Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oops! Backup not found

I managed to corrupt my network adapter settings on my Acer Extensa 5620 laptop. No problem, I do regular backups and I have an Acronis True Image sector-by-sector backup of my laptop.
Er, no. (!?) I have a backup file labelled "Donn5620.tib", but it turns out to be a backup of another machine. So now I have to use the factory restore CDs. Like I need this in my life! Maybe it's a blessing in disguise, but right now the disguise is pretty effective.
Update 2am: Leaving True Image to do a backup of the broken software, just in case things get any worse. Reinstall will happen later.
Update 11.30am: Backup finished overnight sometime. Now the Acer "restore to factory default" begins, but is interrupted by lunch, etc.
2pm: Windows boot for the "first" time. And the second time, and the third time ...
Now to uninstall the following:
  • McAfee Antivirus
  • Yahoo Toolbar
  • Adobe Reader 8.1.0
  • MS Business Contact Manager
  • Office 2003 Web Components
  • Office Small Business Connectivity Components
  • Acer eDataSecurity Management
3pm: Next, driver downloads from Acer Web site, and start the long and painful process of Windows Update: 104 important and 7 optional (500MB) updates.
Install software:
8pm: Break for dinner and allow Microsoft Update to finish.
10pm: Office 2007 Professional SP2 install.
Installed software:
Midnight: I've had enough for one day. Will try more tomorrow. Downloaded 771MB today.
Monday 2am: Woke up in front of the computer. Ran Windows Update for the umpteenth time, to install Vista Service Pack 2 and numerous other updates. Used up another 219MB.
Monday 1pm: Returned to the office after a long sleep. Feeling like a bear with a sore head. Installing "last 3" Windows updates, including Windows Live Essentials, which is "only" 1.1Mb (I guess they mean the installer), but ends up being much more (90MB) once you choose the apps you want. Microsoft are such liars. And they use language badly: Windows keeps referring to "your" computer instead of "this" computer. They just don't think.
3pm: Re-reading my SQL Server 2008 Express checklist article in order to install it. Also installed a trial edition of Carbonite in case my backup drives get lost or stolen. Thanks to the adverts on TWiT I save some cash.
5pm: Finally finished installing and updating SQL Server 2008 Express SP1. Installation list:
6.30pm: Back to Windows Update for Office XP SP3.
9pm: Installing Access 97, and SP2. Then Visual Basic 6 and its service packs, followed by yet another 22 security updates, some of which just refuse to install. Finally, a quick defrag and backup to call it a night.
Tuesday: forgot to install Nokia phone software, InnoSetup and ISTool. Restored stuff from the TrueImage backup and corrupted the entire file system. Copied data files to backup drive.
Wednesday: Restored a sector-by-sector backup, reinstalled missing apps, copied some data files back.
Thursday: Finally I have a working system to do a complete backup.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What to do when SARS eFiling is eBroken

I tried filling in my tax return online using sarsefiling.co.za, but it wouldn't work because of my Adobe Reader settings. A call to the SARS "help" desk didn't help. They don't have a clue.
I set up my FRAGG machine with Windows XP, IE7 and Adobe Reader 8, just to get the tax returns filed on time. Now the ordeal is over, I decided to figure out what was wrong.
First, I tried the Adobe web site, which basically says you should uninstall Acrobat completely, and delete all the registry entries.
I used regedit to delete all the Acrobat entries, including the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\AcroExch.Document settings, and everything else beginning with AcroExch, as well as HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Adobe\Acrobat Reader
Next, I downloaded and installed Adobe Reader 8 from Filehippo.com, and it worked. See the screen shot above. Unfortunately, the default setting have Javascript enabled, and eFiling uses Javascript, so there isn't anything you can do. After updating to Adobe Reader 9.3.1 I tried again, and got several messages from the Adobe reader asking me to trust all kinds of stuff. That really makes me nervous.
One thing I haven't been able to solve is why my 2009 and 2010 tax calculations won't work online. It seems that the only calculations that do work are the IRP6 forms. The message about the calculation being available in 24 hours has been coming
I have taken Steve Gibson's advice and now I only use IE for the SARS web site and Windows updates. They are listed as "trusted sites" and all other sites are set to "high security" settings so that basically nothing works. Then I use Chrome and Firefox for real browsing.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

