Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sunday Times has a bad hair day

The Sunday Times lead story has an interesting twist: "The SA government has launched an aggressive campaign to change the world's perception that the country is losing the war against crime."
Does that mean that we are losing the war against crime and they need to spread the message, or that they are trying to change the perception that we are? I guess the Sunday Times news desk was too busy rushing to replace their original lead story about Ian and Claire Difford, which is still available on their web site even though they had a court interdict to stop publication.
If the minister spent more time doing visible things against crime in this country rather than jet-setting around the world, perhaps everyone, not just overseas investors, would benefit from out new-found commitment to tackling crime. But given the way they are going about it, it just reinforces the notion that the ministers are more interested in jet flights out of SA to avoid being mugged than actually doing anything "on the ground" in SA.
The Sunday Times is also having other difficulties. Their article on blogging must be the worst-researched article of its kind, not to mention the technical snafus with some of the pictures. They fail to mention any local blog search engines, and then "your top blogs" is a list of 3 blogs, one of which is written by a South African living overseas. Where do they get this stuff?

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Great Defrag Shootout II: Ashampoo Magical Defrag 2.08


The first "on-the-fly" defrag program I tried was Buzzsaw, which isn't bad, albeit a bit quirky. The only problem was that I couldn't run my grid.org calculation program without convincing Buzzsaw that the PC was busy.
So when I saw a reference to the "Magical Defrag 2.0" program from Ashampoo, I decided to give it a try. It failed. The link between the front-end interface and the back-end defragmentation service is flaky at best, so it would carry on doing things even when other programs were busy. Also, I don't recall any option of being able to load the front-end at startup, other than by copying the icon into the startup folder on my start menu.
Once the damn thing started running it slowed everything else down, to the point where the responsiveness of the PC varied between sluggish and rubbery. Even the Google screen saver took strain. I decided to overlook this and give the program a chance. I left it running overnight and in the morning it assured me that everything was fine and defragmented.
After doing some work on SQL I waited to see what would happen. Nothing. Even though the file was now defragmented Magical Defrag 2.08 ignored this. When I copied some documents it seemed to kick in and make sure everything was properly defragmented.
Later I noticed that my machine had almost stopped. Further investigation revealed that the defrag progam and eMule were both trying to access a file at the same time, and that the defrag program had locked eMule's open files. Not good. I can't use a program that tries to take over my machine and slows it down. After all, defragmentation is supposed to improve PC performance, not make it worse.
Now that this software has been uninstalled and my PC is behaving again, it's on to Vopt 8.18

The Great Defrag Shootout: Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | XIV | XV | XVI | XVII | XVIII | XIX | XX | XXI | XXII | XXIII | XXIV | XXV | XXVI | XXVII | XXVIII | XXIX| winner | all | why

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Great Defrag Shootout: I

I must admit I'm a bit of a defrag junkie, and I have three different disk defragment programs on my laptop: the standard Windows defragmenter, which I rarely use, contig, which is a free utility, and Raxco's PerfectDisk program. So you'd think that was enough, wouldn't you?
Well, no. I have some difficult defrag needs: on my C: drive I run Microsoft SQL Server, with a 4GB data file and a 3GB log file. Because they use a lot of precious disk space, I keep these files compressed. The problem this causes is that whenever I do any major changes to the stored procedures or data, this activity changes these files. It's not uncommon to have between 300 and 500 fragments at the end of the day.
At the same time my D: drive contains temporary files generated by eMule downloads, as well as storing all my Outlook email messages. These files grow unevenly, and get fragmented as a result. The fragmentation also interferes with sound files that I edit on this drive, so I try to keep my hard drive as well-organised as possible.
The built-in Windows defrag and Diskeeper both choked on my large files, particularly when the available disk space starts getting "low" (below 20%), and the free disk space starts getting broken up into smallish pieces.
I have a batch file that uses Contig to do a quick defrag of the most troublesome directories, but it can't defragment a file if the largest block of free space is smaller than the size of the file. In that case I rely on PerfectDisk, but it can take its time to sort everything out, and even then it doesn't always do it exactly right.
So when I heard Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte raving on about another defrag program called Vopt, I decided to investigate further. I will report back on Vopt 8.18, Ashampoo Magical Defrag 2.08, O&O Defrag, and anything else that I can find. I have already written about Diskeeper and PerfectDisk, as well as Buzzsaw and Dirms.
Update 22 June 2007: What started out as a test of a few programs has grown beyond my expectations. Please check out my "Disk Defragmentation Utilities" page to find reviews of your favourite package, and further information.

