Sunday, July 29, 2007

SMS software for databases

Two of my biggest customers send SMS messages to their customers on a regular basis. These messages are generated by an Access database program. One of these is a medical application where patients are reminded of their appointment bookings. Since this is done for numerous clinics around the country, it involves hundreds of message every day.
Until now we have relied on two applications called Trebuchet and EconoSMS, neither of which are sold or supported any more. This has left my clients in a vulnerable position, since a hardware failure on either PCs could leave them high and dry. I tried experimenting with a package called "SmartCell" from Indisoft, but several attempts to contact their support line failed. I'm glad I didn't buy the product since it either isn't supported any more or the company doesn't reply to their emails. Not good.
Then I found a better package for US$124 from Logiccode Software. It's an ActiveX DLL that can communicate with a standard GSM modem, and it has enabled me to create a fully-functional Visual Basic application called SMSQ in a week, thanks to some well-written VB6 demo code, and my experience with other SMS applications.
The most difficult part was writing the database code using ADO, since I'm used to DAO syntax that works in Access97. The new application will work with Access 97, 2000, 2002 or 2003 file formats. I am currently rewriting my Miami libraries to support this application. Miami now supports field encryption, bulk emailing, bulk SMS, mousewheel support, simple barcodes and PDF printing. It also has a runtime installer package for Access 97.

The Great Defrag Shootout XX: Defrag-A-File 1.1

PC Magazine has a long and illustrious history of product reviews, news and utilities. Defrag-A-File is one of those utilities, and this version was posted on 18th December 2006, and updated to version 1.1 on 21st February 2007. It's supposed to be freeware, except that you have to be a PC Magazine Library subscriber to get it. Alternatively you can pay US$7.97 for the download. As the name suggests it is designed primarily to identify and defragment individual files.
The engineering behind this application seems pretty solid, but the performance is slow. The interface is clean and logical, and it didn't take long to figure out how it works. The interface is unique in that it is the only defrag program reviewed that can display individual clusters, a level of detail missing from all other programs. It can also show a map of the entire drive. The accompanying article provides an adequate overview of defragmentation, as well as instructions on how to use the program.
I tried asking the program to defrag my large compressed data file, and it proceeded to plod away all night, first moving files around to create enough free space, and then moving the file clusters to create a defragmented file. It took all night and 10 hours later it was still busy. Less challenging requests took less time. The reporting is also quite good.
There are no command-line options, so you can't use it in the task scheduler, and it can't defragment files that are in use. There is no boot-time defrag option. This utility therefore falls into the "nice to play with" category, rather than the "truly useful" category, and the only features it offers that are missing from WDD are free space defrag and individual file defrag. There are freeware alternatives that are faster and more useful.
Update: Version 2.0 was released in December 2007. It is supposed to defrag entire drives now, too. The article has more 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

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter: the wait is over!

Even the Cresta shopping centre has not escaped the Potter marketing mania. Our local Exclusive Books took pre-orders and stayed open late to allow customers to collect their copies at 1am.
We went to see a movie first, and when we got to the shop shortly before 1am the queue was out the door and along the passage.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter and American Bloody-Mindedness

Only in America could major newspapers publish reviews of an embargoed book and hope to get away with it. Only in America could book stores sell copies in advance of the launch date. Are these people stupid, or just plain incompetent?
The New York Times claims to have read the book. This review was also published by the International Herald Tribune, with the graphic shown above. What a cheek. Another review was published by the Baltimore Sun. All of these papers are supposed to be run by real journalists who have dictionaries on their shelves which explain the meaning of the word "embargo".
Personally I hope that JK Rowling sues these dolts for millions, along with the dumbass people who work for the stores that shipped the books in advance. I guess you don't have to be able to read to work for a book store in the USA. Its journalists like these who make us realise just how honest their papers really are. Perhaps Rita Skeeter works for the NYT after all.
Update: No Rita Skeeter just got a job as a sub-editor for The Times, the daily version of our (ahem) well-respected Sunday Times. I guess gutter journalism hasn't died here either. Sad.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Great Defrag Shootout XIX: mst Defrag 2.0

