Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 2009 Defrag Shootout: Abort, Retry, Fail?

Users old enough to have used DOS will remember how it used to have an error message where the choices were: "Abort, Retry, Fail?" Right now the 2009 Defrag Shootout is definitely in the "Fail" category.
Why is it that I continually underestimate the complexity of testing and benchmarking defrag software? It took months to get the machine set up with Windows XP, Windows Vista 32 and finally 64 bit. It took longer to figure out which tests would work and which were useless. Just when I got all that figured out, Windows 7 was launched. Oh, and did I mention that I needed a RAM upgrade and my wife had a major operation?
Also, work has a pesky habit of getting in the way too. Ah well. So at this stage I have test results for the Windows Disk Defragmenter and PerfectDisk 10, and a half-written review of PD10. Not exactly a "shootout", is it? So, dear readers, I am abandoning the 2009 Defrag Shootout with less than 2 days to go.
But all is not lost. I am setting up my trusty FRAGG computer with Windows 7 32-bit, and will also do the same for Windows 7 64-bit. I am also registering a web site devoted specifically to the Defrag Shootout, because the results are tricky to find and compare on this blog. More details will follow. Of course this requires a lot more work, but it just has to be done. I will announce more as the information becomes clearer.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Windows 7: An Inconvenient Truth

Amid all the hoopla of Windows 7 there are a few things that were left unsaid because they could put you off. It may be the "best version of Windows ever" but that doesn't make it perfect. There is the DRM cost, the hardware cost, and the download cost.
You would think that an Acer laptop with Windows Home Basic 7 64-bit and Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 pre-installed would be ready to run without much updating. Wrong. So far the download bill is 560MB in updates and service packs.
So what's wrong with half a GB of downloads? Nothing much (R150) if you have a DSL connection, but a lot more if you have a 3G card plugged in. That could have wiped out your entire month's bandwidth, or cost you R190, R250 or R1120, depending on your contract and how much you have already used. Bandwidth costs in South Africa are non-trivial.
The downloads included Microsoft Security Essentials, their new antivirus package, and some of Windows Live Essentials because Office Home and Student 2007 doesn't include Outlook.
Then there is the additional hardware bill. This is because there are plenty of printers and other devices that don't have 64-bit drivers. In addition to the new laptop, Penny's aunt has to buy a new printer, a printer cable and a mouse. So a R5000 bargain became a R6000 bargain. There are more drivers available than at the launch of Windows Vista, but don't hold your breath.
If you are going to upgrade with a clean install, or if you plan to retire your old PC, what happens to all the WMA files with DRM protection? I have 5 audio books from Simply Audiobooks that are not available in MP3 format, as well as 2 from Clear Audiobooks. Fortunately I haven't bought any music this way. The total replacement cost is around $150, because the DRM doesn't transfer from one machine to another, or back to the same machine if you do a clean install. I'm glad I used Total Recorder to convert these files to MP3. It costs $17.95 which is a bargain considering how much more the DRM replacement cost is.
Isn't it wonderful how one Microsoft technology is used to destroy another? The sooner we get rid of WMA DRM the better.
Update: It seems that my audio books from Audible.com and Borders are unaffected, because their DRM is different. But I have 4 Borders books in WMA format so who knows? Time will tell.
Update 22 December: I just purchased AllMusicConverter Platinum for $20, to convert the .WMA audiobooks that I have bought. It is pretty nifty, and quite quick, given the length of the books to be converted. It claims to work on .aa files, but doesn't. And my emails to their support address have bounced. The WMA conversion works perfectly, although it insists on converting mono files to stereo.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Windows 7: "hidden" wallpaper

I have spent most of the weekend tweaking a new Acer Aspire 5332 for Penny's aunt, and it's got Windows 7 Home Basic on it. For some incomprehensible reason it's the 64-bit version, even though the laptop only has 2GB RAM. "Windows Home Basic 64" just sounds wrong.
I noticed that there were only a few pictures for the desktop wallpaper, but on closer inspection found around 100 more pictures hidden away in the
c:\windows\Globalization\MCT
folder. Some installs only have a few country locations there, such as AU, GB, CA, US and ZA, while others have a lot more. The MCT folder is hidden in some way.
A workaround is to create a c:\temp folder and then using the command prompt you can change to the c:\windows folder and type
xcopy *.jpg c:\temp /s
and explore through the files you find. Some of the pictures are quite good. I use the "Fun Desktop Wallpaper Changer" program to get a new desktop wallpaper every day. It works on Vista and Windows 7, as well as older versions of Windows.
Of course, if you want a whole load more images, you could visit the Bing Image Archive. Some of the images have been doctored to have a darker area where the Bing search box goes, but many of them are quite passable.
Update: I have posted the pictures I found here, since my installation of Windows 7 Home Premium doesn't seem to have them.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"The Curse of the Two Income Family" explained


The title of the talk is not "the curse of the two income family" but it might as well be. This talk explains a lot about why families in the 2000's are very different from the families in the 1970's. It's well worth the time listening and watching.
The timing is quite interesting too: 31 January 2008 is before the big collapse in the sub-prime housing market and all its repercussions.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dr Brian Jude buys email lists. So much for credibility.