The Great Defrag Shootout: Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | XIV | XV | XVI | XVII | XVIII | XIX | XX | XXI | XXII | XXIII | XXIV | XXV | XXVI | XXVII | XXVIII | XXIX| winner | all | why

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Killing the crapware problem on PCs


ZDNet's George Ou writes: As many readers know, I'm not a fan of the Apple ads, but this one was spot on and not to mention funny. Poor old PC looked like a balloon and his dangling arms almost made him look like Jabba the Hutt.
One of the things that bother me the most about the PC industry is the inclusion of all that crapware (or crapplets) PC makers put into their computers. The same thing extends to the software industry as a whole. Every time you download some software, you're prompted (often the default setting) to install some kind of add-on for your Web Browser. By the time it's all said and done, we're looking at a computer that spends three to five minutes booting up and a Web Browser that's so jacked up that half the screen real estate is taken up by utilities that people never use. Of course, this isn't entirely unique to the PC industry, and I've seen Macs loaded with lots of junk during the startup process as well, but at least you don't get all that crap in a brand new Mac.
The first thing I do whenever I get a PC from any computer maker is format the entire hard drive and start with a clean slate. This isn't feasible for most people, so I'll usually resort to my second option, which is to clean out the startup with the MSCONFIG utility you can run from the start - run prompt (run prompt not needed with Vista).
The first thing I do is nuke all services that didn't come pre-installed with Windows. I simply check Hide All Microsoft Services and clear out everything else. There's no reason software needs extra services to work, with the exception of antivirus software and some VPN or network connectivity software (not entirely happy about that). A lot of IT departments like to load a bunch of junk utilities, and I've never been a big fan of that (at least when I was setting the desktop imaging standards). Some readers know I'm not a fan of desktop antivirus either, but I realize that your normal user will need it. The least obnoxious desktop antivirus solution is a free one from AVG. TrendMicro's corporate products seem to be tolerable and they're easy to manage, though I do wish they would audit their code better so that the next malformed compressed file doesn't completely root your PC.

As you can see from my configuration, VMware tends to load a bunch of junk that you don't need for the routine operation of VMware workstation. Anyone who loads Oracle will be in shock when they see how many services and startups it loads. Logitech in the past has loaded a bunch of junk into the services and startup area for its video conferencing products, but I've been using the native Vista drivers instead. A lot of printers and other consumer products like routers will load junk into the services and startup area if you follow their instructions and load their CDs. Internet service providers ask their users to load "Internet Acceleration" software, which inevitably causes serious issues with the computer. Everyone in the entire PC industry from PC makers to accessory makers are in a race to see who can load the most crapware in people's computers.
The next thing I do is kill all the startup junk under the startup tab in MSCONFIG.

The picture above is actually just the tip of the iceberg, and there's tons of other stuff that I disabled as well. I'm pretty careful about the software I load on my computer and even I have so much stuff to disable. I've seen the typical user desktops that have so much junk loaded that their task tray lines the entire bottom of the screen and their startup list is a mile long. What I generally do is click the Disable All button in the lower-right corner of the screen and then selectively enable the things I know I want. The only thing you'll need to enable is your desktop antivirus solution. I'm a regular user of Live Messenger and Skype, so I keep those things in the startup list. Groove is something that comes with Office 2007, and I haven't figured out how to disable that yet without having it automatically come back, though it doesn't seem to be causing any problems.

More ...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bumpy start for new eNATIS licensing system

"The new system was officially unveiled on 17 April and was meant to allow for electronic traffic-related transactions which could be done through ATMs and the Internet. At the time of the launch, Transport’s Ntau Letebele said through eNaTIS, the department also hoped to “validate examiners, testing centres and appointments, and prevent unscrupulous officials from abusing the system.” However, technical gremlins have dogged the launch and the system from day one…
First computers at licensing centres crashed. Then when they did come back online, listeners told ECR Newswatch that their applications were processed extremely slowly. In fact, one licensing centre in Northern KZN took three hours to renew discs for eight vehicles.
Transport officials have admitted there have been technical problems but say the situation is slowly improving. They’ve pointed out the eNaTIS system uses “state-of-the-art technology that will assist to register, store, record, manage and enforce the requirements of the National Road Traffic Act and the National Road Traffic Regulations.”
However the feedback from listeners is that there’s been no improvement in service. ECR Newswatch has learnt that currently, most licensing centres aren’t taking bookings for drivers and learners tests. That’s because computers apparently haven’t been accordingly programmed under the eNATIS system. Manual applications aren’t being taken in most regions either because of staff shortages. Sources have told ECR Newswatch that testing centre officials are reluctant to process manual applications because they’d have do repeat the process for each application once the system is online."