iBurst boggles the mind

I just installed a new iBurst USB modem, and my first thought was from Dr Phil: "What were they thinking?" Do they really think it is a good idea to take up a third of the screen with a connection utility that doesn't have a Minimize option? Like I really want to stare at a large round bubble with a few buttons on it! it doesn't even look good, unless you like in-your-face orange circles with useless buttons around the edge. It's hideous after 5 minutes.
But my bewilderment turned to horror when I inspected the network connections on the Windows XP box. Both "File and Printer Sharing" and "Client for Microsoft Networks" protocols are enabled by default, even though it violates their own Acceptable Use Policy. Do they really not have any idea how insecure this is? Are they determined to allow worms and malware to spread among their users through insecure file sharing? The mind boggles.
Worms like Conficker use weak passwords in shared folders to spread. This usually happens in a LAN because file sharing to the internet is correctly disabled. But in the case of iBurst, internet file sharing is not disabled. If a user has allowed the firewall to permit file sharing, thinking this would only work on the LAN, he is in for a nasty surprise.
So my warning to all iBurst users is this: disable both "File and Printer Sharing" and "Client for Microsoft Networks" protocols on the iBurst PPoE network connection and the additional LAN connection used by the iBurst Terminal, whatever that is. You really do not need anyone on the internet to see your shared files or your Windows login information. Just remove the checkboxes for "File and Printer Sharing" and "Client for Microsoft Networks" and reboot to make sure. Then check your firewall settings very carefully if you have "File and Printer Sharing" excluded. Only enable it if you really need to share files or a printer on your LAN.
To make absolutely sure, go to http://grc.com and select "Shields Up!" from the "Services" menu. Make sure you are not giving out the wrong information to the rest of the world, including your iBurst neighbours. Then subscribe to the Security Now podcast.
Update Friday 26-02-2010: I spent 26 minutes on the phone to their "special" 087-720-1234 support number, at R3.80 per minute from my cell phone. From a land line it costs R1.07 per minute, nearly double the cost of a 0861 call at R0.65 from a land line. But if I had a land line I wouldn't be putting up with iBurst in the first place. I'd be using ADSL, which does actually work.
I'm getting 100% signal using an external aerial, but they can't tell me which direction the transmission is coming from, which is a great help. And I'm getting 7% packet loss from a ping to their DNS server. That's great. And my account shows 0MB usage, so that might explain everything. Except I couldn't do this from the iBurst modem, because the connection is so poor.
Update Friday 5-03-2010: Almost exactly a week later a I get an email from iBurst apologising for the delay, but still no callback. Funny, there is nothing on their web site about a lot of support calls or problems.
Update Monday 8-03-2010: Finally someone calls. They can't show their transmission tower locations on their coverage map "for security reasons". What a load of BS. I feel like they really have no idea what they are doing.
Update Tuesday 9-03-2010: Spent a very productive 2 hours at their head office. I took the PC, the antenna, and my laptop. The PC seems to be too slow, because the signal worked fine on my laptop. Time to buy a new PC. Richard is a very patient, thorough and professional technician. He explained to me that I don't need to install the iBurst front-end, just the iBurst Terminal software, and then use a PPoE connection. It all works fine on my laptop. I arrived ready to tell them to take their equipment and shove it. I left feeling that there may be light at the end of the tunnel after all. It's amazing what competence can do.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hunter Killer revisited

Hunter Killer is a utility to delete old files. For years it has worked fine just deleting files more than a specified number of days old. Now I have extended it to be able to delete files that are hours old, or to keep a specified number of recent files.
You can visit the Hunter Killer page to learn more. I have not updated the screen shots yet, and will do this after implementing a "run application" feature. It has been an interesting exercise looking at software that is 4 years old, and trying to remember how it works. That's where comments are so useful. I have also had to implement a quick sort routine, so I had to get out some dusty old programming books to remember how it works.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