Oh, the bitter irony in my inbox. A supposed expert on selling and marketing, who resorts to spam email. This method is second only to SMS spam and call centre marketing calls as the all-time most annoying method of selling stuff.
"Sales people are not born great. It is only with good quality training that they can learn, develop and polish the skills that will make them great. A small investment [R595] in this seminar will pay for itself hundreds of times over.
"Presented by Dr Brian Jude
"This programme explores the do's and don'ts of superior selling. Turn prospects into customers by following tried and tested professional methods."
Well, Dr Brian Jude listen up: Spam is bad. Spam is illegal. Buying email lists to send out spam is just plain stupid. (But then it is morally wrong to allow suckers to keep their money, and you were suckered by Brent (a.k.a. Mike) at MLD Marketing. Hook, line and sinker.)
What's more, MLD Marketing, doesn't even have a web site: that's how internet-savvy they are. But then you wouldn't know about the internet, because you don't have a web site either, and spam is so last century. And if you think I'm going to pay you R595 to be told how to do "effective marketing" then you can think again. You wouldn't know an effective internet marketing strategy if it hit you over the head. You should stick to the "tried and tested professional methods" that are professional, and sending unsolicited emails is not one of them. Not to mention that you are breaking the law. (Are you really a doctor? Of what? Conferences? Stupidity?)
Update 7 Dec 2009: some loser called "Mike" phoned me today to claim that MLD Marketing bought their list from Mark Tribelhorn, listed in the ISPA Hall of Shame. I found an email and cell number here, but it isn't the same as the one given to me by "Mike". "Mike" wouldn't give me his name or phone number, and his caller ID is blocked on my phone. Also, he made bogus claims about his email program, so I don't know whether to believe a word he said. He sounded very smug. He also said that he had "only" sold the list to Dr Jude for R500 "to get his money back", and knew nothing about "Front Foot" or "Vibrant Media". Yet they gave me the logo (above), and used an email address "mlb@vibrantmedia.co.za". Someone is lying, Mike.
Update 10 Dec 2009:I phoned Mark Tribelhorn on his mobile number 083-298-1825 and he was as smug, slimy and evasive as Mike. He claimed that he had "verified" my email address by means of software, without actually sending me any emails. Now there's a new one! Mark you are unethical and I'm glad you have been exposed by the ISPA for lying to people and misleading your customers.

Mail Burst: spammers who break the law

Today I got an illegal email from Mailburst, another marketing organisation that claims to be legal and above board, and compliant with the ECT Act. They also claim to be members of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). One of these two claims is faulty.
Both my email addresses and my wife's email addresses are listed in the DMA's Do Not Call list, and has been for several years. In 2007 they "apologised" for sending me spam on behalf of their client 1LifeDirect. So I wonder where they got my name this time? From my bank, who is the only company that uses my private email address, or did they steal it from 1LifeDirect again?
Of course when I phoned to ask about this, the person who answered the phone had no idea, but promised to get back to me. I await Andre Nel's reply with interest.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Nightmare buying DRM audio books from ClearAudioBooks.com