mst Defrag 2.0 was released at the end of June, after spending some time in a public Beta. I tested version 1.9 and then 2.0 beta, and reported some errors in the beta version. Most of them have been fixed, and version 2 is quite stable and usable. The Home Edition costs $15.90 and the Workstation Edition adds networking features for an extra $14. This is a good idea since home users can save in this way. Other defrag programs should adopt this approach too.
Installation is simple and painless, and once the program loads it automatically monitors the hard drive(s) and attempts to defragment files as they become fragmented. At least that's the theory. The interface is simple and usable, although it isn't always easy to figure out what files are fragmented. Also, you have to stop the automatic monitoring to run the Analyse or Defrag action, and then manually switch on the automatic monitoring again. Perhaps a future version fix this.
There is a "cluster view" where you can see what files appear on any given box on the screen, and this can explain what is going on with the files. It also showed up a major (but rare) flaw: my large compressed SQL file was fragmented in several hundred fragments, but the "analyse" function only found 2 fragments (see below) but the cluster view highlighted numerous fragments (see above) and the defrag function failed to defragment the file at all.
Not only did the program not reduce the number of fragments, but it increased the number of fragments from 7 to 1800 during a manual defrag. This is the only program I have tested that actually increased the number of fragments on my drive! Not good.
I should point out that it managed to defragment my other drive without too much difficulty, but the processing overhead is high, and the machine felt sluggish while defragmentation was being done. This is undesirable, since a defrag program is supposed to improve performance, not hinder it. I also got the impression that it wasn't keeping up with the number of files being fragmented during normal work, and it doesn't manage the free space very well either.
For home users mst Defrag will probably work OK, and it's a lot cheaper than O&O Defrag, but I still don't think it's worth the money. There is a lot more engineering work that needs to be done to make it work properly and without interfering with the user. It is certainly better value that the Ashampoo Magical Defrag program, but I still can't recommend it.

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

Monday, July 16, 2007

Defragmenting the News

My review of mst Defrag is still in the pipeline, and this short article is just to mention some interesting events this month:
The PerfectDisk blog mentioned the Great Defrag Shootout and said some complimentary things about my efforts, in an article called "The good, the bad and the ugly". They seem to be a great bunch of guys, and I'm looking forward to see what they do with their next product. got its first GPL defrag project. I don't think it's been around as long as JkDefrag, and a first look at UltraDefrag shows it to be very much a version 1.0 product, but competition is good for everyone, including the commercial defrag products.
The "Gui for Jeroen Kessels JKDefrag" from Emiel Wieldraaijer now includes PageDefrag support and some other useful things, including multi-language support.
I discovered yet another free defrag program, called WinContig, not related to Contig by SysInternals. This program can defrag files and folders, but I couldn't get it to do a whole drive, but I'll do a review of this product as well. The review queue never seems to shorten.

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

Friday, July 13, 2007

America finally wakes up to cell phones

South Africa was at one point the most rapid adopter of GSM cell phone technology on the planet. Why? Because Telkom is slow, expensive, and reserved for whites. I paid R17000 (US$ 5000) in 1993 for my first Siemens C30 carphone (it was the size of a handbag) and later changed over to a GSM cellphone when Vodacom was launched. They swopped my car phone for a Motorola TAC that was selling for R1800. When I was mugged in 1995 I replaced it with a Nokia phone, and all my subsequent Nokias have worked well.
Now Apple is trying to change the face of cell phones. Pity they are so restrictive, but I guess the US market needs to be shaken up first.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Portrait of a Taxi Driver

Meet Mr B T Ndlovu, who drives the taxi with registration number VRC 586 GP. He decided to overtake me on the left side, across the yellow line, and then cut in front of me. When I saw how close he was driving I hooted, but he was so busy showing me his middle finger that he drove into the front of my car before I could brake, scraping the front left of my car.
Notice his white paint on my tyre, and the dent caused by his bumper.
His vehicle has minor damage, which probably won't be fixed, even though the owner of the vehicle, who wouldn't give me his name, wants me to pay for the damage. I explained to him that overtaking on the left and then cutting in front of me was not my fault, and he'll have to pay for my repairs as well.
There was plenty of space for the taxi to overtake on the left, even though it is illegal, because I was allowing space for people wanting to turn left onto the highway. I was going straight, and so was he, by the looks of things.
All his passengers got out and took another vehicle, so he made a U-turn across 4 lanes into oncoming traffic to collect another load. The police case number from the Linden police station is AR 169/07/2007, and now I have to try to track down the owner and claim damages. What a mission! I contacted OUTsurance, who have been most helpful so far.
Update: the contact number supplied by the driver is incorrect. I wonder whether this person actually exists, or whether the vehicle is correctly registered? Time will tell.

ATM Crime in SA

Footage of ATM being blow up, vandalised, and demolished by a front-end loader. Also footage of people having their cards stolen or taken at gunpoint. Brought to you by The Times and FNB. Eish!