OverClocker benchmark misses the obvious

OverClockers.com has published a series of benchmark results for six defrag programs. Unfortunately the benchmark measurement program they used is HDTune, a program that measures hard drive performamce.
What's wrong with that? It reads raw sectors, not fragmented files. In fact, the manual for the Pro version says that if you want to do the write tests you should use an un-formatted, un-partitioned disk, in order to avoid accidental data loss.
I hate to be one of those "I told you so" critics, and I feel even worse that I have been unable to do any benchmarking on my FRAGG machine for the last month because of hassles with the SARS eFiling web site. Hopefully that will come right by the end of the month and I can publish some more meaningful benchmarks.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Does your computer have a Droid yet?

Forget about Marvin, the Paranoid Android, or R2D2. Rather consider the fonts in the Android operating system. These could become as common and widely used as Arial or Tahoma. And since they are free, they are likely to be included in many flavours of Linux, particularly Google's own Chrome OS. I'm surprised they aren't installed when you install the Chrome browser.
Yesterday I installed Ubuntu 9.10 Desktop on my test FRAGG computer, to see how well the Firefox and Chrome browsers work with my www.mustang.co.za test web site. I must say I was a bit disappointed because Ubuntu doesn't include Tahoma, my favourite font. But since it's a Microsoft font, its hardly surprising either. FreeSans is a perfectly good clone of Arial, but there doesn't seem to be anything close to Tahoma. Enter Droid Sans. Its not identical, but close enough.
In this screen shot of both Windows versions of the fonts, Tahoma is at the top. My guess is that in a year or so, Droid Sans will be on more devices than Tahoma, especially if the Chrome OS becomes the most popular Netbook operating system, which Google is hoping to achieve. You can download the Windows version of Droid here. As an experiment I have changed Ubuntu to use it as the system fonts, and re-engineered the Mustang site to prefer Droid Sans over Tahoma. It looks pretty good, too.
Update Wed 17 Feb: After fiddling around with the Droid fonts for a few more days, I have updated the design of this blog to use Droid Serif (replacing Georgia), and created a quick font installer utility to install the fonts in Windows (645,481 bytes, i.e. 630kb).

Monday, February 08, 2010

Customer Complaints: can a free model work?

Can a free web site host customer complaints without being swamped or ignored? This is the question I am asking myself after reading Jeff Jarvis' book "What Would Google Do?". I have decided to find out. And in true "googly" internet fashion, I need your help.
I am in the process of creating a web site called "Rate-My-Biz" where consumers (i.e. us) can report bad service, make suggestions, write product reviews, and generally give our impressions about a given company or service.
Initially it will be for South African companies, but later it will be expanded to other countries, once the kinks have been ironed out. I decided to take the bull by the horns and do it myself because I have complained about a lot of companies on this blog.
But I have only one point of view, and that's where you come in: what would you like to see, and what should I avoid? I want this to be a community effort: ideas should be included because they will be effective and useful, and because people like them. So, please use this blog's comments facility, or go to the comments page and join in the discussion. Comments are posted instantly, and moderated later.
I really want to hear from you. Right now I'm designing the database, and will post the database pages as soon as they are ready.
There are already two "complaints" web sites in South Africa: hellopeter.com and getclosure.co.za, but both of them HelloPeter requires the companies that respond to PAY for the privilege of defending their reputation. I think this is wrong. Also, these sites do not allow for the community to participate: you make a complaint, you get a response, and that's it. You can't reply, and other people can't say "Me too! I also had a similar experience."
Also, I want a system where I can post product reviews, or make suggestions that others can comment on too. For example, I'd be willing to pay for coffee flavoured toothpaste, but how do I tell this to the toothpaste company? If other people think it's a great idea, they should be able to say so too, without signing a petition.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Sahara Sands ... time is running out