New electronic licensing system gets help

"The Transport Department says it has added extra data processors to increase the capabilities of the eNatis system installed at traffic centres country wide.
"While testing stations and licensing departments were open for business yesterday, hundreds of motorists complained that the system was too slow.
"The electronic eNatis system which was launched last week has been experiencing several technical problems.
"The department's Ntau Letebele says technicians are working on the problem.
"The computer systems are expected to be operating at full capacity by the end of this week."
This story comes from the 702 news web site 24/04/2007 07:35am. What they don't say is that the system is 3 years late, and there hasn't been a functional system for the whole month. Perhaps they'll use the long weekend to fix the problems, although I doubt it.


Monday, April 23, 2007

eNaTIS is still eBroken

When you read something this optimistic you know it can't be true:
The eNaTIS, up and running since 12 April 2007, has surpassed a transaction rate of 12 transactions per second on the morning of 19 April 2007. The system's processing capacity was extensively increased during the night of 18 April by adding an additional powerful application server into the data centre located in Midrand.
The additional processing power almost doubles the processing capacity of the data centre. Further expansion will take place this afternoon when an additional database server will also be added.
Some 860 sites performed almost 890,000 transactions by 1 pm on Thursday 19 April 2007. At 10 am a transaction rate of 45,000 transactions per hour was measured, translating into a transaction rate of 12,5 transactions per second. It is expcted that the number of transactions during the first week of operation will surpass one million.
It's not true for two reasons: it doesn't mention the number of times the system has crashed, and it doesn't mention how many people have been turned away from licensing department offices.
On Thursday 19th April I went to renew a license and transfer ownership of a vehicle. I was told that the system was only capable of doing license renewals if I arrived with a pre-printed form, and transfer of ownership transactions weren't working at all.
Even so, the queue was out the door, and the hall inside was full. Today I returned half an hour before closing and they weren't letting any more people inside. The hall was still full. So who is lying? It's obvious.
Perhaps if they spent less money on propaganda at www.enatis.com and sponsorship of the 2010 World Cup, and spent more time making a system that actually worked, we would be making progress. But since this whole operation is being run by the WaBenzi class of bureaucrats, that's hardly likely.
One wonders why they didn't have all the processing capacity in place before they went live, instead of making citizens return day after day in the hopes that they could pay their vehicle licenses. A press release by the Department of Transport explains what eNaTIS is, and promises minimum hassles, but then that what PR people always say. The system is run by Tasima in Midrand, so you can congratulate them there. After all, they are only 3 years behind their announced "live" date of the second quarter of 2004. I wonder how much more that the announced R311 million has been spent, and how much this is consting the economy in terms of delays and wasted time while people wait in queues.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Laptop Theft: are you ready?

Laptops are becoming more and more popular, and that means that crooks will find a ready market for stolen laptops. Are you prepared for yours to be stolen?
The "it will never happen to me" response is just plain foolish: your laptop is more likely to be stolen off your desk than your cell phone is. And the most important component of the laptop is also its most vulnerable: the hard drive. If it overheats it will crash and you could lose everything. I did, after using my IBM Thinkpad for only 8 days. If you drop it, you lose it. You could drop it at any time.
So when you think of laptop theft ask yourself the other difficult question: do I have any backups at all? I am constantly shocked at how many people carry their data around on their laptops with no backups whatsoever. All those emails, contact details, quotes, and letters just sitting there on a knife edge waiting for the hard drive to go.
Data theft and data loss go hand in hand, and fortunately there is free software that helps with both problems: TrueCrypt. The data is stored in a totally secure format, yet your programs can access the files as though there was nothing different. What makes it even better is that you can back up the entire TrueCrypt volume in one go, and store it on a public server without fear of anyone else being able to read it at all.
So if you are reading this post on your laptop and you don't have TrueCrypt installed, ask yourself three questions:
1. What would happen to my job if my confidential data got into the wrong hands?
2. What would happen to my job if I lost all the data on my laptop?
3. Why wasn't TrueCrypt installed on my laptop when I bought it?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Save Internet Radio from the US Congress

Hi, it's Tim from Pandora,

I'm writing today to ask for your help. The survival of Pandora and all of Internet radio is in jeopardy because of a recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board in Washington, DC to almost triple the licensing fees for Internet radio sites like Pandora. The new royalty rates are irrationally high, more than four times what satellite radio pays and broadcast radio doesn't pay these at all. Left unchanged, these new royalties will kill every Internet radio site, including Pandora.

In response to these new and unfair fees, we have formed the SaveNetRadio Coalition, a group that includes listeners, artists, labels and webcasters. I hope that you will consider joining us.

Please sign our petition urging your Congressional representative to act to save Internet radio: http://capwiz.com/saveinternetradio/issues/alert/?alertid=9631541

Please feel free to forward this link/email to your friends - the more petitioners we can get, the better.