I really don't mind paying for audio books when I can find them, but this experience has to be the worst so far. I was looking for a J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts book for my wife, but Audible didn't have it, while Borders wouldn't sell it to me. So I found it at ClearAudioBooks.com, an outfit I haven't tried before.
Step 1: The first hurdle was paying for the book. I have resisted using the Verified by Visa system since it was introduced in 2006 because it relied on popups. After going round in circles I was eventually forced to call my bank with an "Error 11" and they enrolled me in the plan, like it or not. So we were off to a good start.
Step 2: Next came the problem of downloading the book. You have to set your download manager to collect only 1 piece at a time, because if you do several pieces then the server gets confused and wastes your time. At 451MB for the 64k version of the book, that's a lot of wasted bandwidth, adding another $5 to the $24.99 purchase price, but I digress.
Step 3: When I tried to play the audio file, I was confronted with yet another hurdle: the Windows Media license nightmare. I'm running Windows Vista and Windows Media Player 11, with all service packs and updates galore. Do it should be a simple case of click on the file to play. Wrong. You have to log in and give a password. It didn't work. See error message at the top of this article. I tried 3 or 4 times.
Step 4: Contact customer support. This is easy because there is a "click here" link hidden away in the bottom right hand corner of the Windows Media login screen. Never mind that the link is for a lost password. Now you have to register on a different system in order to log a support call. Yet another user name and password later, I managed to tell them about the problem. They'll get back to me: Ticket ID: SZQ-150802. No, wait, I have to visit their site to find out the status of the ticket.
Step 5: Keep clicking in desperation. Eventually the verification works on the free The Very Best of BBC Comedy that I also downloaded. I guess they knew I would lose my sense of humour, so they tried to give it back. Eventually it worked, so I tried the purchased book. Another error message:
Step 6: After this message, the book started playing. This is the point that I convert it to MP3 format before the computer changes its mind. Don't you just love how simple DRM technology is? Much easier than buying an MP3 from Simply Audiobooks and downloading it and then clicking "play", don't you think? Now if only they would sell me the book I was looking for ...
Update: When I click on the link to see the status of the ticket, I get an error message: "ERROR: You do not have enough permissions to access this page. Please log in by entering your Email Address and Password." This continues in an endless loop, even though I have logged in with the correct user name and password, supplied by email along with the link. I think I'll have to listen to that BBC comedy again, just to deal with the stress. I think I'll have to send this post as a glowing testimonial for their web site.
Update: I reported the error message to the people who make the "help" desk software, and got the following UNHELPFUL reply:
Yes, you are right, they are using our software but the issue which you have reported could be at their end. There might be a possibility that our client has made some changes in the software settings because of which you are getting this error. Our client will need to report this to us, so that we can take action on it accordingly.
Please note that our software provides both the options i.e. a customer may submit a ticket directly or he/she will need to login to submit a ticket. So, it entirely depends on how a particular client of ours has configured the system.
It's all the client's fault and responsibility to fix the third party software, and there isn't the remotest possibility that the supplier could offer to help, or even express any interest. That's just the kind of service you can expect from the sales team at Kayako Infotech Ltd.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Defrag paused, for now

Readers of "The 2009 Defrag Shootout" are probably wondering why there are no reviews. Let's just say I have been overworked. Also, the FRAGG test machine was commandeered for development work, and is returning to its former existence as a defrag testing machine as I write this.
On Thursday my wife will be having a hip replacement operation, and on Tuesday she writes an exam. Sometime life will return to normal and I'll be able to resume defrag testing.
The PerfectDisk review is 60% written, and was posted by mistake in my RSS feed. I will complete it and post it soon, and then write the WDD review, and start testing PuranDefrag, followed by the new MyDefrag and JK Drefrag. Real soon now, I promise! It had nothing to do with the 20/20 Cricket tournaments.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Improve your P2P security