Sahara Computers may understand brand marketing, but they have no idea about customers. They sponsor South African cricket, and put Graham Smith's face next to a picture of their laptops. But when I phoned to get a simple answer to a simple question, I got put through 5 times before I gave up in disgust. Sahara may have a machine called the "Sands", but I'm beginning to visualize an hourglass rather than the Sahara desert. Does that mean it gets clogged with dust?
My trusty FRAGG testing machine is a Sahara. I bought it last year and apart from an iffy CD drive (It doesn't always read the CD) and a mouse with Parkinson's disease, all has been well. These are minor problems, and the machine has performed flawlessly in all tests and benchmarks. I just use a different mouse.
This year I decided to get a cheap desktop machine for a friend who wants to write blogs. The ZAPS and RebelTech online stores don't list Sahara machines for some reason, so I decided to look on Sahara's own web site.
Ouch! I was first presented with one of those crappy time wasting flash main pages, which is great for the Director's ego, but doesn't help the customer one bit. Eventually I found a "back to school offer" page, which looked promising. What? No USB ports? No network connector? Do they really want me to connect to the internet using a dial-up modem? (click on the top picture for all the specifications provided) I figured this must be an error on the web page, along with the typo for "Back to schook", so on Monday I phoned the expensive 0861 number, and spoke to a "support" person who had no idea what machine I was referring to. They would put me though to sales.
The switchboard put me through to dealer sales. "Are you a dealer?" No, I'm a customer. "Oh, we can't help you". Back to the switchboard. Transfer again. "Are you a dealer?" No, I'm a C-U-S-T-O-M-E-R. Worried sound on the other end. "That line is busy." So I ask for the name of a dealer in my area, feeling like a drug addict. I get given the contact number for a computer store in Melville.
I visit the store on Wednesday to find they don't stock the "Sahara Sands" model. They quote me on a slightly different configuration. I decide to shop around, after being handed a Matrix Warehouse pamphlet at a traffic light on my way to the store. I also visit a few other computer stores.
Deciding that my blood pressure isn't up to another round on the Sahara switchboard, I write to their sales department, and cc it to their "General Company Information/Contact" address. The response I get back is:
I do apologize for the inconvenience you were caused when calling Sahara. Please can you let me know who you spoke to so that I can enquire with them
As for the information you requested. Please email me your contact details so that I may call you.
Best regards
Shane Woodward
Business Development Unit : Sahara Computers 011 542 1166.
Wonderful! They are more interested in finding out who I spoke to than what I want to buy. After all, they don't sell to customers, so why help them? I prod a bit harder, asking them to answer the questions. On Thursday I get the answers, in red below:
"I am a simple consumer who wants to know:
"a) What is the recommended retail price of these products? There is no set RRP
"b) Where is the closest store to where I live (Northcliff/Cresta/Linden in Johannesburg) that has these computers in stock. Most of the large chain stores stock our machines, Ok Furniture, Joshua Doore, Russels, Electric Express, Morkels and Price and pride.
"c) I was told by a computer shop that the Windows 7 Starter Edition expires after 60 days. Is this true or FUD? This is not true, it is a full version.
"d) Do the computers have USB ports. How many? Yes, all modern computers have USB Ports, these models both have 4 at the back and 2 in front
"e) Does the computer have a network connector? Yes, both models
"f) How much extra do I have to pay to upgrade from 1024MB RAM to 2048MB RAM? This you would have to discuss with the store, they can give you a price.
"I have no idea why it should be so difficult for me to get answers to these questions."
This worries me. They sell the computer through furniture stores whose main line of business is finance: they sell furniture and appliances to people who can't afford to pay cash so they get them to pay much more using "easy terms". These are not sophisticated buyers, so they are probably buying the computer for their children in the hopes of giving them a better education. They could easily end up paying R8,000 to R10,000 for the computer, because they wouldn't know better. Yet Sahara won't tell me what the RRP is, allowing the retailers to rip off the public with the collusion of the distributor. This is Africa.
I will probably have to spend some time on the weekend traipsing from store to store, speaking to idiot sales staff with blank expressions who won't know what I am talking about. I am really looking forward to this. Maybe I'll just buy a different make from someone who knows what a computer is, and can identify a C-U-S-T-O-M-E-R when he walks in the door.
Update: One other point of interest: they bundle Kaspersky AV with a one month subscription, when they could include the free offerings from Microsoft or AVG. Did Kaspersky pay them to do this? Or don't they know about the free products? After all, they include all the Windows Live software.

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