Harry Potter in South Africa

I love to visit the week of Madam and Eve page.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Great Defrag Shootout XVIII: Outlook Accelerator 2.0

Time for a slight diversion from complete hard drive defragmentation: Outlook Accelerator only defragments the data files for Microsoft Outlook. I originally thought it optimised the contents of the Outlook PST file, but I was mistaken.
Because the software is an add-in to Outlook, it "knows" where the data files are. Outlook data files are not easy to find, and if you get a lot of messages the file grows regularly, so it is easy for it to become fragmented. Outlook Accelerator claims to defragment these files on a regular basis. There are various options available to determine how often they should be defragmented.
It's not clear to me whether DefragMentor Software is still operational, as the web site does not appear to have been updated since June 2004. Their e-commerce facility works, but my attempts to contact technical support have failed. I paid the $19.95 required to test the product, but when I encountered a problem and contacted them I received no reply.
The problem I encountered was that the program doesn't appear to do anything, and does not report when the defrag is complete, or how far it has progressed. I also found that if I quit Outlook and then tried to re-load it, nothing would happen. I had to terminate the "OUTLOOK.EXE" process in Task Manager before I could start Outlook again. I have been unable to arrange a refund and have uninstalled the product. I think it's overpriced at $19.95, even if it worked correctly. This was definitely a bad buy.

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, July 05, 2007

eNaTIS response to hackers is really sad

Yesterday the eNaTIS web site was hacked twice. This morning a defiant message has been posted on the eNaTIS web site. Unfortunately the message is not in the least bit reassuring, and is clearly on the defensive. It reads:
eNaTIS "Hackers" on wrong track
Some media hype has suggested that the eNaTIS system was hacked recently[most of the reports specified the web site]. This was apparently due to someone leaving a comment on a page of a section of the eNaTIS public web site (this site)[So that's how they did it]. The suggestion that eNaTIS was hacked is actually laughable. The eNaTIS public web site is in no way connected at all to the eNaTIS system. [Not yet, but on-line transactions will be possible "later this year"] This choice was a deliberate design choice.
The eNaTIS system and database is still secure and cannot be accessed via this web site.
The truth is that the eNaTIS web site is running on a public hosting area on a public hosting service. The hosting service is not inside the eNaTIS data centre at all. There is also no connection of any kind between this web site and the eNaTIS system.[Not yet] The Department of Transport deliberately decided to host the web site on a completely different server than the eNaTIS system servers to ensure that any hacking attempts would be fruitless.
Any attempt to hack this web site ( is totally fruitless in respect of the eNaTIS system. The eNaTIS system can only be accessed by work stations that are authorised to access the system and all communication with the eNaTIS system is encrypted. In addition, a pre-defined user name and password is needed to connect to the eNaTIS system. [I wonder how often these passwords are changed?] An eNaTIS user will only be given access to the system after signing a confidentiality agreement regulating the security of passwords. The South African public can rest assured that the eNaTIS system is not open to the public and hackers of the web site will not get one millimeter closer to the eNaTIS database by doing this.
Now for the hard truth about eNaTIS: the web site was hacked twice because the people responsible for the web site are incompetent.
It's reassuring that access to the eNaTIS database cannot be gained via the web site yet, but the facility for on-line transactions has been promised "later this year" according to the same web site.
Hopefully this security wake-up call will be correctly interpreted as such, but judging by the tone of the statement posted they have completely missed the point: the security of the web site is as important as the security of the rest of the system. Judging by the reports in Beeld, the rest of the system is not secure either.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

eNaTIS website hacked twice

At 3.30pm today the following story appeared on the News24 web site:
Cape Town - A part of the eNatis website appears to have been hacked, raising fresh fears over the security of the national system.
News24 received several tip-offs from the public on Wednesday that a section of the website had been breached by a hacker. When the "how do I" link on the website is clicked, the message "Sorry bro..anda terlambat. Patch By Tao. OK?!!." appears on a blank screen.
The words "!- Hacked by Tao -!" appear on the top of the screen.
No other parts of the website appear to have been affected by the hacker.
By 11pm the site had been hacked a second time. This time the front page was completely vandalised (as shown above).
Its ironic that the original page (see Google cached page) proudly states "New look for eNaTIS Website" and goes on to explain how they are using Joomla, an open source content management system. Obviously there are security holes on their server, which the first polite hacker pointed out.
I guess they had all gone home by 4pm and decided to fix it in the morning, leaving the system vulnerable to a more obvious hack. They clearly don't have a clue.