Understand that we are fully supportive of paying royalties to the artists whose music we play, and have done so since our inception. As a former touring musician myself, I'm no stranger to the challenges facing working musicians. The issue we have with the recent ruling is that it puts the cost of streaming far out of the range of ANY webcaster's business potential.

I hope you'll take just a few minutes to sign our petition - it WILL make a difference. As a young industry, we do not have the lobbying power of the RIAA. You, our listeners, are by far our biggest and most influential allies.

As always, and now more than ever, thank you for your support.

-Tim Westergren
(Pandora founder)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

8 Years of Computing Time Since 2004

No, my maths isn't crazy. On 17th March 2004 I joined the grid.org computing project. Since then various PCs at home and work have together donated 8 years of calculating time for various scientific projects.
The software is very non-intrusive: you install it and it runs in the background, backing off as soon as you do other things. Why not volunteer your PC or laptop? It has a lot of computing power that doesn't get used for most of the time.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Companies made to pay up to clear their names on consumer website


Claim that businesses are charged exorbitant fees to answer complaints
From Reporter.co.za: "I have come across the most novel of moneymaking schemes that I’ve come seen in a long time - the beneficiary in this case being hellopeter.com. This one really takes the cake.
"Hellopeter.com is a consumer website, and in the words of the owner, a fellow called Peter Cheales is “searching for service excellence”.
"Let me give you a bit of background as to the details of our experience with hellopeter.com.
"Hellopeter.com is a consumer website that claims to receive six million hits per month. If you have received bad service from someone you can go to the website, www.hellopeter.com and lay a complaint. Recently a malicious complaint, devoid of some crucial facts, was laid against the company that I work for on hellopeter.com.
"The client was in breach of contract, but conveniently omitted this fact. As soon as the complaint went live we were sent a link via email which directed us to the page on their website where the article was displayed. Our company was asked if we would like to respond, to which we replied with a definite yes.
"We wanted to point out some obvious information that would have nullified the clients’ complaint. In order for us to post our response we needed to follow another link, which in turn led us to a page where we needed to fill in our details, upon which we were promised a response.
"After almost a week they responded, which means in the vicinity of close to one million hits would have been registered for that period.
"The response, however, was the truly shocking part. In order for us to respond we need to be registered with hellopeter.com as what they term, “A company that responds”. In order to achieve this status we need to subscribe, and the minimum period is one year. The cost is R13 500! This is the lowest category of subscription, and if you are a regular responder you need to take an upgraded package, which can be as much as R60 000 per year.
"Despite the fact that the complaint was untruthful, in order for us to clear our name would cost us between R13 500 and R60 000. Now I’ve tried looking at this from various angles but it still pretty much looks like a mass extortion scheme, especially since they do not even take care to validate the complaints that they post on their site.
"Their means of handling it means literally anyone can go and say anything against your company, whether it’s true or not, and then you have to pay a large sum of money to defend yourself.
"Just imagine: you just started out with your own company. Now everyone who has ever attempted starting his own company will quickly point out to you how you need to stretch your pennies when you are still establishing yourself.
"Then along comes your jealous neighbour or even a competitor, sucks something out of his thumb and posts it on hellopeter.com. Immediately you are set back at least R13 500 and that’s excluding all the negative marketing you will have to put up with.
"Just imagine starting out your new company and you do not have that R13 500. What would happen then? Would one then just need to accept that a website that receives six million hits per month brands your company as crap? This could break an upstart!
"I think the operators of the website should be ashamed of the means in which they generate their revenue.
Note: A check of the website confirms that "if you want to respond to comments about your business or practice, you need to subscribe and become a Company Who Respond". The benefits of joining include being sent an email notification whenever a comment is posted about your company and the contact details of the consumer."

When you sign up to HelloPeter, you are presented with the following statement: "The aim of this site is simple: to increase service levels of our suppliers. Any constructive criticism about any supplier is welcome. Compliments are gratefully accepted. But any comments that contain hurtful or racial statements will be deleted immediately. My site is not designed as a platform for vicious slander - it is designed as a highly sophisticated and economical way for Companies Who Respond to deliver the service that they profess to provide."

My comment: I use HelloPeter on an occasional basis because it seems to be the only way to "get through" to big companies when you have a complaint. This article takes a different view, and I must say I think it has a point. There are a lot of flaws with the HelloPeter system, especially the fact that you can't engage in dialog with the company once you've logged your initial complaint. Since Peter Cheales responds extremely badly to criticism, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Today I logged a complaint to bring his attention to this article. The complaint was deleted, and my account login no longer works. I can't decide if this was some kind of hissy fit or just coincidence. Time will tell.

Warning: The NSA and 4 million other sick weirdos with "security clearance" have intercepted this page and know that you are reading it.