually every tip I've seen about reverting Vista to an ordinary-looking OS. After all the hacks & a few whacks, my test PC looks surprisingly like Win 2000 or XP Classic - even the Start Menu can be reset to the classic view.

You have to wonder why the folks at MS decided to make such sweeping changes to the UI, but then to still allow setting things back to IMHO where they should have been. That's not how they handled Office 2007 - there is no option for "classic" anything in that system.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hardware upgrade

I have often referred to "the beast" PC which is an older CTX computer, with an unfortunately non-upgradable AMD K6/2 CPU but at various times it was running Windows 2000, Ubuntu Linux, and most recently Windows Server 2003. This PC was on a KVM switch, but some careless plugging / unplugging (my guess) damaged the keyboard & mouse ports on the motherboard. It would still boot & I could log in via Remote Desktop but no direct key /mouse contact.

An acquaintance upgraded his personal PC, and offered to give me his old motherboard, with CPU and memory, so I purchased an Antec PC case from Circuit City for about $75 and installed the motherboard & transferred my disks and cards from CTX into the new system. I also took the opportunity to reinstall a CD writer that was removed from another older PC.

The PC started up and then Windows Server 2003 gave me a BSOD (imagine that!) saying that my hardware had changed, or whatever, and the computer had been halted. I've changed out & upgraded many components before, but never a total motherboard switch. But I located my Live CD version of Ubuntu & booted to that successfully, so that told me my hardware was OK, and it was Windows that was confused. I then booted with the Windows CD and tried using the Recovery Console and ran BOOTCFG which didn't help, and then CHKDSK /R which stalled around 50% and stayed there for almost an hour before I hit the power switch to put it out of its misery.

I again rebooted with the Windows CD, this time I followed the normal prompts but selected the Repair option; I noted that it quickly deleted a slew of files and then proceeded as if a normal install. When it finished, voila! the PC booted into Windows Server 2003 with virtually all of my settings intact. Whew! Funny thing, this was a 180-day trial set to expire in June, but after the repair I noted that it gave me a new 180-day trial thru September. Not expected behavior.

The new motherboard carries an overclocked 800 MHz Pentium III with the max of 512 RAM; about triple the performance of the 400 MHz K6/2 with 384 RAM. Still underpowered by today's standards, but Server 2003 runs surprising well with those limited resources.

I really like the Antec case - eight drive bays, six PCI slots, 380 watt power supply, a 120mm fan that is very quiet, 2 front-panel USB ports plus six more from the back.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Microsoft Update - needs work

I'm on the soapbox this morning, after a careless visit to Microsoft Update that netted me numerous updates that I neither expected nor wanted.

First of all, if you're not aware of this, the U.S. has changed the rules for Daylight Savings Time to begin sooner and end later. However, I am in Arizona and we don't observe DST; Windows knows my time zone, but still installed that particular update.

Next, I found a "Euro update for Slovenia" which likewise doesn't belong on a US system - especially not an automatic update that gets pushed out to everybody.

Then came numerous updates for MS Office 2003-2007 and/or SharePoint 2007 interoperability, about which I could care less.

End of rant.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Office Live - contacts fixed

I'm happy to report that Microsoft has completed the updates to the Office Live email client. You can now add contacts to the online address book simply by clicking the link.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Wall-Plugged Ethernet

I needed to extend my network to the "workshop" which is a brick building 30-35 feet from the house. Past attempts at using wireless have been inconsistent due to distance, electrical wiring, and stucco construction with an underlying wire mesh.

I found the Netgear XE102G Wall-Plugged Ethernet Extender Kit which runs around $80 US at Staples - and it works!

The kit comes with two matching units, just connect an ethernet cable from your router to one unit & plug it in an AC outlet, then plug the other unit in another AC outlet & connect an ethernet cable from it to the PC.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Office Live still in Beta

I've been working with Office Live Basic, and it turns out that the email client is unable to add contacts - but they are working on it. A recent message to support yielded the following:

"Based on the information that I received, you are unable to add contacts to you and it gives you an error message stating that "report this problem to Microsoft". It also does not add the new person to your contacts. I understand your concern in this issue.

"You have identified a known issue for which there is currently no resolution. The product development team is prioritizing all of the known issues and steadily working through them, but we do not have a time frame for a fix for this issue.

"I apologize for the inconvenience this causes. I do suggest, however, that you visit the Microsoft Office Live Community where you can ask questions of other Office Live customers who may have experience with this issue:

"Please bear with us on this. We really appreciate your patience and cooperation on this.

"Thank you for contacting Microsoft Office Live Support. "

Friday, January 05, 2007

Oracle Unbreakable Linux

How's that for a news flash? While MS continues to re-create the Windows operating system, this time it's Vista; the Linux groups continue to build on stable ground, and that stability is drawing more users into the Linux fold.

Oracle now offers enterprise support for Linux, in the same fashion that they support their namesake database, for about $99 per user. Word is that Red Hat charges way, way more.

Apparently Oracle is maintaining their own Linux distro, and merging changes into it -and- developing & applying their own bug fixes as needed.