There are a number of reasons why you need to take extra security precautions when using Peer-to-peer (P2P) software. The most obvious is that you are having to trust a whole bunch of people you don't know and can't hold responsible if something goes wrong. Then there are all the P2P parasites, spammers, fake files and poisoners. It's a hacker's dream and a user's nightmare.
Why not P2P?
I'm not trying to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt: but this is a cautionary tale. Especially since many ISPs don't like P2P traffic because it uses up a lot of bandwidth (which we pay for) but they don't want to have to pay for. So they climb on the bandwagon and claim that P2P traffic is mostly illegal, when in fact what they really mean is that P2P traffic is mostly unprofitable. Some ISPs make it a violation of their Terms of Service to do P2P traffic of any kind, others just filter the traffic or interfere with it.
You can download malware or viruses on a P2P network like BitTorrent or eMule. I personally avoid downloading anything that looks like bootleg software, patches or installation CDs. If you can't download it legitimately from www.filehippo.com or from the manufacturer's web site, it's probably not worth using anyway. Most software I buy or test has a free trail period. The only exception I can think of is SpinRite, which has a no-questions-asked money back guarantee. There is also enough Open Source software out there that you can usually find something close to what you need anyway. So software on P2P is a security and quality risk: it's just not worth it, no matter how tempting it may be.
Many people use P2P networks to find music and movies. Again, you have no idea what kind of quality you are getting, and the bandwidth costs can be a factor. Downloading a compressed bootleg DVD can use up anything upwards of 700MB. Since I'm paying R99 per GB and I can rent most DVDs for R25, it just don't see the point. Also, many movie formats can include scripting and other security nasties, so you are taking your PCs health in your hands.
Music is less risky, and the music industry is finally beginning to understand that the sky won't fall in if they sell MP3 files or just give them away. I don't like stealing from the "artists" (actually its the record companies that are robbing them blind) but if I already own the record or cassette tape them I have no qualms about obtaining a digital copy of those songs, especially if they aren't available as an MP3 download.
Why use P2P?
I do have a problem with audio books. I spend over $50 per month on new audio books, but the book industry just doesn't have a clue about digital media, and they have tied themselves up in arcane contracts as badly as the movie industry. We bought all the Harry Potter books, but the digital downloads are still not for sale in South Africa. I can rent the CDs read by Stephen Fry, but not Jim Dale, and haved one so. But I also admit that I downloaded all the Jim Dale versions "illegally" via P2P networks like LimeWire and eMule. Some of the copies were dreadful, but I eventually managed to listen to the entire audiobook series, whether J K Rowlings' publishers like it or not. I bought the print versions, and I would have bought the audio versions on CD if they hadn't been 5 times the price, and if they had been available for purchase.
Again, there are economics involved. If the size of the book is greater than 1GB then its cheaper to buy a legal copy than download a bootleg one. I always try to find a legal copy anyway, because I'm not a leecher and am happy to pay for my hobby. Audible, Borders Audiobooks, Simply Audiobooks and AudioBooksForFree have all sold me books. The last 3 have sold more because they allow me to download MP3 files more often than not.
There are also legal stupidities involved. Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series now has 7 titles. You can buy books 1-4 and 7 in unabridged form, but I couldn't find books 5 and 6 for sale unabridged at all. Not even the CDs. But some kind soul on BitTorrent allowed me to download both. If I could pay for these copies I would prefer to. When the lawyers and the publishers decide not to boycott their customers, maybe I'll be able to.
Protect Yourself!
Aids activists all say you should use a condom. There are electronic equivalents for your computer: turn of uPnP on your router/modem, turn on your PC firewall, and use a good antivirus like NOD32. But that's just the beginning. I use a facility that block a whole load of bad web sites in my hosts file. It's called HostsMan and it cuts down on annoying ads and malware in browsers. But it can't block bad IP addresses.
For that you need PeerBlock, another free program. It monitors your P2P connections and makes sure you don't connect to any know bad IP addresses. You can get it to block HTTP traffic too, but it also stopped my NOD32 updates from downloading. This wasn't intentional, and I could fix it by using a different download server. Just weird.
eMule also has an IP blocking facility, but the standard ipfilter.dat file is only updated once a month or so, and doesn't stop the spam and fake files. You can update it more often using BlockList Manager, but it's a bit tricky to set up. It was originally designed to work with PeerGuardian, but PeerGuardian has been superseded by PeerBlock, which works well. I use both BlockList Manager and PeerBlock, to be sure, to be sure (Irish joke).
Beat ISP Filtering
My greedy ISP "blocks" all P2P traffic, usually during weekdays from 8am to 6pm. I'm not sure exactly how they do it, other than that eMule stops working properly and loses all its connections. So much for the "S" in ISP. The only way to get round this is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service, such as ItsHidden. This sets up a secure tunnel between your PC and their servers, and the traffic between these two points cannot be analysed or decrypted, and looks just like any other VPN connection. It isn't illegal to use a VPN, and companies do it all the time. ItsHidden has a free VPN as well, so you can try it out and see how it works. Once you have used it for a while, you'll probably want to upgrade to their $9.99 per month paid service, which is faster and offers additional security features.
Their servers are in the Netherlands, so your PC appears to be operating from there. It's weird because when you do a Google search your default Google server is www.google.nl and the buttons are in Dutch. You can set your Google preferences to English quickly enough.
Don't confuse a VPN with a Proxy service. Proxies don't work the same way, and your ISP can still interfere with your traffic. A VPN effectively "relocates" your PC to another country. Its weird, but it works. The connection is a little slower than normal, but at least there is a connection.
Update 20 Sept 2011: I found a really reliable VPN service called SwissVPN that has been a great help. It can use the normal VPN software that comes with Windows, or you can use their OpenVPN client. Fortunately my ISP is being more reasonable with my traffic at present.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Pro Shop gives amazing service


Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an allergic reaction to direct marketing, especially SMS spam and cold calling. Today I experienced something quite amazing: a company that cares: the Pro Shop.
I received an unsolicited SMS this morning, but at least they had spelt my name right. I complained to their web site email as well as HelloPeter, and expected to hear nothing further, because most companies don't give a rip. To my delight and surprise I got a call from Marius Myburg and later from John Muller, both apologising and assuring me that they don't use marketing lists. Later Marius was able to tell me exactly how my name was added, and since I know the person who added my name to their database, I am sure it was a genuine mistake.
The way they responded was friendly, helpful and professional. They "got it" and didn't try to duck my questions. They gave straight answers and I am seriously impressed. Perhaps they should open a "marketing and customer service academy" next to their golf academy, and show the rest of South Africa how to do marketing RIGHT. If I ever take up golf I know where I will buy my stuff from. I may even get a gift voucher for my Father-in-Law from them. Mmm ...

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